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"He drinks a lager drink,
He drinks a something drink,
He drinks a drink drink,
drink, drink, drink-drink"

"That One Song about All the Drinking That Was Popular for Some Reason" ~ Chumbawumba

At this point, it still wasn't obvious that we wouldn't be hopping another plane within minutes or hours. The apparent graveyard shift authority of United, resembling a light-skinned black version of Groucho Marx, worked his way up and down the front of the crowds, the five hundred person clusterfuck of sleep-deprived, angry customers a steadily growing and grumbing crowd turning to a mob.

I didn't envy him.

He also didn't make things easier on himself.

"Please be patient and stay in line!" He was shouting at the crowd immediately in front of him, closest to the exit point of security, everyone lining up in front of about the ten counters now open and crewed by nightshift employees who likely never experienced anything even close to this volume. "We'll have refreshments brought out in just a few minutes!"

This calmed people down as we began to realize the last time any of us had eaten was lunchtime several hours ago. Now pushing 1am, the vast majority of the San Francisco airport was closed, along with all the restaurants; the thought of 'refreshments,' anything, was something.

The line early on - people were still smiling at this point.

After about ten minutes, I realized our line wasn't moving at all. Looking far down the terminal, I thought there might be shorter lines down the curve. Taking a short walk with my rapidly fading niece riding on my shoulders, leaning into my neck in a way I was starting to feel all the way down my spine, I found a line at the far end with only four people in it.

I waved my family over and smiled at our brilliance in finding the shortest line in the batch. After a few minutes, watching as the United spokesman made his way down the various stations, repeating his barely-heard updates, Geoff and I headed downstairs to the baggage claim to pull the family's bags.

When we got back to the line, I was surprised that the first person was still there, the United person behind the desk with a deer-in-the-headlights look, his ear trapped inside a phone while he stared blindly at the monitor in front of him.

Meanwhile, the United Groucho Marx made his way down to us, now stating that we would be put on planes heading out the next day and that United would fly out the planes "wingtip to wingtip," basically creating a new, one-time flight to Australia with the plane that was still being worked on.

"We have called up our regular mechanic crew and they'll have the plane fixed shortly. It's up to you if you want to go to a hotel or if you'd rather just wait here for the plane to be repaired." For most of the people in line, many of them now-angry Aussies, this sounded like a good plan: just ride out on the same plane a day later, rather than taking their chances on stand-by.

Meanwhile, I sat on the floor, pulled out my book, and read a few more pages. Three long chapters later, I pulled out my phone, looked at the time, and saw that two hours had passed: the line hadn't moved. Meanwhile, Groucho moved back and forth in front of the long, unmoving lines, continually making promises that it was quickly becoming obvious were just there to mollify the crowd and not something that were really going to happen.

The refreshments, for example, now forgotten behind a wave of "we'll have you all out of here in an hour and sleeping comfortably in hotels where we'll call you," had never materialized. The lines never moved, not a single one of them.

The mood began to turn ugly fast as 4am approached. Groucho claimed there was a 800 number people could call and that it might be faster than waiting in line. The overhead screens, that had gone into a Windows update, hadn't displayed any information for a good while.

I pointed out to Groucho that he could just open Notepad and type in the 800 number, and put it on the screen, rather than marching up and down the multitudes of pissed off yelling it at them.

"That's a great idea - I'll do that right now." There was no eyebrow wiggle, but I assume it was implied. My sister got the 800 number from someone who actually had a pen and paper to write it down with, sat on the floor, and began the process of talking to United that way.

The line, for its part, still hadn't moved. It had been four hours. Likewise, the 800 number never appeared on the screen.

Sitting quietly, reading my book, waiting for the line to move, waiting for my sister to make some headway, I happened to overhear a snippet of conversation that Groucho was having with a rapidly angering Aussie woman.

I walked over to make sure I heard it correctly.

"...we will honor your United flight."

"But what about the connection I missed in Australia? I was going to Cairnes on Jetstar!"

"Listen: we will honor the United flight to Sydney."

"But I missed my flight because of your company's screw up!"

"And we will do our best to make sure you get to Sydney."

I glanced at my own itinerary with dawning horror: our flights out of Sydney were on Jetstar, a decidedly not United airline. Already a full day behind, we were looking at the possibility of being stuck in Sydney when they got there with now way to get to the north coast and meet my dad.

For that matter, we still hadn't nailed down a way to even get to Australia. Groucho began to move back through the crowd, noting that it was getting close to 6am, and that the morning shift would be coming on. Added to that, morning flights would begin going out and we were all jamming up the United lines...

So we'd have to move.

Obviously, that idea was about as popular as you'd think it would be and the vast majority of people who hadn't already given up simply stood still as crews began to set up the portable line-guide ribbons.

My sister, after an hour on the phone, had secured us a pair of rooms at the Holiday Inn and a possible flight on stand-by through Singapore Air. My mom smiled at this, telling us Singapore was a much better airline; by that point, I felt getting flung by trebuchet on a flying turd would be better than flying United.

Assured that United would be picking up the tab, we headed out the door to a waiting shuttle, knowing that we'd be coming right back in five hours. Still, five hours in a real bed sounded worlds better than sitting on the floor of the San Francico airport.
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"DFDKA;LKJF;E" ~ AC/DC (I have no idea what these guys are saying)

Somewhere on a distant back-burner, the family had always talked about going to Australia as a vacation. Since my brother-in-law was born there, he and my sister had been there a couple times in the intervening years and my parents, always the world-travelers, had been there several times, but never with the entire family together.

