I would like to talk to you about a serious problem plaguing the non-revenue standby lifestyle. It’s called the weight restriction. There are many reasons why a particular flight can be weight restricted, but none of them matter when you are trying to get the last seat on a flight, and then the seats start disappearing because they need to add more fuel due to weather en route or 2000 lbs of cargo showed up at the last minute that has to get on this flight or there is construction at the destination and they have to land on a shorter runway. Telling a non-rev that a flight is weight restricted is like telling them that you just ran over their cat (I would have said dog, but I’m unnaturally attached to my dog and I can’t even joke about such things.) or walked through mud with their favorite pair of Yves Saint Laurent pumps even though you specifically told them to not wear your shoes outside if it’s raining. They have rain boots for a reason, people! My point is, weight restrictions suck.
My most heart-breaking example was a few years ago when my friend & I were given the last 2 seats on a plane to Boston on Midwest Airlines (may she rest in peace). We were taxiing out to the runway with tickets to Fenway Park that night in our hands to see my future husband, Ryan Braun, and the Milwaukee Brewers play the Red Sox, and the plane came back to the gate to kick us (and only us) off because it had started raining in Boston and they needed to add more fuel and would be over allowable landing weight with the 2 of us onboard. That’s great for the self-esteem, by the way. We ended up hitch-hiking to Philadelphia that night, but that’s a story for another time when I’m certain that my mother won’t be reading this blog. Anyway, I was going somewhere with this.
Oh, yes. So about a month ago, I decided to take Swiss Air home from Athens. Of course, we were scheduled to stop in their Zurich hub to change planes. It was a simple 90 minute layover, and I would be back in San Diego that night. Or so I thought. At 2:30am, I left my lovely little hotel in Piraeus, Greece, and set out in my stilettos with my roller bag to the bus stop. I was too cheap to pay for a taxi, and the bus, I was told, would take between 1-3 hours to get to the airport and cost only 5 Euros. The flight I was trying to catch was at 6:30am. I arrived at the airport at 4 and was told at the ticket counter that the flight was full and to come back at 5:30 when they would close it and start clearing standbys for the seats of anyone who hadn’t shown up. I found an espresso stand and waited. At 5:30, I tried again. There was still a massive line at the ticket counter, but they had told me that they would close the flight at 5:30. With most airlines, especially on international flights, if there is a cutoff time, they mean it. Not so with Swiss Air. There were 2 other Swiss Air employees trying to catch the same flight who would be seated ahead of me (There is a priority list for non-revs. If you are flying on your own airline, you are at the top of the list.). We were told that they were still checking people in for the flight, and we needed to wait. We stood a few feet away, on the alert for our names to be called. Apparently, they were still missing a lot of people and wanted to make sure that they weren’t in the line to check in. Instead of forming a separate line to expedite the people going to Zurich and leaving the other people waiting for the Geneva flight later on in the morning in their respective lines to wait, the agents proceeded to frantically yell out “Zürich! Ζυρίχη! Zurich!” causing a small riot. The people going to Zurich further back in the line rushed the people in front of them, knocking over stanchions, tripping elderly women with their roller bags (yes, it happened), shoving the people who had arrived for their flights on time out of the way, screaming obscenities in various languages, and destroying any semblance of civilized humanity. I was horrified. Surely, the Swiss Air staff would get this crowd under control. Instead, they encouraged them, shrieking “Zurich! Hurry!” in English, Greek, and German louder and louder. At 6:05, they had satisfied themselves that all the Zurich passengers were out of the line. They finally acknowledged the standbys. I was given a seat and checked my bag at 6:10. I had 20 minutes to clear security and run to a gate that I had no doubt would be the furthest one on the entire concourse from where I currently was. I took off, trying not to break my heels. The Greeks were not kind to me at security. They pulled everything out of my purse. I had a small ziploc bag with liquids separated out. They opened it and took every single bottle out for inspection. They then meticulously re-packed my toothpaste and other toiletries in a second ziploc bag of equal size, stared at me for a few minutes, and handed it back to me. I had 10 minutes to get to the gate. And I was right, it was the very last gate in the terminal. I’m not even sure that it was actually in the same airport. I ran for days. I made it at 6:35. Thankfully, they were not even halfway done boarding and appeared in no rush to leave. I collapsed in my window seat, and watched the sun rise over the Mediterranean. Now, you’re probably wondering why I started out by talking about weight restrictions. Or you’ve completely forgotten that I ever brought that up in the first place and don’t really care. Regardless, I’m getting to it.
