Let Them Eat Cake

I’m living through hour two of six at Lisbon Airport, hub of Air Portugal (TAP), waiting for a rebooked connecting flight to Frankfurt. I only now had my first of several coffees and croissant, courtesy of the transfer counter agent who presented me with two food vouchers ”for my inconvenience” due to the delay out of Miami. The few coveted charging stations, slow power charge, and spotty service – Internet and customer – allows me to generously conclude that it must be either a novice enterprise – run by a few good people modeling a few good ideas from the other few good airline industry leaders, or one which hasn’t yet arrived at the ah ha moment of perfect collision between efficiency and logistics.

The delay out of Miami was the first indication that things may not run smoothly, as my continuing flight to Frankfurt was due to leave 90 minutes later. That would leave half an hour to get to that gate – critical minutes in an airport which might be still troubleshooting logistics. The second portent of ill design was the queue-less mass conglomerating around the stanchions, without clear directive on boarding rights. Once the elderly and kids were gotten through this mass, the agent called out for “A” group, whose designated travelers plowed through the crowd from all directions. Attempts at order and professionalism were evident, as constant reminders of a group’s boarding status were bellowed from the lungs of an agent with the impunity of an ID and badge when an impatient “B” class traveler thought they might be able to slip by.

Yet eventually lift off was achieved, over an hour later, narrowing my confidence for the connection yet still hopeful the wind current or jet stream that catapults planes into spheres of speed and time will let us make up time. 

Dinner came while I was bundled up like a mummy against the cold, a dinner of shredded chicken next to a mound of soy sauced spaghetti. It made me wonder what the pasta option may have been. I must have dozed afterwards, because not too long after dinner the lights came on and soon after that a little green box of breakfast appeared on my lap. Then abruptly: “Prepare to descend and buckle up! Stow those trays and turn off your electronics!” Everything came as commands. No coffee? No coffee for you! Came the imagined retort. I couldn’t believe they missed that travel essential.

Once we deplaned, we were ushered forward into a line that moved us straight into two customs areas. At this point, a traveler simply knows the trip is almost over, that the faith in the airline system has worked, too tired to contemplate how many people travel per day. We often simply expect the logistics of airline travel to run by magic instead of the algorithmic logic of technology that moves masses of people in a mix of directions all in times differentiated by only minutes. This is no easy feat. I realize as I stand in the long customs line that there is very little hope of my making the connecting flight to Frankfurt unless it is delayed itself. Above the shouting of the agents, telling us to move forward, confusion reigned. Several passengers went to the wrong customs line, as they were then pulled out by agents calling out names, or trying to correctly pronounce names from a list in their hands, to move them around the corner into the correct customs line. Some names barely came out in any decipherable mention, so they resorted to first names. When they came across one they recognized, they shouted it loud and proud: “Max!” Then a little louder: “MAX!” A claimant from the back ends of the throng responded with a weary disbelief in grateful, exhausted exuberance “that’s me!“ Saved, these anxious few whose names could be recognized and deciphered. Many were sent back in despair after their names did not mimic those on the new boarding passes. Meanwhile: “Justin? JUSTIN!” And then from the customs officers behind the glass: “Next! NEXT!” And “Hurry up, come forward!” (obvious in any language) shouted in between the rubber stamps hammering passports echoing approval and admission into the Great Hall. A far cry from the usual intimidation effused from stolid indifference to one’s plight from any other passport control I’ve been through in the East or West.  All of these shouts and sounds were happening in unison, and the herding picked up speed; it was yet to be the fastest line of any of the impending four that were yet to come. 

Pass the customs, the metal detectors, the verifying of tickets, the validation of your identity and the claiming of yourself, and you’re welcomed into the world of glamor – the wide world of brands awaits wallets and assaults common sense into tricking the traveler – who has temporarily left home and all of the measured allowances of mundane living – into the light, the shine, the rewards, the duty free living and measurements of success. Yes, you have passed muster, and now enter fantasyland where it’s fully acceptable to spend more than you need or would on any regular day back on Hometown street. 

No time to spare for coffee, I hastened to gate 19, in hopes of catching that connecting flight to Frankfurt. There, a group waiting to board in any random, hurried order indicated this indeed must be the TAP flight to Frankfurt. To verify I was in the correct spot, I showed my ticket to the lady at the gate counter. 

“You are in the wrong spot. You need the Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt. This one is the TAP. But as you see, here,” (She showed me the the departure time) “this flight has left.”I showed her where the confusion lay: the flight number on my boarding pass was a TP number, not an LH number, and she said, “well, they change them once the flights are landed.” Whatever further explanation that warranted, I had neither time nor inclination for it. I asked her where to go from here. “To the transfer counter.” “Where is that?” “Behind the McDonald’s” “Where is that?” “When you come in, where all the shops and restaurants are.” 

