Tuesday, April 13, 2010
As long-time readers of this blog may know, every year my wife and I go overseas during her spring break from teaching. Our reasoning has always been that it's nearly impossible to nonrev anywhere domestically during spring break craziness, whereas getting across oceans has never proven to be a problem. Last year we went to Greece, we visited Singapore & Malaysia the year before that, and our 2007 destination was Thailand. This year we planned on a return to Southeast Asia with a trip to Vietnam. The trip required somewhat less flexibility than we are used to due to the relative lack of flights to the country - particularly to Hanoi, our first destination - and the need to book positive space flights within the country, as Vietnam Airlines does not yet have a ZED agreement with WidgetCo. We also had to apply to visas in advance, at $70 a pop. Still, I've been very excitedly counting down the days for months now while I spent hours poring over guidebooks and exploring Google Earth. Some last-minute complications with my work schedule nearly derailed the whole thing, but a friend stepped in and picked up the offending overnight trip with less than 24 hours to go.
Our plan was to leave the night of Wednesday 31 March, and return on Sunday 11 April. Originally I was planning on a Pacific crossing, preferably on Thai Airways from LAX to Bangkok; Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong or Korean to Seoul were alternative options. By Wednesday afternoon, all these flights or their corresponding connections to Hanoi were severely oversold. Even the flight from MSP to LAX was right at capacity. However, a flight from MSP to Amsterdam at the same time had 80+ seats available, including enough business class seats to guarantee a stylish and comfortable Atlantic crossing. Intrigued by the possibility of an easterly round-the-world routing, I checked the connections in Amsterdam. There were two 747s to Bangkok operated by China and KLM, respectively, both slightly oversold but with no listed nonrevs. Aeroflot, however, had a A320 to Moscow followed one hour later by a A330 to Hanoi that were completely open. It would get us into Hanoi at 8am on Friday, earlier than any other option. We don't have Russian visas, but a quick check of Sheremetyevo Airport's website revealed that they are not required for those staying on the airside for less than 24 hours.
The warning signs against such a plan appeared early. It took forever to contact each of Aeroflot's four offices in the United States and nobody I finally got through to spoke much English. Nobody could confirm the availability of the flights and nobody had a clue of how to list us. It took a while just to get across the point that we were employees traveling standby - the usual terms "non-revenue," "staff travel," or "ZED pass" were met with confusion. After confirming that the flights across the Pacific were still bleak unless we waited a day, and that more nonrevs had listed for the full flight to LAX, I decided to go to Amsterdam and just plan on trying China Airlines to Bangkok unless someone in Amsterdam was able to list us for the Aeroflot flights through to Hanoi.
We got business class seats together for the flight to Amsterdam, so we arrived fairly well rested at 11am CET. Before checking in with China Airlines I decided to stop by the Aeroflot transfer desk. It was staffed by a contract employee but she was able to very quickly list us and assign seats for the flight to Moscow. She was, however, unable to list us for the flight from Moscow to Hanoi. She did say the Aeroflot employees at the gate might be able to help us. Warily, we hoofed it over to the gate. Nobody was there yet, 90 minutes before the flight, although the Aeroflot A320 was parked outside. I decided to call Aeroflot's Amsterdam office. To my surprise, I got through immediately to an agent who spoke perfect english and was knowledgeable about nonrev procedures and ZED passes. She told me their reservations software did not have the ability to make nonrev listings ahead of time and that it was typically done at the airport - as has been the case with several other airlines we've flown on - and that the station manager would be at the gate shortly. Sure enough, he showed up a few minutes later. He, too, seemed to be knowledgeable; he said the flight to Hanoi was wide open and he saw no problem with a one hour connection in Moscow; although he couldn't list us or assign seats from Amsterdam, he said the transfer desk in Moscow could handle it very quickly. This, of course, still did not meet the criteria I had established for taking Aeroflot before I had departed the states. Whether out of insidious fatigue or get-there-itis or a false sense of security from the helpful Aeroflot people at AMS, I didn't stick to that criteria. I decided to go for it; we boarded the flight. Ultimately, the Aeroflot people at AMS would be the last helpful employees we would encounter. It seems as though the industriousness and competency of the Dutch has rubbed off remarkably well on their Russian immigrants.
