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2001-05-17 - 5:01 p.m.

Graduation: Getting there is half the battle

Thursday, May 17

It never fails – close airport encounters with lovely young ladies. This morning, checking in at Delta (to transfer to Northwest), I stand between a tall blond – tall as in 5-7, 5-8 – and a short brunette – short as in 5-5, 5-6. After forgetting her wallet on the counter, the brunette returns to get it with a sweet, embarrassed smile. Alas, I’m going to South Bend, she’s going to South Florida.

I should’ve known that my day would only get worse traveling to South Bend. Because of the Comair pilot strike, which a month ago canceled flights through May 18, I could no longer fly Newark to South Bend through Cincinnati, since Comair would be responsible for the shorter leg. By the time Delta got around to contacting me about this problem, the best they could do was put me on Northwest to South Bend via Detroit, then back to NJ on Delta through Atlanta on Tuesday. I’d originally scheduled a Monday return flight.

Because of airline protocol or what have you, I first have to check in at Delta and get some sort of form to take to Northwest to get my boarding pass. While standing at the Northwest ticket counter, I recognize a family whose oldest daughter graduated from Notre Dame in my class in 1998 – she (her name’s Colleen) is there with her mother and youngest sister, on their way out to South Bend for the middle sister’s graduation. I soon hear they’re scheduled on the 7:40 flight, and since it’s now 7:25, their chances are slim. I get my boarding pass and head down to the gate ahead of them, slowed by their bags.

So I’m there for the “scene.” You hate to see it. Jamie (he said his name), the Northwest employee, gets reamed by Colleen’s father, an unreasonable passenger who’s pissed that the flight had been closed and won’t allow the four of them to board, even though the plane still sits at the end of the jetway. One of the arguments is over the luggage – “Three of us don’t even have bags,” Colleen’s white-haired father says, which seems a small lie looking at the luggage the three women lugged. I think he actually tries to sell out his family, pleading, “OK, I don’t have any bags, I’m getting on the plane.” That, of course, didn’t happen – probably to his girls’ dismay – and the white-haired man proceeds to yell at Jamie as the passengers in the waiting area watch.

“This airline has the worst on-time record of any of them, and you know it!” he shouts. And they’re supposed to be late this time to let you on? I think. Yeah, fair.

“This airline has screwed us over so many times, I have a drawer full of coupons from you,” he continues. Any yet you continue to fly it? I say to myself.

“I’m sorry, sir,” Jamie says, though clearly he doesn’t care, and I can’t blame him. “The flight is closed. We’ll put you on the next flight.” Which would be mine.

“You’re not sorry!” the man yells, his daughters watching. And who’s fault is it that you’re late and couldn’t make a 7:40 flight? I have that very thought just before overhearing two passengers lining up to board another flight at the next gate say the same thing.

The sad part is that the man wears a Notre Dame sweatshirt, giving the university and its family a bad name. I don’t understand why the 7:40 flight is so important – it’s Thursday, with graduation not until Sunday, and everything official begins on Friday. And even on the 7:40 flight, the family was scheduled for the same flight I was to South Bend, leaving Detroit just before noon, so my flight was scheduled to be there in time.

Note the choice of words.

While waiting for my flight to board, I decide I’d rather not deal with the hassle of stuffing my suitcase into the overhead compartment and decide to check it, figuring I’d get it right on the jetway when I land. As it turns out, my bag is checked through to South Bend. Not a problem.

Once we board the flight to Detroit and I take my seat two rows from the middle door where we boarded the large plane – a 757 I think – I notice the late family two more rows back and smile to myself. I chat with an old woman next to me from Easton, Pa., who is leaving on a 19-day tour of Japan, China and Tibet. She tells me to congratulate my sister, so I pass along to Jess the best wishes and congratulations from some old woman from Easton, Pa. At 9:10, five minutes before our scheduled departure, the woman looks at her watch and says to me, “Should be any minute now.”

At 9:11, the captain announces that Detroit is fogged in with zero visibility and our one hour, 20 minute flight will be delayed until 10:35. He also informs us that our plane needs only 600 feet of visibility to land, so he hopes we’ll be off sooner than 10:35 – and that is, in fact, already 20 minutes earlier than the first report he was given. I’m wondering how much 600 feet of visibility really is. But he reassures those of us with connecting flights that those too are delayed because of the fog. Of course, I think, they’re delayed now, but by the time we’re airborne – hence, the end of our delay – those departing Detroit will also be released, and the backup will likely alleviate by noon.

After dozing off in my seat, I don’t take note of our departure time, but it is earlier than what the captain announced. Right about 10:30, he tells us we’re 50 miles east of Buffalo and I think we’re set to land in Detroit with enough time for me to make the South Bend flight.

