Friday, May 24, 2013

The Blobbit: An Unexpected Flight

A few days ago, I had promised to write about my homeward odyssey. Today, good gentles, you shall read that story.

My trip home was, on paper at least, a fairly straightforward affair: go to Incheon Airport, get my boarding pass and check in my backpack, fly to Seattle, go through US Customs, collect and recheck my bag, and fly from Seattle to DC, landing at National Airport at 10PM. Simple, right?

The problems began a few days before May 19, my departure date. I was reviewing my flight schedule, which I had printed out from Asiana Airlines data that my buddy Tom had sent me, and from the website. I looked once again at my flights' departure and arrival times and mentally walked through how the journey would go: leave Seoul at 6:40PM, arrive in Seattle at 12:40PM, depart Seattle at 2PM...

My mind screeched to a halt as I ran that scenario past my consciousness again. I realized I had given myself only an hour and twenty minutes' layover time, which meant zero margin for error. As May 19 crept closer, I seriously considered going back to Orbitz and buying a ticket for a later flight. Orbitz listed several: they departed Seattle at 5PM, but weren't slated to arrive in DC until the following day. These overnight flights required no hotel time: I would have to transfer planes twice and suffer through four- or five-hour layovers each time. That sounded awful. In the end, I decided to take the risk that I would make my connecting flight at 2PM, thus ensuring a 10PM arrival in DC.

I counted the obstacles I would have to vault during those crucial 80 minutes: (1) deplane, (2) go through passport control, (3) go to the baggage claim and reclaim my bag, (4) pass through US Customs, (5) recheck my bag, (6) pass through a security checkpoint, and (7) cross the entire SeaTac airport from the S-gates to the C-gates by taking three different trams. The situation didn't look good. Could I really do all that in 80 minutes—preferably without running?

May 19 arrived. I tidied up the apartment as best I could, then ended up leaving about 40 minutes later than I had planned. I lugged my backpack and suitcase (which I had acquired from Sperwer's basement) to the airport limousine bus stop located close to the apartment building. The bus arrived after about a fifteen-minute wait. I had exactly fourteen thousand won in my pocket—just enough money for the bus fare. There are several classes of limousine bus, some of which run express routes to and from Incheon Airport, and some of which make several stops and detours along the way. My bus was the latter type; the ride to Incheon would normally have taken about 40 minutes had we gone there directly, but we took over an hour because our route led us past Kimpo Airport. I chafed the entire time, not wanting to be late for my flight out of Seoul. I had planned on giving myself a three-hour head start, but that lead had already whittled itself down to two hours.

We eventually reached Incheon International; I got off the bus, collected my backpack and carry-on luggage, and lumbered into the airport proper. A glance at the electronic marquee showed me which row of ticket counters I needed to go to; when I got to the Asiana counters, I was glad to see that there wasn't much of a line. The ladies working the counter steadily called for the next passenger, and the next. Soon it was my turn.

I stepped up and, astonishingly, the lady immediately began speaking to me in Korean. This doesn't normally happen: because Koreans generally perceive me as white, they'll often try English first, and will switch to Korean only if I insist on speaking it. This particular conversation was held at a brisk pace; I had to focus hard to keep up. The lady asked me a few standard questions, including a question about my final destination. I told her I was heading to Washington, DC, but that because I was on a different airline than Asiana—Alaska Air—for the last leg of the trip, I wasn't sure whether she would be able to check my bags all the way to DC. She asked me for my SEA-DCA e-ticket printout; I handed her the Orbitz document and she reviewed it. She frowned, then told me that Asiana didn't have a partnership with Alaska Airlines, but that she would try to get my bag checked all the way to DC, anyway. A moment later, she said it was done, and I was once again left to marvel at the can-do Korean spirit, so unlike the bureaucratic can't-do-not-my-problem laziness I so often encounter in the West.*

Because she still had my Orbitz documentation, the lady saw my itinerary and told me that it was going to be tight: I'd probably need to run to my make my connection. She reminded me that I'd first have to collect my backpack upon arriving in Seattle, then immediately recheck it for the last leg home. "I'm moving your seat toward the front of the plane so you can deplane faster," she told me. That was beyond considerate of her. "How is it you speak Korean so well?" she asked. I always inwardly cringe whenever I hear that question, because I know foreigners who really do speak Korean well, and I don't deserve to be numbered among them. "Oh, I lived in Korea for eight years," I replied. My standard answer, which explains everything and nothing.