Almost as soon as we took our seats, I started to fret. All the potential problems with our plan and likely repercussions of one thing going wrong were suddenly crystal clear to me. The boarding process seemed to take forever. Our scheduled departure time came ever close and my heart was in my throat. Even a small delay, I realized now, could disrupt our plan. Get off the plane! my gut screamed. I tried to ignore it. Departure time passed. I finally got up and went to the front of the plane and told the lead flight attendant we had a short connection in Moscow we would likely miss, and my wife and I wished to deplane. She frowned and went into the cockpit, conferred with the Captain, and emerged to announce we would still arrive on time. I had my doubts but didn't press my case, returning meekly to my seat. We sat another twenty minutes while a cartload of bags remained unloaded just outside our window. I finally rang my call button and told the flight attendant we needed to deplane. "Sorry, the front door is closed, the paperwork is complete, we will go soon," she said. My heart sank. The trap was sprung shut. Within a few minutes some rampers came and loaded the bags; we pushed nearly 30 minutes late.
The flight to Moscow was torturous. My idiocy was completely clear to me now. I wasn't hungry but nibbled at the inflight meal anyway, fully aware it could be a while before our next meal. I finally dozed off and relaxed. When I woke up, we were on the descent into Moscow. It was clear that we had made up some time and would land only a few minutes behind schedule. We gazed out at the Russian scenery, still mostly snowbound and strangely foreign even from the sky in a way most of Europe is not. The forests were broken up by strange, haphazardly shaped clearings and swaths; the terrain was pockmarked by massive pit mines with post-apocalyptic looking villages of drab high-rises around them. The sizes of the various towns seemed utterly unrelated to anything around them and had oddly sharp definition, going from apparent wilderness to concrete canyons in the space of meters. As we approached over the Moscow suburbs, the landscape became considerably less strange and more familiarly European - or was it Newark?
We pulled up to the gate at Terminal F only ten minutes late. We were at the back of the Airbus; deplaning was torturously slow. When we got out and saw the line at the transfer desk - staffed by a single harried woman - my heart sank all over again. We progressed forward at a quick rate until the passengers just before us were told they would miss their connection to Hong Kong due to the flight leaving from another terminal and they threw a massive fit. It was a half-hour prior to the Hanoi flight's departure by the time we were at the head of the line. She looked at our ZED tickets like they were radioactive. Finally I used the word "open ticket" and it was like a lightbulb went off; she made a flurry of phone calls and then directed us to the side, indicating someone would be along to help us shortly. The minutes dragged on. I could hear boarding announcements for Hanoi on the tinny loudspeaker. Suddenly a young Aeroflot agent appeared and motioned for us to follow him. He took us to the head of the security line beyond the transfer desk, waited for us to clear, then walked purposely toward the Hanoi gate. My heart soared. We were going to make it, after all!
The agent stopped not at the gate but at a mirrored Aeroflot office door, ushering us inside. Inside were four or five ladies huddled over a desk. They motioned for us to sit in an overstuffed couch to the side as they took our tickets and began speaking rapidly in Russian between themselves. Some rapid typing took place, and then a succession of phone calls. At one point our tickets were placed on the counter and I approached, only to be waved off by one of the agents. It was now departure time for the Hanoi flight, but I could still hear boarding announcements. Perhaps the flight was running late? The initial rush of activity seemed to have slowed. Ten more minutes passed. Nobody told us anything the whole time. Finally, a young redhead approached with our tickets. "OK, these tickets are fine to use for Hanoi. However, your flight has now departed. Please follow me."
We followed her out the door and to the nearby transfer desk in shock. There was much worse to come. "The next Hanoi flight does not leave until April 3rd," the transfer desk girl told us. "And it is oversold." I processed that for a moment - why did I not know that already!? - and then stepped back to scan the departures board. "OK, there's a flight to Seoul in a few hours. We would like to go there." She frowned and asked whether we had tickets from Moscow to Seoul. "Well, no, but this is a ZED ticket." Blank stare. "It's based on mileage. It's the same distance to Seoul as it is to Hanoi, it's supposed to be valid for either routing. She shook her head. "No, you must have the exact routing on your ticket. That is our policy." The implications of this hit me suddenly. This was a one-way trap. We had no way out. I had not purchased additional backup passes out of Moscow. The whole idea of ZED passes is to make such backup-ticket hoarding obsolete, no? The irony here was that we had well over $1000 in other backup passes in our backpacks, but in our situation they were all utterly useless.