I arrived in Zurich with 80 minutes to connect to my flight to Chicago O’Hare. From there, I was going to hop on the train to Chicago Midway, and then reunite with my beloved Southwest home to San Diego. Worst case, 2 of my best friends live in Chicago and my family is about a 2-hour drive away in Milwaukee, so I would have a place to crash if I got stuck or delayed. I cleared passport control and arrived at my departure gate a few minutes before they were going to begin boarding. When I went to check in with the gate agents, they uttered the words that send chills down the spine of every non-rev everywhere: “weight restricted”. They had 7 open seats, but they could not fill them…yet. Sometimes, you get lucky, and at the last minute after the weight and balance for the flight has been calculated, there will be room for more seats to be filled. I sat close to the gate while they boarded, feigning worldly indifference with the process, while secretly checking what other flights were departing to the US that day. There was another flight to Chicago in 3 hours and several East Coast flights after that. I was not worried. There were 4 other standby passengers waiting for this particular flight. I tried to size them up to determine if they were Swiss Air employees or another airline like me to know if I would be ahead or behind them on the standby list. They were speaking German. That was not a good sign. But they were traveling together, so if one seat was open and they wouldn’t split up, I could swoop in and take it. In the meantime, the gate agents were doing their best impression of a Moroccan market trying to board the flight. As the last passengers stepped onto the jetbridge, I stood up and sashayed a little closer to the gate podium to make sure that my presence and intent to board would not be forgotten. The gate agent was whirling, trying to finish up the paperwork. She crunched some numbers, made a few phone calls, typed furiously on the computer, printed important-looking flight documents, and finally walked over to where I was standing, still trying to appear nonchalant. “You speak English? (I nodded) I think I can get you on,” she said. She walked over to the other standbys and repeated the good news in German. She told us she would be right back, and walked down the jetbridge with the paperwork.
The plane left.
A few minutes later, the agents still working at the gate received a phone call. “The flight was full,” they told us. 17 sarcastic responses that would have ensured I would never be allowed to fly Swiss Air again instantly flew into my mind. I took a moment, activated my non-rev sarcasm filter, and said “thank you, what gate is the next flight to Chicago?”
They told us to go to the Transfers Desk to be re-booked. There, a bored Swiss Miss look-alike (you know, the blonde girl in the blue dress) listed me and scanned my baggage receipt for the next flight. 1 espresso, 1 croissant, and 3 hours later, I showed up at the gate for attempt #2. To my relief, there were different gate agents working. I introduced myself and asked how many seats were available on the flight. 5…but they were weight restricted. I didn’t ask them what was causing these weight restrictions because they all seemed too flustered to function. I can’t imagine that this was the first time it had happened, and Zurich is Swiss Air’s hub, their busiest airport, their mother ship! Still, they were spinning like tops. Every single flight. I had been there for 3 hours watching. Again, the flight boarded late, and again after the last passengers walked onto the plane, the gate agent told me that she would be able to get me on the flight. She told all the other standbys that they would not get on. I walked up to the gate podium, determined to follow her down that jetbridge no matter what. She was frazzled. The flight was supposed to have departed 10 minutes ago. She made a couple of phone calls, ran over to the gate next door, made a phone call from there, came back, and told me that they could not find my checked bag. Considering how every other aspect of the airline seemed to be run, I was not surprised. I told her that I had arrived from Athens 4 ½ hours ago. She said the bag was not at the gate. She had called the ramp to put it on the plane, and they could not find it. She had gone to the gate next door to see if they could locate the bag on that side of the terminal with no luck. She did not know if the bag had arrived from Athens. I explained that it had been checked in late due to their total incompetence at the ticket counter (I did not say that last part). She said she had no idea where it was, and she could not let me on the plane without it. Ummm…what?! I bit my lip to keep from losing my temper, and reasoned with her that the bag had to clear security in Athens to fly and presumably again in Zurich and therefore could travel without me. She just kept repeating that I couldn’t go without my bag. It’s possible that was the only sentence she knew in English. She refused to give me a boarding pass for the last seat on the last flight to Chicago that day. She told me to return to the Transfers Desk and find my bag. I pleaded with her that I could file a claim when I got to Chicago. It was not a big deal. I could live without my bag for a few days. At least I would be home without my Dolce & Gabbanas and not stuck sleeping in an airport without them. I would like to tell you that she let me on the plane, but that would not be nearly as entertaining as me watching my last chance to get home that night fly away without me.
