When one becomes an anthropologist, one expects to have travel adventures. Somehow, I never expected to have a travel adventure when plying my trade as a panelist for the National Science Foundation in the wilds of Arlington, Virginia. Bear in mind that Arlington is just across the Potomac River from Washington DC and is served by two pretty major airports. When I fly to DC, I typically fly into Dulles (IAD) because one can get a direct flight from SFO there but not to National.
I had my ticket made through the government contract travel agency, Sato Travel. You fill out a web-based form indicating the times you need to be at your government function and what your constraints are for travel. I diligently did this and received my itinerary. They had me flying American Airlines out of SFO through Chicago and into National. The total trip time was eight and a half hours. Worse, on my return flight, I had 40 minutes in Chicago O’Hare between flights. Given the on-time record of flights in and out of O’Hare, I might as well have booked a spot on the floor there for the night to sleep. AA is not exactly a major player in the Bay Area airline market, so this seemed a little strange to me. I, like many of my friends at Stanford who travel a lot between SFO and IAD, usually take United flight 225, which arrives SFO at around 12:45 (midnight). Sure, it gets in late, but it’s direct, you can get your business done in DC before you leave, avoid the worst of DC traffic getting out to the airport, and you can still typically make it to the kids’ sporting events (or whatever) on Saturday morning. So, I was surprised to say the least when Sato sent me this itinerary. My concern over getting stuck in Chicago made me call Sato and change my ticket.
When I finally was able to speak to a human being, I asked if I could get put on my usual United 225. “No,” she replied, because United is not the government contract carrier. This raised my hackles a bit. I said “Surely, there must be a direct flight that I could get on a contract carrier.” She informed me that the contract carrier was Virgin America and that, yes, there was a direct flight from SFO-IAD. Well, this seemed a lot better than the onerous itinerary through Chicago, so I went ahead and re-booked. Oh, and the direct flight cost $75 less than the original itinerary. That’s the efficiency of private contractors at work for you: booking an itinerary that no sane human being would choose that actually costs more than the direct flight! Yep, good thing we let these efficient contractors take care of things and not leave it to a wasteful government. Anyway, my new itinerary secured, I was actually excited to fly Virgin as I had heard good things about them.
Let me say that, having now dealt with Virgin, I am somewhat less excited. My flight to IAD was uneventful, though I learned that the price one pays for the fancy entertainment system (pretentiously called “Red”) are the smallest seats I have ever tried to cram my 76″ frame into. I was miserably uncomfortable. But at least I got to play an Asteroids knock-off the whole time to take my mind of the pain in my butt.
Our panel finished today and at about two o’clock, I went to the Virgin America site to check in. I checked in and printed my boarding pass. By a fluke of peculiar luck, I actually saved a pdf copy of my boarding pass. One can see that I have a seat assignment and that every looks cool, right?
I went to a cafe and tried to get some work done, got some dinner, and then found a cab to take me to the airport. I was schooled by my Pakistani cab driver in the finer points of Emperor of Qawwali, Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan‘s lyricism, which we listened to with quite some volume on the drive out to Fairfax County. He also told me that the reason Americans are so, um, girthsome shall we say, is that we eat beef tainted by bovine growth hormone. It would seem that we should eat neither beef nor pork meat. I wasn’t about to argue, but I digress…
I got to the airport in plenty of time, found my way out to the gate in the funny pointy-hatted shuttles they have at Dulles, and proceeded to wait for my flight to board. When I finally got up to the gate to board, they scanned my boarding pass several times, finally giving me the “Sir, can you step over to the podium” treatment. Worried that I was about the receive a cavity search, I soon learned that they had given my seat away because I hadn’t checked in! “How is that possible?” I asked. “Don’t I have a boarding pass here in my hand?” (suggesting that I had, in fact, checked in for those of you who are a little slow on the uptake). Well, yes I did, but you see, I wasn’t in the system for some reason. He promptly took the boarding pass, tore it up and threw it in the waste basket (didn’t even recycle). I was irate. I asked them what they were going to do for me. Nothing. Not a thing. I made a scene, something that goes very much against my nature. Nothing. Next flight, seven o’clock tomorrow morning. A fine how do you do.
I have had some bizarre travel experiences, but I have never experienced anything like this. The marketing garbage on the Virgin America web site reads “It’s time to bring great service back to the skies.” Apparently, that doesn’t mean bringing great service to the ground before you take off or to the computer system that handles check ins, or to compensating passengers when the airline screws them over. Say what you will about United, but they at least would have given me a free ticket and a hotel room.
I don’t think that I will be subjecting my knees or butt to the teeny-tiny Virgin America seats again any time soon…