The next four hours were spent shuttling between various offices, pleading our case to various levels within the Aeroflot hierarchy. All were utterly unmoved. The closest thing we got to emotion was an outburst from one of the more senior agents: "Your names were not on the telegram from Amsterdam, so it is not our fault you missed the flight to Hanoi!" I puzzled over the meaning of this. After all the trouble we had listing and all the assurances that it was not necessary, did we really miss the flight because our lack of a listing had puzzled the Moscow agents? It didn't matter now, we were in a serious situation. We got the final ruling shortly before midnight: "You cannot use your tickets for anything other than here to Hanoi. The next flight to Hanoi leaves in two days, it is oversold, and anyways you cannot remain in the airport for more than 24 hours without visas. You must purchase a full-fare ticket to somewhere outside Russia or you will be deported back to Amsterdam, at your own expense - after a detainment for processing."
Detainment in a Russian prison awaiting deportation was not how I envisioned my spring break. We used our netbook to get online and look at our flight options. Getting back to Amsterdam the next day would cost over $500 each. We could go to Berlin for only $189 each, but then had no options to continue to Vietnam. The cold, stormy weather over Northern Europe didn't make it a very enticing alternative to our Vietnam beach holiday, particularly since we've both been to Germany a number of times. There was one alternative: a Widget flight leaving Moscow for New York at 12:05pm the next day. It had 50 seats available. An ignominious retreat back to the United States was shaping up to be our best option. I reluctantly listed and conferred with the Aeroflot transfer desk, who said they would be able to help us get checked in for the Delta flight at 9am the next morning. Considering my experiences with Aeroflot, I had my doubts, but our lack of Russian visas meant I couldn't deal with the Widget check-in desk directly.
We ate a tasteless, ridiculously overpriced meal at what was by now the only open restaurant, a 24-hour cafe above the Aeroflot office, and then settled in for the night. The airport stayed brightly lit all night, but at least there were few loudspeaker announcements and some rows of chairs lacked armrests, making them passable beds. Dawn stayed up and read all night; I dozed on and off. In between naps I paced the full length of the terminal several times. I was worried about not making it onto the Widget flight, even though there were plenty of seats. I was pretty heartsick over having wrecked our spring break trip with my stupid gamble on a one-hour connection in Moscow. Dawn was very supportive, stressing that she didn't mind anything that happened "as long as we're together." I kept my thoughts on whether we'd get to share a cell awaiting deportation to myself.
The hours passed slowly. A police officer demanded our papers at 2am and initially balked at the lack of a Russian visa but was then satisfied with the explanation that we were in transit. The airport came alive again after 5am. When nine rolled around, we picked up our packs and trudged down to the hated transfer office. We were told to come back an hour later, which made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. One fretful hour later we returned, and thankfully things went very smoothly. The agent collected our passports, disappeared through the employee security line, and returned with a Widget agent bearing standby passes minutes later. We were searched quite aggressively in secondary screening - we later learned it was because we have so many stamps from Amsterdam in our passport, which is an apparent red flag since the Nigerian underwear bomber - but then were assigned business class seats shortly thereafter.
This departure was marked by relief rather than celebration. We made it out of Russia, but our international travels were over for this spring break. We briefly considered trying to make the Amsterdam flight that departed 90 minutes after our arrival to JFK, but three Atlantic crossings in two days just to take another shot at a completely full, ten-hour China Airlines flight to Bangkok in hopes of making a rather abbreviated whirlwind tour of Vietnam seemed like madness. No, spending a restless night in Moscow's Terminal F would be the limit of our overseas adventures for this spring break. As we took off to the north, we pressed our noses against the window and strained to see the Kremlin.
Fortunately, there are many wonderful places, interesting sights, and adventurous roads to visit in the beautiful, expansive country we call home, and that is why this posting is titled "Redirection" rather than "How I completely ruined our spring break with my stupidity." We were hatching a Plan B well before it was clear that Vietnam was out of the picture, and ended up having a great adventure together we would have otherwise never experienced. Vietnam will still be there someday, but it's not often I have a comfortable touring motorcycle conveniently stashed in a sunny, pretty corner of the country that neither of us have spent much time exploring.
To be continued....
Posted by Sam Weigel