Travel: When the USA Resembles The Former Soviet Block

Weekly Column By: Sharon Byrne

I just returned from the Holiday Trip From Hell. You’ve probably had that trip, or one like it, when everything that could go wrong, does. This one started with getting drenched in a monsoon, with luggage, on a beach in the US Virgin Islands on Christmas Eve, and ended in New York for New Year’s Eve in freezing temps. Everything was magical right until Winter Storm Hercules hit January 3rd.

The East Coast is used to winter storms. They have ample equipment to clear roads and runways. I confirmed our fight was leaving on schedule Saturday, so we arrived at LaGuardia at 4 AM to take our 5:45 AM flight back to California.

9381049_600x338It was melee at the airport. Flights were cancelled, seemingly randomly, and anger was mounting. United declared our tickets void. No offer of a hotel or other flight. Stunned, I asked could we get on standby on any flight heading west. No, we can¹t help you. Call the United number, which I did, and was put on hold for an estimated wait time of 55 minutes. How can an airline just void your tickets, and offer no options other than you gotta¹ book new one way flights across the country to get back home????

Reality sunk in. We were stranded in New York. In 12 degree weather.

I ordered my daughter to get out her ipad and start looking for one-way flights out of New York while I got on the phone to the travel agent. There weren¹t any, of course. But wait, this is the East Coast ­ you can get to other cities like Baltimore, Boston or DC. Going south seemed most sensible. We started looking at trains. I even typed in Greyhound.com on my cell phone. Nothing got us back out west in less than 5-6 days.

We found a couple of one-way flights out of DC that would bypass the next storm hitting the Midwest, going through Dallas, dropping us in Reno, where we’d have to rent a car and drive to Santa Barbara. To get to DC, we’d have to drive the icy roads out of New York down the New Jersey turnpike and the I95.

While we were furiously booking new flights, rental cars, and hotels sitting on the cold bustling floor of La Guardia, I was reminded that no matter how bad you think it is, it could always be worse. I saw a young woman whose flight to Indianapolis was cancelled, and she had no credit card with which to rent a car. All she had taken with her on this trip was her debit card, as she was visiting family. Plus there was a new storm breaking in the Midwest, and she¹d be heading right into it.

My daughter was approached by a security guard, with a crying woman in tow. She was wearing summer gear, and shivering. She was returning from a cruise, on their airline, and they¹d lost all record of her flight, and her luggage. She had one scarf. That was her winter gear. Her medication was in the lost baggage. The security guard gingerly asked my daughter if they could borrow her ipad for a moment to look up a phone number for the cruise line. They called, and the cruise line sent her on to a flight.

That security guard was the lone helpful employee we saw at LaGuardia.

The car rental and hotel were similarly staffed with unhelpful people. My travel agent booked us into a DC hotel a day later than we needed. The hotel could not change the date on the reservation unless I went back through the travel agent. I found it surreal to be standing in the hotel lobby, talking to a hotel employee, who was powerless to act in any way on behalf of the hotel.

It felt like the former Yugoslavia, a nightmare trip I did as a teen. Throw in those lovely encounters with TSA, and you¹ve captured the experience perfectly.

Dude! What happened to my country??? The US is can-do land, right? This is where problems are opportunities, creatively disguised, rather than yet another hardship to bear up under, as my UK-based family views the world.

I had not planned on showing my daughter the Eastern Seaboard on this trip, but hey, when life hands you lemons, make lemonade, right? That drive out of New York was a nail-biter. The roads were still very treacherous. Every time we crossed a bridge over a river, I held my breath.

It was not until we hit Dallas and then Reno that things returned to US normalcy in travel. The hotel clerk in Reno sent up complimentary bathrobes and soft drinks on hearing our tale of woe. Pappasito¹s in the DFW airport (THE best Tex Mex) greeted us warmly and gave me a huge Texas ŒRita.

Out West, things were still very much can-do. Maybe it¹s an East Coast Snow-Jam thing that made all travel employees temporarily mutate into Soviet-style government workers. I don¹t know, but I kissed the ground when we crossed into California. The final count: 3 rental cars, 17 hours of driving, 5 flights, 11 states, 6 rivers crossed, 3 taxis, 3 ferries, multiple subways. The good news: no more single digit highs. No more snow, arctic winds and brutal wind chills. No more putting on multiple layers just to go outside.

Dang it’s good to be home!

