How I Got Stranded in Frankfurt

I will generally defend Air Canada. I know this makes me an awful Western Canadian, where hating Air Canada’s a virtual civic duty, but it’s a perfectly adequate airline, it’s part of an extensive network of global carriers, and it doesn’t use “our flight attendants tell jokes!” as a marketing tool.

But I can’t defend what happened to me in Frankfurt last week.

A lot of you saw the Faces of Steve Facebook posts from Frankfurt, Dubai, and an airplane in between the two. Here’s how they came about. My initial flight from Toronto to Frankfurt turned around inside an hour due to a mechanical failure. I will never complain about a flight being aborted for safety reasons: sure, it sucks, but I’d much rather it suck and be safely on the ground than, say, on board a plane whose flaps couldn’t fully extend (which, as it turns out, was the issue). Stuff happens, y’know? Every single flight is a miracle; it’s a wonder more flights aren’t affected by in-air mechanical difficulties. The real problems began in Frankfurt. I’d been seated in 34C – the 34 was deliberate – and was therefore one of the last people off the plane. Those of us with connecting flights were then shepherded to the Air Canada desk, where we were forced to wait up to three hours for information. We had no access to food or drink, or even to water: we were still technically “plane-side.” In Toronto, where some of the airport’s restaurants were still open when our initial flight returned, Air Canada plied us with free food and drink at the departure gate. In Frankfurt I ate a handful of almonds I’d packed in my carry-on.

And so we waited. It took me three hours to get my new itinerary, which had me flying to Dubai by way of Rome (and on an Emirates A380, which was a major win). The agent then scribbled the name of a hotel, the InterCity, on the back of my boarding pass. It took fifteen minutes for my luggage to re-appear; it took almost an hour for the hotel’s shuttle bus to show up and then another fifteen minutes to actually arrive at the InterCity Hotel. At this point I was delirious, but I was also nearing the end of the line.

And then…and then I got to the reception desk and was informed there weren’t any rooms left.

Wait a second: what?

I asked the desk clerk to repeat herself. Turns out Air Canada hadn’t set aside enough rooms for us, and so those of us who were late getting to the hotel were literally turned away. When we asked what we should do, the hotel suggested going back to the airport. The shuttle would leave again in 45 minutes. And would cost €7.

And so I took a deep breath and began making contingency plans. The Sheraton at Frankfurt airport was available – for a cool €391. But the Holiday Inn Frankfurt Airport – North was both available and affordable. The cab ride over cost almost €25; my meal, a surprisingly edible bar pizza, cost another €12 (it later doubled as a surprisingly edible breakfast). I’ll be sending the receipts, along with the cost of the accommodation and the shuttle back to Frankfurt airport the following morning, to Air Canada.

Again, I get it: stuff happens. But last week’s misadventure weren’t a consequence of the technical difficulties that led to the initial delay. Rather, they were the result of gross incompetence by, and apparent indifference from, Air Canada’s Frankfurt staff, who seemed to view us as an inconvenience and who made such basic screw-ups that some of us were literally turned away by the airline’s hotel. Sam lodged a complaint on my behalf, quite literally, while I was in line at Frankfurt. I’ll be following suit if (when?) I’m denied Altitude points because Air Canada rebooked me on non-Star Alliance carriers. No matter what, though, it’s a lot harder for me to defend Air Canada than it was this time last week.

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11/12

I didn’t technically wake up yesterday. My day started in São Paulo and finished (with me sound asleep) in Toronto. In the middle I was briefly in Colombia and, even more briefly, in Newark.

