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On A Roll – Sometimes It Just Never Rolls Right

Many a flight in 2006 went well and actually took off and landed on time. I take no credit for such good fortune but rather applaud the rarity of such events when they do happen. I think airlines in general are just penurious with their “on time” delivery. Switching carriers rarely does any good as each airline has their “bad days” or better yet their “good days” do occur amongst the “bad days”. What prompts this musing is the seemingly elongated stretch of misfortune of not having any flight leave, arrive or behave as advertised. From May to early September 2006 my destiny was to suffer the most irritating of delays and generally terrible ground and flight crews that did nothing to make the misadventures more palatable.

To recount all the flights from hell would bore even an airline critic or the travel ombudsman. Thus my tale uses the most taxing trip and the capstone of five months of travel. It started as what should have been an easy flight from Toronto to Heathrow, change planes and head to Budapest. “Should have been” ended up as “not a hope in Hell.”

True to my habits of on time delivery of my body and luggage to airports well in advance of takeoff, I arrived at Terminal 1 of Toronto’s Pearson Airport some two hours and thirty-two minutes ahead of flight time. Usually for frequent flyers, with enough miles in the air (or on the ground waiting for a gate), there is a privilege line to fast track me through the check in process. It was indeed a short line. I must be truly blessed this day.

The short line was short but also, much to my chagrin, not even moving. Why I did not move from my stationary position as next in line began to wear on me? What could be taking the person ahead of me so long to check baggage, get boarding pass and disappear through the security check? It sounded and appeared that he was rerouting himself through a dozen countries, trying to use the complex upgrade certificates on each segment and insisting on seat “3A” as he had a phobia about every other seat. His patience was being tested as was the ground staffs. My patience was being toyed with but I had time to spare so another 5, 10 or 15 minutes did not matter. But it was 16 minutes and 33 seconds before I advanced to check in. Meanwhile all the other check in staff serviced regular passengers who lacked the “privilege” status. Who said “loyalty” has its privileges? Certainly it was not the airline, but perhaps “loyalty” is an overused word in even our business these days. “Loyalty” is but another seven letter word to be used in a willy nilly fashion by employers, staff and suppliers.

As I moved to step two, which was to make it through security, I heard the check in staff say there has been an “equipment change” but it did not affect my assigned seating. Other than the knowing that an equipment change announced two plus hours in advance of departure time is no deterrent to “have a good flight”, I became apprehensive for some unknown reason.

The mandatory security screening was just as it had been for the last several years but exaggerated in intensity since “liquids” were added to the list of prohibited items like knives, AK 47s, gel explosives and nail files. Why is it that I get in the line behind someone who has not flown in 20 years, carries enough cosmetics to be considered a travelling Avon Lady and has enough trinkets adorning her body to indicate she watches too much of the “Shoppers’ Channel”. Four attempts latter she finally strips herself of all the banned substances and metal but with the anger and blasphemy directed at the security team which would make a sailor blush or at least take notes. Thankfully we were spared the sight of her body search as that would have taken an hour! The imagination runs amok at what one might find in the numerous body folds of the dear lady. The husband on the other hand having slid through with no encumbering paraphernalia kept yelling at her “I told you it was forbidden to travel with so much illegal contraband like body spray, anti aging creams and steel toed shoes.”

My experience comes in useful as I clear the dreaded portal and not even my watch sets off the alarms (leather strap being the preferred binding over steel). Too bad, because on this occasion, it is a rather attractive security guard who would have done the body search. Note to self, wear a bigger belt buckle next time with iron crucifix buried under shirt.

Step three varies dependent on how one likes to spend time waiting at airports. I like to sit in the “privilege” lounge and use their internet and phones. The afternoon cookies are also an attraction! It is a crowded lounge and makes one wonder if the environment on a crowded day is better here or in the spacious common areas of Terminal 1. Even with the crowd of people and buzz of 200 cell phone conversations, I could hear the voice or twang of my traveling business connection who shall be labelled “N” to protect Neil’s identity. We make the perfunctory “How Are You’s” and then get caught up on company and local office gossip and politics. That killed the hour rather quickly and we never did finish the list of office political misadventures. If enough people gossip one can piece together what is actually happening in an office where leadership lacks communication skills. If the office does have good communication skills they write a book about it. When was the last time you read a good book of an actual real life company’s successful office communications? Off to the plane.

