Thursday, July 20, 2017

The curious case of Porter Airlines

The Lyft driver arrived a few minutes early, and I was glad, since I am one of those worry worts who's always at the airport two hours early. Since this flight was an international flight... well to Canada anyway, but America' s hat is still an international flight... and because D.C. area traffic is always a challenging variable, I was aiming for a three hour window to Dulles.

We arrived there in plenty of time, and the ride also offered Anderson and I the opportunity to study the massive concrete bunkers being built for the Metro extension to the airport. 

"Won't the Metro trains smash into those wooden fences?", asked Anderson pointing out the temporary fences on the elevated platforms. Once I pointed out to him that they were not permanent, he observed that in the future he could brag that he saw the Metro extension being built,  maybe when they were "falling apart (in the future)."

With this dark foretelling in the air, we breezed through airport security and headed to our gate. Our flights were on Porter Airlines, a Canadian company, and one which was new to me. The flight was scheduled to depart at 2pm, and thus we had over two hours to lounge around in iPad crack house. 

About an hour into the wait, a Porter flight crew arrived. At first I thought that they were our flight crew, but quickly discovered (they sat around us, so I could hear their conversations) that they were a crew which was being returned to Canada, and were thus flying as passengers.

Porter Airlines flight attendants are a throwback to 1960s stewardesses. Not only in appearance, but also in demeanor. The little round, cocked pillbox hat, always at a rakish angle, a pleasant visual surprise.

But this was a full flight, and it was clear (from the conversation) that the four crew members had consumed the last open seats, but were one seat short. As departure time approached, the begging began for someone to trade their seat for a $300 (soon to be escalated to $400) voucher and a ticket on the next flight at 4pm something.

No one bit and no one accepted the offer. From listening to the returning crew conversations, I think that what happened was that this returning crew was being sent home early as they were needed in Toronto to fill in for another crew. But this flight was almost full, and Porter was one seat short. 

The passengers, as usual, were a diverse group, with a lot of Canadians clearly returning home, a lot of Muslim families (women in hijabs, men in western clothes), and  a lot of American tourists. I say tourists because I suspect that nearly all of the Clinton voters who threatened to move to Canada if Trump won are either already there making trouble for Trudeau, or reneged on their self-exile promises.

But no one took the offer.

As 2pm passed, the offer turned into a threat to having to kick someone off the flight. An intrepid ticket holder pointed out that, because this was an international flight, the kicked out person would be owed $1000 dollars - "US not Canadian," noted the sudden sea lawyer.

I don't know how this issue was resolved, but eventually we were loaded into the Bombardier Q400, a handsome Canadian-built prop plane, and at around 2:30 or so, we began to taxi to the departure runway. 

15-20 minutes later, we were still in taxi mode, when the pilot announced that we were going to be waiting for a few minutes because a storm was approaching. As the temperature outside was in the high 90s, and the air conditioning in these Bombardiers apparently doesn't kick in unless the engines are full on, it was really super hot while we waited.

Soon the pilot announced the real bad news: all flights had been grounded due to the weather, and he had to turn the engines off to save gas. "We missed our escape window," I thought, thinking of the 30 or 40 minutes wasted trying to find the Porter crew one last seat.

Over three hours later, and two engine starts and stops to cool off the broiling plane, we began the trek back to the terminal. "The company," noted the pilot," feels that in view of the weather, it is best to return and wait it out at the terminal."

As we approached the terminal, another 10 minutes expired in our precious time window to make our connection in Toronto (we were heading to Halifax), but with a sigh of relief... three things happened.

First, the pilot noted the bad news that there were no open gates available to disembark; and I wondered why that wasn't coordinated before he started heading back to the terminal and lost his place in the departure line. Then he announced the good news that we had been given clearance to take off! The mysteries of 21st century travel decision-making gather another set of examples.