Fifteen years ago my parents actually lived in New Jersey. I’d become a full-time Kingstonian, but when I’d go “home” it’d be to a place called East Windsor, which is fifteen minutes from Princeton and about halfway between Philadelphia and New York. One weekend in November 2011 it was the launching pad for an epic Johns family Tristate adventure: The Producers on Broadway (with the original cast!), the Leafs/Devils at the Meadowlands, a Princeton/Yale football game, and the Vikings/Eagles at the old Veteran Stadium in Philly. (The Vikings were blown out 48-17, and afterwards Randy Moss uttered his infamous “I play when I want to play” line. Good times!) On Monday, November 12, after saying goodbye to my parents and our dog Chieftain (RIP), I took the train to Newark airport and boarded a 9:20 flight to Toronto. So far absolutely nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.

The first indication that something out of the ordinary was occurring–albeit unbeknownst to us–was when we sat on the airport’s taxi apron for twenty minutes without moving. A couple planes took off. We moved forward. Two planes from the front of the line we stopped again, and this time we didn’t move for forty-five minutes. This was the pre-cellphone era. No one knew why we’d stopped moving.

And then the pilot came on and made the following announcement:

Ladies and gentlemen. There’s been an air traffic accident over Manhattan. We’re returning to the terminal. Please be ready to evacuate the aircraft. Flight attendants, please assume the crash position.

Now…in fairness we were on the ground, so the chances of crashing seemed remote. But the rest of that announcement? Scary shit. This was two months after 9/11; we could literally see Ground Zero from the plane. And remember, no one knew what was happening. What was happening was Flight 587, which had crashed seconds after taking off from JFK. Meanwhile, back in East Windsor, my mom was cleaning the kitchen when the news came on the radio about a crash at “one of the three New York City airports.” At 9:20. In her mind, I was dead.

Back at the airport I called my dad, who was at his office in Newark. He told me to call my mom who, by this point, had learned that the downed aircraft wasn’t mine. Still, no one at the airport knew what was going on. While lined up at the Air Canada desk I met a woman who, in addition to being in the air on 9/11, was supposed to leave New York that morning on Canada 3000…which had gone bankrupt the previous weekend. The guy in front of her gave her his business card and asked her to let him know the next time she planned on flying. Eventually I called dad back; he told me that there’d been a bomb on board the plane and, I quote, “Get out of New York.” An hour-and-a-half later I was back at Princeton Junction train station, where my mom and Chieftain were waiting…and we drove the nine-and-a-half hours back to Kingston, listening to New York AM radio and the revival cast recording of Guys and Dolls. Remember, when we left we still didn’t know whether it’d been another terrorist attack or not; we had no idea when the airports might reopen. Before leaving I called my roommates, asking them to call my Queen’s Entertainment Agency manager and tell him I wouldn’t be making my shift that evening. When I walked in the front door of 396 Johnson Bob was putting up shelving in the living room. He looked at me, shook his head, and said: “These things only happen to you.”

The weirdest thing that happened to me yesterday was being charged 171,000 pesos for what was effectively fifteen minutes on Colombian soil. 11/12 remains, by some distance, the weirdest travel day of my life. I’ll be very happy if it keeps that title forever.

This Life

I got back from my ’round-the-world adventure almost two weeks ago. The last flight, from Hong Kong to Toronto, lasted fifteen hours; that’s not including the hour we spent on the ground in Hong Kong because, according to the pilot, we were twenty-third in line to be pushed back. Long flights–and that’s the longest one I’ve ever taken; in fact, it’s only a couple hours shorter than the current longest commercial flight on earth–eventually assume a weird kind of normalcy, as though you’ve simply shifted your entire existence to the inside of an airplane. Which, if you’re a recruiter, you kind of have anyway.

So: I landed in Toronto, went home, ordered sushi, watched the end of the baseball game, went to bed, and slept through the night–which was a major victory in and of itself. The next night, in order to keep forcing myself back onto Eastern time, I went to the baseball game and managed to stay till the end (Jays 4, Yankees 2, Donaldson and Tulowitski HRs). Then I went home, got into bed…and lay there wide awake, eventually passing out somewhere around five in the morning. I was actually planning on working that day; instead I spent it in a state of existence that might be best described as “coming off anesthetics.” I still can’t really sleep on planes, although I managed to catch few hours on that Hong Kong flight. Jetlag doesn’t really care about sleep patters anyway–but if you’re flying around the world in less than a week and spending two of seven nights on board an aircraft you’re probably headed for a few rough days.

