Monthly Archives: October 2013

How To Run An Airport Waiting Room

WARNING: this is probably the least useful article on this website, as it’s only applicable to a few hundred people worldwide. However, if only one of those (overworked, probably underpaid, definitely under appreciated) people reads this, my job is well done.

Many years ago, I went to Honduras to visit a friend. This was during my grad school years, when my frequent-flyer-mile-to-money ratio was hundreds to one. When the time came I put my ticket on miles, and routing rules made things interesting: San Francisco-New York-Miami-Tegucigalpa (pause), then San Pedro Sula, then La Ceiba. Long day.

The only way to pull it off was to arrive late-night in New York, followed by an early morning flight to Miami. I would be spending the night in JFK airport. When I landed, the American Airlines terminal was the usual disaster – hundreds of rushed people rushing every which way, mostly out. I stopped a friendly-looking janitor and asked him if there was a place I could spend the night.

“Not here,” he said. “The terminal closes at midnight and they’ll throw you out. There’s a waiting area beyond security, though.”

I made my way there, which was a tile-floored area near a snack bar with an sliding door out to the street. Chairs were set up in pods of five. People were scattered about those pods, and the woman behind the counter at the snack bar was dozing. None of this was good, but it would be a manageable spot to crash for a while if I kept my wits about me. Unfortunately, one factor made this impossible: CNN Airport.Michael-Brutsch-screenshot

Playing on several televisions, loudly.

I don’t know who CNN-the-entity has fellated  in order to get itself running nonstop in every airport waiting area in the United States, but may I humbly suggest that the sex-for-placement arrangement stop? Being in an airport is already stressful – even if you are not looking for a place to sleep on the floor. Add in the cacophony of people-yelling-at-each-other that passes for cable news, and everyone’s heart rate goes up five beats per minute. We all sweat a little more.

Turn them off. Shut them down.  In this age of iPads, tablets, e-readers, magazines, and books, it’s highly unlikely that anyone at the airport is going to be happy to passively watch inane nontertainment. If you must have screens, put on silent weather maps – that’s the only news that is absolutely important to the audience.Imagine that world – slightly quieter airports. Slightly less-stressed passengers making the gate agents just a bit less crazy.

So, airport waiting room managers of the world – if you read this…please turn ’em off.

Oh, wait – you want to know how the story ends? I hightailed it right out of that loud, weird waiting room and took the train to the International Terminal, which never closes. At the end of one of the hallways, next to a wall of windows that faced out to the tarmac, I found my holy grail: a bank of pay phones. I rolled out a camping mattress behind them, put my head on my fleece for a pillow, and slept soundly for five hours.

After all, even in 2007, nobody was going to walk that far to use a pay phone.

How to Walk On A Sidewalk

Most of us don’t walk much. There’s that one scene in LA Story where Steve Martin is going to go somewhere, and he packs up to get going, goes down to his car, and drives to where he’s going. A block away.

That movie is over 20 years old, and was meant to illustrate the weirdness of Los Angeles – a place where nobody walks anywhere, where the car is king.

Funny thing is, that scene isn’t that amusing any more. Instead of pointing out the weirdness of LA, it illustrates how most of us live these days. Need groceries? Get in the car. Need to get to school? Car. Need to get out of the house and get some fresh air? Drive to somewhere where there’s a walking path.

I’m not going to opine on the ongoing health and societal disaster that is car culture (that’s what Streetsblog and Mr Money Mustache are for); instead, I’ll focus on one small result of that culture – people don’t’ know how to walk with each other any more.

I live in a city, and run often. Because it’s a city, and because there are cars and busses and the occasional riding mower (true story), I have to run on the sidewalks. On those sidewalks, inevitably, I run into someone who’s walking like this:

Sidewalk  Crossing Diagram

I try to go left. They veer left. I go back right, they lurch to the right. Inevitably, I end up in the street, hoping my running shorts is decent armor against the cars that whiz by.

This kind of thing isn’t only a problem for runners; a city sidewalk is a diverse place. Mothers push strollers, the young and busy crank along at Olympic speed walking speed, the elderly move slowly, sometimes helping themselves along with canes. It’s not like a freeway, where the top-level limit is set, and there are clearly defined ways to get around slower folks. Sidewalks are more like the roads in a developing country – move to where there’s space.

And as long as you follow one simple rule, you’ll be fine, and everyone else around you will figure it out.

Pick your line and follow it. Don’t waver.

Sidewalk Crossing Good Diagram

If you do want to stop and look at something in the air or in a window, stop first, then move towards what you want to see. If there is someone behind you, he won’t be directly behind you, because you’ve been keeping your line, and there won’t be one of those awkward collisions that never actually result in mildly amusing, redemptive romance.

You avoid being bumped into, and having someone swear at you. Others get the joy of getting to where they’re going, and not worrying about bumping into clueless you. Everybody wins!

How To Be An Awesome Counter Agent

Several years ago, my lovely wife (henceforth MLW) and I were headed to Burlington, Vermont to visit her sister. It was the Wednesday before Memorial Day weekend. Flying to Burlington is always a dicey proposition – the airport is small, the weather is terrible, and all flights are terminating, which means that airlines are happy to cancel at any time. And, to fly there, you pretty much have to go through Chicago (weather, always), Cleveland (same) or Newark (yep, the same thing).

