Today I fly home. Since it was apparent that I don’t need to be at the airport 3 hours before the scheduled departure, I set the alarm for 7:00am. I fully charged all my gadgets last night so they would be full strength for the trip home, as I may use any or all of them during the near 18 total hours of travel time. I’m pretty much fully packed, having brought some beat-up clothes to use and discard, as mentioned in Travel Tip #2. The hotel was prepaid to get the best rate, so all that was left was to settle the incidentals bill, which consisted of a single local phone call for $1.85. I was asked if we used the mini-bar, and we did not. If someone did, I don’t know how they would find out until housekeeping or whoever checked, which would be hours after I left. They have no credit card on file, so all they could do would be to send letters to collect payments. Maybe there is a different system for dealing with these situations.
We are out of the hotel by 7:40am, and at the airport by 8:15am. That’s two hours before departure. The Continental counter has only three tellers open. Two of them are waiting to deal with any first class passengers. The line takes a while, but nothing that would present a problem getting to the plane on time. After all, there are at least 80 people in line with me, so they can’t leave without us. Once the first class passengers have been accounted for, the other counters open to us plebians. I have no check in bags, so a simple printing of the boarding pass and questions if I am carrying any liquids, and I am off to security, spending less than two minutes at the counter after an hour in line.
Luis can’t go any farther (he parked and came back into the terminal while I was in line), so we separate and I get to the gate. There is an hour left, and no food by the departure gate. I know they serve a lunch on the flight, so there is no need to find breakfast before boarding. Right in front of the gate are more employees, this time hand-inspecting all the carry-on luggage. That is a good security method, doing it just for the individual gate, such that you can have several lines instead of one giant line for everyone. I’m second in line after a trip to the restroom, and while sitting and waiting, a line of a dozen people form, so I got there at a good time. Well, good in the sense that I can sit and watch instead of stand in another line.
The movie this trip is Code Name: The Cleaner. I would not be surprised if more people saw this film on airplanes than in the cinemas. On the two arrival flights (to Houston and Panama), the same television shows were screened after the film to fill out the rest of the flight – Everybody Loves Raymond and The King Of Queens, both highly rated, but very dull shows. I skipped them on the way to Panama, but I watch them for some reason on the way home. They don’t help you forget that another hour of flight time has passed. After that, if there is still more time to the destination, there is a CNN report. The two shows and CNN stuff were the same on all three flights so far, so I suspect the Houston to San Francisco flight will have them as well. That’s really a bad system, repeating the same stuff to a captive audience.
What was the meal? A chicken or beef bake, which is kind of like pocket pie dough with chicken or beef filling, a little vegetable for texture, all whacked into the microwave. The good part is that you could tell it was chicken, other than that, it was so-so. One small box with potato salad and a tomato wedge, and one more box with a square of a spice cake filled the rest of the tray. Airline food doesn’t bother me. Some people expect the worst, and so are pre-planning to hate whatever is given to them. They still eat it, but complain about it later. I don’t want soda to be the first beverage of the day (even though you get a full can), so a cup of orange juice is selected. You know I drink a lot, so it makes sense to choose the full can of soda, rather than a small cup of water, which costs much less. But I digress.
Once you get to Houston, you have to go through customs, which takes longer here than anywhere else I have ever been. Like in Miami, you’re walking about one kilometer from the gate to the customs and baggage claim area. There are multiple counters open, but so many more people. My previous trips through customs (anywhere in the world), my flight was the only arrival at the time, so I would be there with just 300+ others from the plane (large transoceanic capacities), but it would go fast. It went very slow in Houston, even with the same number of people from several flights. I didn’t have to wait for checked luggage at baggage claim, which I hoped would make my transition quicker. It did not.
After customs, if you’re taking a connecting flight, you’re walking another half kilometer with all your luggage to security control, where you go through it all over again, as if you are taking your first flight. If your trip ends here, you can exit the terminal. The security takes a long time as well, because now you have many international tourists who may be less experienced with US security methods and may have difficulty understanding all the spoken English instructions. It’s a three hour layover, so there is plenty of time to find more food. No checked luggage and nothing to declare makes me go through very quickly, every time. Even having to use four trays – notebook computer, computer bag, duffel bag, and shoes, is no hassle, I’m pretty efficient when it comes to handling the multiple items.
The departure gate is nowhere in sight (it ends up being almost a mile away, literally), so I shouldn’t stop at the first restaurant I see, which is a grill of some sort, with sit-down tables. But it does have the UEFA Champions League final match on the televisions, so I stand around for a couple of minutes, AC Milan leads Liverpool 1-0. There are 14 minutes left in regulation, so that should give me time to find a television closer to the gate before the match ends.
On the way, I pass a small bar that also has the match. The score is now 2-0, so I stay to watch the last 10 minutes, with those people carrying carts coming by every minute, intentionally driving close to the sides, rather than staying in the center of the corridor, to get the people to bunch closer to the walls, not very polite. A nice header by Liverpool’s Kuyt brings the score to 2-1. It would be something to see a repeat of the 2005 Championship match when AC Milan was up 3-0 at the end of the first half, and Liverpool scored three straight in a six minute stretch to eventually go to extra time and win it in penalty kicks. With three minutes of stoppage time added, Liverpool has some last chances to equalize. But Milan makes a player substitution that takes more than 40 seconds off the clock, which seems unfair, but that’s how it works. Liverpool can’t tie it up and AC Milan wins. Oh well.