Or weeks, as it were: I didn’t start feeling normal till Saturday. Once sleep goes, so do exercise and healthy eating, and while I’m eating a bit better lately my exercise regime’s fallen a bit by the wayside. There’s no magic formula for getting over jetlag; inevitably, ironically, exercise is part of the solution, and that, along with the Ride to Conquer Cancer looming off in the distance, should be enough to spur me on. Thankfully, this was my final work trip of the year. I’m going to Nashville this weekend and Ottawa the weekend after that, but otherwise I’ll be mostly sticking around Toronto this summer. By the end of it I’ll be champing at the bit to get back out there. Maybe I’ll have even forgotten how I’ve been feeling since getting off the plane from Hong Kong two weeks ago.

Where Am I?

Alright, fine: I can tell you exactly where I am. I’m sitting outside the Starbucks in Kuala Lumpur’s Sentral train station, listening to the Jam, and positioning myself just so beneath a ceiling fan because otherwise it’d be almost too hot to breathe (I’m a wuss when it comes to the humidity). I’m waiting on a student; as soon as I’ve seen them I’ll be heading back to the airport so I can fly to Singapore, steal a few hours’ sleep, and then begin the long–the very, very long–trek home.

No, the question isn’t where I am. A better question is, “What day is it?” I don’t automatically know the answer to that one; after a pause I can tell you with reasonable certainty it’s Tuesday, but then earlier this morning I was watching live baseball that was being played yesterday. The International Date Line’s a weird thing, isn’t it? Tomorrow’s second flight, from Hong Kong to Pearson, is 15-1/2 hours long–but in real time (or “real” time, I suppose) it’s three. I’m leaving Singapore at 8:40 in the morning, which is 8:40 the night before in Toronto. All this makes some sort of sense–but at the same time it makes none whatsoever.

Another good question is, “What have I been up to lately?” As mentioned I’m circumnavigating the globe, which feels like some perverse sort of initiation by my new employer. I was in Dubai for about thirty-seven hours, which is about the perfect amount of time to spend there. Then I flew to Singapore, where I got to enjoy a rare day off (which, inevitably, included a stop at Raffles Hotel for a $30 Singapore Sling). I flew to KL this morning. I have a Malaysian passport stamp, which technically means I’ve been here…but really, can you say you’ve “been” someplace when virtually your entire experience takes place in and around a train station Starbucks?  I travel for work; that doesn’t mean I sightsee, and the closest I’ll get to the Petronas Towers is glimpsing them from a distance on my way in from the airport.

I thought I was done with recruitment last fall…but I’m not, and even in the course of travelling around the world in less than 180 hours I’ve found time to pinch myself, a reminder that I’m getting paid to do this. It feels like a bit of a caper, getting to travel the world and help shape people’s lives. I’m glad I got in on the action before someone figures it out. I guess that’s where I am right now on this humid Tuesday afternoon in Kuala Lumpur while Paul Weller sings about the thousand things he wants to say to you (me?) in the city. It’s not a bad place to be at all.

Around the World in 180 Hours

On November 24 I walked out of my office at the University of Calgary and, after eight-and-a-half mostly successful years, out of recruitment for good.

Or so I thought.

