Friday, September 02, 2011

The Game of Survival In Houston/Bush Airport

   George Bush Intercontinental Airport  or IAH or as I have been calling it--The dreaded Houston Island of torture, humiliation, stress, terror and frustration.  The last time I ventured through the International portal of Bush airport the news was all about Swine flu.  Here is a news statement made in 2009 (the last time US Immigration and I met,) 

"U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a statement. Its officers are monitoring the health of incoming travelers and taking "all appropriate precautions," including referring a person with symptoms to a quarantine station or a local health official for evaluation."   

At that time I was sure that every Swine Flu (H1N1) case in neighboring Mexico was flying into the United States via Bush International and had arrived minutes before my flight from Belize City.  These coughing and sneezing people were standing in a mile long immigration line right in front of me!!!   Of course at this time I was concerned about my health and the health of my loved one--Betsy.  I was surprised at the length of the line, but it was the health of the other immigration "cattle" I was concerned about.  In 2009 I had 3 or 4 hours between flights and the long line was simply an inconvenience.  Well there was really very little to be concerned about.  Few incidents of Swine Flu occurred as a result of people bringing in the virus on international flights.  Flights from Mexico City were reduced and those that remained were monitored very closely.  I did not have any of these statistics in my head while I stood in the winding line that year, but all was fine.  I got through the line, I felt like a cow being led to the "end of days." I made it to my boarding gate and even had to wait a bit before we boarded the last leg of a very long day.  A little stress.  Some exhaustion, but relatively unscathed.  

Not this year!!!!

The day started on Caye Caulker at the Caulker "airport" as I mentioned in the first part of this two-part blog entry.  Our carrier, Maya Island Air is one of two airlines that serve this island. It is the smaller of the two with --

a modern fleet consisting of eight (8) Cessna Caravan C208's, one (1) Cessna 182, three (3) Britten Norman Twin-engine Islanders, one (1) Australian G7 Airvan and now three (3) ATR 72's.

Since we we were on a Caye, the flight was scheduled on one of the 12 passenger Cessna Caravans. (Since we had 12 people traveling in our group, this was a good choice of plane!)  
The 'terminal' at Cay Caulker Airport

Small and cozy.

Now I really did expect a small plane.  I knew the airport was small too.  It is kind of exciting anyway.  The plane landed early and was prepped, meaning--the door was opened for the passengers and the luggage.  The airport ground crew, luggage handler, emergency team member, ticket taker, etc. (all the same person,) wheeled out the luggage cart up to the open luggage compartment.  He took each piece of our luggage off the cart and placed it into the cargo hold of the plane while we squeezed 12 exhausted travelers into the 12 available seats (this includes the co-pilot seat which is considered the twelfth seat.)  Now as air travel goes, this is as unmysterious as it gets.  The plane comes in from another island, it lands, it taxies, we approach the boarding ladder, our luggage is on a cart right next to us, the doors open (passenger and luggage compartment,) people start to board, the luggage is loaded by the one employee at the airport, we get in our seats, the luggage door is closed, the passenger door is closed, we try to figure out how to use the combination seat belt/shoulder harness, lock, click, the propeller starts to turn we taxi, we take off.  Simple. Nothing hidden.  At no time were we separated from our luggage like in the big airports.  (Remember all of this until the next part of the story.) 

 In the meantime the flight is exciting.  Short, but exciting.  The layout of the Cayes is evident.  The colors of the Caribbean tell the story of the land, the shore, the runoff, the reefs, the depth of water, and the type of bottom--sand, coral, grass, rock, etc.
I know that this is the exciting,yet easy portion of our long trip home.  We are exhausted from the start, but this adds a little more thrill to the whole adventure.  The plane made its way across the short expanse of ocean and banked over the mangrove lined shoreline of the Belize mainland.  I desperately look for the last of the 'jungle' animals.  No jaguars, no tapirs, not even a parrot or two, but I have fun looking at the rivers and the few large tropical trees that extend above the shorter mangroves.  The small plane makes the Belize City International Airport seem like O'hare or Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International.  The noise stops and we sort of tumble out of our 12 seater onto the tarmac.  Into the terminal and now we await the delivery of our luggage.  We arrived early.  The flight actually took off 1/2 hour early because the plane was there, we were there and there was no real reason to wait for the official take-off time.  We had about a two hour wait after we got the luggage.  

