Monday, March 07, 2005

Welcome to the Windy City

I'm back in Chicago and already pining for Celebration. Today, my original home town is living up to its "Windy City" moniker. Normally, that applies more strongly to the politicians than to the weather, but today the wind is blowing strong. Thank goodness the temperature is in the 50s. A cold Chicago wind in January or February can cut through you like a knife and chill you to the core of your being. Now that it's March, the bitter weather is still possible but not as likely.

We flew on, Southwest, since Lame Duck Air (aka ATA) is no longer an option. My ATA Elite status card that I flew so many miles to obtain is now just a decoration in my wallet. At least we managed to give out most of our frequent flyer tickets before the ATA schedule turned all but non-existent out of Chicago. Now, my husband haunts the internet for the best fares, and lately Southwest has been pretty darned close. This time around, Ted was a few dollars cheaper, but he was willing to pay a penalty (and to not have assigned seats) in order to fly into Midway vs. O'Hare.

Personally, I prefer Midway, too, but I really don't mind O'Hare. Some people hate it for its massive size, but I am so used to it that I have no trouble negotiating the confusing maze of terminals. Midway used to be tiny, but after a major remodeling a couple of years ago, it's becoming a mini-O'Hare in its own rite. I like Midway better mainly because I am a South Sider, and I prefer the straight shot down Cicero Avenue vs. the tollbooths of 294 and pretzel inerchanges of 294.

Before this morning, I had no personal experience with Southwest upon which to draw. I had read plenty of internet horror stories about the pre-board abuse on Orlando flights. For those who are not familiar with the boarding process, no seats are assigned in advance. Instead, you check in online or at the airport and get a pass lettered A, B, or C. At the gate, you get into the proper line as designated by your letter. The A group boards first, then B, and then the straggler Cs. On a full flight, the last group doesn't always get a very good choice of seats.

If you check in shortly after midnight on the day of your flight, your chances of getting an A pass are good-to-excellent. Unfortunately, a gaggle of pre-boarders goes on ahead of the As. I say "unfortunately" because, although the group is supposed to be limited to people with children under 4 and those needing extra time or assistance (i.e. handicapped), the definition is applied very loosely. According to internet lore, it's not uncommon to see "three year olds" who have reached puberty, or sometimes even legal voting age. For the "crippled," passing over the threshhold of the Southwest 737s appears to work like the miraculous waters of the Lourdes shrine. As they approach the aircraft, they limp along on feeble limbs. Step through the door and Praise God! They are cured! Suddenly they can sprint for the prime seats like an Olympic champion. I know that some people on the internet can be prone to exaggeration, but I don't doubt that everything I've read about Southwest is true; I've seen it often enough on ATA, although it's not so bad if half the plane boards in front of you when you have a seat assignment.

My husband stayed up Sunday night, waiting for the witching hour so he could print those precious A passes. I was up too, although not willingly. We had a towncar scheduled to pick us up at 5 a.m. for the ride to the airport, so we knew we'd get precious little sleep. My husband had to work late anyway, but I wanted to get some extra shut-eye. Problem is, I just couldn't cross the threshhold into Dreamland until I knew that we were checked in. I have a very accurate internal alarm system, but it was too close to midnight by the time I crawled into bed; rather than have me zone out and then wake up again, my body simply kept me awake.

As it was, I was not looking forward to returning to Chicago. I knew I'd miss my bed full of purring felines, the sunshine and warm temperatures, and most of all, our home and friends. It's amazing how easily I've come to consider Celebration my home and to feel displaced when I'm not there. But I know that I have loose ends to tie up in Illinois, so I bit the bullet. After all, my poor husband had already put in two five-day stints while I had stayed behind at Duloc Manor; now it was time for mutual suffering.

Before bed, I had prepared the animals' food and locked Bradley (my bird) in the formal room so the cats couldn't torment him while we're gone. He's a wicked bird, so he'd encourage their misbehavior if he had half a chance. When our cat Muse (who has since gone to Kitty Heaven) had gotten old and weak, the feathered fiend would pick on her unmercifully. He'd wait until she tried to drink at her water dish, then fly down from his cage and peck her until she gave up. Then he'd cockily fly into the dish and take a bath! Mind you, he is just a little cocketiel, but he likes living dangerously. I don't want him teasing our newer, younger, and more agile cats unless I am around to referee.

I also packed my work bag (laptop and accessories), which clued the kitties that something was up. They get very flighty and agitated when they suspect that we are leaving. The next morning, Farquaad seemed to think that we were going to toss him back into the Kitty Karavan, as he wouldn't let either myself or my husband pick him up. Usually he is Mr. Love Bug and loves being petted and cuddled, but the memory of 24 hours caged in the back of Canyonero was enough to reverse his usual good nature.

The towncar showed up at 5 a.m. sharp. We locked up Duloc Manor and headed off to the B Terminal at MCO. The sky was still black as night, belying the dawn that was sneaking up just over the horizon. Traffic on the road was light, although the airport was starting to hop. At that hour, it is still a relatively sleepy place, but you can see that it's in the process of waking up into a crowded explosion of travelers.

We never bother to check luggage, so we wound our way through the Security maze and to the train that would take us to the gate. One of the TSA screeners was interested in our portable DVD player. He had been considering one, so he had some questions. Ours is just a cheapie generic Wal-Mart model, and after thousands upon thousands of air miles with no malfunctions, I can heartily recommend it. My husband bought it for me as a Chistmas present two years ago; ironically, he uses it more than I do.

