Saturday, January 22, 2005

Endings and Beginnings

Our trip to Celebration this weekend brought some endings and some new beginnings. As I drove toward Midway Airport, praying to beat the blizzard that was bearing down on Chicago, I realized that this would most likely be my last flight ever to Orlando on ATA. They have truly earned the name "Lame Duck Air," and my relationship with them has been like a dysfunctional romance. We had the honeymoon period where everything was nearly perfect. I have fond memories of flights to Florida many years ago; my husband and I would arrive at the old Midway Airport, which is nothing like the current mini-O Hare, bleary-eyed and anxious to wing our way south on the 7 a.m. flight. ATA had just switched from being charter-only to being a low-cost general carrier specializing in vacation destinations. This was reinforced by their gaudy uniforms and a delicious tropical juice blend drink, available with or without alcohol.

But just as a lover sometimes changes once the relationship is established, ATA went through a startling metamorphosis. Gone was the vacation theme, along with the drink, the uniforms, and the catchy "On ATA you're on vacation" television jingle that still drifts through my brain (if you're from Chicago, you know what I'm talking about). Now, my fun-loving airline was all business; leisure travelers were fine, but they were gunning for the business market and they tried to change their image to align with that goal. They even painted their planes to eliminate their cute old logo, although you can still see it on some of their older aircraft to this day.

I did love their new airplanes, particularly the roomy, comfy 757-300s, with their plush leather seats and adjustable headrests. I got so spoiled that I would recoil in horror every time I was forced to fly on a 737. In comparison to my beloved 757s, 737s look like little metal micro-tubes.

Then something happened that no one could predict: 9/11 devastated the airline industry. Suddenly ATA's expansion plans, which had seemed like a wise move in the heady, pre-terrorist days, put them in a precarious financial position along with virtually every other airline. Most of the airlines managed to pull through, but things would never, ever be the same. I never realized that I noticed the sound of airplanes overhead until it was suddenly gone. After 9/11, the sky was filled with eerie silence, like an episode of "The Twilight Zone." I'll never forget the first time I heard a jet when flights finally resumed. I was at the barn where I board my horses, riding Figment in the corral; the barn owner was doing yard work nearby. We both heard that lovely sound and looked up in the air just in time to see a jet leaving its vapor trail overhead. We looked at each other and gave a big thumbs-up; no words were necessary.

Our trips to Florida became more and more frequent, and our relationship with ATA settled into acceptance of their new business focus. After all, their prices were still the best. In the past, we had grabbed a trip on American or United every once in a while, but now we were flying ATA exclusively. Their fares, plus the convenience of Midway (even though by now it had undergone a major expansion), was a powerful draw.

By early 2004, we were coming to Celebration nearly every other weekend, and we had come to depend on ATA. Inevitably, we could be found on the same flight out each Friday evening and the corresponding return flight on Sunday. Amazingly enough, we discovered that we were not the only "commuters." There were several others who we encountered on a regular basis. We became a little unofficial "fraternity of the sky." I'm sure that similar groups can be found on Friday/Sunday flights on just about any other airline heading to just about any major destination.

Our relationship with ATA settled into a comfortable, predictable pattern. It had actually improved with the introduction of their frequent flyer program. It was the most generous I've ever seen, offering a free companion ticket after only three roundtrips, with absolutely no blackout dates. Little did I know that the shoe was waiting to drop.

Bankruptcy! That terrible word popped up in mid-2004 like some evil jack-in-the-box. The expansion, coupled with skyrocketing fuel prices, had caught up with ATA. Ugly rumors were swirling around that they would be leaving Midway Airport. Like a cheating spouse who insists, "No, really, I'm not seeing anyone else!", ATA swore up and down that they were fully committed to Midway. They even ran television ads and had a "We're Not Leaving" sale.

But alas, it was all lies. Bankruptcy was soon to follow, and with it a wild roller coaster of rumors and aborted plans. Suddenly they were leaving Chicago, much to our chagrin (although I had long expected as much; their previous ad campaign had been a classic case of "Methinks thou doth protesteth too much"). Then maybe they weren't. It was at this point that my husband dubbed them "Lame Duck Air," a very apt description. Predictably, the Chicago employees' attitudes had suffered, and their service level dropped dramatically. Meanwhile, the uncertainly raged on. First they were going to link up with Air-Tran, but then suddenly maybe it was America West. Then back to Air-Tran...and suddenly, at the eleventh hour, there was a bid from Southwest.

The Southwest deal gave us hope. It would mean an infusion of cash for Lame Duck Air, as well as the retention of several Midway gates. Surely they would keep their Orlando route; after all, it was one of the most popular. Like an abused spouse whose counterpart swears on a stack of Bibles to change, we came to believe that Lame Duck Air had finally settled down and that they would keep their word this time. After all, they were still selling tickets from Chicago to Orlando a year into the future. The Southwest agreement was a done deal. It had been a rough several months but we'd finally reached the happy ending, right?

No such luck.

Suddenly Lame Duck Air announced that they were dropping every non-stop flight between Chicago and Orlando. Yes, every single one. You could still take a puddle jumper and connect through Indy, but that was not a very appealing option, especially since the airfare was ridiculous. That will happen the first week in February, so this weekend was definitely our last trip on the airline that we've gotten to know so well over many years and many, many flights.

It was a somewhat melancholy trip. God, who has a very ironic sense of humor, saw fit to prevent me from one last trip on a 757-300. That was our scheduled aircraft, and I even double checked at the gate when we arrived at the airport. But when we boarded, my eyes were assailed by the optic orb-searing Las Vegas upholstery of a 757-200, my favorite plane's poor cousin from the sticks. In talking to the flight attendant later, I learned that our original plane had been stranded in another state due to the blizzard making its way across the country. Thus this old bus had been pressed into service. We are scheduled for another 757-200 on the return flight, so I'll never know the leather padded luxury of a 757-300 or the comfort of our favorite seats 10D and E again.

Still, I was glad to be flying at all, in any type of aircraft. Already the storm had forced cancellations of scores of East Coast flights. A parade of snowplows was struggling to keep the runways open for as long as possible, but you could tell that the level of snowfall would soon be outpacing them.

We were very fortunate to be able to leave with only a 45 minute delay. In a complex, well-choreographed ballet, our deicing had to be timed precisely with a window of take-off opportunity created by the snow plows. Complete the deicing too early and the runway wouldn't be ready before the ice took over the wings again. Complete it too late and the runway would be snow-covered again in a vicious Catch 22. But somehow it all came together, and soon we were winging our way through the snow clouds and off to a better climate.

Our last flight to Orlando on Lame Duck Air was relatively uneventful (just the way I like it). Endings are always sad, but the effect it mitigated when a happy new beginning is just around the corner.

Of course, in this case the new beginning is permanent residency in Celebration. In one week, we'll be heading south in our Aztek/Canyonero, packed to the hilt with animals and household goods, to make Celebration our base of operations. My husband will still be doing some regular air commuting, but it will be in the opposite direction.

The upcoming week will be melancholy for me; it's my last week at the job where I've worked for 16 years. Another ending, and although I knew it was coming, it still is difficult. I am in the enviable position of having to choose between several good things. I enjoy that job, but I am also excited about how my travel agency has taken off. Chicago is home to me because I was born and raised there, but Celebration has become home in many senses too. I love our cozy little East Village home and our wonderful friends. I knew the choice was coming; that doesn't make it any easier, but at least I feel like we prepared ourselves as much as possible.

There are still many unknowns, but those are what make life interesting. Endings, beginnings...that's what life is all about.

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