Remember I suggested that you remember the paragraph above--no mystery in the whole process.  At no time did we lose sight of our bags.  Well, it's not really that simple. The bags started to arrive.  The conveyor belt had only our bags on it.  I grabbed my bag, I helped Betsy with hers and we both started to the main terminal to see about checking in for our flight to Houston.  The check-in desk for Continental/United was not even open.  We would have to sit and wait.    Hold-on----there are only 6 of us in the terminal.  What happened to the others?  We started with 12.  Twelve landed. Twelve got off the plane.  The luggage started coming we got ours and made our way to the main terminal.  How did six people get lost? Did something happen to them? We waited.  I figured there had been stops at restrooms, etc.  After about 20 minutes I was worried, so I volunteered to make my way back to the arrival terminal.  Down the path, around the building into the adjoining building and around the corner.  There they were.  Two bags had been lost !!!   Lost!   Lost  between the Caye Caulker 'airport' and the Belize City Airport.  Remember, small airport, bags on a cart, standing next to the cart, people board, bags board.  Twelve people, about 12 bags ( a few more because some carrry-ons couldn't be carried onto a small plane. )  How did they lose two bags?  This was not a disaster--there was another flight in an hour or so.  But how did they misplace two bags?  No long baggage conveyors. No customs. No bag inspection.  No one handled them between loading and unloading.  The cart had 14 bags.  We kind of expected 14 bags to appear on the mainland.  --(Hypothesis--The bags really did make the flight, but the baggage handler(s) at the Belize airport did not completely empty the cargo hold after it landed.)  But there we were--another mishap in a series of other mishaps.  Not disasters, just mishaps.  No major injuries, no earthquakes, no hurricanes  (one week after we got back home, a hurricane/tropical depression did cut across Belize dumping major amounts of rain--but not on us.)  The list of mishaps included missed flights for some, almost missing flights for others, getting stuck on the road into Duplooys, a few tumbles, a chair collapsing, a little digestion turmoil for a few on the Caye, a sink falling, a rudder coming off a boat,--mishaps.  Laughable in retrospect.  These are all parts of the story I guess.  But losing two bags on a short 15 minute flight!?!   All part of the story. 
The bags arrived, everyone reassembled and the journey continued.  The Belize City part was easy.  It always seems to be easy.  The last of the Belize money is spent, a few minutes to check e-mail in case someone really needed to get in touch with me before I boarded the flights home.  The waiting seemed a bit stressful because I know that a one hour lay-over in Houston was not going to be long enough.  What if the flight was delayed?  What about immigration and customs.  How far would we have to go from our landing gate to our departing gate?  Bush International Airport is a big place.   But wait is all we could do.  Good news, the plane arrived in Belize from Houston on time.  A short turn-around time was announced and an on-time takeoff.  It looked like everyone was there.   We took off close to on-time--not early, but on-time.
Goodbye Belize !

An easy flight.  We even land early.  We have about 70 minutes until the Cleveland flight is scheduled to leave.  The survival adventure begins.

Deplane.  Run into the terminal.  Where's the baggage pickup?  Where is immigration? Run through the terminal to immigration.  Where is everyone else?  Do we wait for everyone or do we try to get to the gate to hold up the departure until the others get there?  Wally and Norma do not have checked bags.  They can get there fast.  We enter the cattle runs.  Where is Temple Grandin when you need her.  Temple Grandin is the celebrated animal welfare specialist that was the subject of an award winning television special starring Claire Danes.  "Grandin's interest in animal welfare began with innovative designs for sweeping curved corrals, intended to reduce stress in animals being led to slaughter."  Wikipedia entry about Temple Grandin.  We needed her right now.  No curved corrals.  No tall walls so we could not see our future humiliation or slaughter.  In fact, I think the zigzag design of the waiting line corral is engineered to create stress.  That and the thought of missing connecting flights and being faced with the task of begging for a reassignment.  Will we have enough time to go through immigration and get our bags and then get to customs, get through customs, recheck our bags, go up to the airport security, go through airport security, get to the Cleveland flight departure gate all in 65 minutes or so?  NO WAY!!!  

Wait, the line over there is shorter.  Let's go!  Under ropes (straps really.)  There, now we are 10 people or so ahead of where we were.  This might make a difference and anyway, it makes me feal like I'm solving the problem because I am so good at figuring these things out.  Wait, this is the line for foreign nationals coming into the US, not for US citizens returning.  Yikes.  Back underneath the ropes (straps,)  and back to our original line.  We are 25 or so people behind where we were just a few minutes ago.  Good problem solver!!   The line IS a bit shorter than two years ago.  We made our flight in 2009.  (Of course we had a three hour layover and we did not have the stress of missing anything, just the stress of getting something (see H1N1 above.)  Maybe if I tell the agents that are standing around trying to reduce stress in the waiting citizens (I'm not sure if that is their job description, but it was not working here.)  "My flight is preparing to leave!" " I will be left behind !"  "Is there an emergency line for special people like me?"  No special line.  No faster way.  I am assured that I will make my flight.  The cattle inched ahead.  "Temple, where are you?"

