Hinshaw column: To Colorado and back

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 13, 2011

ow that the holidays are in the past and life is settling back into its normal routine, it is time to revisit the hectic days of planning and traveling by air and car from Salisbury to Denver, Colo., on to Breckenridge, Colo., and then back to Salisbury again.
Weeks before the holidays, my wife and I purchased airline tickets for the journey to Denver to visit my son, his wife and my 10-month-old granddaughter. I will pick up the journey on Dec. 22, the Wednesday before Christmas, and follow the days until the Monday after the New Year on Jan. 3. It will be a verbal travelogue diary.
On Wednesday before Christmas, there was a news report out of Charlotte that the “long-term parking” lots at Charlotte Douglas International Airport were filled to capacity. Snow was predicted for Christmas day into Sunday. We were to fly on Monday.
Friday, on Christmas Eve, Delta Airlines canceled nearly 500 flights across the country before the snow started falling in Atlanta where we were headed. By then, all the “daily” parking lots at the Charlotte airport were filled. Snow was almost certain for Saturday. I found that several motels in the area of the airport will allow long-term parking at the motels and shuttle you to the airport. I made arrangements by computer with the Ramada Inn to park my car for the week.
The snow came on Saturday and Sunday. The roads were in good shape on Monday morning. We left home at 5 a.m. on Monday headed for Charlotte.
Our flight from Charlotte to Atlanta was to leave at 9:20 a.m. Monday. Generally the airport recommends arriving two hours before your flight to check your bags, get a boarding pass and get through security. Reports were that the airports on the East Coast were packed with stranded passengers trying to get to the Northeast. At the Ramada Inn, we parked and were shuttled to the airport, getting there before 7 a.m., more than 21/2 before our flight.
At the airport there was a single, long line stretching 30-40 yards with several hundred passengers waiting to get to the two kiosks that US Airways had in operation. The folks with Monday flights were in the line and all the folks stranded from the cancellation of the Saturday and Sunday flights were in line trying to get new flights. Some had been there three days already.
Suddenly, US Airways announced it was closing the kiosk where everyone was lined up for service. A woman standing on the baggage scale and shouting at the top of her voice told the stranded fliers to move out of the line and move farther down the lobby for service. It was not a happy group.
US Airways did open six to eight additional kiosks but failed to establish clear lines for the fliers. Between 400 and 500 people were packed into the area. Of course, people will be people with pushing and loud fussing and complaining. Time was ticking off the clock for those of us wanting to catch our Monday flights. Two women in tears walked by saying they had been in line for two hours and had now missed their flights. One man shouted to no one in particular, “This is stupid, it is dumb, there is no plan, and I’m going to talk to someone about this when I get out of this line.” I don’t know if he ever got to talk to anyone or not. Maybe he was so happy to get out of the line, he just went on his way.
Occasionally, the woman in charge of the kiosks would stand on the baggage scales and shout instructions you could not hear. The airport PA system kept warning people to “not leave your bags unattended” and making paging calls for certain people to report so hearing the redheaded woman on the scales was pretty near impossible.
People in the lines kept jockeying from line to line. Breaking in line was the norm.
One woman broke in three different lines getting to the front. At the front kiosk finally, she was in one line and her mother was at the front of another kiosk. They tied up two lines since the woman had all of her mother’s paperwork and boarding information.
With an eye on the clock, we made it through the check-in lines at 8:45 a.m. after an hour and 45 minutes. Remember, our flight was to leave at 9:20.
On to the security check. The Transportation Security Administration agents wearing the royal blue shirts had a better sense of organization. Their line was 80 people long but moving a good pace. The first agent checking our boarding passes and IDs was a joker with a big smile. He told my wife her hair was longer than her driver’s license photo but he would let her pass. He told me I had better keep a good check on my wife when she was in the bars. I don’t think she has ever been in a bar. I will have to check.
