The Worst Day of Air Travel

I’m going to blather on about plane flights, specifically a set of them that nearly did my head in back when I was touring with Berzerker. Obviously, these flights weren’t that bad. The planes actually landed for starters, we didn’t crash, and no babies spewed on us.

I’ve seen that, actually. I had a Ryanair flight to Spain, where a mother fed her noisy baby too much milk to shut it up, then walked the aisle with the baby over her shoulder trying to settle it. I had an aisle seat, and the baby looked me dead in the eye before fountaining vomit down her back and onto the floor. She didn’t realise what happened until she heard the first spatters, the same moment she probably felt her back go wet. She was totally stuck in the aisle, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and I still remember her helplessly going “Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh!” while her pride-and-joy sicked all over her. I entered bullet-time the moment the first spray left the little bastard’s mouth, and managed to leap from my aisle seat to a spare seat two rows back before the first spatters even touched my sneakers.

Berzerker DID have a flight once where it looked like crashing was a possibility. We were on an Australian tour in 2002 and flew to Perth, and a huge storm hit Perth right around the time we were coming in to land . The plane was thrown all over the sky, people were weeping, it was crazy. I loved it at first and then struggled not to throw up in the final twenty minutes of descent. When we landed we heard that a tornado was reported in Mandurah.

But that was not my worst day of air travel.

The following year, I had to get from Amsterdam to Houston via London and Chicago with an extra piece of luggage over the airline allowance, putting me about thirty kilograms over the excess limit. THAT was the worst day of air travel.

I had to get my broke ass onto the flight with a big cricket bag of clothes, a bass guitar case, a bullshit-heavy bass amp, and my carry-on manbag stuffed with guitar pedals and leads. I had done my best with both the record label and airlines to ensure that I could get everything onto the plane, but it was far from a done deal.

 

"Hurry up and get to the airport, man...this multimillion dollar tour waits for no-one"

“Hurry up and get to the airport, man…this tour waits for NO-ONE”

 

For starters, the record label didn’t give a fuck. The flights they’d got us had a 40 euro per kilo excess, so I was up for 1200 euros of excess luggage penalties if anything went wrong. When I pointed that out to them, they were like “you’ll be fine, don’t worry”.

After much foot-stamping on my part, label manager Digby finally said okay, okay, whatever…we’ll cover you if there’s any extra costs. I still wasn’t happy. A guarantee from the label was like relying on a security net made from fairy floss and letters to Santa. They were probably wondering what on earth I was doing travelling the world with my own bass amp instead of renting one from other bands, or when arriving on location. In which case I’d agree with them. Travelling with my own amp was definitely one of the most stupid things I’ve done.

For their part, the airlines agreed after much phone-calling and negotiation to give me a luggage clearance that would treat the day’s multiple flights as one international trip, with the same luggage conditions right through to my final destination. There’s two great words to use in the context of air travel, eh? Anyway, I got them to email through the exemption and I printed it out but I wasn’t sure the agreement was worth the proverbial paper it was printed on. Airlines are notorious for fucking over musicians. Terms and conditions are specious enough on the subject of electronic equipment that at any given time your musical equipment may be luggage, or electrical goods, or commercial goods, or what the fuck. And it’ll probably be smashed to bits by the baggage handlers anyway. Secondly, airline customer service is the same as customer service worldwide, in which it isn’t customer service: it’s customer frustration. Just in case the uninterpretable phone menus and forty-minute queues to speak to a human doesn’t give you the hint, then their complete inability to provide intelligible information or any service whatsoever should make it clear – if the airline had its way, they would just slingshot you and the plane into the nearest mountain and be done with you.

 

"Wankstain Airlines would like to wish you a pleasant and safe journey, and HAVE A NICE DAY!"

“Wankstain Airlines would like to wish you a pleasant and safe journey, and HAVE A NICE DAY!”

 

I wasn’t particularly trusting of neither label nor airline.

The first flight of the day left from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport with the morning rush of commuters to London. People actually commute daily from Amsterdam to London for work! Remember that next time you’re having a moan about your fare prices or the train being delayed. I had negotiated for all the weight to be allowed onto the flight, but the fact that it was split into three pieces of luggage instead of two was going to be a problem. I approached the desk.

“Hi. I’d like to check in” I told the girl behind the counter.
“Sure!” she replied. “Can I have your passport?”
I handed her my passport.

“And how many pieces of luggage?” she asked, eyeing all my bags.
“Two”, I said brightly.
“Um…I see three bags there” she said.
“I have an exemption for the luggage.”
“But you have three bags?”
“No I don’t…here, let me fix this” I said.

I snatched the ‘warning: fragile’ tape off her desk, laid the bass case down on the ground, and commenced taping the cricket bag to the case. The girl wasn’t sure what to do. A big queue of morning commuters were forming behind me, probably bankers and executives. Being the warm caring human beings they are, they all started rolling their eyes, huffing, and looking at their watches. The girl at the desk decided I obviously wasn’t worth the trouble and helped me mummify the bag and case in tape. I was processed extra-quick, and made it through to London.

 

"Get a move on. This financial system isn't going to wreck itself, you know"

“Get a move on. This financial system isn’t going to wreck itself, you know”

 

There was some sort of problem at London which I don’t exactly recall. I was supposed to exit customs, meet up with Luke, then go back through customs and board together, something like that. I think I exited customs into the general airport, but couldn’t find Luke, who had already entered customs and was searching for me in the boarding area, like a death metal Three Stooges sketch. We eventually caught up and boarded the plane.

Chicago was where the fun really started. When we exited the London to Chicago flight, we were told that we needed to pick up our bags from baggage collection and check them in for the remaining flight. I arrived at the luggage belt and waited. And waited. And waited. Everyone had collected their bags and departed. Luke was hanging around waiting for me and getting impatient. My bass amp came out, then my cricket bag. The cricket bag was covered in broken ‘warning: fragile’ tape from where my bass case had been ripped away. Uh oh.