We finished up the check-in procedure; my backpack trundled away on the conveyor belt, bound for the guts of the airplane in which I'd soon be sitting. With nothing but my carry-on, I lumbered over to the departure area, showed my boarding pass and passport to the agents standing guard before the security area, then proceeded through security. Unlike in the States, I wasn't required to remove my belt, which was a relief. Belt-removal strikes me as one of the more humiliating aspects of today's tightened security measures, and I'm still not quite sure what it accomplishes.

I did, however, have to leave my pocket knife in Korea: like an idiot, I had forgotten to pack it in my backpack. I was too rushed, at that moment, to dwell on this sad parting of the ways; the security attendant took my knife with a smile and unceremoniously tossed it into an out-of-sight box that presumably held other such confiscated items. I skipped over to passport control, passed through quickly, and proceeded to Gate 43.

Incheon Airport doesn't stint on comfort. American airport terminals feature rows of seats that have armrests; the purpose of the armrests is actually to prevent rest: airport staff apparently don't want passengers to lie down on those seats, and armrests make recumbency impossible. At Incheon, by contrast, the seats at the departure gate's waiting area seem to have been designed for lying down: no armrests were visible anywhere. I took out my laptop, now a month old and looking decidedly used, what with its dust and fingerprints, and blogged a bit. About 40 minutes before boarding time, a long, long line began to form; I eventually joined it. Despite its length, the line moved along steadily once boarding began. My carry-on bag was flagged for random inspection at a hastily set up table just before the jetway leading to the plane; I patiently endured this further layer of security, then got the hell on board. Step One complete, I thought to myself. At least I'll make it out of the country. I was still worried, though, about my connecting flight.

I found my aisle seat. My fellow passenger was an older Sikh man who stared at me as if contemplating his misfortune at being crammed next to such a large individual. I smiled reassuringly, and did my best to keep my elbows and love handles to myself.

The flight wasn't all that long: less than ten hours, all told. I refused the headphones offered by the flight attendants, preferring just to stare intently at the mounted seat-back monitor in front of my face, which I had set to display our flight information: altitude, airspeed, ground speed, heading, elapsed flight time, estimated arrival time, local time in Seoul, and local time in Seattle. I was mainly interested in the estimated arrival time. The captain had said, at the beginning, that we might arrive as early as 11:40AM. I knew that to be bullshit based on the online research I had done about this flight: as I mentioned earlier, there was a nearly 100% chance we would arrive late. So I set myself to hope for an on-time arrival: 12:40PM. At first, the monitor display showed an estimated arrival time of 12:25PM, which reassured me. Later in the flight, however, that changed to 12:41PM, which left me squirming. My Sikh seatmate, like many older folks, had to get up several times during the flight to go to the restroom. I obligingly unbuckled my belt every time and stood up to give him room to get out. This probably happened seven or eight times over the course of nine-and-a-half hours. It got a little exasperating toward the end.

The interior air conditioning did its job of drying out my nose, leaving me with massive, itchy boogers that I wasn't able to blow out without going to the restroom myself. I imagined the boogers accumulating the way icebergs might gather in the Arctic when the seasonal temperature drops. Thank goodness none of my boogerbergs started calving.

Toward the end of our flight, the display finally settled on 12:39PM as the estimated arrival time. We were, in fact, about five minutes late: our wheels hit the runway at 12:45PM, and we didn't begin deplaning until a few minutes after that. I wasn't sure what time we deplaned because my wristwatch had stopped working at the outset of the flight: I had tried to rewind the watch thirteen hours backward, for Virginia time, but the watch's crown popped off and rolled away from my startled fingertips, bouncing across the cabin carpet and out of sight. Because the winder was stuck between "date" and "time" modes, the second hand no longer chugged forward smoothly, so I no longer had an accurate reading of the time. Well, fuck.

I deplaned quickly and went straight to passport control. The line was already huge... but then I saw that that was the line for foreigners. The line for US citizens and green-card holders was much, much shorter, and I got through passport control with a minimum of fuss in about five minutes. Mentally, I marked the time as about 12:55PM. The baggage-claim area was directly behind and below passport control; I merely had to take an escalator to get down to the carousel. The wait for my bag was about ten minutes; I tapped my foot impatiently as I watched bag after bag appear, roll down the carousel's slope, and get righted, tags up, by a baggage handler. Just as I was muttering to myself that my bag was likely to be the last goddamn piece of luggage to come out of the plane, my backpack appeared. I heaved it off the carousel, slung it heavily across my shoulders, then clumped past the US Customs agents, who took my declaration form and said, "Welcome home."