Our flight was at 6:10 in the morning from SFO;  we got there at five sharp. At 5:45, we hadn’t boarded and…delayed an hour. Not a problem – we were connecting in Chicago with a four hour layover. I checked the board again at 6:30 and….delayed to eight.

“I’m getting in line right now,” I said. “Rolling delays on a Chicago flight…”

I wasn’t the only one with this idea – about ten people were in front of me at the gate desk, clearly nervous, clutching tickets and rolling bags and children’s hands. We waited for twenty minutes, during which time our flight was delayed until 9:00. The airport CNN channel (someday I’m going to write a post about how to be an airport, and it will involve banning CNN) was showing a weather map of the midwest. A state-sized green and yellow mass was working its way across Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana.

“Crap,” I said to MLW, and pointed. “We’re not going to Chicago.”

“You’re not going to Chicago,” said the agent when we got to talk to him. “Maybe you can come back in a couple of days?” He clicked buttons. “Yeah, our first flight with availability is on Saturday.”

At this point, MLW started crying. When we first started traveling together, I was always embarrassed when she would do this. By this time, I understood their power – tears Get Stuff Done.

“This is the only time this year I get to see my sister and her kids,” she said softly.

“Is there any other routing you can do?” I asked. “Can you get us close?

“Well,” he said, a little frustrated at us not taking his come back in a few days offer. “We can fly you to Philadelphia, where you can connect on US Airways to…Manchester, New Hampshire after a three hour layover?”

“Do it,” I said. “We’ll rent a car or something there. We’ll be close enough. And we can have a cheesesteak and a beer in the airport!”

So he did his thing and I took out my laptop (note to airports: free wi-fi is very helpful during emergencies) and got us a one-way reservation in Manchester for only $150. Vacation saved.

But we’re not done here. Our flight to Philly had mechanical problems, so we sat on the tarmac for nearly two hours. When we reached the Delaware river we orbited for forty-five more minutes,. I was stewing in my own juices. By the time we landed, we had fifty minutes to run through the airport, out of Terminal D to Terminal B.  We had had fantasies of cheesesteaks and beer in the Philly airport…no chance.

We reached the gate for our manchester flight at 8:15, with forty minutes to spare. The flight was at gate B12. Which was right next to gate B11, where there was a flight to Burlington,  leaving at 8:45. Dammit. I asked if we could switch our tickets, given that Burlington was our original destination.

“No, said the (very nice) woman after checking our numbers. “United issued this ticket, so they have to change it. ”

“But this is a US Airways boarding pass,” I said. “And this flight isn’t full. Can you just switch them out?”

She shook her head, sadly. She wanted to help, but couldn’t.

I wasn’t beaten yet – I whipped out my cell phone and called United – maybe they could transfer us while we waited. I explained, was moved to another agent, moved again, and held, and talked, and.. the  United guy was transferring the tickets when they closed the door to Burlington. The plane took off, and I hung up the phone. We were going to Manchester, and then we would drive.

We landed at just after 10 pm, hungry and anxious. We were so close to getting to Vermont! Only one state away. Manchester airport was clearly at the end of the days’ business – cleaners buffing floors, quiet men closing down the eateries. We near-sprinted to the Hertz counter, which was empty.

All rentals in lot, read a small printed sign at the counter.

We ran  more, out the door and outside into the muggy New England night, to a small building with two desks, a line of over a dozen people, and one Hertz guy. He was tall with brown hair and skin bad enough to place him just out of his teens.

Crap, I thought. This is going to take forever.

All I wanted to do was get in some kind of car and get going, and I’d rented enough cars to now that a dozen people can mean an hour. There are documents to sign and questions to answer and line-jumpers to appease. I tried to resign myself. I got out my book.

And then…the Teenage Counter Guy became CounterSuperman.

“OK, we’ve got a big line here,” he near-shouted. “Anyone a Gold Club Member? If you are, I’ve got all of your paperwork already printed out, you can just come up and initial it and sign it, and I’ll get you going with this second computer. Everyone else who has a reservation, please have it out when you get to me – it’ll go that much faster.”

Four people got out of line and started filling out papers.

CounterSuperMan then got to work – he printed out rental agreements as he talked to new customers, taking information down while explaining clearly where cars were, where to scrawl letters, moving like a blur, all with a smile.

Fifteen minutes later, we were in a car, driving out of the airport.

“How did that happen?” asked MLW.

“That guy…he was just good,” I said.

We got to Burlington at one in the morning, after a stop for lunch at a 24 hour grocer in Lebanon. We saw a moose flit across the freeway. Our trip had taken seventeen hours. But I still remembered the Hertz guy. He was so, so good.

1) He communicated clearly in a tense situation. He told people what was going on, and how he was going to solve the problem. Everyone in that little Hertz room knew what to do.
2) He thought ahead. He’d looked at the crush of reservations (we weren’t the only people doing one-ways), knew the flight schedules, and prepped in advance. By doing this, he definitely got to go home earlier.
3) He took it as a challenge, a problem to be solved. Not as a pain in the ass.

Look, working behind a counter can really be terrible. Most of us have done it. But…it can be done well. I still think about that Hertz CounterSuperman. I bet he’s doing great things, still.