Lastly, using my cell phone I noticed that the airline's website noted that our connecting flight had been also delayed as Porter tried to make time for connecting passengers to arrive. "The company," once again noted the pilot, "is fully aware that there are a lot of you making connections!", he reassured us.

Another precious 15 million minutes passed as we made our way back to the runway, having lost our place in line, and finally became airborne. The irony of the case of the kicked out passenger doesn't escape me. He/she was now probably on the runway line, just a few minutes behind us, with a voucher of either $400 or $1000 bucks in hand -  if the airport lounge sea lawyer was correct.

Once airborne, Porter's wonderful throwback status is confirmed when the crew starts passing out free snacks, free drinks, free wine in real glasses, and free Canadian beer, an awesome Steam Whistle Premium Pilsner!

We landed in Toronto at Billy Bishop Airport - a cool, over the water landing, and because of the connecting flight's own delay, making the connection was still a possibility. Hope hung thick in the air.

But the plane stops before it reaches the terminal and the pilot comes on again. "Folks," he says in that voice that all pilots on the planet seem to share, "we're gonna have to wait a few minutes while they make a gate available to us, as they're all full."

40 minutes later, we deplane. We actually descend down a ladder and walk to the terminal gate, and I wonder why we needed an "open" gate... since we landed near a gate and then walked to it. Couldn't two planes, properly spaced, share a gate, since he passengers are walking to it on the ground? but who's gonna argue with Airport logic.

And then we zipped through Canadian customs, and walked and walked to our domestic gate, hope still alive. As we had cleared customs, I had informed Anderson that we were now "officially" in Canada. He misunderstood my meaning and runs back to the other side of customs, and yells: "Now I'm back in the USA!" The customs officers give him a dirty look and shoo him away.

Arrival to the security area for local flights reveals the fact that we had missed our flight. "Took off about 8 minutes ago," we were advised. All those minutes, in hindsight wasted on the taxi runways of Dulles, and then waiting to deplane in Toronto, have come back to bite us in the ass.

Somehow, by accident, I managed to jump the rapidly growing line of disgruntled passengers waiting for the airport Porter staff to assist them. "You've been booked in the 10 am flight tomorrow," advised the nice and very, very young Porter lad assisting us. "Can you put us in a hotel?", I asked. He picked up the phone and began to talk to someone whose job is clearly to say no.

"It was weather related," he advised. We were on our own, Porter was under no obligation to pay for a room, or assist in any way.

Finding the exit was not an intuitive task, and we decided and then followed signs simply marked "Toronto"  (not "airport exit") and walked and escalated what seemed miles of electric stairs and moving platforms, where Anderson wanted to race me as they were pretty empty of people for some odd reason. 

I don't trust free airport WiFi and thus I turned on my own WiFi jet pack and begin to search for a hotel room. A few minutes later, an alarmed text message comes across my WiFi jet pack: I have just exceeded $50 of data usage! We quickly also discovered that this weekend there's some sort of Grand Prix race in he city, and thousands of racing fans have booked most hotel rooms; and things begin to look bleak.

With the assistance of an outfit called Airport Accommodations, who first informs me that all the discounted rates for stranded passengers have been booked already, I grab the first available room - about $200 at the Comfort Hotel Downtown and grimace as I turn my jet pack back on to book an Uber, as there's no Lyft in Toronto.

Billy Bishop Airport is a very cool small airport, and in spite of the seemingly endless miles of moving walkways (there's a tunnel between the airport entrance building and the departure areas), once you get your bearings, quite manageable. The entrance is literally in the city and you can essentially walk out the airport building, cross the street and have a kabob or a pizza or check into a hotel... if any rooms were available, that is.

20 minutes later, in a nice ride through this most beautiful and architecturally eclectic city, we arrive at 23 Charles Street East. The Uber driver has free candy and gum and bottled water in his car, so Anderson naturally loves him!

Five stars!