The gate was virtually deserted, although there were two intrepid parties already camped out in the A line. It was about an hour before our flight's scheduled departure time, so we moved into the "cattle chute" to wait. Shortly thereafter, I was reminded that it really is a small world after all when one of my co-workers walked up to the line! She has a home a couple of towns over from Celebration, and she had been in Florida for the weekend. The time passed quickly as we chatted, and soon the non-existent lines had grown and expanded to the far reaches of the gate area. The length of the A line alone made me happy that I'd arrived early.

I've heard so much about Southwest's uber-efficient boarding process that I was anxious to witness it on my own. The gate agent anounced that boarding would start 15 minutes before our scheduled departure time. 15 minutes? With ATA, it always took at least half an hour. Of course, their 757s hold over 100 more people than a Southwest micro-737, but still...

At the appointed time, the dreaded Pre-Board from Hell was announced. Since it was early on a Monday morning, there were very few children traveling, so it was nothing like the nightmare I'd envisioned. A few families with kids in strollers rolled down the jetway, and that was it. But then a woman in her late twenties or early thirties strolled up with a grey-haired but able-bodied looking woman. They approached the pre-board chute, backed off, then approached again. Finally, they stode up and were promptly stopped by the gate agent. I heard a somewhat heated discussion about ages. Finally, the disgruntled duo gave up and headed back to their assigned cattle pen.

Since we were among the first As to board the aircraft, we pretty much had our choice of seats. I eyed the bulkhead, but my husband wanted to be able to stow his bag in front of him, so we took the middle and window seats in row two. I eyed the baby across the aisle with some apprehension, but my husband convinced me that getting off the plane quickly in Chicago outweighed the potential for eardrum discomfort. Turns out he was right; the baby (and its parents) slept soundly throughout the flight, with not even a peep.

Overall, I was not impressed with the Southwest method of boarding. It ended up taking closer to half an hour, meaning that we left the gate late. Perhaps they work that into their schedule, as we had an on-time arrival in Chicago. But half an hour is not an impressive boarding time for a 737; I've seen ATA do it zillions of times. I suspect that the "no assigned seats" policy has more to do with the cost of doing a massive computer system upheaval and retraining all of their agents than it has to do with physical boarding efficiency.

After being used to 757-300s for so long, a 737 seemed like a claustrophobic cigar tube to me. At least the seat pitch was fairly comfortable, and there was a decent amount of legroom (at least for a bargain airline). I settled in and had almost reached Dreamland when the flight attendants came around with vanilla wafers and a choice of coffee or orange juice. I had a quick snack and then resumed my slumber, which last until it was time to prepare for the landing.

The pilot warned us about the wind, so I was prepared for the bouncy, swaying descent. I am a paranoid flyer, but it's not so bad when I know what to expect. The wicked gusts battered our intrepid little aircraft as we descended over the city. The landing was just slightly rough, but certainly not the worst that I've experienced. Soon we had taxied to the gate and were making our way down the jetway to our "other" home city.

I was a little disappointed that none of the flight attendants exhibited the Southwest humor that I've heard so much about. No jokes at all; perhaps they figured that most of the passengers were still too sleepy to appreciate it. Oh well, maybe we'll witness some wit on our return trip on Friday.

I suspect that our Friday night flight will be closer to the special hell that I've read about it. It's the second-to-the-last direct flight to Orlando, and since it's the weekend, I'm sure it will be jam-packed with excited youngsters on their way to see Mickey. It will be interesting to see if they enforce an age limit and if they allow the whole neighborhood to board with each infant and toddler.

My husband headed off the the train station, as he had to go right to work downtown. Meanwhile, I started my quest to locate the rental car counters. They were scattered around the baggage claim level, and of course Budget (the company that William Shatner had seen fit to link me up with via Priceline) was around an obscure corner. Thankfully, the line was minimal, but it still took forever because the agent was having a devil of a time with my reservation. Apparently, she couldn't get something to print; then, after trying to redo it a couple of times, she discovered that it had printed after all.

I thought that Orlando was bad for trying to sucker people into buying the insurance coverage and pre-paying for a full tank of gas, but Midway made MCO look tame. Not only did they try to strong-arm me into buying all of that malarkey, but they also pushed hard to sell me an upgrade. I suspected that it was because they didn't have an economy cars left, and I was correct. I ended up with a free upgrade from a micro-Hyundai to a Pontiac Grand Prix.

It felt so odd to be driving a rental car in Chicago. My husband's Pimpin' Family Truckster (i.e. Aztek) is still at our condo, but there is no cheap/easy way to get there from the airport. I have family who would pick me up, but I don't want to saddle them with that responsibility on a regular basis. As long as I can get a good deal on Priceline, a rental car is a good solution.

The sky was murky, but the temperature was hovering in the 50s. I haven't lost my Midwestern heartiness yet, so it actually felt pretty good. I drove down Cicero Avenue and made good time getting to the condo, since traffic was amazingly sparse. I shoehorned a week's worth of mail out of the box and made my way upstairs. I thought perhaps I'd feel a small swell of happiness, or at least familiarity, once I finally opened the door, but there was nothing. The only feeling was a nagging sense of loneliness that there was no pack of felines to greet me.

The house looked just as I'd last seen it, with everything scattered about in a mute testimony to our frenzy to get the Kitty Karavan on the road over a month ago. Most of my plants were still alive, and I did have to smile as I gazed at my beloved collection of comedy and tragedy masks hanging on the walls. That's probably the only thing I really miss, but I have plenty of wall space reserved in the stairwell of Duloc Manor.

I plunked down on the couch to boot up my laptop and get to work. How strange it felt not to have a cat (or two or three) rubbing up against me and trying to lie on the keyboard. No bird screeching in the background or flying over to perch on my shoulder and taunt the cats from his protected vantage point.

Oh well, only four more days and I'll be home in Celebration once again.

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