On March 7 I walked into my new office at the University of Toronto and began the next phase of my professional life: as a Student Recruitment and Transition Officer for U of T’s Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering. And on Thursday I’m boarding a plane and, quite literally, flying around the world in 180 hours. Actually, in even less than that. It’s a killer itinerary:

  • April 7/8: fly to Dubai
  • April 8 & 9: Dubai
  • April 10: fly to Singapore
  • April 10-12: Singapore (with a day trip to Kuala Lumpur thrown in there somewhere)
  • April 13: fly to Toronto via Hong Kong

My inner aviation enthusiast can’t wait: in addition to flying on two A380s (which, in addition to doubling down on a 35-for-35 goal, sees me on Emirates for the first time; I sacrificed over 6,000 status miles for the privilege, and if you understand that last sentence then you understand how badly I want to experience the Emirates A380) I’m taking the longest flight of my life (15:15 between Hong Kong and Toronto). Of course, since I can’t sleep on airplanes, I’ll be returning to Toronto a total trainwreck…and since the trip’s forcing me to miss the Jays’ home opener for the first time in goodness-knows-how-many-years I’m naturally forcing myself to the stadium the night after I get back. All told I’ll be away about 142 hours.

And I can’t wait. I knew I’d miss recruitment, but I’d made peace with the likelihood I’d be out for at least the next little bit. I ended up being gone a little over three months. And while it’s still a bit of a challenge not to say “University of Calgary” when I’m speaking–I’m going to literally tape a sign that says UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO to the dais on this forthcoming trip–I’m looking forward to diving head-first into a new job that’s challenging, creative, and meaningful.

Which leads us back to 35-for-35.

Number Nine! Number Nine! Number Nine!

In 2007, when I first moved to Calgary and started life as a student recruiter, I bullishly declared I’d be done with the job and moved back to Toronto within two years. Well…here I am, in the lobby of the Hilton Houston Post Oak, having embarked on my ninth recruitment season and my first as an official, full-time international recruiter. The trip actually started–inevitably–in Toronto, followed by an unlikely detour to New York City. I’ve been in Houston since Friday; I’ll be here until Thursday, when I’ll be heading back to Calgary by way of Albuquerque, New Mexico (hey, speaking of unlikely detours!). I couldn’t have envisaged this scenario seven years ago when I was first hitting the ELAA circuit throughout Alberta. But here we are.

I love my job. It’s interesting, it’s meaningful, and it lets me see parts of the world (like Houston!) I might not have otherwise visited. Eight years might’ve stripped away some of the novelty, but they haven’t changed the fact that I’m one of the lucky people who’s getting paid to do pretty much exactly what they want. Here’s to the next three months!

Gate 69

I’ve flown a lot this year–over 51,000 miles, according to my most recent calculations. Yesterday’s flights from Eugene to San Francisco and from San Francisco to Calgary put me into Air Canada’s top tier program for 2016. By the end of the year I’ll likely get into the program’s third tier, where international lounge access kicks in–not bad, considering I swore I’d stop using Star Alliance carriers for international travel after an Air Canada agent gave my travel agent wrong information that resulted in me not getting status for 2015. Heck, if I hadn’t flown British Airways to the Middle East this winter I’d have an outside shot at Super Elite status.

Anyway. Most of my flying stories are variations of “it was long” or “I’m really glad I’m not flying again for a couple weeks” (like right now: I’m in Calgary till the 24th!). Some are minor horror stories. This one’s actually kinda fun. I had what’s known as a “hot” connection yesterday in San Francisco. Actually, this one was so scorching it could’ve been a Steve Simmons column: I had exactly fifteen minutes to make my connection to Calgary. I checked the departures board and saw that I was leaving from Gate 69. I then realized I was at Gate 61; turning around, I realized Gate 69 was the exact same game from which I’d just finished deplaning.

Same gate.

Same plane.

Same crew.

Same seat. 23B. I’m not a superstitious flier, but I usually try and book myself into the right-side aisle seat in either row 14 (for Theoren Fleury) or 23 (Michael Jordan). It hasn’t failed me yet. And so fifteen minutes after leaving flight 6400 I walked onto flight 6348 and assumed the exact same seat I’d just vacated. Three hours later I was in my apartment. Moreover, the baggage handlers took my luggage off the plane, looked at the tag, and put it right back on. It was waiting for me after I cleared customs.

Tomorrow’s flying story, which is actually less about flying and more about a gawdawful rewards program, isn’t a good one. This one is, and it made me smile.