A few yards past the customs agents was the baggage re-check area; thank goodness it was so close. I gratefully unloaded my backpack, which was thrown—poompf—onto a heavy-duty conveyor belt. I asked the gorilla handling the bags whether I could go to the nearby Alaska Airlines desk to get my boarding pass. "Get it at the gate," rumbled the gorilla. I nodded. Little did I know, meanwhile, that my poor backpack was fated to be misdirected to Atlanta, and that I wouldn't see it again until the following day.

The next step was another security checkpoint. I stood in an ever-lengthening line of people and wondered whether this line would be the thing that prevented me from boarding my connecting flight on time. I had lost track of time at that point, and had only a vague, gnawing intuition that every second counted. One blonde woman in her forties was speaking German to her kids (I assume they were hers), then switching to French when speaking with the forty-something men standing with her. The kids, a boy and a girl who were just as blonde as the woman was, looked grumpy and uncomfortable. I imagined they had just come from their own long flight and had yet another long flight to look forward to. Slowly, impossibly, the line edged tantalizingly forward while I mentally urged everyone to hurry the fuck up. In due time, I was at the security tables and conveyors, removing my shoes, my belt, my laptop, and the items in my pockets, piling them all into plastic boxes and sending them through the scanner. I passed through the security threshold with no unnecessary beeping and was waved forward. But at that moment, the conveyor belt—with my possessions still on it—juddered to a halt and a security employee called out, "Rescan!" Another security attendant began asking us, "Are these yours? Are these yours?" while pointing in a vague manner toward the conveyor. I raised my hand and volunteered that, yes, those items in that box were mine. The agent shrugged, tugged my box off the conveyor, and simply handed it to me. No inspection, no rescan, needed. Apparently, it was someone else's possessions that needed to be run through again.

I grabbed all my stuff and followed the signs for the trams leading to the N-gates (there had been a change: my flight was no longer out of Terminal C, but was out of Terminal N). I ended up having to take three trams: the first was from the S-gates, where I had arrived, to one end of the Main terminal; the second tram crossed the Main Terminal; the final tram went from the Main Terminal to the N-gates. Luckily, the transfer points were nothing like the Seoul subway transfer stations: there was no need to hike ten minutes, up and down several flights of stairs, to reach the next train. Instead, I merely had to stride ten yards across a hallway to reach each successive tram. It was, I think, largely due to this tram system—and to the small size of SeaTac Airport—that I was able to reach my gate, N3, about ten minutes before my flight's departure time.

But there was a final hitch: by the time I arrived at Gate N3, the jetway door had been closed and no flight personnel were visible. Did the plane leave? my mind gibbered. I looked out the window, my eyes following the length of the jetway. No: the plane was still there. An LED marquee at the gate said, "Final preparation." Desperate, I looked over at Gate N4, which also belonged to Alaska Airlines. Four ladies staffed that counter, so I went over and told them I needed to get on the flight departing from N3. One lady cackled, "Making drama, are we?" I assume that was gallows humor. I smiled sourly. "Don't be a diva!" the same lady cackled again. I smiled emptily. I was given over to a lady named Malia or Marina or something; she called over to my flight and told the crew to halt final prep and let me on board. She also printed out my boarding pass, apologizing because my original assigned seat had been given to someone else: I hadn't called in to confirm my flight, so the staff simply assumed my seat was up for grabs. "You've got a center seat now," Malia/Marina said ruefully. I told her it didn't matter, as long as I got on board. She handed me my pass, then walked me over to the closed jetway, opened it with a key, and bade me a safe trip. I walked down the jetway, alone but triumphant, overjoyed to have made my flight. When I got to the plane's door, I apologized for holding everyone up, and was told my carry-on would have to be gate-checked, as there was no more room for in-cabin storage. Too happy to care, I said that would be fine, and took out my laptop when I saw that the flight would offer Wi-Fi service.

My flanking seatmates were two guys, not exactly small themselves. One had his nose buried in a book about economic policy; the other had his nose buried in something that looked like an iPad Mini. Once again, the ceiling blower blasted air down onto my head; it was a relief at first, since I was a bit sweaty, but once we were airborne and had flown for about an hour, I could feel my boogers solidifying again. I patched in to the Wi-Fi, which turned out to be a paid service; I grumbled and reluctantly coughed up $7.50 for a single hour of connectivity, during which time I emailed my buddy Mike about my flight status.