Not only had there been a change of aircraft but someone forgot to use the new seating configuration so the gate was a clutter with people scrambling to get new seat assignments, business class people fuming that they now had to ride with the masses and children who should have been asleep. We are definitely going to be late leaving Toronto and true to form the Spartan team of Air Canada staff were in a foul mood, seemed disorganized and at times abandoned the process for a latte. Take off came over one hour later than scheduled and the air travellers all knew arrival at Heathrow would be late. For those with connecting flights like “N” and I the 80 minute period to make the connection is now down to 20 minutes. Only an Olympic sprinter on drugs could even attempt that challenge at Heathrow.

We hit the ground determined to sprint to our next terminal and pray all the while that the plane to Budapest was somehow delayed enough for two middle aged men to manoeuvre Heathrow’s myriad of travelers obstacles. Carrying too much hand luggage can slow one down in a sprint. Against all odds “N” and I made it through using the “privileged lanes” that the Brits still know are important to those who can pay or can prove royal lineage or at least one’s mother slept with royal lineage. That plus some intimidating looks got us to the Hungarian Airlines desk a mere 10 minutes after scheduled departure of the plane. The smiling check in man said calmly that the gate is closed so too bad. He said go sit over there and cool your heals (it was the heart rate I was more worried about) while he checks flights. Then as if only seconds later (heart rate must have brought on delirium) the smiling check in man waved at us to come on over. He announced that if we hurry there might be a chance to get on the flight. Great news.

Once again the heart rate was maximized, sweat was more evident and 24 hour deodorant was tested to its full commercial advertised limit. Turning the corner we hit, in a figurative sense, a closed boarding gate door. Only a couple of people were in the departure hall at our gate so our assumption was we ran for nothing. It was only now we decided a bio break was the smart thing to do. As we turned to hunt down the “Male” sign a security guard asked why we looked so forlorn. Our answer was the missed flight. His bright faced smile said we had plenty of time to catch the flight as it had not even arrived at the gate and thus the gate doors were still closed! As our minds reflected on the sadistic check in man, the need of the bio break was a top priority especially for “N”. Too much water is sometimes a curse and even a great reinsurer like “N” could not calm the 4 litres of liquid inside his bladder. (Note: reinsurers are noted for large bladders which enable them to never leave the negotiating table or cocktail party before there guests. There is one exception to this and I have pictures to someday show the world of her in her favourite position.)

Feeling under less of a biological strain as well as a travel strain we now appreciated that with almost two hours to cool our heels and underarms our luggage would surely make the flight to Budapest. “Don’t worry Be happy” came to mind as we sat very still hoping for a pulse rate below 100 per minute to arrive before we had to lug carry on stuff onto the plane. Life does not get much better than sitting knowing where you are going (few executives today know or at least their staff believe they have no idea), your baggage is going to arrive with you and the thought of another new city finally took hold.

My luggage came through the luggage belt unscathed in Budapest and near the end of all arriving luggage which is usual when they put a “priority” tag on it. “N’s” luggage decided Heathrow was a nice place so it stayed behind. We did not realize that until all luggages were off the conveyor belt and no one was left in the area except the baggage handlers. “N” took his foul mood to the lost luggage window where the usual smiling clerk asks you to fill in forms and asks that infamous question “When did you last see your luggage?” Is the answer “When I checked it in, in Toronto?” or is it “When I went into the cargo hold mid flight to see how it was faring as we crossed the Atlantic?” We are now about 4 hours behind schedule and poor “A” has been waiting at the airport to meet us for the last 6 hours. Instructions on how to get a modest amount of “we are sorry” cash from the airline consumed more time and mental acuity in finding where and how. Hungarian was neither our second, third or fourth language.

Okay the worst has to be over and we can now control our own destiny as we take to a rental car and drive a modest distance to 14 Bajcsy-Zsilinszky Street in Balatonalmadi, Hungary. What can happen in 110 kilometres of expressway?

