Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Air Travel Fun

This entire post is about international air travel. You should thus not bother to read it.

I'll have to leave it to M to blog about the airline food, as she has all the photos on her camera. Suffice it to say that on US Air, at least, selecting the "special meal" option does not yield better food, contrary to the rumors going around.

So: We got to RDU 2 hours ahead, just to be on the safe side, and managed to clear check-in and security in a total of ~12 minutes. The worst part about air travel in the modern era isn't the queueing, or the searching, it's the nonstop barrage of CNN from the gazillion TVs mounted everywhere in every corner of every terminal at every airport in America. We saw a 20-second blurb about some deaf Chinese dance troupe 47 times during our 90-minute wait to board.

Our flight to Charlotte was uneventful, save for the event of flying directly over Chapel Hill/Carrboro, realizing that we were seeing the Dean Dome, and further realizing that it was easy enough to follow the 54 bypass to Jones Ferry Rd, across the withered remnants of University Lake, and then out into Chatham. Saw Frosty, managed to follow Crawford Dairy to Chicken Bridge Road, and saw Chicken Bridge itself before our flightpath took us ever so slightly north, such that we probably flew directly over our house, but as the plane was not a glass-bottomed one, we couldn't see it.

Flying directly from Charlotte to London is an interesting thing to be able to do. Would you find it annoying if, in addition to all the other indignities of air travel, you were forced to listen to some poor flight attendant reading an advertisement for the US Airways Visa Card over the PA system? I'm usually pretty immune to the Air Rage, but that about put me over the line.

On the plus side, we got to watch Blades of Glory on the itty bitty TV in the headrest. Dunno why we resisted seeing it in the theater; it was genius. Note bene: US Airways A330's still have the stupid 2-pronged headset jacks, so don't leave the pile of 2-pronged headset jack adapters sitting on your desk at work.

You'd think that, given how many people fly internationally every day, someone would have figured out the right way to do things by now. But no: we checked 2 bags at RDU, mine and C's. C was instructed that at Gatwick, she would have to retrieve her bag from the baggage claim, take it through customs, and then re-check it for our BA flight to Catania.

I have no idea whether I also received such instructions, as I was standing next to C when she was told this & thus this concept lodged itself in my brain in place of any other instructions I might have received from the [different] agent who checked my bag.

When we landed at Gatwick, we were herded off the airplane into an endless series of chutes, completely devoid of any actual airline or airport employees, which eventually dumped us all into some basement hell of mile-long queues for passport control. It took a solid hour of snaking through the retracto-barriers to get to the point where I could tell a UK immigration agent that the length of my stay would be approximately another hour, unless of course their stupid long lines had rendered it impossible to make my connection, in which case I might be there longer. Except I didn't say that, as there were big signs warning against attacking the immigration agents with anything, including sarcasm.

So then we went to baggage claim & located C's bag, but didn't see mine. After a few minutes of standing around feeling confused, I went & talked to a baggage agent, who looked at my claim stub & said "uh, yeah, yours is checked through to Catania, why are you looking for it?" I explained the logic of looking for it since C's bag had just come down the conveyor, but he wasn't bothered by the dissonance, and reconfirmed that mine was on its way.

OK, so, we'd heard a rumor that we should go through Customs, so we wandered in that direction, turned down a sparsely-populated gallery where a couple of forlorn-looking passengers were having their bags searched, spoke to no-one, official or otherwise, and emerged into the front of the terminal unchallenged & unscathed.

At this point we had about 35 minutes to get to our flight, which was of course leaving from the North Terminal, aka the one we weren't at. Blah blah blah, took the tram, blah blah, re-checked C's bag, and checked 1 of M's 2 carry-on bags, as Gatwick security forbids >1 carryon. Given how slow & apathetic Gatwick security seemed to be, I suppose it's just as well. Should we have been concerned about the fact that the baggage conveyors were broken, and the bags were thus tossed onto a pile on a random cart in the middle of the terminal? Take a guess.

Blah blah, snaked through security (they let you keep your shoes on to pass through the metal detector, but then you round a corner & there's a separate shoe-scan queue) & emerged into the mall-like interior of the North Terminal a few minutes *after* the gate-closing time on our boarding passes. Thought about stopping to put our shoes on, but then our names started echoing over the PA, so we ran for it in our socks, shoving perfume-sample-profferers out of our way as we ran.

It goes without saying that our gate was at the end of a comically long series of corridors, including a long down escalator that was followed almost immediately by an even longer up escalator. If you've never tried running down a moving sidewalk in your socks, I can tell you that the metal grating goes from invigorating to painful pretty quickly.

So we ran heroically up to the gate, made the plane, nearly passed out from the exertion after not having slept all night on the redeye, and then sat on the airplane for 45 minutes slowly dying of thirst before they wheeled out the beverage cart.

Again, M has the photos of the food, but I gotta tell you, the Venn diagram of "airline food" and "British food" is a truly horrifying thing to contemplate.

The Catania airport is small, new, and not really state-of-the-art when it comes to lost baggage. Unless of course their system (wait until everybody wanders away from the carousel, wait yet a little longer, then assume any bags left on the carousel are lost, and thus stack them in a huge pile in the corner of the baggage claim area) *is* the state of the art.

catania airport baggage claim

It should go without saying that our instructions to call back the next afternoon to find out whether the bags had arrived on the next flight weren't really all that useful. When we gave up & just went to the airport, it became obvious that nobody was answering the phone because nobody was anywhere near the phone.

In order to get back into the baggage claim area (if you haven't just stepped off a plane), there are all these signs directing you to go through the crew entrance. If you attempt to follow an airplane crew through the crew entrance, they will be very surprised, and won't believe you when you say that there are signs everywhere telling you to do so. Then a *very* tall airport cop will intercede & usher you through. It's hard to tell whether he thinks this is normal or not, but it works.

Since there was nobody manning the lost-luggage counter, M + C just dug through the giant pile, found their bags, and walked out with them.

I'm realizing that at this level of detail, it will take me forever to finish this post, so I'll have to make a quick list of other topics to perhaps return to later:
  • The apartment is tiny & more than a little nutty.
  • The open-air market merits a long post of its own, but someone else will have to write it.
  • Cured meats are reason enough to visit Italy; in fact, if I were here alone, I'd likely spend the entire two weeks just sampling the wares of all the different salumi vendors.