I know that tales of travelling misery rarely touch anyone else’s heart. The obvious answer is: well if you must go off jet-setting around and spoiling the planet, why should the rest of the world feel sorry if you are delayed/your flight is cancelled/you lose your luggage…
All the same, I am going allow myself a moan about my latest trip to the States. It’s been huge fun in all sorts of ways: I gave a lecture on the triumph at Rutgers, talked to a great group of US high-school teachers in Cambridge Mass., and had a fantastic two days in Seattle at a wonderful conference on Roman Art, which had been timed to coincide with a loan exhibition of Roman art from the Louvre at the local museum. A long way, you might say, to go to see art from Paris, but the display in the Seattle Art Museum was brilliant – and actually made me see all kinds of objects afresh.
But, nice as the whole trip has been, every single leg of travel has gone wrong in some way or other. I’ll pass over the more trivial problems: the almost missed connection in Chicago on my way from Boston to Seattle (I got the plane by 30 seconds as it was closing its doors, and it took me most of the flight to get my breath back); the suspicious package on the railway line, which held up the inappropriately named Acela Express from New York to Boston, in New Haven station for over an hour. (OK, I know: better safe than sorry – but it doesn’t always feel like that when you’re not moving).
One of the worst bits was arriving in Newark “Liberty” airport – which had the effect of making me feel rather benign towards Terminal 5.
Everything looked good. We got off the plane to find the arrivals hall uncharacteristically empty, and we were spread around the different booths for immigration processing. A warning note was struck (though I didn’t realise it at the time) when the officer at my booth (“Pete” as I later had plenty of time to discover) went off on some errand before turning to process me.
He had returned ten minutes later, taken my passport, just inserted it into his bar code reader, when his computer crashed – and not just his computer, but all the computers in the arrivals hall.
Pete and his friend at the next booth tried logging in again, several times – but to no avail. At this point, the human psychology got interesting. Neither Pete nor his mate thought to use the phone to find out what was going on. We passengers, meanwhile, tired as we were, knew that only an idiot picks a fight with an immigration officer, so restricted ourselves to smiles and polite queries about whether we could use our cell phones (answer: no); and whether those meeting us had been informed of the delay (answer: yes).
After half an hour or so, the hall was beginning to fill up. But there was no sign whatsoever of anyone who was remotely in charge – nor any airline reps for that matter. In fact, incoming flights were still being told over the tannoy on which carousel to pick up their luggage, without a mention that they weren’t likely to get that far for some time.
After 50 minutes or so, the tannoy voice told the immigrations officers to reboot – which they tried, unsuccessfully. Half an hour later, a man did come round and deliver a cd to each of the officers, but neither Pete nor his mate had a clue what to do with it, or even how to insert it in their machine – so that wasn’t much good.
The next idea was that some of the machines might be working, so Pete and mate, and me and my queue moved to another booth. We did manage to get a bit further now – up to the fingerprints. But then the machine crashed again, leaving my index fingers displayed all over the screen.
It was now something like an hour and three quarters since we had entered the arrivals hall. At this point, another man came round and instructed Pete and mate to process manually and just keep a list of numbers of US and non-US citizens who passed through (what US citizens were doing in my queue I can’t imagine). The trouble was neither Pete nor mate knew this guy and ‘didn’t feel comfortable’ with this instruction. So off Pete went again (taking his immigration stamp with him in case we should take it into our own hands) to get confirmation.
Ten minutes later he was back and ‘comfortable’ and we were through. The thought of UK ID cards and computer systems came to mind.
And no, those meeting us hadn’t been told a thing.
And the return home? Yet worse. I am writing this in Seattle airport where I have been for the last 13 hours. I was going back with American Airlines to New York, then back with British Airways from JFK. I got here at 6.00 a.m. to find that the American flight had been cancelled and they couldn’t offer me another flight to get to JFK in time to make the connection (not to mention the fact that they were totally unsympathetic, bordering on the rude).
BA were absolutely charming on the phone (they don’t have a human being at Seattle airport in the early morning), but at first not much practical help . But then the husband phoned them up in the UK and explained my plight, in no doubt graphic detail. And though it’s counting chickens till I actually get on that plane, it looks as if they are now going to transport me back to the UK direct from Seattle later this evening, without charging me a month’s salary for the privilege.
So cross fingers it will all work out, and big kisses to dear old, unfairly maligned, BA.
PS (Monday evening) – indeed it did all work; and I am extremely grateful to whoever it was in BA’s call centre in Newcastle who sorted it all out.