15 January 2009

Don't Blame It All on Osama

Let's face it. Much as I formerly loved jet air travel, it now really sucks, and much of the suckiness has nothing to do with Bin Laden or the TSA. Two examples, then I am going into the pool:

For some reason I now fail to recall, we decided to try Continental's flight out of Newark for the trip to SXM last week. Just in case air travel is insufficiently inconvenient, Continental Airlines has injected a new annoyance: the "undisclosed seat switch" maneuver. Travelers beware. Here's how it works.

We check in at Newark two hours before our flight. We pay our luggage charges (sigh), and get our boarding cards from the desk agent. We ask for, and are given emergency row seats, 14 D and 14 E. Our boarding passes are the cardboard type, with a perforated section at the right hand end of the card. My experience is the boarding agent takes the larger left hand piece, and you keep the stub, with your seat number on it. At the gate, as we board, the agent takes our boarding passes, runs them through the machine they now use, and instead of giving us our original card back, the machine spits out a new paper boarding pass. I think nothing of it until walking down the aisle of the rapidly filling plane, I notice that my new boarding pass says 10 D and 10 E, which are NOT emergency row seats. The crowd is gathering behind me, the cabin attendant knows nothing, the couple already sitting in emergency row seats 14D and 14E stretch their legs, look at their magazines and pretend they are not listening to our conversation, and I am screwed.

I surrender. Hey, I bought a coach seat, I got a coach seat, I am here for the duration of the winter, and the seat-stealers will be up to their whatevers in snow in a week or ten days. My revenge: I just will not fly Continental again. That'll bring em to their knees.

The second half of this travel report relates to local issues: While the St. Barths airport is comfortable, and now very secure (they just last month actually plugged in the metal detector and baggage x-ray machines that have been sitting in their packing crates for three years) the airport is not much use without airlines. Ah, now we see the problem.

Returning to New York in November, we had booked a flight that departed St. Maarten at 2 pm, and Winair booked us on a flight that departed St. Barths at noon, scheduled to arrive at SXM at 12:15. For the off season, an hour and forty-five minutes lead time is hardly generous, given that it now takes an hour just to get from the tarmac to the check-in gate, but it is adequate.

We dutifully check in at the Winair desk in St. Barths at 11:30 A.M. Plenty of time for the our noon flight, an excessive amount of time for the 1 P.M. flight. Hold on, did the Winair agent just tell us the next flight was one o'clock? Surely he meant 12 o'clock. No, his English is perfect: one o'clock is the next flight. But we are on the twelve, not the one. "Yes," he explains, "you are confirmed on the 12 o'clock, which today departs at one o'clock." "On time", he adds helpfully. "But that would get us to SXM too late to catch the 2 P.M to New York," we calmly explain. He agrees. We need to get back to New York tonight, we assert. He shrugs. How Gallic. His manner says this is not really his problem. He does not have to make the 2 o'clock plane from SXM. He lives here.

We ask to see the manager. He is not here. Mind you, at this airport, the check-in guy is also the baggage handler, and in the absence of Rodrigue, he is also the manager of this "airline."

We slide over to the adjacent Air Caraibe desk. Do they have a noon flight? Yup. Any seats? No, they just sold the last two to a couple who were standing behind us at the Winair counter, overheard our conversation, and, slippery devils, boogied over to Air Caraibe. I can't complain. I would have done the same.

We were accompanied in all of this by Dawn, our local friend and house manager, who had come down to bid us adieu. Dawn is a no-nonsense New Orleans gal, married to a Clark Gable look-a-like local builder. She brooks no bureaucratic incompetence. Her life here is hard.

She takes us to the St. Barths Commuter desk. (This is our last shot. We are out of desks, now. And out of time. It is already noon.) Any flights? Non. How about a charter? (We have another couple in tow, similarly situated. For four people, the cost is close to Winair ticket prices.) The agent makes some calls. We are hopeful. Then not.

Agent: "I cannot help. I have a plane, but no pilot."

Dawn: "Where is the pilot?"

Agent: "Eating lunch, he just left."

Dawn: "Where is he having his lunch?"

Agent: "In the restaurant upstairs."

Dawn: "Nobody move, I'll be right back."

The pilot was no match for Dawn. Five minutes later she and the still-chewing pilot arrive at the desk. His body language is that of a school boy caught smoking in the bathroom. His expression is the same as it would be if Dawn had him by the ear. We sign some papers, are airborne by 12:20, and make our flight to NYC with ease. If I ever fly Continental Airlines again, I'm taking Dawn to the airport with me.


Bottom line, we are now back in Paradise, the sun shines during rainstorms, the tv works from time to time, and all is right with the geckos who sun on our deck.

A bientot.

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