I ran through the cavernous hall looking for the complaints desk or a lost luggage collection point, and ten minutes later at the far end of the hall I found my bass. It was propped up against a wall by itself. No collection point or official or anyone was in sight. All the identification tags had been on my cricket bag. I realised what had happened and nearly blacked out with rage. Airport Security had removed my bass case from the cricket bag, searched it for god knows what, then just left it wherever untagged and without notifying anyone.

We grabbed our stuff and ran for the train to take us to our terminal. I was already getting the skin-crawling hateful distrust of everything I get whenever I travel to America. We eventually got to our check-in desks where we’d get our domestic flight vouchers and check in our baggage for the last flight to Houston. Luke went first and finished quickly and without incident. I was next.

The desk clerk lady greeted me and asked me to put my bags on the conveyor belt, which I did. I hadn’t reattached the cricket bag and bass case together. I gave the lady my flight booking details and passport, and asked for an extra tag for the bass case. I figured it shouldn’t be a problem. The airline had said my luggage allowance was good for Amsterdam right through to Houston, and I thought if there was going to be a problem it would be at either Amsterdam or London. All my baggage had already been checked in for the day, twice.

It turned out that I’d figured wrong.

“You got an extra piece of luggage here”, said the clerk while fixing the tag to my bass case.
“Ha, I know, but I’ve got an exemption from the airline for my extra piece of luggage”, I said.
“We don’t recognise exemptions. And we charge $100 per piece of extra luggage”
I didn’t like the way this conversation was going.

I protested. “But this has already been checked in at Amsterdam, right through to the Houston destination.”
“Well you’re in America now, this is a domestic flight, and we do things differently here”.
The loathsome bitch started up the luggage belt, then sweetly smiled and said “Would you like to pay by cash, cheque, or credit card?”  My bass case was disappearing through the curtain into the loading area.

I certainly didn’t have cash or cheque, just bucketloads of desperation. In retrospect I may have been able to use a credit card but I wasn’t sure at that point if I’d maxed it out. In any case, I went straight for the wrong move which was to lunge straight through the curtain and drag my bass back out.

The conveyor belt instantly stopped. I could hear an alarm on the other side of the curtain. I looked around. All the desk clerks were staring at me. I looked at Luke. He was standing a distance away, and probably couldn’t work out what was happening, just that I’d gone and got myself into some sort of trouble again. I could see further up the hall to where airport security guys armed with automatic rifles started approaching. I looked back at Luke and indicated with my head that he should get going for the security queue. He got going.

 

The solution to 100% customer satisfaction?Shoot all the unhappy customers.

The solution to 100% customer satisfaction?
Shoot all the unhappy customers.

 

Well, the security guys were approaching, the desk clerks were sneering, I was feeling like a bit of a dick and it looked like things were going to get ugly when all of a sudden a lovely, wonderful, pleasant lady from the airport stepped up and announced to everyone “There has been a misunderstanding. I’ll handle this.” She turned to me and apologised for the confusion, and of course she could put my extra luggage through at no additional cost. She even helped me tape my cricket bag and bass case back together. I don’t know if she was the manager, another baggage counter employee, or what. All I know is she saved me from a total airport meltdown. She put my luggage through and gave me my boarding pass, and sent me on my happy way. I still kick myself for not getting her name and address so I could send her a card every year for the next ten years thanking her for being so brilliantly cool.

The security queue was almost a kilometre long. I ran the length of it. Luke by then was almost at the front so I jumped in next to him, causing waves of passive-aggressive resentment to ripple up and down through the other passengers. We went through screening….and then it was my turn to wait for Luke. He looked like a cross between Osama Bin Laden and a Mad Max villain, and American airports were in full-post-9/11-retard at the time, so he got a bit of a search and question.

Speaking of 9/11, here’s a quick story: Luke was on the phone to Earache US label manager and fellow Aussie Al Dawson when the first plane struck the World Trade Centre. Luke was hassling Al to get us a US tour when Al saw the plane hit. He yelled “Jesus Christ!”, and the phone went dead. Luke tried calling him back for a few hours and when he eventually got through, he said:

“Listen to me, Al. Listen very carefully….give us a headline US tour or the STATUE OF LIBERTY IS NEXT.”

 

We got the tour, and the Statue of Liberty is still standing. Coincidence?

We got the tour, and the Statue of Liberty is still standing.
Coincidence?

 

We finally got through customs and security. We found our gate. The flight had just been called and people were beginning to line up. I was a wreck after the day so I told Luke I’d meet him on the plane. I was pretty tense and I needed to go have a terror-wee before boarding. I went to the toilet. I washed my hands. I splashed water on my face. I dried my hands. I took about five minutes. I exited the bathroom and returned to the gate. The queue was gone. Through the windows, I could see a plane backing out onto the runway.

“Is…that the flight to Houston?” I asked a guy behind the gate desk.
“Sure is” he replied.
“Is there…any chance you could call it back so I could get on it?”
It was worth a try.
“No!…” he laughed.

Before I could fully spaz out he continued.
“…but there’s another flight leaving for Houston in twenty minutes. I can put you on that one?”
“Yes please. Thankyou.”

I got my flight to Houston. Luke told me later he was waiting for me to get on the plane, and when it started backing away from the terminal the air stewardesses had to push him back into his seat while he screamed “YOU CAN’T GO! MY FRIEND ISN’T ON THE PLANE YET!!!” At least that’s what he said. For all I know he was probably eating peanuts going ahhhh, peace at last.

Long story short, I made it to Houston without further incident. One week later I managed to get myself into much, much worse trouble.

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