At the gate, I scan for power outlets to watch more stored television. Seeing none, I continue on looking for food to bring back. I’d rather not find an outlet, use the computer, then go get food, and come back to find my spot occupied. Several hundred feet away, past many turns, there is a food court area. I get a chicken burrito and a bottle of Sprite. Back at the gate, I see a 4-port outlet behind a chair, so I take a seat off to the side to allow more people to sit around it. While it starts up, I manage all the bags and food to be able to eat and watch at the same time. An older guy comes down and sees me using a computer and the cable, so assumes there is a power point nearby. The burrito is acceptable for an airport food court, but not very tasty. It does the job however, and there is meant to be a snack on the night flight to San Francisco.
On this last flight, I find that a New York Times was left on my seat from a previous flight, so it is something different to read. I took two Scientific American magazines with me to read on the trip over and leave behind in Panama, because carrying more than one magazine adds a noticeable amount of weight to your carry-on bag. I didn’t have them with me, as I gave them to Luis when we left the hotel, he could read them to help his English comprehension, give them to someone else, or just throw them away.
The film on the final flight is Because I Said So. Passengers are told they can buy headphones for $1, but on the international flights (to and from Panama), they gave them away free, so I had one already, as did some people who were flying the exact same route as me (at least six others, by my count). We were told that part of the half-hour delay in boarding was due to them trying to fix the audio system. They elected to fly before it was fixed, deciding that it was better to have the right side of the plane experience spotty audio channels than to make us wait longer. Good thing I was on the left side of the plane. Of all four films, this would be the one I would watch, if I had to pick one. It was a fine film, and there was probably not much edited for an airplane audience.
The snack was a salad, a box of lettuce really, with a peppercorn cream dressing. Here’s another travel tip for airplane dining. When faced with sealed pouches with something that can drip, leak, pop, or spurt out, I recommend that you use the fork to poke a hole in it first (do it under the napkin for extra precaution if you’re the paranoid type). This will release the pressure and you can then use the internal contents with your mind at ease. In addition, a microwaved steak and cheese mini-pizza, still in the plastic and quickly getting soggy accompanied the salad. It looked like an attempt to put a Philly cheesesteak on a pizza (evidenced by green bell pepper bits under the cheese). While good in concept, it was a failure. I ate the salad first, so by the time I got to the pizza, it was soggier than before, but still warm. The crust was too thick and gummy, which may have been caused by the steam, or it was undercooked, or it is naturally made that way.
I have a hypothesis that airline food is often a test bed for new food products. I see food items that I have never heard of, nor seen anywhere else. Companies use passenger feedback to judge whether to send the product into supermarkets (or gas stations or wherever), to change the recipe or ingredients and try it again, or to cancel it and try something else.
After the film, the same episodes and CNN reports are shown, but interspersed are flight updates – time to destination, altitude, distance traveled, and a geochron (look it up). This is the only flight that showed this information, but it was also the only flight on a Boeing 757-200, the other three flights were on a Boeing 737-800/900.
Because of the initial delay, we landed in San Francisco about 30 minutes late. I didn’t have to wait at baggage claim, so I could go right outside to meet the Marin Airporter bus, which leaves every 30 minutes, at the top and bottom of every hour (or several minutes later, as the bus first must drop off passengers at the departure level, one floor above). If we were on time, I would have been able to get to the 8:30pm bus. Instead, I missed it by 3 minutes. In the meantime, I talked to some strangers who were also waiting and weren’t sure if this is where they needed to be, and I played some Animal Crossing.
At home, I find that the Tivo shut down and didn’t restart, so it missed about 12 hours of recordings for me. Now I have to clear massive amounts of hard drive space to download the missed programs, which will also takes loads of time. Every day, I check at least 60 different websites, often multiple times a day. Imagine how much time it will take to catch up on 5+ days worth of information (it’s a lot, some websites add 6 or 7 pages a day). I go back to the lab tomorrow. My thesis defense is scheduled for May 31, and I have to give a couple of practice shows for different people, which I never like doing. The more a presentation gets performed, the more it becomes more static and dry. I prefer a more casual, less practiced delivery to presentation, which I don’t like giving anyway.
So to finish off this trip, let’s make the calculation according to my Travel Tip #1. Including airport transport time, terminal waiting, flight time, layover, and travel from the destination airport, I estimate that the trip to Panama took a total of 18 hours. The trip back took about 18 hours also, but if we use only a one-way trip in the calculation, you can take the average of the two trips. 18 hours multiplied by four, results in a “justified” trip length of 72 hours. I was in Panama for around 3.5 days, or 84 hours. So like last time I went to Panama, I barely spent enough time to make the trip worthwhile, regarding the amount of time spent in transit.
Remember to come back to check out the added links and photos (once Zooomr is back online), which should enhance the story-telling. I’ll post a reminder when that gets done. Thanks for reading.