Super Fun Time at O’Hare (or You don’t understand, it’s a tall thing…)


I have odd traveling habits that I’ve explored in previous posts.  For those of you unfamiliar, I’ll summarize as succinctly as possible: I hate air travel. Every time I travel, it is as if the world conspires to provide me with more evidence that I’m on to something – that air travel hates me back.

Last night it was no different as I attempted to make my way from Chicago to Antwerp for a Java conference – Devoxx ’12.   In this story, I fight for my Irish heritage, I stand up for tall people, and I witness legal drama up close and personal.   All without ever leaving Chicago.

First, it was the cab ride.   Every cab I take from Evanston to O’Hare has the same properties:  1. It smells awful, just awful, I don’t even want to think about what it smells like, 2. The cab is full religious talismans and mystic amulets as if the driver relies more on prayer than on regular automotive maintenance, 3. The driver consistently takes insane risks (driving 95 mph on the Kennedy or running a train signal), 4. The check engine light is on, always, and 5. The car never really stops at a red light, it glides because the tires are bald.

Right, so flying already “activates me”, I’m already a mess because I’ve been  thinking about how much I hate flying for a few days, and the ride to the airport is statistically two billion trillion times more dangerous.   “Oh, wow, you handled that skid quite well.” or “No, really, slow down, I’m in no rush to get to the airport. Thanks.”   There is an upside, every time I successfully reach the airport, I feel invigorated.  On a rational level I know I just survived the riskiest part of my trip.

After I get there, I always have to go through a long process of convincing a human being that my ID matches my ticket.  Why?  Because I’m an Irish decendant of Brian Boru and my name has an apostrophe – “O’Brien”.    Guess what?   When a computer sees an apostrophe it freaks out.  It doesn’t just not work, very often it takes the time to tell you, the unfortunately named, that your name is “invalid”.    For my entire life, I’ve had a series of powerful computers tell me that my name contains “invalid characters, please fix field: last name”.     A man of lesser will would just capitulate to the machine and change his name, but the Irish are all about struggle.  So, even though it complicates my life, I cling to this apostrophe.

Sir, “Is there a problem?” the United representative asks as I stare blankly at the self-check in kiosk.   Me, “No, but I need your assistance.”    Ok, let’s see.   She types for minutes, and it stikes me as very odd.  She hasn’t even spoken yet, but I can see that she’s typed the equivalent of the Bill of Rights into some multi-colored keyboard that looks like it might be attached to a mainframe.   She sighs, “ok… it says that your ticket name doesn’t match your passport’s name.   I’m going to need to override this.”

The problem is that the United States Passport system understands my last name has an apostrophe (good job government).   The United ticketing system does not like apostrophes, and the automatic security scanning, post 9/11, make-sure-you-are-who-you-say-you-are system, doesn’t like the fact that “Obrien” != “O’Brien”.    When I travel internationally, this means about a 15 minute hassle.   I’m used to it, but I always experience a little bit of fun variation….

United rep, “Your last name is Brien, right?”

“No.  O’Brien”

United rep, “Ok, with an apostrophe?”

“Yes, O, apostrophe, B, R, I, E, N.”

United rep, accusingly as if I’m at fault, “Why didn’t you type in the apostrophe on the web site.”

“The United web site doesn’t accept apostrophes.   I signed up years ago, and there’s no way for me to change my name in the system.   Can you fix that?”   (Ok, sarcasm. I’m only 10 minutes into my airport experience and I’m already kinda done.)

United rep, “No sir, I’m not on that team…..  Ok, I’ve done a manual identity check, you are good to go.”

Security checks and I get along really well now.  I used to be flagged with the SSSS all the time, but I don’t get that anymore, and I have the whole thing down to a choreographed ballet.    Through in 10 minutes, I’m walking through the crazy tunnel that connects Concourse B with Concourse C and toward my gate C16.

Great, C16 is right next that new Wine Bar with the playerless piano that seems to be stuck on awful light jazz.  I’ll have to sit here for an hour waiting for my flight.  I’m going to Antwerp in Belgium, but I’ve decided to fly to Amsterdam and just take the train.  Flights to Antwerp were 3x the price and not at all direct.