The plane left.
Muttering under my breath, I returned to the Transfers Desk in search of my bag. Swiss Miss was still there. I had obviously made a huge impression on her my first visit because she did not recognize me. I told her that my bag was missing, and I was trying to figure out if it had come in from Athens that morning. She took my claim check, looked at it disdainfully, and asked me why I wasn’t on the plane to Chicago. Except she didn’t ask. She shrieked the question at me. I had already sent several disparaging messages to my friends about Swiss Air at this point, but up until now I honestly believed that there was no ill will on their part. Just incompetence. Now, it was getting personal. I explained in a monotone that the gate agent would not give me a boarding pass because my bag was missing. Swiss Miss proceeded to berate me for a solid 10 minutes. What did I mean she wouldn’t put me on the plane, how stupid was I to not get on the plane without my bag, of course I didn’t need my bag to fly, why would I not get on the plane because of my bag, what was wrong with me, didn’t I know I was a standby and needed to take any seat I could get, why, why, why. About 3 minutes in, I started playing Breakfast at Tiffany’s in my head from the opening credits to keep my cool. Nobody can be angry listening to Audrey Hepburn’s voice. She’s divine. When she finished her tirade, I smiled and said that I didn’t know why her co-worker refused to put me on the flight, but the plane was now gone and my concern was not trying to chase it down the runway. I needed to find my bag. She launched into part 2 of her rampage. How would she know where my bag was, did she look like the lost and found, she dealt with transfer passengers, if I wanted my bag I would have to go to baggage claim, she didn’t know anything about bags. I apologized. I’m still not sure why. I told Swiss Miss that I was only following the instructions of the gate agent, who had sent me to her. She sputtered that she didn’t know why the gate agent told me that. I said I didn’t either. Good day. I went to baggage claim.
I still sometimes wonder if passport control sent someone to follow me after the third time that day I went through and had my passport stamped. The first time, they let me through, no questions asked. The second time, they asked me where I was going and why. The third time, I was positively grilled. My explanation that Swiss Air had stranded me sufficed. I reached baggage claim, expecting another dramatic scene from the agent at the desk. Instead, she was pleasant, helpful, and the polar opposite of all the other Swiss Air employees I had encountered that day. It took her exactly 3 seconds to pull up my reservation and tell me that my bag had missed the morning flight from Athens but would be arriving at 4pm and had already been tagged to transfer to the first Chicago flight in the morning. In retrospect, I should have left it at that. I didn’t. I asked her what flights remained to get me the hell out of Dodge that night (I did not say that). Newark and Boston. Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…Newark and Boston. Ok, Boston. At least I have an awesome friend there who would put me up for the night (heyyyyyy Joan). She checked the loads for the flight, and shook her head. It was oversold by 9, meaning 9 passengers who paid for a ticket would be on the list to get a seat before me. Newark. No, not Newark. I don’t want to go to Newark ever, especially not when I know that I will be stuck there overnight. “That’s the only flight with open seats to get you out of here tonight. The flights do not look good tomorrow to get anywhere in the US. I would go tonight,” she said. But Newark. N-E-W-A-R-K. I asked if she had been to Newark. She said no. “It’s like New York’s dirty step-cousin that nobody really wants to invite to Thanksgiving because he smells like pot and body odor and might steal your TV during dinner.” It’s probably good that she didn’t understand me. Sigh, ok, list me for the Newark flight. I asked her if I should wait there to pick up my bag and re-check it for my new flight to Satan’s armpit (I did not say that). She assured me that they would transfer it on the ramp for me. She had already scanned my claim check to the new flight. I knew she was lying, but I didn’t think telling her so would improve my chances of getting on the flight, so I thanked her and went back through passport control (who this time made a copy of my passport) and to my new gate.