“We’re about 50 miles east of Buffalo. It’s about an hour and 20 minutes from here, so we should have you on the ground at about 11:55,” he says.

Um, I may have gotten a C in freshman calculus, but if the flight was supposed to be 1:20 long and we’re already near Buffalo, how the hell is it still 1:20 to go? Well, the bastard was right, and we land at 11:55, right about when the DC9 was pushing back from the terminal, bound for South Bend with – my guess is – nearly half the seats empty.

I make that estimate based on the line of passengers at the gate for the next flight to South Bend, leaving around 1:30 but on a smaller turboprop than the jet that just left. The belligerent man and his daughter Colleen are ahead of me, having beaten me to this terminal from the one we landed in, and it is while dealing with them that the airline representative announces to the line that all afternoon flights to South Bend are booked and the best he can do is put us on either the 7:30 or 10:30 flight and we can try to fly standby.

He also points out the Flight Rebooking Hotlines behind us – no less than a dozen cell phones with direct links to Northwest ticket agents for fast, convenient rebooking. While on hold, I use the handy pen and post-it pad provided to write down it’s a bad sign when an airline promotes the ease and convenience of its rebooking hotline.

It is at this point – after checking with the woman on the phone about getting to South Bend (no better) – that I decide I’m driving. I wait on line upstairs to see about getting a refund on my Detroit-to-South Bend segment, but Northwest tells me I must do that through Delta, since they put me on the Northwest flight (because I’d never choose to fly that airline). I notice the belligerent family (Dad’s now given the entire family a bad name) at the international desk – no lines, and my guess is they forced them to help them, rather than waiting on line at the domestic desk – trying to rework their flight plans. I make my way down to the rental car phones and take the shuttle to the National lot just off the airport.

I have no trouble getting a white Chevy Malibu for the one-way trip to South Bend, and after grabbing lunch – my first real food of the day, other than the few crackers I had before leaving home at 6:15 a.m. – I hit the road on a warm, sunny Michigan afternoon.

I head west on I-94 past Ann Arbor and turn south on I-69 for Indiana. I cross the border and find myself back on the Indiana Toll Road, speeding along with the trucks. I shoot by Exit 77 and head to 72, near the airport, where I was told by Northwest my bag would likely beat me there after my three-hour drive.

Approaching the airport on US 20, which I’d done only a few times on the United Limo return from O’Hare, I look straight down the runway and see for the first time the shining Golden Dome in the distance reflecting the sun, the Basilica and library breaching the top of the trees as well. The view brings a smile to my face. I also see a helicopter outside the westernmost hangar and notice just before I turn into the airport that it is Marine One, the president’s chopper.

At the Northwest counter, I’m told my bag hasn’t arrived yet, but since it’s nearly 5 p.m. – when the next flight from Detroit is due – I decide to wait to see if it arrives. Two women in line (and most of the travelers standing there were looking for luggage) were waiting in Detroit and apparently made one of the later flights as standby passengers, but were only now checking on their bags, so my decision wasn’t too bad. I walk to the Delta counter and the ticket agent takes my ticket to send in for a possible refund on the segment I skipped. Somehow Northwest’s inability to get me to my connection is Delta’s fault for putting me on Northwest in the first place. At least that’s the gist that I got from the two airlines when asking about a refund.

Just before picking up my suitcase off the belt, I look at an address tag on a similar one that comes by: It belongs to the belligerent family from New Jersey. They are nowhere in sight. (I later learn from Jess, who knows the middle daughter graduating with her, that they went from Detroit to Chicago to South Bend, arriving later than I did).

I meet Jess at Lyons Hall right about 5:30 – 12 hours and 15 minutes after I’d left home. It dawns on me that had I left home at the same time and driven out in my car, I’d likely still be standing beneath the Lyons arch at 5:30. The six of us have dinner at La Esperanza, the Mexican place near Nick’s Patio that I never visited while in school. One of her friends was a little surprised by that omission from my Notre Dame experience, so I explained my friends’ love affair with Don Pablo’s.

After dinner, I leave the graduates for their Senior Trip to the Grotto and go over to visit Kregg and Julie, with whom I’m staying the weekend. (Mom and Dad left home Thursday after work, spending the night in Youngstown and arriving in South Bend Friday, staying at a new Best Western in Mishawaka near the Walmart.) Kregg, Julie and I talk while watching TV before I return to campus to meet Jess and the girls for a night out at Heartland. It’s a small crowd when we arrive – the only two people on the dance floor arrived just before us – and never gets really crowded by the time Jess and I leave at 2:15. By really crowded I mean packed like on a football weekend, so I guess it was a descent crowd there for Senior Week. But early on, there’s one older white guy dancing by himself, which is a sad sight. I also decide that white guys wearing baseball caps backward like the one I notice should never be allowed into a cage by himself, because nobody wants to look at that attempt at dancing.

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