The hotel in under construction... "This is a spooky place," notes Anderson as we make our way to room 703. It is not that bad actually... and there seems to be an interesting decor idea aimed at using bare plywood as a decor focus - on purpose! The furniture in the room, the shelves, the tables... but I also notice the nice walk-in shower and the rainfall water faucet.

We leave our luggage in the room, chat a little on the phone (95 cents a minute) with a very alarmed mom waiting for us in Halifax, and head out into downtown Toronto, past 9pm, to get dinner. 

The giant TV in the room hasn't gone unnoticed, and Anderson asks if we can bring our food back to the room and watch TV while we eat. The little guy has been a trooper through the day's saga, and so I agree, hoping that his mom will never find out, and yet fully knowing that he'll rat me out as soon as we get back with her in Halifax.

A wonderful two or three blocks of a gritty neighborhood greets us - ethnic, tiny restaurants of all ancestries dot the streets, a cigar shop boasting that they specialize in Cubans, a Hemp shop... tons of hipsters trying to look like seedy characters and beautifully adding visual spice to the area, impossibly slim-as-rifles young girls doing selfies in front of the Biscuit Lane sign in front of our hotel entrance, and a few hookers here and there.

My mouth waters at the ethnic restaurant offerings... but we need quick and fast and take out... so we end up at... sigh... Popeye's.

Anderson gets nuggets and Mac 'n Cheese as a side. I get chicken wraps and coleslaw.... I let him fill his included drink with Sprite, hoping that he doesn't rat me out for that as well... but he will.

On the walk back I convince him that the only reason that I let him have Sprite is if he doesn't give me any grief over taking a shower. To my surprise, he agrees; there will not be war over a shower tonight.

Back in the room, we discover that there isn't a single kid show at 10pm, and the smart TV's YouTube channel is too difficult to navigate with the remote control, and so we quit attempting boobtoobing while we eat. He also doesn't really like the Popeye's chicken nuggets because they're "covered in granola." I point out to him that it is not granola, but the battle is lost immediately.

I grimace as I log on to the hotel's free WiFi, fully knowing that millions of viruses and malware may be lurking in the RF, and we FaceTime with the still very alarmed mom - after all, Anderson has been under my tutelage now for nearly three days!

The shower goes unexpectedly easy; he loves the rainfall and demands and gets more shower time.

Afterwards, I use the hotel surprisingly nice minty lotion to rub his back and legs and arms... good trick for putting a kid to sleep. We unpack his "guys", which he meticulously counts, and he hits the sack. He reverts to being a little boy in a strange city and strange bed, and asks me to "snuggle with him a little," which I do. A nanosecond later he's asleep.

Outside, loud drunks are clearly having an open door party in the next room, and I push away the temptation to join them... and the partying goes on until three am or so, but, once he's asleep, nothing disturbs Anderson short of a small nuclear device going off nearby. I don't really mind the partying noises, other than some guy with a disturbing cough that would eventually keep me awake; he really should get that checked.

I shower in the glorious rain shower and once again grimace as I re-join the hotel's free WiFi (did I say earlier that these are generally a breeding ground for Malware?) and schedule an Uber for 7am the next morning. The flight is at 10am, but the hotel's Russian-accented check-in girl has planted fear in my heart about getting to the airport in less than an hour. "With all the people leaving the city for the weekend," she advises, "and with all the race fans..."  I wonder why the weekend exodus wouldn't be a Friday start like everywhere else, but her warning resonates in my pedantic, "never be late for anything" Navy training.

I sleep haphazardly, jealous of Anderson's deep sleep, and wake up half an hour before the alarm - another Navy trait. 

Shit, shower and shave (still in Navy mode here); wake up the little guy; He brushes his teeth, and I get him packed and dressed in record time. Just before we leave the room, I ask him to go pee one last time, but he says he's good, and we are downstairs and ready for Freddy by 6:55am, which is when Anderson tells me that he needs to use the bathroom.