For the fourth time that day, I introduced myself to the gate agents and asked how the flight looked. Not good. Oversold by 5. But…the lady at baggage claim just told me it had seats open. 20 minutes ago. Nope, oversold by 5. Have a seat. I used my time to look up hotels near the airport in Newark. The cheapest was $200 before taxes with no shuttle to/from the airport. I looked up every airline in existence to find a flight out of Newark, JFK, or La Guardia leaving after my arrival time. To anywhere. Anywhere in the whole world. Nothing. I considered staying in Zurich and flying back to Dubai on Emirates. I considered jumping on the next Lufthansa flight out of Zurich regardless of where it was going. I considered weeping and lighting myself on fire. I did nothing. I sat, and I waited.
The flight started boarding about 20 minutes before it was supposed to depart. Maybe it will be on time, I thought. It was not. 40 minutes after the scheduled departure time, one of the gate agents walked over to me. 12 hours earlier, I would have been hopeful that this meant I had a seat on the plane. At this point, I just hoped that she tripped. “Would you like to ride on the jumpseat?” she asked. The…really? The extra flight attendant jumpseat for 7 hours across the Atlantic Ocean with no inflight entertainment system to a city I didn’t want to go to? Yes, yes I would. More than the Salvatore Ferragamo black calfskin pumps with the velvet ankle straps. She smiled and walked away. I…should I…follow her? I did. She told me to wait a few more minutes. Fine, no problem, waiting, good. Just when I was starting to think I might not have to spend the night in the Newark airport, she gave me a boarding pass. A glorious, embossed ticket stock boarding pass. It was the last row, an aisle seat right next to the aft lavatory. Amazing. I would be prepared for that distinctive Newark smell when I arrived. I checked the Southwest flight schedule on a whim before we pushed back. We were scheduled to arrive at 8:25pm. The last flight to Chicago was delayed to 9:45pm because in addition to being a super cool, pleasant-smelling city, Newark has frequent Air Traffic Control delays. In this case, ATC was my friend. I couldn’t believe it. I could totally make the flight. Especially since I knew there was no chance my bag would be there so I wouldn’t have to stop at baggage claim. Everyone had boarded. I turned off my phone, and waited…and waited…mentally calculated what the new arrival time would be as we were further delayed, and waited some more. We were an hour and 40 minutes late. We were now going to arrive at 9:25pm, leaving me 20 minutes to clear passport control and customs, take the train to another terminal, get through security, and make it to the gate. I could totally do it. We finally left Zurich. I have never been so glad to get out of a city that I love.
We arrived at the gate in Newark at 9:15. I had 30 minutes. Unfortunately, I was in the back, and I refuse to be one of the oblivious, self-absorbed flyers who try to deplane ahead of the rows in front of them. I don’t care why you’re doing it, people. It’s rude. At 9:25, I was off the plane. At 9:27, I was in line at passport control, hopeful. At 9:58, I was still in line at passport control, no longer hopeful. I was officially stuck in one of my least favorite cities in the country. Since I had already missed the Southwest flight, I figured I may as well head to baggage claim to confirm my suspicion that my bag was still somewhere in Europe, and I would never see it again. I waited at the carousel until it stopped spinning. It was not there. I was positively shocked. A United employee who was apparently representing Swiss Air at this particular airport told me to make a claim at their office for the bag. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it wouldn’t do any good. I knew by now that Swiss Air would never be able to get me my bag. Not ever. They were not capable of it.
