Free-Floating Hostility

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Hostylefax: Salt Lake City airport

The airlines must teach their gate agents to recognize all the signs of a passenger mutiny: the frustrated faces, the constant parade of angry comments, the realization that all the srtanded people have started talking to each other and making friends. Because it was at that point that the good people of Delta Connection took a flight that was supposed to be headed to Billings, Mont. and announced it was Butte-bound instead. It was such a snap decision that the Billings crew basically learned of the change when the Butte passengers tried to board. It was cold in Salt Lake, and we were in a terminal with no jetway. After passing through the gate door, you enter a long outdoor corridor to climb the stairs to your flight. That walk in outdoor air, which was dripping with airplane fumes, was pretty exhilarating. I was coming to believe that I would never breathe fresh air again.

I landed in SLC from Sacramento at 8:45 a.m., 15 minutes early. I had a leisurely two-hour layover, and made my way to the connections terminal. Delta's subcontractor, SkyWest, runs planes to destinations large and small from this area. The flights are timed so that every 45 minutes or so, there's a massive crush of people and announcements at 10-second intervals. Some were going as far as Seattle or Kansas City. But a fair number were going to places like Idaho Falls, Durango, Colo., and every "big city" in Montana. The Bozeman-bound flights all use prop jets, so I had made the decision when booking to fly to an airport that used real planes. Also Butte looks like Butt. My first flight was cancelled due to plane problems, and there aren't that many others. For the cancellation, I won a heartfelt apology, a $7 meal voucher, a standby seat on the 5:30 and a confirmed seat on the 9:30. It was at that point 11:30 a.m.

I settled in.

The meal voucher was useless. It didn't even cover the cost of a plate of buffalo wings at Dick Clark's American Grill. Good thing other people were paying for this meal. Then I went to work. I switched my hotel reservations, wrote a story, banged out a blog posting, visited Laptop Lane to file. By that point it was 3:30 and I was out of things to do. I contemplated just getting hammered in mid-afternoon, but passed on that as well so I'd be able to argue for another meal voucher if they cancelled my next flight. Once the 5:30 Butte flight was posted, I went to the counter and asked about my chances of getting on standby. I was No. 1, but most of the flight was there. An hour, and a cavalcade of complaints from other people, later, I asked again. "Here's a boarding pass," the harried gate agent said. That's a bad message to send.

On the plane I ended up sitting next an Italian stoneworker, who commutes to California from Butte. His client list is pretty impressive, and he said his company wants him to move out West. He doesn't want to. "Butte's a real redneck town," he said. "I love it." I told him I was a sportswriter and we talked American football, the study of ideas in history, architecture, our mutual interest in soccer, and childrearing. He has seven kids, "And by the time they're two, they know you perfectly, and you realize that you have no idea what this creature in front of you is thinking." Apparently there were a lot of conversations onboard from people who had met in the terminal. Someone at the baggage claim asked me, "Are you the guy who's going bow hunting tomorrow?" That's the first time I've ever been asked that question. My hair is probably too short now.

Multiple people on the plane recommended the tomato soup at 4Bs, which also happened to be next to my hotel. Props to them, because it was indeed delicious, garlicky with real bits of tomato in it. Not at all what I was expecting. And, all things considered, not a bad way to end a really long day.

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