Returning back to the atrium required a couple of turns and ramps, and so I asked an agent on the way where the transfer counter could be found. “Ummm…. I think….” “It’s behind McDonald’s,” I reminded him. “Ah yes, McDonald’s! You go down here, make a left, then right. You will see it.” Wonderful. 

Hiding behind McDonald’s, the transfer counter welcomes you.

The transfer counter obediently sequestered itself behind the facade of glamour and food, hiding manifestation of the problems of travel no wants to see or talk about. Unfortunate circumstances bring travelers here, yet possibly fortunate solutions send them back out. The queue looked like it was stuck in mud. Only one agent behind the plexiglass and a queue of about twenty people in front of it. After a wait of about 25 minutes, another agent came up, asked about our destinations, took our original boarding passes, and disappeared for another 25. Now the line was inching forward to the plexiglass, but we wouldn’t be able to explain our situation when it was our turn without a boarding pass. 

I hear an attempt at my name from a new agent, a towering, portly man with an air of deference, different from the one who took my pass earlier in terms of command. I approach with hope. 

“I have you on TP754, leaving at 14:45, boarding at 13:50.” Only 5 hours! I should think with gratitude. And: “Here are two vouchers for you, one for 10 EU one for 6 EU for your inconvenience to spend for food here while you wait.” A diversion from the unpleasant, an appeasement for the aggrieved. Coupons to spend in fantasyland! Feeling the power of a simple boarding pass, I re-enter the atrium and head over to Hediard, a coffee kiosk displaying its cakes and sandwiches under the warmth of glass and light in the middle of the atrium, contained by large marquees that wink updated flight status to the lucky holders of the boarding pass every several seconds. A “large coffee with milk” and a croissant satisfies the 6EU voucher and rewards with return to normalcy. The cappuccino and I sit, the simple crunch and delicately plated interior of the croissant softening and discouraging any disappointment at what befell this circumstance, wiping it clean, reframing this as an opportunity to observe Portuguese culture which seems to always include a vivacious verbal exchange at every counter, whether ticket, duty free, or bakery. The sounds of Portuguese are harsh in that unlike French whose sounds flow together like water, these are punctuated throughout with a dominant and emphasized “sh” and “zsh” similar to an Eastern European language than Romance language, although over the course of the next several hours I overheard a lady selling traditional Portuguese sweets that the language had more in common with Latin than with Spanish. 

So many vouchers, so little variation

I walked through the duty free, sprayed myself with Chanel no. 5, determined the bathrooms to the north of the atrium were far more clean the the ones to the south of it, concluded that most all cafes offered the same selection of cakes and creams and sponge and mouse-filled desserts; baguettes filled high with prosciutto and mozzarella, egg and avocado. Located the one water fountain to fill my water bottle, looked at the marquee, perused the magazines and newspaper headlines. The WiFi was working on 2G at best, and some spots in the airport, specifically behind McDonald’s at the Transfer counter, received no signal or service at all. I waited and watched life go by which still could hold my attention – no sign or feeling of jet lag yet – and then I saw it: in red letters, next to MY airline, the word cancelled. So close, and yet so far.

I gathered my belongings and headed back to the transfer counter. Now it looked busier than before, and yet still, I arrived before the 50 or so people who arrived within minutes after me. Any agent walking by was assailed with questions. One man ahead of me appeared to be in the know about what was going on – surely only about as much as I did – yet he carried an air about him probably gleaned from fluency and familiarity of Portuguese, German, and English. He assuaged the nerves of those around him who spoke any one of those languages not by what information he had – for in actuality it was no more than the rest of us – but simply by acting as interpreter should his ears pick up any code words the agents were privy to. Mr. Brazil, a Brazilian who works in Cologne, felt relatively assured that he would get on any flight to Germany as his schedule was relatively open. And so we waited while I heard all about Mr. Brazil’s life as the one ticket agent did her best to rebook one disgruntled traveler after another, not all of whom were going to Frankfurt, which means TAP was having a nightmare of a day with cancelled flights. Suddenly, from the left flank came an angry, red faced, grunt of a man who stormed the stanchions and cut right in front of the traveler at the plexiglass glass. He unleashed his unchecked feelings at the woman behind the partition who had no hand at all in the logistics of the airline and the grounding or flying of jets. “Sie haben hier echt ein Scheiss Laden!” You have a shit company! …I waited 6 hours for a connecting flight that doesn’t exist!” The entire hall hushed its conversation to release their feelings vicariously through this madman, whose litany covered everything from legal action, lost time, to sheer disgust. Before security came, he left just as quickly, storming back to somewhere. 