I had my laptop, and a small carryon bag containing my purse, lip gloss, and a couple of pairs of shoes that I hadn’t been willing to place in my checked luggage. I was not adequately prepared to spend the night in the Newark Airport. I was not current on my shots, and I have very little tolerance for buildings that smell like urine and old sweatsocks. That’s why I try to never fly through Las Vegas. I wandered toward the train to at least make it to the Southwest ticket counter to wait for them to open the next morning. As I was walking, I happened to pass the Lufthansa baggage service office. Inside, a Southwest employee was talking to the Lufthansa agent. This is the part of the movie that’s in slow motion while a Michael Bolton song plays as I run in to tell them how happy I am to see them. Lufthansa has always been very kind to me as a non-rev. They are my preferred airline to fly to Europe. I told them the whole story. They were speechless. After a few moments of stunned silence, the Lufthansa agent asked if that was a true story. And then we all started laughing. Me, out of desperation and exhaustion. Them, because it was so ridiculous there was no other acceptable reaction.
My Lufthansa angel took my bag and flight information and filed a claim. He was able to look up my reservation since both airlines are part of the Star Alliance, and discovered that when my bag arrived in Zurich, they had completely ignored the fact that I had flown to Newark and the bag was supposed to meet me there and re-tagged it to Chicago for the next day. He asked where I wanted the bag to go. I said San Diego. He re-routed the bag to Newark to be delivered to his attention on the next flight. He told me that he would retrieve the bag from the carousel and put it on the next United non-stop flight to San Diego, where he would instruct the United agents to walk the bag over to the Southwest baggage claim so I could pick it up when I went to work. If he had not worked for Lufthansa, I would have been skeptical. But, as previously stated, Lufthansa rocks. I thanked him over and over and over again until I got a little self-conscious that I was sounding like an idiot. He gave me an overnight kit so I could wash up for my thrilling night in the Newark airport. The kit contained a toothbrush, floss, and toothpaste, a hair brush, deodorant, a giant white T-shirt, soap, shampoo, and a few other essentials. I badly needed a shower, and I decided that this was the closest I would ever get to camping, so I had better make the best of it. (Side note: I hate camping. You can’t wear cute shoes, and there’s no running water. It’s what I imagine hell is like.) I stopped at the 24-hour Subway in the airport to get a giant soda cup. And there, in the Newark airport, I washed my hair in the bathroom sink, using the giant T-shirt as a towel. It was not one of my better moments. And after I was done, I realized I had an audience of junior high school girls who I’m guessing were on some sort of trip to the “big city” via Newark. I’m pretty sure I traumatized them. Or maybe they just thought I was Justin Bieber having a bad hair day. Either way, I felt a little better.
I wandered in search of a flat surface out of sight of the entry doors to use as a nap space. The airport was freezing, and all the seats had arms. My only option was to push some chairs together in the food court (which was closed). I made a Burger King chair crib, looped my purse through my arm so nobody could steal it, used my laptop as a pillow and my shawl as a blanket, and started to fall asleep. After an hour of trying to get comfortable and failing, my exhaustion took over and I was drifting off when I thought I heard a noise next to me. I bolted up. There was a homeless man trying to dig through my purse. I was half-conscious, terrified, and so angry I couldn’t even put together words. I shouted a mixture of unintelligible syllables at him, grabbed my stuff, and ran back to the 24-hour Subway. At least there were other people there. Apparently, there isn’t much security at the airport, and the doors are left open all night long so people can just wander in. Isn’t that terrific? I love Newark so much. Still reeling in a “did that just happen” adrenaline rush, I decided that sleeping was clearly not the way to go. I bought some coffee, and sat silently in a bleary-eyed fatigue until the Southwest counter opened at 4:30am, got on the first flight, and finally FINALLY made it home at 11am. I nearly kissed the first palm tree I saw. And by nearly, I mean I did.
This story has a happy ending, friends. The next day I received a call from my friends at Lufthansa to tell me that my bag had arrived from Zurich, transferred to United, and should be arriving in San Diego the next morning. When I went to work the following day, it was there. I did not even fly Lufthansa, and I was not a paying customer, and they still took care of me. And that is why I will never fly Swiss Air again, and I constantly tell Lufthansa how much I love them on Twitter. At some point, they’ll think it’s creepy and probably block me. But until then, it’s just the right thing to do.