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Sabbatical, 2004
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Friday, October 4, 2013

This morning we’re up at 5:30 AM.  Today is the big day: we’re going to Boston to spend the weekend with Rachael and Michael.  We’ll get a sense – such as every parent wants to have – of what our daughter’s life is like so far away from us.  And there are plans for touring (Boston has loads of historic sites), and oyster feasts, and all kinds of other delightful activities.

jet taking off
... going to Boston?
We are flying “standby.”  As I often say, “The price is right, but there’s no guarantee you’ll get the flight you want.”  However, we’ve done our best to research what would give us the best chance of a problem-free journey, and we’ve settled on a flight that takes off from Winnipeg for Toronto at 7:45 AM, with a sensible early-afternoon connection to Boston.

We get up, shower, do some last minute packing, then go down to our building’s main entrance.  Mary Schulz is waiting for us in her car.  She has insisted upon driving us at that ungodly hour.  She says that she would have been up anyway, because of some unfinished work from her business, so we had just better knuckle down and accept her offer of a free ride to the airport!  We objected, but she was adamant.  Who could refuse such an offer?

I’m not optimistic that we will get on our flight.  Late last night, when I was on the airline’s website, printing out our boarding passes, I saw that the flight, which earlier in the week had plenty of room for us, was now oversubscribed by at least three seats, but the adage is, “You never know,” so I kept my hopes up.

We check our luggage, and go through security.  That part seems to be unusually slow today.  It turns out that they’re training some new security screening officers, and everyone’s stuff is being examined with scrupulous care.  But eventually we get through, and the security supervisor commended us on retaining our good humour during the lengthy process.  Apparently some people don’t take it very kindly.

By the time we get to the gate, our plane is boarding.  Names of standby passengers are being called.  We notice that most of those called are wearing Air Canada uniforms.  Commuters!  That’s who filled up our plane at the last minute!

Not too long ago Winnipeg was a major Air Canada base.  Pilots and flight attendants lived here, and routes to many parts of Canada and the world began and ended here.  But politics intervened.  Politics, in fact, had located the base in Winnipeg in the first place, and politics eventually took it away.  However, all those pilots and flight personnel had made their homes and raised their families in Winnipeg, so they chose not to move with the base to Toronto, and instead “commuted” to Canada’s biggest city, to operate flights from there.  The commute costs them very little, since most airlines will allow staff to fly for the price of a Toronto taxicab.

So here we are, parents of a fairly junior flight attendant, accessing part of the same system where an airline’s employees can get travel benefits for themselves and their close relatives.  We pay considerably more than the actual employee, but we do pay less than the general public.  However, when there are a number of people with staff discounts trying to board the same aircraft, working airline staff go first, then other employees, then the spouses and children of employees, and then the parents.  And if there are a number of people of the same class – for example, more than one pilot, or more than one employee spouse – then they get to board in order of seniority.  Flight staff board first in order of their seniority; then spouses in order of the seniority of their partners; then parents in order of the seniority of their children.  The parents of a comparatively junior flight attendant?  Always the last to board.

That first flight we tried for this morning?  Even several of the uniformed commuters were unable to get on.

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So the aircraft took off without us, and without a number of senior staff.  That meant chances weren’t good that we’d get on the next flight, either.  But we waited, hopeful.

An hour later, that plane, too, left without us.

There was a third flight to Toronto, but things didn’t look at all good for it either, so we began to explore other options.  Could we, perhaps, get on a flight to Montreal?  There seemed to be a few seats open on an aircraft going that way, but unfortunately there weren’t any suitable connecting flights to Boston.  Maybe we could rent a car in Montreal, and drive the rest of the way?  The drive would take at least five hours, but what the heck – we do a lot of long-distance driving, so maybe this could be a reasonable option?  It would cut a few hours off our visit in Boston, but still might be worth it.

Using my smartphone, I checked car rental prices, and found that we might even save money by cancelling the Boston part of our flight and driving.

But wait!  What about going through Ottawa?

Nope.  Full to the brim, plus no suitable connections to Boston, and driving from Ottawa to Boston would take seven hours, not five.
So, back to that next flight to Montreal?  Could we get on it?
Interior of Winnipeg Airport, at Gate 9
Gate 9 at the Winnipeg Airport
...where we spent our time, and met Arlene

Such questions were put to, and answered by, a very nice lady named Arlene who had been boarding passengers at that desk since we arrived at 6:45.  It was Arlene who told us we couldn’t get on the first flight, and she was also the one to tell us that we were bumped off the second one.  She didn’t hold out a lot of hope for the Montreal flight, but there appeared to be some possible seats.  “It’s been crazy here, day after day,” she said by way of explaining all those jammed aircraft and the lineups of staff and families.

She registered us for the Montreal flight, and then we needed to do a complicated rigamarole because our checked suitcase had to be found, then taken out of the secure baggage area.  We were required to retrieve it – exiting the secure section ourselves in order to do so – and then we had to go to the front of the terminal and check it through to Montreal just as if we were arriving at the airport for the first time.

So we did that.  By the time we had once more passed through security and returned to the gate where we had spent the last several hours, the third flight to Toronto was being boarded.  I noticed that the son of a 30 year pilot was getting on (we had chatted with him earlier and thus learned what his connection was).

I asked Arlene, “If we had not changed our plans and registered for Montreal, would we have got a seat on this one?”  She looked up from the stream of passengers whose identification she was checking and shook her head; “No, you would not have gotten on this one.”

So we waited another hour until Arlene began to board the plane for Montreal.  At one point she sent a colleague over to us to say, “There is ONE seat free; there may be more if a checked passenger doesn’t show up.  Be hopeful!”

This whole time I was also in touch with Rachael via text-message.  She was looking at the flights on her computer there in Boston, and sometimes she thought she saw seats available on this flight or that, but Arlene said, “Your daughter can’t see the long line of staff members that I have here, who must be squeezed onto flights – all of whom are higher priority than you.”

Finally, the last passenger was put on the flight to Montreal and the door closed.  Arlene said, “That one seat got filled by a pilot.  You would have been next, if there had been two more seats.”

She looked at the manifests for tomorrow’s flights and thought that on the whole it looked like a much better day for flying standby.  But after consulting Rachael, we decided not to pursue that course.  By travelling tomorrow, we would have had only ONE day in Boston with our daughter and her fiancé.  And yet, cheap as our airfare may be when compared to normal plane tickets, going to Boston does cost us $700, and for such a short visit it just isn’t worth it.

It was shortly after noon when we got our baggage out of the secure area once more.  Mary Schulz had said “If you get bumped, be sure to call; I’d be happy to come back and take you home.”  I called, and Mary was as good as her word.

Later in the day, I went on FaceBook as is my wont, and found that Rachael had posted this:

Good days and bad days... Today was supposed to be a great day: Mom & Dad to come to Boston to visit and explore, take a duck tour & go leaf-peeping. Sadly, the standby Gods were not with us, and they couldn’t even get out of Winnipeg to get to Toronto, Ottawa, or Montreal... Sad, sad day. But we’re still thankful that such visits can be a possibility...

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