Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.. Part 1

Well, No fear actually. Just the loathing part.

There are a few things in this world that in general I try to avoid. Tourists, and executives. Especially executives that aren’t in my chain of command. Within my little group my ability to visit one of our corporate offices with nearly zero interaction with director levels and above is legend. Not unlike Gandalf said as the group entered the mines of moria  – “Perhaps our presence will go unnoticed”.

Let me qualify that. I teach software classes. By the late afternoon, after the class breaks up and I head to the corporate office (when I’m teaching locally to them) I’ve been talking all day and am generally in no mood for more interaction. I’m there to grab one of my friends to go to dinner and relax.

So I try to lessen the chance of running into someone like our CEO when I’m in a generally hateful mood and have nothing to say.(Been talking all day, right?). No good can come from that. Two of the funnier interactions I’ve had when I’m in this brain fried state have been with one exec, calling him by the wrong name over and over and with another asking him his name after chatting for about five minutes. Apparently, we’d met before. We were about to meet again in Las Vegas. A situation I expected to relish as much as a prostate exam, especially since my little group came under his division for a few months until a series of unfortunate events had us in biblical style exodus back to the promised land of operations.

And tourists? What can I say. I’m a pro traveler. They get in my way. And such is the case when you travel to a resort / touristy city such as Las Vegas.

The fun started in the airport. There is a huge difference in the composition and behavior of the passengers depending on the destination. For instance, a flight to seattle consists of a huge number of techie types, most are platinum frequent flyers. So when they board first class (and platinum) two thirds of the plane boards. This was an unpleasant surprise the first time it happened to me. What it means for the lesser mortals in the frequent flyer world is there will be nearly zero carry on space left by the time we get on the plane. For the wretched  – boarding group 3 and below – there will be none.

For the tourist destinations, such as Las Vegas,  the plane will be filled with tourists. Or as my sister aptly describes – “Amateurs”. Most don’t know the boarding drill very well, so as the time for boarding draws near, they hover expectantly in front of the gate. Now I have priority access, so I can get on anytime, as are most elite travelers, so there’s no point hovering. However, it’s annoying as hell having to elbow through the throng of the hovering wretched – boarding group 3 and below – to get on the plane.

There’s a huge difference in dress on a touristy plane. What’s up with the guys in flip flops? I get it, it’s comfy and easier to get through security. However, Three things hit me as I sized up the crowd at the gate and noticed the flip flops. First, the last thing I’d want is my bare foot millimeters from the ick in a skanky airport bathroom. Second, any situation that makes you have to run, (or flee) you’re doomed. Think of having to deboard in a hurry on a tarmac. Lastly, I don’t need to look at your gnarly dogs. It’s gross.
Also, take the shades off in the airport. You look like a tool wearing shades indoors, especially if you and your buddy are wearing nearly identical black suits.

The first harbinger of doom came when they announced our pilot went home sick and they’d have to find a replacement. The plane was a shiny, brand new 757 and apparently there weren’t many certified to fly it handy. So I geared myself up for a long wait with lots of hovering and distracted jabbering from the amateurs. Dallas was playing Chicago on the TV and I figured they weren’t going to find a local pilot anytime soon. Not a sober one anyhow.

At one point, I figured I’d hit starbucks. It’s my superstition that when there is a delay and I leave the gate area, I’ll return to find the plane half boarded. So it was no surprise as I returned this time and found a mob scene at the gate. They are after all, amateurs. So a scrum during boarding is typical. So I sidled up to one and asked “Which group is boarding?” None. They cancelled the flight. My luck, it seems, had run out.

So ends a five year lucky streak, and started an airport version of “twelve angry men”. My impluse was to leave and hit the ticketing counter when I remembered I’m connected with a vast array of personal electronics that can remedy this outrage far faster than standing in line. So I pick up my blackberry and nearly the instant after I touched the track ball I got a series of email updates – Flight cancelled, You’ve been re-booked on the new flight. The new flight was essentially an older, crappier, and smaller airplane they replaced the original with after finding someone to fly. Makes the waiting in line for a seat assignment no big deal. The plane won’t board until they are done anyhow. And not only will I be on it, I’ll be one of the first to board.

When an equipment shuffle like this happens, the vast airline computer quickly separates the flight into worthy-unworthy and rebooks everyone, and it’s not random either. As I observed, the order was:

  1. Full fare Platinum Elite
  2. Gold Elite
  3. Aadvantage (garden variety frequent flyer)
  4. Full fare
  5. Discount
  6. Traveling for free (points) – didn’t matter status.

So by the time they got to discounted – dozens were moved to “even more wretched” status.

Realizing this, I discovered that I missed a huge signal prior to my starbucks run. The plane had been ready to board for an hour yet they suddenly called about half a dozen names, one at a time. Including the platinum elite member I was chatting up before I left. Had I stayed, I’d have known that they took the full fare Platinum members (there were only a few) and hooked them up with a flight about to leave.

Then, the drama began. There must be some mistake. Blah blah blah. The computer made it’s decision, the gate agents now basically want to assign seats and board the plane. At this point, belligerence is self defeating. Chewing out the gate agent will, more than likely, get your ass off that flight and onto another eight hours later. Here’s a newsflash- it wasn’t the gate agent’s fault the plane changed. They gave the computer a pass at reassigning flights because it’s faster, more efficient, fair, and it gives the Agent plausible deniability – an out. This is why I tell everyone, pick an airline, a hotel and a rental car provider and sign up for the free programs. You may only  travel once or twice a year but it could be the difference between minor inconvenience and an unfathomable state of wretchedness and despair. Two sets of newlyweds achieved this state.

In front of me was an old couple, platinum flyers, but flying for free. Grandma got a seat, Grampa got Stand-by. In a fit of charity, the agent also hooked them up with a flight on USAir, should Gramps not make it. Not exactly the life and death of shindler’s list, but to hear the wailing (or complaining) of the damned you’d think it was.

Me? They handed me a ticket for an exit aisle, middle seat. The very same seat I had on the old plane. Heh, heh. To make matters better, both the aisle and window they seated women. Before you get any ideas here, Remember I’m six foot, two hundred forty at least. Usually in this situation I’ll be inbetween a football player and an enormous IT guy.

Even better, as I entered the plane, I wisecracked (with a smile!) with the head stewardess “Hey, do we get free drinks for this outrage?” Turns out the answer was yes.

So the silver lining here was; free drinks, same seat, elbow room, delay meant I met up with my boss at the other end (so he can pick up the taxi tab), and we got to miss out on the pre-event pow-wow held by an exec that neither of us was all that keen to see.

Next: Part two – Las Vegas, the worst city in the US.