About two years ago, my dad first broached the plan of a great family gathering in the land down under and told me to think about it. Of course, the "thinking" part of that took somewhere in the range of a second.

In that one moment, I had no idea that my stable work and home-life would tumble off into weirdness. With a couple months to go, I still hadn't secured a full-time job and I wasn't even sure I was still going to be living in Washington state by the time the fam was due to head for Oz.

But things gradually clicked into place, the final piece snapping tight only a couple days before, finding a few friends to watch my dogs over a weekend when the roommate wouldn't be around.

Two weeks. I was going to have two full weeks in Australia.

With my car having a few issues, I felt it was a better idea to just take the bus and the lightrail on down to the airport, four hours early because, like my mom, on top of bad things happening to my pets, things have a tendency to go goofy when I travel.

Walking in, carrying only a pair of backpacks (one my trusty hiking pack), I went up to the e-counter, checked in, checked in my bag, and, beaming, headed for my terminal, hours ahead of schedule. I got some food, broke out my travel book, and sat down to read.

In two hours, I'd be in San Francisco, hanging with my mom, sister, bro, and niece, all of whom I hadn't seen for the better part of a year and a half. I'd blank out while thinking about Australia and seeing the fam, rereading the same page five or six time before giving up and breaking out the sketchbook.

On the plane, wheels up, airborn, I was on my way.

Three hours later, I walked off the plane and to a text message from my brother; he and my sister had been sending me notes for the better part of a year of Kaili wanting to see her uncle.

Down one United terminal, and up the whole length of another, I could see my mom, long before she saw me, running back and forth down the length of the moving sidewalks, trying to wear out the precocious five year-old before our impending sixteen-hour flight.

Seeing me, she squealed, sprinted the length of the moving sidewalk, and scrambled up into my arms. Carrying her down to the where the rest of the family was, I settled in, Kai on my lap jabbering at me, and caught up. We were only a short distance from the terminal our plane would leave from, only an hour or so until boarding started.

We walked down to the lower level where people were roughly five hundred people had piled in, waiting to board the plane. I managed to sweet talk a stewardess into putting our family in a row, as opposed to separated by several rows.

Another thirty minutes passed as they prepped the plane, and then loaded on the first class and business class people. My dad had burned a bunch of frequent flyer hours to land us all up in Economy Plus: not quite as squished as economy class, but close.

Best I could tell, there was slightly more leg room. Didn't matter: we were all looking forward to spending the next eight hours or so sleeping. Others, bound for the squished back half of the United plane, filed past, huge carryon bags banging against every seat on the way back.

I looked over at my mom, smiled, and high-fived her: just a few hours in the air, half a day, and we'd be in Sydney. I dug out my book, read a couple pages.

Read a couple more.

Cleared a chapter.

Frowning, I looked up - everyone was seated now, the doors shut and had been for a while. There was the low whine of the engines and the air blew recycled beer farts into my face. Other people were chatting quietly, waiting for the plane to push back from the terminal.

After an hour of this, the pilot came on the intercom and told us that there was heavy traffic and we were being asked to stay put. A half hour later, he came back on and told us there was a mechanical issue, but that it was being resolved.

Turned out the mechanical bit was true, and the pilot said there was a fuel leak and we'd have to deplane, that United would try to fix the plane and get us out of there "soon." Groaning, many of us eyeing our connections in Sydney and doing silent calculations, we filed off the plane and into the terminal. All five hundred passengers.

Many were grumbling and, like us, worrying about the connections from Sydney. Another hour ticked by and by now it was pushing into late night; the intercom crackled to life:

"Okay! The mechanics couldn't fix the fuel leak, but we're bringing up another plane from the hanger. We will need a few minutes to shift the bags over and get the crew on board, and then we'll start boarding. Hold onto your ticket stubs as you'll be sitting in the same seat."

A tired-sounding cheer went up from some, others simply looked on or turned to their neighbor to ask for an explanation. Eventually, people began trickling back into the terminal, bags hoisted over shoulders lest the TSA tagged them as potential bombs.

Forty-five minutes later, the call went out for first class passengers to board. Sure enough, the select few that would ride in the egg-shaped pods in first class queued up and handed over their ticket stubs, and filed in. Next were the business class. Then....nothing.

We kept waiting for the the next wave until finally the intercom crackled to life again: "The mechanics have discovered a fuel leak on this plane, too. Please hang onto your ticket stubs and we will try to get you on connecting flights through our affiliates."

At this point, pushing into midnight, there weren't even groans - people were tired of being jerked around. More to the point, most people realized the 'connecting flights' would be leaving the next day at the earliest and would likely also be full flights.

It quickly became apparent that the earliest anyone would be getting out would be sometime mid-week. For me, two weeks of unpaid vacation in Oz was quickly turning into one week in an airport waiting on standby and a much shorter trip in the land down under.

At this point, a man in a green vest, apparently a United manager of some sort, came on the intercom: "If everyone could please pay attention? We're going to move all of you out to our main terminal. We have a whole bank of computers there and will be able to process your requests much more quickly. You'll need to go out, go through security, pick up your bags, and then proceed to the United Desk. From there, we can get you all on connecting flights as soon as possible and vouchers to hotels, if needed."

I had no idea how much I'd hate that man in just a few hours.

My family, all long-time travelers, simply exchanged glances with one another, and realized any arguing would only delay the process, and made our way up to the terminal.

Waiting there was a line of almost five hundred people, all waiting for space on other planes bound for Australia in the next few days.


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March 2013

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