While I wasn’t particularly excited to leave for the UK on my birthday, in a sense it was kind of a nice birthday present, so I didn’t really mind.  I arrived at the airport a couple hours before my flight, checked in fine, and headed to the terminal from where my US Airways flight to Charlotte, NC was scheduled to depart.  I’m a bit neurotic about flights.  I always like to check at the terminal to make sure that the flight is actually slotted for that terminal (I missed a flight once because I didn’t check).  As I arrived at the terminal I noticed that my flight to Charlotte was listed as delayed by 15 minutes.  You may not remember, but that was the day that a storm hit the Northeast, delaying flights across the U.S. as a result.  I was connecting to Gatwick from Charlotte and only had about 1 hour and 20 minutes between flights.  A delay of 15 minutes probably wouldn’t make a difference, so I didn’t worry about it.

I sat down at a workstation (which the Tampa airport conveniently places all around the terminals) and logged onto the free wi-fi (Tampa’s airport rocks!).  I did a little work, then, as the time to board the flight drew near, I shut off my computer and pulled out my book (I treated myself to a fiction book as it makes flights go much faster for me).  When there was no boarding call at the time specified on my ticket, I decided to check the screen at the desk to see if the delay had gotten worse.  I walked over and still saw a 15 minute delay.  Assuming US Airways was being honest, I sat back down and continued reading.

Fifteen minutes passed with no boarding call.  I got up again and walked to the desk.  The flight was now delayed 45 minutes.  Not knowing if that would work for my connection, I got in line at the terminal to see what I could learn.  I waited in line for almost 30 minutes.  By the time I finally got up to the desk the plane had started to board.  When I asked about my connection in Charlotte, the gate attendant informed me that I would definitely miss it.  She then gave me my one and only option: be rebooked on the same connection to Charlotte the next day and catch the flight to Gatwick 24 hours later than my scheduled flight.  Basically, my trip would be delayed 24 hours.

If I were traveling for pleasure and not to attend a conference, I probably would have accepted the inconvenience and went home.  But this turn of events was unacceptable.  The flight across the Atlantic is an overnight flight – you leave here around 6:00 or 7:00 pm and arrive in the UK around 7:00 or 8:00 am.  I was leaving on a Wednesday so I could arrive on Thursday morning.  My conference started at 9:00 am on Friday morning.  From Gatwick to Oxford (where my conference was) via bus is about 2 1/2 hours.  If I flew out on Thursday I would arrive in the UK Friday morning at around 8:00 am.  By the time I made it to Oxford (after clearing customs and getting my luggage) it would be close to noon.  I was scheduled to give a keynote address at 1:00pm.  Yeah, flying out on Thursday wouldn’t work!

The person helping me at the counter basically told me that was the only option and that US Airways doesn’t put people on other carriers if it is weather related and not mechanical.  When I told her it wouldn’t work, she told me she couldn’t deal with me at that moment because there were more passengers behind me.  The passengers behind me were looking a bit annoyed as well because I wasn’t going to accept the alternative I was given.  I was furious!  Having been dismissed, I walked back to ticketing, stopping to grab my checked suitcase on the way.

When I got to the U.S. Airways ticket counter there were no people in line.  So, I walked up to Elliot D. (I still remember his name) and told him my situation.  He reiterated the policy that US Airways can’t put me on another carrier if the delay is weather related.  I told him I understood that, but that I couldn’t be delayed 24 hours or I would likely miss the reason for the trip – my keynote presentation at a conference.  Turns out Elliot D. was a nice guy.  He told me he’d see what he could do.  He started punching keys on his keyboard then told me he’d have to talk to the manager.  The manager said no the first time.  I told Elliot that I had to be there and that I’d go check British Airways if I had to (conveniently right next door) and just cancel my ticket (I did buy trip insurance).  He actually was on my side and told me what to tell the manager if he could get the manager to come out to talk to me: A delay of a few hours wouldn’t matter, but 24 hours was unacceptable.  He went back to see if the manager would come talk to me but apparently the manager was too busy.  He told Elliot, “Do what you want.”  Elliot came back with a smile on his face.  There was in fact a direct flight on British Airways from Tampa to Gatwick leaving at 7:40 that night and there were available seats.  He put me on the flight!

I thanked Elliot profusely and asked him if there was a way for me to let management at US Airways know that he had saved my trip and my conference.  He gave me a URL and his name.  After thanking him again, I went back through security then sat down at a workstation and sent a very nice email to US Airways management telling them that Elliot D. in Tampa had saved my conference!

I grabbed a bite to eat, then boarded the flight.  It turned out that I was in a window seat and there was an empty seat between myself and the other woman in my row, so we both had a little extra room, which was nice.  I was hoping to get some sleep on the flight so I would have energy to walk around Oxford the next day and still meet up with the conference organizers that night.  But the woman in my row was talkative – very, very talkative.  She ended up talking at me for about 4 hours of the 8 hour flight.  I think I got about 3 hours of sleep.  She was nice though, so I didn’t mind too much!

Tomorrow – Oxford.

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