Since the lobby is under construction, there's no bathroom, and thus the nice man at the desk gives our room keys back and we trek back to our room, where the little guy does his business and we're back waiting for Uber in no time.

The hotel has apples, and muffins, and yogurt and some bars at a breakfast bar, and I stock up for the flight as the little guy scarfs up a muffin.

Uber arrives, nice man from India with a cross hanging from his rear view mirror. He tells me that when his wife was about due, they drove to the US so that his son could be born in the US and be a dual citizen. The kid is now a sophomore at university and studying Math. I heave an internal sigh of relief, as we really need more American math majors.

In spite of the hotel clerk's warning, there is no traffic, and we arrive at the empty airport two and a half hours before the flight. We had been issued new boarding passes the night before and thus we head directly to the security check, which is blissfully empty. We load all of the carry on stuff onto the conveyor belts, take the iPads out, remove all contents from pockets, and since in Canada the boarding pass check is apparently done there, we hand the security lady our boarding passes; she scans them and it beeps red.

Oh, oh.

She directs me to run back to the Airlines ticket check-in counter and tell them.... since it is still deserted, and since the counter is about 20 feet from the check point, she tells me to leave all the stuff on the belt, leave Anderson there, and go get new boarding passes.

"I will keep an eye on him," she says in a Russian accent, and I notice that her name is Irina.

I run back to the counter... by now some passengers are beginning to trickle in... but I explain the situation and jump to the head of the line. After some conversations between two airline agents, they issue me new tickets and I run back to Irina at the security check.

I hand the security lady the new passes; she scans them in... and they beep red again. By now there are 3-4 people, and their carry-ons... behind us, waiting for the luggage and scanning to get through the security check point.

The puzzled security lady then abandons her station and runs, with my tickets, to the airline counter. I apologize to the people waiting behind us, and it becomes clear to me why the TSA does this part "ahead" of this conveyor belt X-ray part.

Irina returns with new tickets; they scan green, and everyone is happy; she rocks!

When we get to our gate, to my surprise, I discover that Porter Airlines has a very nice waiting lounge, fully equipped with free bottled water, espresso, latte, regular coffee, etc., Walker's Scottish pure butter shortbread, and granola! And real dishes and coffee cups with saucers! The seats are comfortable and padded, and electrical outlets are all over the place, and there are several cleaners constantly picking up coffee cups, dishes and cleaning up.

Porter gets some props back.

I also discover that there are multiple flights earlier than our 10 o'clock flight heading to Halifax. Since we're there two hours early, I inquire to see if the nice airline lady can get Anderson and I on an earlier flight. She looks, but tells me that none of the flights have two available seats.

I sigh, but have to listen to her logic, and walk away. Subsequently, flight after flight departs for Halifax, and I notice a curious and repeating thing: in every departing flight,  as the plane, visible from the waiting lounge, gets loaded with passengers, there are calls for multiple passengers who have not boarded.

"... this is your last call," warn the loudspeakers, "plane doors are about to close." After the second occurrence of this, I approach the airline lady once again, and ask if my son and I can board the plane instead of the missing passenger, since there are empty seats now, and leave in the earlier flight.

Some airline logic dictates no, and flight after flight leaves on time with missing passengers and empty seats while we wait for our 10 o'clock flight.

Our flight, of course, leaves late... but Porter Airlines has free beer and wine. Anderson could care less, he's in iPad heaven, and I've packed plenty of good things for him to chow down on. Seated in front of us is a mother, traveling alone with three children of varying ages and dispositions, and I marvel at her kid-handling skills. Whoever you were, Canadian super mom, I tip my hat to you.

There's a stop in Montreal, or was it Ottawa? no change of planes, but we have to move seats, and thus we relocate two rows behind... airline logic again.

The flight to Halifax is without incident, we scarf up the free snacks, juices and beer, and we finally arrive, a day late and around $400 less, to one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

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