Sunday, November 27, 2016
What was I thinking? How could I elect to roll the dice on one of the most notoriously busy, frantic airline travel days of the year, of any year?
Ever since mid-month, when I realized that I had bid a schedule with a trip departing on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, my palms have been sweaty. I've been more than a little on edge. For weeks, I've been checking the "loads" (projected boardings) on my airline-employer's flights from ATLANTA to Houston today, as well as those of our principle competitor. The numbers were close from the start but no closer than those of any typical Sunday in September, say.
Though my Amsterdam trip doesn't depart from Texas until late afternoon, I had already decided to start my journey early, lest unforeseen adverse weather conditions or some other similarly unpredictable phenomenon develop somewhere in our route system and snowball, impacting the keystone of the South. My ace in the hole is a vacation pass (greatly enhances my standby boarding priority) which, combined with my 32-year seniority, should yield a seat regardless of the strategies of more junior standbys. But my gamble was to NOT sacrifice the rare and precious vacation pass, but rather to save it for an actual vacation, since it's my last one of the lot whose validity runs only through the end of this year. 30 days or so, sure, but one never knows.
My target: an 8:25am departure showing 3 seats available, only. Using a vacation pass, I was #1...as sure a thing as one can be when traveling standby. My plan to save the vacation pass and use a pass at my normal, personal priority placed me well down on the list, behind those much more junior but who had chosen to make the sacrifice that I calculatedly eschewed. The result was that I slid to #7 on the standby list...with 3 seats available.
The airplane was a few minutes tardy arriving from its previous assignment but boarding started reasonably soon, anyway. The 2 agents working the departure wasted no time in clearing the 3 standbys whose priority put them into the 3 open seats. I am now #4. Experience tells me that the more quickly they complete normal boarding, the more accurately they will be able to determine who of the revenue passengers has no-showed the flight and to release those seats for standby use.
I noticed a rather robust-looking gentleman (the robustness resulting from gym time) laggardly approach the gate with 2 boarding passes. He attempted to swipe both, though he appeared to be traveling alone. After a bit of confusion, he explained that the second pass was for a colleague who would not be traveling. He swiped it because he wanted the seat next to him to be vacant. (Little explanation as to why was necessary. His shoulders were as broad as 1 1/2 economy seats.). When the agent explained that the flight couldn't be reconciled properly following his plan, that the vacant seat would be filled, the man's color (on every visible skin surface) reddened and he became clearly unhappy. His eyes bulged and blood vessels pulsed quite notably (his thinly-veiled rage possibly resulting from another catalyst of his robustness).
After some discussion, he calmed, conceded that he would not be riding solo today, and walked quietly to the boarding door. The agents made a final call, including the names of specific parties who hadn't yet boarded. Once the paged individuals reported for departure or their unoccupied seats were otherwise assigned, the last remaining seat was released for standby use.
"REECE!", they called. "Mr. Reece, you'll take the last open seat: 16D."
After dropping my rolling bag at the end of the jetway, I entered the cabin and began to search for an overhead spot for my tote. As I came nearer and nearer to row 16, one fact was inescapable, The Hulk was sitting in 16C. Actually, the lion's share of him was in 16C but big chunks were hanging out into the aisle and a size able portion covered roughly half of 16D, leaving only a small sliver of the seat back visible.
That small sliver was my ride to Texas.
My expectations of the welcome I'd receive were a bit worse than the reality of it. He was clearly unhappy to see me coming but not too demonstrative of his unhappiness. For about an hour and a half, I've been turned sort of sideways in my seat, the right portion of my back and shoulder against the fuselage while his bulk rises and falls in childlike slumber, caressing my left side. Up and down, up and down, sometimes quickening sometimes slowing, the pace and pattern evidence of a rather large life. The sensation is like having one's side caressed by a rising, falling slab of tattooed concrete.
We've finally begun our descent for arrival. I've needed to use the onboard convenience for a while, alas. There's a stirring on my left. A hamhock of an arm reaches up to adjust the air vent, forearm poised squarely in my line of sight, as though I'm not here, all 215 lbs of me. Then it falls again into place, occupying a good 30% of the space where the left side of my body should be. Back to the rhythm of a gargantuan life: up and down, up and down.
The houses are getting bigger. My bladder us getting fuller. But it's almost over.
I rolled the dice and I won.