An agent announced for anyone with a pacemaker or any joint replacements to move to the right line. There were four lines. Having a knee replacement, I moved to the right line.
As required, I removed my shoes, coat and belt, emptied my pockets and unpacked my CPap machine for sleep apnea. I stepped into the full body X-ray scanner, held my arms over my head with my hands against my forehead and, seven or eight seconds later, I was cleared to fly.
One man in line behind me on his way to Jamaica said he didn’t mind the full body scan at all. He said, “I am 70 years old and anything I got under my clothes that anyone wants to see, it’s OK with me. I’m honored.”
I thought I had lost my wallet in the security line. Getting my shoes and clothes back in place, I felt my hip pocket and the wallet was not there. I returned to the TSA agent who had just checked me in and told him.
He questioned me about how long had it been since I passed the check point. I told him I had never left the check point. Then I discovered I had placed my wallet in my front pants pocket. The agent then lectured me, telling me if I had a certain place to carry my wallet and always put it in the same place, then I would know where it was. I thanked him for the information and moved on.
We got to the loading gate for our flight at 9:10 a.m., just 10 minutes before the flight was to leave. The plane was already loaded.
In the giant Atlanta airport, the hallways were packed with stranded passengers. They were on the floors and in chairs everywhere. All looked very tired and stressed.
We had to switch in Atlanta from the US Airways terminal to the Delta terminal. They must be a mile or so apart. We walked and we walked some more on the “moving walkways” and we rode the train, which is like a subway. We should have ridden the train the entire way, but we were halfway there before we figured it out.
Arriving at our Delta boarding gate, the sign said they had moved our gate another 100 yards away. We had a three-hour layover there, so we went to the food court for lunch.
After we ate, an elderly man who was cleaning the tables wished us a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. We needed that to pick our spirits back up.
Children were running everywhere, screaming and playing tag. One man in the center of the crowded hall decided to pick up his son and spin him like a windmill around and around. Passengers had to dodge the flying feet of the 5-year-old as he whirled by at shoulder height.
As we boarded the plane for Denver, six TSA agents showed up and rechecked everyone’s IDs again. That was the third time for ID checks after we had reached the secure area. They seemed to be looking for someone in particular.
On the plane, my CPap bag would not go in the overhead cargo rack so I was busy rearranging the bag when a college-age girl stuck her bag in the empty spot I was going to use. I had to find another spot for my bag.
In the enormous Denver Airport, it took over an hour to get our luggage from the carousel. Six or seven flights were using the same carousel. What a day, but we were now with family.
From Denver we traveled by car to Breckenridge. When we started the drive, 2 inches of snow lay on Interstate 70 and more was falling. We needed to get across the mountain passages of interstate roadway to Breckenridge. Travel was slow but moving. Stopping to eat, we met a group of folks who had flown into Denver and were driving by car to the Rose Bowl in California. Being from Wisconsin, they were used to the rough snowy weather. There was 2 feet of snow on the ground in Breckenridge.
Preparing for the return flight from Denver to Charlotte was much easier from the Denver airport. Fifteen minutes for a boarding pass. Three hundred people in the security-check line never stopped moving with eight check points and two full X-ray body scanners.
Because of my knee replacement, I picked a body scanner line and was sailing through until the scanner picked up a problem on my left arm. I had forgotten to remove my watch. A TSA agent made a quick check of my watch and I was through again.
Back in Charlotte at the Ramada Inn, my car battery was completely dead. We had left an overhead light on in the car before leaving a week earlier.
One man in the lobby offered the use of his jumper cables but had no car to hook them to. I don’t know why he had jumper cables and no car. Another traveling man, maybe a salesman, in a suit said we could use his car, but we would have to do it ourselves. He said that he didn’t even know how to raise the hood of his Volkswagen SUV.
With the cables in place, my car fired on the first try and we were headed back to Salisbury after a wonderful holiday week with the family in Denver.
It was worth all the problems just to see that little granddaughter and get to play with her for a week.