The flight from Seattle-Tacoma Airport to Reagan Washington National Airport was fairly uneventful, but was punctuated several times by fart odor: someone up ahead was regularly releasing gas bombs. The awful nimbus reached my seat and was blasted straight into my nose by the blower over my head. Lovely. At least the flight wasn't boring. Adding to the level of excitement was my dawning awareness that I needed to take a shit. Luckily, this urge never became overpowering during the flight, and when we landed, I headed straight for the first men's room I could find. Once in the stall, I gave vent to my intestinal urges and cleaned out my nose at the same time. As I suspected, the boogers were huge, wet, and a bit bloody. They were hefty, too, weighing down the wad of toilet paper that I'd used as a Kleenex.

Breathing a sigh of relief and glad to be safely back on home soil, I exited into the main part of the terminal and immediately heard my name being paged. The page said to come down to the Alaska Airlines baggage office, which was right at the baggage claim area. I knew that Mike was somewhere out on the airport grounds, waiting in his car. Was he at the cell-phone waiting area? Was he circling around and around? I had no clue, and no cell phone with which to confirm anything. I had to risk letting Mike wait. So I got to the baggage office, and an attendant told me that my backpack was currently enjoying beer and hookers in Atlanta. "No problem," I said. "I brought all my essentials in my carry-on." I was given a number to call in the morning; my backpack would fly into National on the very first morning flight. The attendant helped me find my gate-checked carry-on bag; I used the weak airport Wi-Fi to try to send Mike a message telling him where to meet me, then I went to a pay phone to try to contact Mike directly. I thought I could just use my PNC Bank Visa debit card to pay for a call, but it turned out that the airport's pay phones were run by MasterCard, and thus weren't compatible with Visa, their mortal enemy. I had zero change in my wallet—zero money, in fact, because I had planned to come into the US without needing to exchange any cash. So I tried calling Mike collect. Moments passed while the operator attempted to connect me with Mike... and then she told me that Mike wasn't going to accept the collect call. My mind went white. What sort of dick refuses a collect call? I wondered incredulously, reevaluating my best friend. The lady came back again, however, and said that Mike agreed to meet me at section B; I had only to wait for him. I thanked the lady; I could have been billed for the call, but she was nice enough not to bill me. One of the last things the lady had said was that, if the call had gone through, the charge would have been $24. So that was why Mike didn't accept the charge! I had thought the call would have cost only a dollar or three.

Mike circled around, his passenger window open so he could call out to me. Gratefully, I dumped my carry-on suitcase in his trunk, then got into the passenger seat. The plan was to drive back to Mike's home in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where my own car was waiting for me. At that point, I could either stay overnight or leave for Appalachia right away. I chose the latter tack. After an hour, we got to Fredericksburg; I spoke briefly with Mike's wife; we had a round of hugs, and Mike gave me two caffeinated sodas for the long road home. I dumped my bag into my tiny Honda Fit and started back to my apartment.

I was dead tired, but didn't get to sleep until around 9AM the following morning. When I awoke, it was 4:15PM on Monday. I blearily showered and dressed, then drove out to National, got my bag, and drove back to the mountains.

Quite an odyssey.

*To be fair, I've been through the opposite scenario, too: can't-do Korean bureaucracy and can-do American service. Examples of this include the obnoxious Korean Immigration office in the 1990s and early 2000s, and the perky customer service I've received from PNC Bank, Apple (yes: Apple), and Verizon.



  1. I to appreciate and "marvel at the can-do Korean spirit, so unlike the bureaucratic can't-do-not-my-problem laziness I so often encounter in the West." While it is true you sometimes encounter this in the USA (Disney World being my most recent experience", it seems to be the exception rather than the norm.

  2. That was some trip, man. Aiports suck balls.

    Oh, and they make you take off your belts now, too? How long will it be before they have as doing naked human pyramids?

  3. Holy crap! Now I'm all tired.

    Welcome home (again)!



All comments are subject to approval before they are published, so they will not appear immediately. Comments should be civil, relevant, and substantive. Anonymous comments are not allowed and will be unceremoniously deleted. For more on my comments policy, please see this entry on my other blog.

AND A NEW RULE (per this post): comments critical of Trump's lying must include criticism of Biden's lying on a one-for-one basis! Failure to be balanced means your comment will not be published.