We get to the front.  NO problems.  Next--Customs.

On to the baggage claim.  I notice a sign that tells where our bags will be as I am running (well, walking fast.)  Conveyor 10 I think.  I tell Betsy to go to conveyor 10 I will be there getting our bags.  Where are the others.  Wally and Norma are well ahead of us.  That is good. Wally is 80, Norma 81, they don't need to be running through the terminal.  Of course the bags are there waiting.  They did not have to stand in a long, winding line like cattle.  They did not try a shorter line to no avail like I did.  They were just on a pleasant merry-go-round ride with a whole lot of their new found travel companions.  I spot one, got it.  Where is Betsy's.  NO worries, here it comes.  Where is Betsy?  I look around. I am wheeling two cases, carrying my backpack with camera equipment.  I spot her. She was o the other side of conveyor 10.  We grab the bags and run.  Over to customs.  Another line.  Not as long. No zigzags. There are five lines.  No wait, only 4.  They bunch up.  42 minutes to go until take off.  35, we are at the Customs desk.  Easy.  Through customs with 35 minutes to spare.  A few of the others are in the back of the customs line, but not everyone.  Okay, 35 minutes and we recheck our bags.  Now only our carry-ons to worry about.  The clock is ticking, but I think we will be able to get to the gate in 35 minutes--even if it is in a different terminal.    


We need to go up a level to get to the next corridor that will lead to the main terminal and then to Terminal D where our gate is.  The escalator is just ahead. What's this?   Another line? Agents are stopping people from getting on the escalator.  Security is backed-up there is no where to go.  30 minutes or so from now our plane will be taking off and I will have to figure out how to get to Cleveland on another probably booked-up flight. An extra day on the road is not a life or death tragedy, but my cat is expecting us and I need to cut the lawn, and besides, this should not be happening to us anyway!!!   I am pretty sure we will not make it now.  Finally we get on the escalator and enter the line for airline security.  You guessed it.  NoTemple Grandin design here either.  Zig-zag all the way.  Everyone is stressed.  An emergency line now?  You know, for people that are likely to miss their flight.  NO WAY!  I see Wally and Norma.  What are they still doing here?  Their zig zags past us and they tell me that it has taken them 30 minutes to get this far........    STRESS; STRESS;STRESS.

20 minutes.

18 minutes.  We are getting closer.  They open another line. We scoot ahead.  I  think Wally is going to make it.  Not us. The line we are in closes in front of us.  WHAT!!   At least the cattle don't know what lies ahead like we do!!  We squeeze into an adjoining line and get through. 10 minutes to spare.  I look at the Departures.   We cannot walk to the next terminal and get there before the plane doors are closed.  So close.  This is almost worst.  If I had not changed lines way back at immigration??  Maybe.  

I see an airport terminal electric passenger transporter.  I ask if they can take us to the gate.  Maybe???   He says yes.  A mother and two kids going to L.A. get on too.  Wait.  This is my ride!!   The driver says he just dropped two folks off for the Cleveland flight--Wally and Norma.  They made it!!!    He thinks we can get there in time too.  The folks going to L.A. are doomed.  Their plane left 5 minutes ago.  They seem to think it is not too late, so they stay on.  The cart races through the Houston corridors and terminals.  Get out of our way!!    He reassures us.  Cleveland is doable .  We get to the gate.  I see Wally and Norma. They are boarding.  We can board too!   But where are the others?????

We race onto the plane.  We stow our carry-ons. Settle in and buckle-up.  Then I take a breath.  I'm not sure if I have been breathing this whole time, but at last I can take a slow, exhausted breath--WE MADE IT !!    

Of the 12 passengers that we started with, two, Judy and Morgan, live in North Carolina and had three hours to make their flight.  No problem.  Wally and Norma, Betsy and I made the flight.  Six did not.  They needed to reschedule their flight to Cleveland and got home very late the same evening.  Not a tragedy.  Just another mishap.

We got home 15 minutes early and the cat was waiting!  


Stewart M said...

Hi there - air ports! What a shining example of modern life!

Makes you wonder if something like the Berlin Airlift culd ever be organised these days!

But at least you had a back up plan - if you got stuck you could just phone the cat and ask him to sort things out!

Cheers SM
PS: think what it would have been like with kids or worse still 25 students on a school excursion!

RBenz said...

A few kids maybe, 25 students. Never again! RB

Anonymous said...

Had me on the edge of my seat. Great story.

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