This Thanksgiving trip turned into a real turkey

Editor’s Note: This week we’re running a series of our favorite holiday travel columns. And we knew we had to start with Andy Smith’s Thanksgiving air travel odyssey. There’s a sequel to “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” in here somewhere!

Being an airline employee means you get lots of perks, especially free travel, right?

As I found out, the answer is “yes and no.” Pass travel is great when everything runs smoothly, but when it doesn’t, things can get interesting pretty quickly.

In September 1982, I began working for a major U.S. airline. Needless to say, as soon as I started I was itching to get out there and use my pass.

My first trip was uneventful (New York to Chicago and back), but the second turned into a comedy of errors fit for a Chevy Chase “road trip” movie.

Start with the chosen time period: Thanksgiving is one of the busiest travel weekends of the year. Not only that, airline employee pass travel is based on pass class and seniority — the newest employees go to the back of the line. Oh, and did I mention that I had to work the day after Thanksgiving? And I had to be back in the office in New York City on Monday?

No problem, I decided; I’ll go Friday night and come back Sunday. New York to London and back would be perfect. I could visit my aunt and uncle in Blackheath.

Not surprisingly, all flights on Friday from New York to London were booked solid with paying passengers. But then I found that I could fly to Boston and connect to a flight to London.

On my way. Or so I thought.

Getting to Boston was uneventful, though I was a bit bemused when I realized I was going to fly on a 747 from New York Kennedy to Boston Logan. I got on the Boston-London flight with no problem — in first class, no less. I remember thinking, “I could get used to this!” as I relaxed in my wide, comfortable seat.

My contentment didn’t last, though. As we approached Heathrow, things started to go south rather quickly.

First, we circled Heathrow for a while, then diverted to Manchester (about 185 miles north of London), since Heathrow was closed by fog.

And guess what? There were 20-odd other jumbo jets that also diverted to Manchester that morning, and all of them were ahead of us in line.

Manchester’s airport was nowhere near big enough to accommodate such an influx. Deplaning was an hour-long slapstick farce involving repeated misalignment of airstairs, missing guardrails, and finally (when all of those were resolved) — no buses.

We did eventually make it to a gate, where passengers were allowed to deplane, but were strictly enjoined to stay in the gate area, since no one had cleared British customs or immigration.

The terminal, not surprisingly, looked like a crowd scene from a disaster movie. Eventually we got the signal to reboard — and of course, there had to be one bozo who wandered off, further delaying us.

After reboarding, we pushed back, started the engines and then taxied for a short distance. Then we sat for quite a while. Eventually the captain announced that one of the altimeters had failed. Had it gone kaput in flight, we could have continued to Heathrow, but since it failed on the ground, we were not allowed to take off.

There ensued another 40 minutes or so of sitting. The monotony was broken somewhat when a mechanic popped up through the floor in first class on his way to the cockpit to confer with the captain. It turns out there is access to the cabin from the nose wheel well. Good to know, but his sudden appearance scared the daylights out of most of the passengers in first class.

It turned out that a part needed to be replaced. Said part was at London Heathrow, which had just shut down again because of fog.

At that point the airline decided to bus everyone to London. Clearly, that was going to be an eight-hour debacle, so I rented a car — at the travel industry rate, of course — to drive myself. I was joined in my little expedition by a guy from business class with whom I had struck up a conversation while waiting. He was an engineer on his way to Poland. It was his first trip outside the U.S.

Ten seconds after I signed the papers on a Ford Escort, two young women came up to us and asked if they could join us and split the cost of the car. We both said OK.

Then we saw their luggage. They were on their way to Switzerland for a month of skiing.

Somehow, we got everything into the Escort and set off down the motorway after the engineer nearly had a coronary because he didn’t know they drive on the left in the U.K.

Of course, we hit fog. Really thick fog.

I had visions of headlines reading “American Tourists Killed in Motorway Smash,” because traffic had been moving at about 90 miles per hour.

But no problem: In the fog everyone slowed down to 80, which made it so much safer.

En route, the engineer told me he had left his overcoat in his car at Logan Airport in Boston. (Remember, this is late November, and he’s going to Poland.) So we got off the motorway at Rugby and dropped him at a department store. The rest of us found a fish-and-chips shop.

Returning to the store about 45 minutes later, we found the engineer still coatless. Why? He was trying to pay for his purchase with a U.S. MasterCard, and the obstinate and none-too-bright store clerk refused to believe that the card was valid. (At that time, the U.K. equivalent of MasterCard was called Access.). I finally got that straightened out, and we continued, with overcoat.

By now, it’s getting to be around 5 p.m. I got the pleasure of driving in central London in the dark and rain, on next to no sleep. I dropped the girls off in Sloane Square, but the engineer had a hotel reservation at Heathrow, because his onward flight was the next morning.

I figured that if I just dropped him at the Underground he’d never be seen again, so I drove him out to Heathrow, then came back into London, found a hotel room, put the car in a garage, and went to meet my aunt and uncle for dinner about 8:30 or 9 p.m.

I nearly fell asleep during dinner, and immediately went back to my hotel and crashed for the night. In the morning I drove back to Heathrow (in the rain — still!), returned the car, and went to check in for my flight to Boston.

Uh-oh.

Another airline had canceled a flight that morning, and many of the passengers ended up on my airline. There was a stack of standby tickets about a foot high, with the airline employees at the bottom.

Remember, seniority is based on date of hire.

The first employee ticket in the stack was for someone who started in 1956.

But by some miracle, I got on the Boston flight in business class. I’m still not sure how that happened, but I wasn’t arguing.

We arrived in Boston uneventfully, but I then found that my airline’s flight to Kennedy was hopelessly oversold. No employees were getting on, no way, nohow.

So I bought a reduced-rate ticket on a commuter carrier that flew into Westchester County Airport. My sister was supposed to pick me up at JFK, but I redirected her to Westchester. She picked me up in my car, which was almost new; I dropped her at her apartment, then headed west on the Long Island Expressway (in the rain) to my place.

About halfway there, someone spun out and hit the guardrail. Traffic stopped abruptly, and I got rear-ended, resulting in some bent metal and a stiff neck that lasted a couple of days.

Let’s review the bidding: I spent about 19 hours trying to get to London on Friday-Saturday, and 12 hours on Sunday getting back to New York. The whole justification for the trip was that I could see my aunt and uncle; I got to spend maybe 90 minutes with them.

As a bonus, my car’s sheet metal got rearranged, and some of my neck and back muscles were rather unhappy with me for a few days.

The best news was that the total cost of the trip (not including the car repairs) was probably in the vicinity of $100.

What did I learn from that turkey of a trip?

  • “Free” travel is great in the abstract, but going to those lengths to enjoy the perks is a bit much. (This could apply equally to “free” tickets bought with miles.)
  • Things generally don’t go wrong until it’s too late to pull the plug and go home.
  • When things go wrong on a trip, don’t complain, adapt.
  • Above all, keep your sense of humor!
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