Saturday, May 19, 2007

Travel Stories

So I'm back from a week in Pittsburgh. My family is good, my father celebrated his 80th birthday, and springtime in the Steel City is much, much more appealing then at Thanksgiving. The trees are coming into leaf, the week was without rain, we actually got to see the city, and it was just verging on the summer humidity.

So the only real stories I have to tell are about the trip itself, and both of them stem from the current diminished state of the Greater Pittsburgh International Airport.

For many years, Greater Pittsburgh was the home of first Allegheny Airlines, then US Air, and had a lot of hometown pride for both. Trouble is, US Air started to drift away, its corporate offices first moving to North Carolina, then to Arizona. As a result, there were more and more demands on Greater Pitt, combined with reduced services. The city dropped from a Hub city to a Featured city to "City we go when we feel like it". Most recently, they even dropped the overpriced red-eyes from the West Coast.

So the airport is built for a nice mid-sized airline without a mid-sized airline being present, and its facilities are a little empty (want to film a movie in an airport? This is the place! Dogma did it). So we have to bounce through other hub cities to get to Pgh, and parts of those legs are on smaller craft belonging to the "commuter partners" of the big airlines. But the other services are reduced as well as a result of the lack of a hub.

Case in point, rental cars. Made arrangements with Hertz for an intermediate-sized car. Got there are there were (surprise!) no intermediate sizes (because, you know, why would they have a lot of cars at a secondary airport?). They were willing to bump us up to the next level. An SUV.

And we said no thanks. I've done that drill before, and found it a little boxy expensive and frustrating, particularly when I have a pair of hybrids at home. And the Terrifying Presence behind the counter (you know the one, the clerk that tells you that if you get a scratch on the car, they will have to rebuild it and charge you twice the value of the vehicle AND have to kill your children), informed us that we could spend more money for an even larger vehicle. Or we could take the SUV. And we said no, we asked for a mid-sized, we'd like one. And the Terrifying Presence suddenly seized up, unable to understand why we would not want to drive a Mammoth. And there was much glowering at each other, and the Lovely Bride suggested "Can you downgrade us?"

And the Terrifying Presence blinked and said, "Yes. Yes, I think we can". And we ended up with a perfectly acceptable economy (A cobalt-colored Cobalt). But if the LB had not spoken up, we would STILL be there.

The other travel story also stems from Greater Pitt's fallen status. Because it is no longer a hub, planes have to fly into Pittsburgh before catching an outbound route. As a result, the airport is dependent on getting those planes IN in the first place.

On the day we're leaving, we get to the airport two hours early. We have to catch a flight to Chicago, and from there on to Seattle. I notice that the plane that is supposed to come into our gate is delayed in Chicago. I do the mental math, figure we're OK, and sit down. An hour passes. A second hour. The plane is still on the ground on Chicago. More mental math. We're now just at the edge of "We're going to have to run through the United Terminal to make our connection" status, and the plane we need is STILL in Chicago.

I go to the podium, silent up to now on the matter, to find out what's going on. The airline folk are cordial, friendly, and frustrated. The plane they need is in Chicago (reasons unrevealed - mechanical, thunderstorms, pilot whacked out on mojoritas, I don't know). We're going to miss the flight out. They start checking other ways into Seattle. Anything else out of Chicago (no). Anything out of Dulles (no). Minneapolis (no). The young woman's fingers are flying over the keyboard looking for a solution to the problem. About this time they announce that the flight is going to be horribly, horribly late, and a line starts to back up behind me as this young woman valiantly tries to come up with the answer.

And the answer is - Delta, through Cinncinati, with a half-hour window for the change. And it will be leaving at three in the afternoon, which means we had a seven-hour delay in the Pittsburgh airport.

But (and this is the good thing) it all worked. Delta has a corporate image of "Git-er-done", and we were seated at the front of the commuter flight to get us OFF the airplane as quickly as possible, made the final flight with all of ten minutes to spar, and finally, after about 15 hours, got back to the house.

And I will say that there are worse places to be trapped for seven hours than in the Pittsburgh Airport. Free wi-fi. Comfortable chairs in larger-than-normal waiting areas. Classical music playing in the background. Short lines at the vendors. All signs of a place that once had seen a lot more traffic, and, if there is any justice, should see a real airline come in and make it a hub again.

Preferably an airline with direct flights to Seattle.

More later,