Anyway, so, time passes, the robo jazz continues to assault the senses, and we finally board…. After all of this, I finally get on the plane in the sort of stooping way someone who is over 6’2″ has to do.   Without fail, the greeting flight attendant makes the same joke, “Oh, you’d better watch your head, wouldn’t want to knock yourself out.”    Is this still funny when you hear it on every flight?  no.   But, you laugh say, “good one”.  My real response would be, “Yes, airplanes suck for me.  To make it up could you bring me extra wine?  Thanks.”

When you board a plane these days, they make you board by seating area, but it doesn’t really make the boarding process go that much faster.  Boarding a plane still feels like solving a Rubik’s Cube puzzle with a collection of blindfolded idiots.   There are people trying to game the system by opting to use overhead bins that have little relationship to an assigned seat.    I takes forever, and since I’m not super-rich, I travel in Economy Plus because that’s the smallest possible seat someone who is 6’6″ can sit in.

I pay the Tall Tax when I fly.   While the morbidly obese are forced to pay for two seats, the uncommonly tall among us are forced to pay for an upgrade.   I’ve tried to argue with airlines that anyone over 6’5″ should be given legroom for free unsuccessfully, but it’s necessary.   So, I’m surprised to see that my $110 upgrade didn’t actually translate to a seat with legroom.   I paid extra money to sit in a regular coach seat – awesome.   I proceed to jam myself into the seat – my thighs are an inch longer than the space between the seats.

There are two minutes during which I think, Ok I’ll suck it up, whatever.   But, look, this isn’t happening.   I mean, I’m already in pain. I paid $110 dollars for leg room not because I’m interested in the incremental luxury.  For me, it is essential.  My knees already hurt and I’ve been in this seat for a minute.

Adding injury to insult, the guy in front of me is doing that thing I’m used to.   He’s attempting to recline, and when he encounters even the slightest bit of resistance (my knee joints), he redoubles his effort and just tries to jam the seat back by force.   “Hey, stop.   Those are my knees.”     Again, that awkward conversation I’ve had 50 times – “I’m really am sorry, but there’s no way.   You won’t be reclining for the entire flight.”   He doesn’t understand.  Really I don’t expect him to – this is a redeye to the Netherlands.  I’m essentially telling him, “Hello, you will be staying up all night, just like me.”

There’s a moment when I wonder.  Did I really pay for legroom? Did I upgrade?  I’m an absent-minded professor type, there’s a good chance I didn’t click on that last button to confirm.   But, no, I checked.   I paid $110 dollars for leg room, my knees hurt already, I’ve been forced to deny a fellow passenger his God-given right to recline, and that Mexican food from last night is reminding me that it might just make this the most memorable flight for not just me but everyone within 50 feet of the lavatory.   It’s time to take action – it’s now or never.  I get up.

“Excuse me,” I say, showing the flight attendant my iPhone with a “premium seat” receipt, “I paid for legroom, but my seat doesn’t have any…”

“I’m sorry there’s nothing I can do, this flight is full.”

Me, “Ok, I can’t sit in that seat, I don’t fit.  My height is all in my legs, I’ll injure myself if I sit.   It’s a ‘tall thing’.”

Attendant, “You can talk to the gate agent.”

Me: “There’s no other seat here?   Could you offer someone money to switch with me?   Can I offer someone the $110 I paid to switch with me?”

Attendant: “No sir, that’s not allowed.”

Me, resigned: “Ok, well I’m off this flight.  Thanks.”

She clearly thinks I’m overreacting, but, really, I’m not.    Height is, by no sense of the word, a disability, but in this context there’s no way.    This coach seat I’m in isn’t just a normal coach seat either, it’s right behind a legroom seat and so there’s even less room available.

Off the plane, I get to the gate agent, she’s awesome.  One look at me, and she’s like, “Ok, I totally get it.   Let’s put you on the next available flight.”

Me, “later on tonight…..”

Her, “No, 24 hours from now.  I’ll give you a $500 certificate and a meal ticket for your trouble.”

Me, “Ok, my luggage is it…”

Her, “They just took it off the plane, go to Baggage Claim 7.  It should be down there in in a few minutes.  Do you need a hotel voucher?”

Me, “No, I live here, I’m going home.  Thanks.”   (Really, I’m not sure why I’m thanking her at this point.  I think I might be thanking her for not being an awful customer-service representative.   Maybe I’m just thanking her because she didn’t make me get on that plane and tough it out.  Whatever, I don’t have to be in Belgium until Monday, this works.)

