Wednesday, January 2, 2008


I've flown into and out of lots of airports. I've gone through some fairly big ones: Chicago (Midway and O'Hare), Detroit, Boston, New York (La Guardia), LAX, Denver, Phoenix, and Frankfurt-am-Main. I've gone through some dinky little airports too, such as Fort Wayne IN, Yuma AZ, Brainerd and Bemidji MN. I have flown into, flown out of, or at least changed planes at the main airports of Anchorage, Memphis, San Francisco, St. Louis, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and now San Diego as well. I have flown via Northwest, Southwest, United, Sun Country, American, Frontier, and their various sister & daughter airlines.

I have parked in long-term car parks, indoor and outdoor. I have been picked up and dropped off. I have traveled in groups ranging from two or three people to hundreds. I have taken shuttles to airports, have driven rental cars away from them, have ridden trains between buildings within airports, and once got a thrilling ride from one end of an airport to the other in one of those golf-cart thingies with flashing lights and sirens. I have walked many a jetway (and even had to cross a tarmac or two at ground level); have cooled my heels in many a baggage-claim area; have stood, walked, and run for dear life on many a people-mover/conveyor-belt; and have suffered every imaginable travel setback short of disaster. I have missed connecting flights, had flights canceled out from under me, been stuck on a parked plane for so long that the crew served us refreshments before takeoff, been delayed as long as three days due to weather, and once ran all the way across an enormous airport to catch a plane that was about to leave...only to find out, after the hatch was closed, that I was on the wrong plane.

But I have not yet lived so long, or traveled so extensively, that I cease to be surprised - pleasantly and otherwise - but what I experience en route.

Every airport and every airline has its strengths and weaknesses. Over the past week, I have enjoyed an opportunity to compare the strengths and weaknesses of three airports and two airlines.

Frontier Airlines was meant to fly me from St. Louis to San Diego last Friday, with a change-over in Denver. The St. Louis-to-Denver plane got a late start because it arrived late in St. Louis, evidently because mechanical problems earlier in the day had set it behind schedule. Even though the flight crew assured us that most of our connecting flights would be held until we got to Denver, I raced from my arrival gate to the departure gate for the night's last flight to San Diego...and missed it by inches.

So I come, in a roundabout way, to a great strength of Frontier Airlines: customer service. Maybe if the reason I missed my connecting flight was anything other than mechanical problems, I wouldn't have been treated so well. But as it happened, Frontier booked me on the earliest flight to San Diego that had an open seat - a United Airlines flight at about 6 p.m. the following day. They also put me up in a very comfortable and interesting hotel called The Timbers. They threw in vouchers for cab fare to the hotel; a snack Friday night; breakfast, lunch, and dinner on Saturday; and $150 off my next flight on Frontier. All this put me in a very good mood. I might have been even more impressed if I had cared about the flat-screen direct-TV monitors on every seat-back on the plane, on which the St. Louis-Denver flight crew comped us an in-flight movie - but I had my nose buried in a book and never even plugged in my headphones.

United Airlines also gets some kudos for adroit service on Saturday. I was allowed to bypass the rather long, regular line at the check-in counter, and put in a shorter, expedited, "special services" line, where the airline's representative took the initiative to put me on standby for an earlier flight (leaving around 11 a.m.) and instructed me to ask after a 2:30-ish flight if I couldn't make the first one. I did make the first flight, however, and arrived in San Diego far earlier than I expected, in spite of the one little weakness of my United Airlines experience...mechanical problems. We sat and sat and sat at that gate while the ground crew struggled to balance the cargo in the aft pit. Some mechanism that is meant to do this automatically, was acting up and we were given so many consecutive "30 minute warnings" that I, and most everyone else, got off the plane and had lunch. It seemed such a pity not to spend all those meal vouchers Frontier Airlines had given me!

So I arrived in San Diego and waited at the baggage-claim carousel, perplexed at not seeing my suitcase, until I was struck by the thought that my baggage may not have made the same flight I did. I went over to the lost-luggage corner and was overjoyed to find my suitcase there. It had arrived ahead of me!

Flying back out of San Diego today, I was mainly impressed by the lousiness of that airport's layout. The escalator up to the check-in counters was tucked away in a dark corner out of my sight-line as I hurried down a long ground-floor corridor that seemed to lead nowhere. Once I did find my way upstairs, I was faced by a combined check-in and security area that was crammed into a space approximately five sizes too small. I almost gave up on finding the Frontier desk because of a trick of perspective that foreshortened that end of the counter right out of visibility. The security checkpoint was similarly cramped.

But I got through all that quickly enough. This is more than I can say for the Denver airport, where I stood in probably the longest security-checkpoing queue of my life, before being "randomly" pulled aside (read: the lady looking at ID's took one look at me and started pounding on the silent-alarm button under her desk) for a "special" search (read: they tore my luggage apart and lectured me for not putting two one-ounce bottles of shampoo in a ziploc bag - bottles which I had forgotten were at the bottom of my bag from a previous trip). I was actually put into a spacy-looking booth with doors that automatically close at both ends, a pair of footprints on the floor for you to stand on, and jets of air that shoot at you from all directions, no doubt "sniffing" for potentially dangerous chemicals.

But since I had arrived way early (due to a pre-scheduled shuttle from my hotel), and was only on standby for the next flight to San Diego, I took all this in stride. I was in no hurry. I just felt bad for another couple who had been in the same shuttle with me, and whose flight to Orange County CA was due to leave at any moment. The husband was "randomly" picked for the same "special" search, and they still had to ride an underground train to their concourse. I wonder if they made it on board.

Is that a strength or a weakness of Denver airport? I suppose I should say a strength, because I can't help but feel safer, knowing that anyone who makes a stressed-out ID checker push her panic button will be subjected to everything short of the latex-glove treatment. On the other hand, passengers flying out of Denver really need to plan to stand in a long, slow-moving line.

While I'm dishing on airports, let me complain of the great weakness of Lambert-St. Louis: signage, or the lack thereof. Driving to the airport, one really needs to know where one is going. Why? Because - unlike other cities - St. Louis does not provide an abundance of signs with little airplane symbols, pointing the way one should go to get to the airport. Even on the interstates, one doesn't see a sign warning of the approach of the airport exit, or which lane one should be in, until it is practically on top of one.

Within the airport's hallowed precincts, one might expect - again, from experience in other cities - to be guided to the correct terminal by signs listing the airlines flying out of each terminal. The roadways are a confusing tangle and the signs are very, very inadequate to guide anyone with less than an intimate acquaintance with Lambert. Which way to turn for the parking garage, long- and short-term parking, etc., usually becomes clear just when it's too late to change course.

And then, having parked in an outdoor lot filled with howling, freezing wind, one stumbles around searching, in vain, for a sign pointing the way to the terminal. You know, some of us passengers are not aviators, navigators, or air-traffic controllers in our workaday life. We don't all of us have an infallible sense of direction!

Today I nearly froze my keister off searching for my parked car. Last Friday I nearly froze it off standing next to a taxi stand in Denver, which was never part of my plans. So it is good to be back in the toasty warmth of my apartment, buried in cats. And there is one strength of Lambert that I can relate: it is close to home.

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