About Sharon Byrne

About Sharon Byrne Sharon Byrne found herself unwittingly thrust into municipal and political issues when she took a sabbatical from her corporate career, and moved to West Downtown in late 2008, a neighborhood in serious decay. She helped engineer a major turnaround there working with engaged neighborhood women. She served on the Franklin Neighborhood Center Advisory Committee, and the Neighborhood Advisory Council. She is the executive director for the Milpas Community Association, and currently serves on the Advisory Boards for the Salvation Army Hospitality House and Santa Barbara County Alcohol and Drug Problems. She is a former Deputy Director of Common Cause in California, and has worked on several ballot initiatives locally and at the state level. Her education in engineering and psychology gives her an unusual mix of skills for working on quality-of-life, public safety, and public policy issues.

12 Responses to Travel: When the USA Resembles The Former Soviet Block

  1. sbnative January 10, 2014 at 5:25 am #

    Editor’s note: Comment removed, see policy.

  2. el_smurfo January 10, 2014 at 8:43 am #

    Sure, it’s a scattershot email, but it’s describing a hectic event. I think the point is, this used to be a country of empowered, helpful people. It is now a country of button pushing, regulation spouting bureaucrats and the article dovetails nicely with Sharon’s message of reforming local government to be responsive to it’s customers.

  3. Boycott Boy January 10, 2014 at 10:30 am #

    Editor’s Note: Troll Day: Boycott Boy put in permanent Comment Moderation

    • zeker January 10, 2014 at 12:21 pm #

      Speaking of gibberish….

      By the way: Only one “fascist?” Telltale sign of a moron is the non-realization that “racist,” “tourist” etc. are not plural even though they (sort of) “sound” that way to that special group.

  4. dfhe January 10, 2014 at 10:54 am #

    Editor’s Note: Wow, they all came out on a Friday: dfhe put on permanent Comment Blacklist, the first since the reset.

  5. Quiet Dog January 10, 2014 at 1:35 pm #

    Similarly – before arriving at Newark for three hours I was on plane with mechanical issues. As we were heading to the USA there was a medical diversion to Bermuda. Then finally got to Newark and the United Airlines disfunction – standing in line for hours until at 1 am the counter was closed. Fortunately an air train and hotel van ride away I tried all night and following day to reach United – occasionally would be disconnected or transferred. Going to the airport about 4 am a day later was lucky to have a nice United agent find a flight Newark-SFO-SBA for the next day at 6 am. Interesting experience – to what extent I asked myself should I just “chill” until the airport reopen or should I bravely assert myself and line up. It was interesting how patient most people were and how United did little to step up to provide contingencies, even water or a granola bar while we waited in line.
    Will think twice about trusting this airline – they didn’t seem to care about the passengers. Yes, it was a HCP – High Class Problem. Am lucky to be able to travel.

  6. Linda L. January 10, 2014 at 1:46 pm #

    Good story. I go caught in freezing sleet filled Dallas too. Delayed a full day and no fun. Makes me want to stay home and enjoy this weather even thought its not a white Christmas.

  7. Datura January 10, 2014 at 6:15 pm #

    Deregulation has had a few plusses, but overall the quality of service has deteriorated considerably. And no competition to SFO from here – with airfares around the same price as SBA to Chicago or even the East Coast sometimes. Didn’t we bail out the airlines after 9/11 ?
    The airlines have expensive lawyers, lobbyists, and politicians on their side; airlines don’t have to care much about their passengers other than providing safety.

    • Living wages are someone else's living hell January 10, 2014 at 9:56 pm #

      It was not deregulation. It was unionizing and the huge demands now for salaries at all levels of the airline industry from ground staff to mechanics to flight attendants. So those employee benefit demands are now borne the passenger in higher prices and/or diminished service. That is the way it works.

      • traveler January 11, 2014 at 7:53 am #

        The United / former Continental airlines flight attendant said they’d not had an increase in pay in eight years. Some United employees have had their pensions decimated. American Airlines flight attendants have had cuts in pay. Pretty much these days the situation with employee wages and stable work environment have been assaulted.

        • Do the math January 11, 2014 at 10:21 am #

          Hello? When you make future pension promises you cannot sustain then the present workers and service recipients have to suffer the consequences.

          This is what we have been trying to tell you. This is the final death rattle for progressive politics when the bills for the starry promises finally come due, and someone has to finally cough up the cash.

  8. Waffles of Doom January 11, 2014 at 9:39 am #

    Dang, Sharon! Glad you’re back safe and…as sound as you can be. You WILL tell this story years from now, but ’til then enjoy this beautiful day here with us.