Anyway, so, I call my wife, she’s not surprised at all.  She understands just how much air travel hates me.   The kids will get to see me tonight and I’ll get to have a good night’s sleep at home.   “I’m on my way.”

If only that were true.   So, feeling somewhat defeated by the ordeal.  Having sacrificed about three hours of my life to the fact that United’s seat model of this particular 767-300 didn’t line up with reality.   I walk back from Concourse C to the baggage claim area.   The moving walkways, the annoying music, the TSA agents stationed at the exits who do nothing more than to ensure that the exit is a one-way door.    All of these things I’m used to doing after an exhausting business trip, and here I am, I came to the airport to do nothing more than try out a too-small seat in an airplane.

Sure, I was compensated for my trouble, but I can’t have that time back.   What an awful waste.

Baggage Claim 7, where is that.  So, back and forth a few times, I see that Baggage Claim 7 is the “odd shaped” carousel.  This is where they place larger items, Tubas, odd packages, and packages that might have been flagged by the drug interdiction operation at O’Hare.   I’m there and I’m waiting.   It has been at least 30 minutes since she told me my bag would be here in a “a few minutes”.

Here’s the scene at Baggage Claim 7.   There’s one bag, and there are several people waiting, but no movement.   No bags are coming out, the people waiting all seem somewhat uninterested in looking for bags.   Everyone around me seems expectant in some way, and they also look very “dressed-down”.    (You know they all look like narcotics officers pretending not to be cops.)

I walk up to customer service desk, and I’m nice.  I’m a nice guy, really.  “Yes, my bag was from flight 908…”   “sir, that’s not an arrival, that’s a departure…”   “Yes, I know, I just got off of a departure, it’s a long story.   Could you tell me where my bag is…”

Once again, she types for a few minutes into this mainframy-looking keyboard.  “Sir, you are going to have to go back to baggage claim 7 and just wait.”   “How long?”   “Everything’s on hold for a few minutes, then we should be back in business”

Ok, I call my wife, an hour has passed, “Hey, I’m not on my way, I’m still waiting for my bag….”

Back at Baggage Claim 7 things are no different.  There’s a couple with a kid and a series of faux-travelers waiting for a bag, when it happens.  The father reaches for a bag, and all of a sudden there’s an altercation, voices are raised and the conversation goes something like this:  “Sir, put the bag down. Sir!   Do you have any drugs on your person?”   The woman starts hysterically freaking out and crying with a kid in her arms, and maybe four of the people waiting for bags appear to be undercover officers.  (Oddly enough I’m dress very much like an undercover officer and there’s a moment during which one of them looks at me with the “are you new to the force?” sort of look.)

Great, now my bag is now being held up by a narcotics arrest.   Not me, mind you.  Some random stranger who probably packed the wrong thing on a flight from Denver to Chicago.   I’ve never seen a drug arrest up close and personal, but now I’m like ten feet away from it, and I’ve got to say that they cops involved were just being jerks about the whole thing.  From what I could hear the guy made a mistake, had a tiny little bag of whatever, and for this they are making me wait for my bag.   (What a waste of tax-payer money BTW.)

He get’s cuffed, cops are shouting at him, his wife is sobbing, the kid is oblivious, and I still don’t have my bag from my non-flight to the Netherlands.    I return to the customer service desk which is busy, and I don’t bother waiting in line.  I say, loud enough for every one to hear in the customer service desk.  “The drug bust on baggage claim 7 is done, you can turn back on the conveyor.  Thanks.”

One good thing about that trip, the cab ride back home was uneventful.

Tonight, I try again.  Let’s hope for less drama at O’Hare.

2 thoughts on “Super Fun Time at O’Hare (or You don’t understand, it’s a tall thing…)

  1. Hey Tim. I’m also 6’6″ and Irish and I enjoy flying about as much as you do. I must say, though, that my past travel woes pale in comparison to your ORDeal. I wish you a safe journey and I hope today’s adventure is far less memorable than yesterday’s.

  2. I’m not proposing some new regulation, but I do think that people over 6’5″ should get some sort of discount on these legroom seats. Although, on second thought, this is very likely the definition of a First-world Problem.

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