The storming of the gate at the transfer counter.

Some minutes later, someone in the back of the line told everyone to “HUSH UP!” as a very soft agent’s voice said that anyone going to Frankfurt should follow him. The crowd, which was in an orderly line snaking from left to right behind the stanchions, suddenly broke loose and a mass of us, mimicking a swarm of swallows in murmuration, followed this agent through the airport as if he was Christ leading the apostles. We ended up with the faster, aggressive walkers getting up to the front of the line back at gate 19, the very place where a tired agent told me that that plane going to Frankfurt way back at 8:30 am was not my airline. 

This defies logic. Instead of bringing one, and then another agent to the transfer counters to streamline a constant redress business, which would, and this is important – keep everyone’s place in line – one agent brings a whole mass of highly emotional people to another part of the airport to wait in a new order in a new line, often at no advantage to them whatsoever. Some people who waited patiently and were almost the next at the transfer counter were now back at the end of this new line. I spotted Mr. Brazil and told him to get in front of me, as that was where he was before. And as usual and most comical, the agents took care of premium and business class first, as if their unpleasant experiences were any more urgently felt than the rest of ours. 

When I finally inched my way up to the agent, she clicked and clacked for a minute on her keyboard. Mr Brazil had just received his next task: to find gate 21 to Düsseldorf. He wasn’t going to wait around for the Frankfurt flight; he would take a train to his final destination in Germany. We wished each other good luck. The agent came around the partition to me. She held out a voucher. I felt my mood shift. “Meet me at Gate 14 at 4 pm. Here is a 12 Euro voucher for your inconvenience.” “Does this mean you’re getting me on the next plane?” “Meet me at gate 14, at 4 pm and I can tell you then whether you will be on the next plane.” 

I was not in the mood for more cake. I went to gate 14 and waited till 4. I recognized some of the other usual suspects who had been hand-piked for this survival game; we verified among ourselves that this is the alleged spot where we would get our next clue. Random conversations with random people ensued to pass the time and commiserate, but lasted only as long and tested the limits of actual interest until the agents came marching up. Conversations ceased and huddles abandoned with indifference as nothing was more important than getting right up to that agent to get what we believed would be first dibs on a seat on the next flight. 

And yet I was out gunned and landed somewhere in the middle. It took another 30 minutes to get to an agent, and I heard the results of some of those conversations of people ahead of me: words of hotel and overnight, and first flight tomorrow became the balm for the wounded. As I waited for the group of five ahead of me to get their answers on taxis and vouchers, and hotel names and breakfast and refunds, I thought of the benches I had seen in the now many familiar places of the airport and decided the length of benches in gate 17 were perhaps the most comfortable for an overnight stay. It would be much less complicated than locating the hotel and then getting back to the airport the next day. 

I was deliberating this option, ready to ask the agent about the convenience of not just staying here, when an angel’s voice descended: “I got you on the last seat on the last plane.” 

He handed me my third boarding pass of the day – no appeasing voucher. We were to board in an hour. “Bless your kind heart,” I said, grabbed my bags and found the closest bakery to spend that last voucher from earlier on three pieces of cake – spontaneously chosen but with a certain earned entitlement. 

By 5:20, the marquee at gate 14 was set ablaze with the flight information – all indications that so far, this flight was going to take off. Soon, a trickle of people arrived, confirmed with one another that this is where deliverance would occur: a TAP agent would open the desk, announce the flight, and a pilot would part the sky. Soon, the gate was swarmed. Those of us who received a late boarding pass had to relinquish our carry on bags to the cargo hold, but a fair exchange for not having to stay the night. 

Suddenly, behind me, Mr. Brazil tries to sneak ahead of the line and drag his carry on bag onto the plane. By now, obviously having had his Düsseldorf flight cancelled and having had to rebook to Frankfurt, his patience wore out. He lashed out at the flight attendants, again, who owned no part in the making of this day. “Hand bags only” the flight attendant said calmly. “This is my hand baggage! Look! It’s in my hand! I am allowed one hand baggage and this is it!” Needless to say, he lost the argument and was sent sulking to the back of the line.

Mr Red face came up next, still livid with indignation. “My medication is in this bag! I have no idea what I might need! I wasted ten hours of my day I will never get back!” 

I entered the plane and snuggled into my window seat. Overhead bins were subsequently snapped shut. A final walkthrough. A heavenly jolt by the plane into reverse, on our way to taxi.

And then, lift off.

3rd time’s a charm

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