Each of us (“A”, “N” and I) had copies of the “Yahoo” driving instructions plus a route map from here to there and back. Three turns onto an expressway, change expressways once and three turns off the expressway and we would be safely in bed at the Ramada Hotel and Conference Centre (not exactly the Grand Hyatt Resort and Spa but that was reserved for leadership travel only). Written word and pictures of the route were not adequate for “A” who paid the extra currency for a talking GPS machine to be fitted in our rental car. Now we had three sets of instructions, three route maps and a GPS navigator. A stranger could see in a flash that we were in the risk management side of insurance! The salesman would have hired a taxi and the leader would have employed a limousine and consort to while away the travel time.

“A” was insistent we listen to the machine as it calmly told us where to go! The frustration was almost immediate as the machine made the three turns shown on paper instructions become six turns. Not only that but every time we got on an expressway we were calmly told to exit freeway and take a secondary road. Strange how different “Yahoo’s” instructions were from the friendly and monotone GPS voice. Get on the expressway. Get off the expressway. “A” had to find a service centre since “N” needed badly a bio break (again consuming so much water, although great for the complexion and bodily functions does have its down side) and we needed to buy an expressway pass. With pass in hand and water level down to tolerable level we traveled on. Why did the GPS seemingly keep us going in circles? We all knew we had passed the same homes and the same scenery many times and thus concluded we were traveling in circles. As darkness descended only the lights and intersections were recognized over and over again. “A” though secretly had unbending faith in the technology and perhaps thought the GPS was saving us from a revolution (actually started two days later) or a washed out freeway. “N” sat stoically in the back seat fretting over his upcoming appearance in front of important customers dressed in tacky shirt and jeans (without a crease). More accurately as much as we did not want to admit it, we were traveling the same circle route over and over again. What did the GPS have against the freeway? How long before “N” wanted to stop at he same expressway gas station for a bio break. Maybe then he would be convinced he had seen that urinal before.

Okay we would over-ride the GPS, take the freeway and head for our destination. Finally three hours plus late we were driving down “Bajcsy-Zsilinszky Street”. Problem was there was no hotel at #14. The family home looked far too cozy to host hundreds at an insurer’s conference! Okay, collectively we knew there was a problem, so we agreed after much debate to ask a pedestrian if he could tell us where to go. Three men succumbing to asking for instructions was thought to be a world record and fit for the Guinness Book. “N” sure would like a Guinness about now. In English we hoped the pedestrian had some understanding of our hand gestures, points at map and slow English. His English was very rudimentary but he was clear when he said we were on the right street but we were in the wrong town or more rightly wrong village. I could never have helped someone in Richmond Hill who needed my rudimentary Hungarian. He very carefully told the three of us how to get out of town and in the right town and on the right street.

In a moment of reflection I wondered if the competition had sabotaged our GPS! It would clearly be they that benefited from a tired band of three arriving at the meeting haggard looking and without the right attire. Sorry only “N” would be shabbily dressed. We did try and console “N” with the comment that a new sport coat, pants and shirt would be less than people we know who squander more on golf and wine. At least this was in the name of marketing and image building; when golf with staff helped who, one could ask.

Finally we arrived at the address in the right town and were whisked through reception in a most efficient manner. One could think the super service was due to any combination of a) it was midnight in a small town, b) three big men looking ready to kill their GPS, c) “N” badly in need of a bio break and d) the 24 hour period on their deodorant had expired.

The rest was boring. The talks went well although the message was tampered with at the last moment or after. The audience through the translators’ version seemed happy with only a few sleeping or left wondering what they missed in the translation. “N” made a public apology for his lack of proper attire. “A” still fretted over the belligerent GPS and the numerous emails changing all the plans at the last moment for the next event in Warsaw. Why is it those who delegate responsibilities because they do not want the responsibility make sure those that take responsibility are driven to drink with micro management? You will have to wait for the book and the insight it will bring to management or what passes for management.

“N” and “A” went on to Warsaw to another story I can only one day write about in my management script. “N” happy as bio breaks were less frequently needed (learned that 3 litres will suffice) and he had clean underwear (simper ubi sub ubi) and a tooth brush. “A” would take weeks to come down from his “high” of two public spectacles (the good kind that warm the heart) in the same week.

For me the flight home was just perfect. A rare great airline crew on all flights. A quiet lounge offered mid trip solace. On the way to Vancouver passing near the Pole I wondered if the isolation of the Arctic is where we should send all incomplete management to see that they cannot control the environment even though they think they can. Enough of that political thought as Vancouver grew closer and I still had two more stops to make this week. If its Wednesday the speech is on…