“I’m sorry, it’s 6:18, you need to check your bag 45 minutes before your flight departs, and you’re officially three minutes late Mr. Tunney,” said the ticketing agent.
“I was here, it’s just that the line was very long and that added extra time in line to me actually getting to give you the bag made me later than expected,” I replied.
I looked around, women were crying, a German man was screaming that he needed six hours of his life back, my friends were slowly making their way through security already and I was left wondering what to do in an unarguable situation: Do I mention my status? Do I say pretty please? Can I just get on the next flight in an hour? Will she stop accusing me of being late and scowling at me?
And then I was told, “Sorry sir, your tardiness means you cannot fly for another six hours, then we can re-route you through Chicago, arriving in Austin tonight at 10:35 p.m. Also, we cannot hold your bag for that time, and you cannot call United to try to fix things. My word is final.”
I felt bullied. I walked away from the ticketing counter, called United and asked what my options were. On the other end of the call, a representative welcomed me back with niceties, unaware of me being turned away from ticketing. I informed them that I felt a little bullied by a grumpy ticketing agent in the Aspen airport and asked for an earlier flight. “Go back to the ticketing agent and ask to fly standby,” I was told.
So I did that. “We don’t do that in this airpot,” was the ticketing agent’s reply. So I walked away and called the airline back. I work for a big company — I know the intricacies of the back and forth and the lack of communication that can involve both.
Again, I was told, “There’s not much available today. However, you can still make your connection if you take an airport shuttle to Denver, and then we can credit you for the missed flight from Aspen to Denver. And we apologize for the ticketing agent of course.”
By now, it was only 6:25 a.m. and no shuttles were leaving yet. But the rental car facility was a walk away from ticketing, so I took a chance and walked over there. A girl asked if I missed my flight because of my bags being late to check in, I said yes and peered behind the National Car Rental counter to see if anyone was there.
It was the same group of girls that were crying at ticketing, also turned away for attempting to check their bags in mere minutes after the cut off time.
“They don’t open till 8,” said the girl. “But we’re driving to Denver after that. You can come with us if you want.”
It was settled there and then. I called United back, booked the changes, introduced myself to Rachel and Annie, and took a seat on the floor among our bags in the Aspen Airport as we waited for the National Car Rental desk to open. They made phone calls to commiserate while I was texting the same commiserative words.
We all had felt bullied. But rather than bow down to the ticketing agent, the airline or the entire airport for that matter, we were now set on a path that circumvented one person’s early morning emotional display of power, and bound for Denver, as soon as that damn rental car kiosk opened.
I typed a note into my phone. “Fuck Aspen Airport.” It was 6:58 a.m.
The National Car Rental agent arrived early, on a Monday morning, and we were in the parking lot of Aspen Airport scraping ice off the windows of a new Hyundai Sonata by 7:30 a.m. Rachel agreed to drive, Annie passed out in the back seat, and we headed out away from the airport, destined for Denver with GPS and the will to escape.
The drive from Aspen to Denver is anything but normal: You basically descend out of the mountain heading West, through tiny towns, until you hit an Interstate and head back East through the Rocky Mountains, all the while descending from frigid temperatures and snow into more temperate micro climates. It’s technically 190 miles, but it’s an enduring drive through snow, ice, steep declines and weed refineries.
It didn’t take long for our collective commiseration to kick in. I suggested that airports set up therapy kiosks: 15 minute sessions for however much they wanted to charge. We all laughed. We all admitted that the people in ticketing were very good at making us feel inadequate and lower than low, we all wondered aloud how that happened and then exchanged tales of airport and travel misery from the past.
We really wanted to know what happened to the one woman who just threw her bag at an agent and then walked away to board her flight. It was that chaotic of a morning.
And every five minutes or so, we passed expanses of mountains and cuts that connected the clouds with the land and marveled at the beauty of the untouched snow dotted along the landscapes of the roads. And then we passed through mountain tunnels, emerging into blue skies and approaching ski villages that advertised cheap weed and mining exploration.
Despite the encroaching political climate of the past ten days, we mentioned nothing of it and instead looked out the window at a different idea of America that had escaped recent news: This place is pretty damn beautiful and overwhelming when you take a step back from the bullying and find a different way to look at a potentially bad situation.
The analogy didn’t escape me: It just took a random meeting and a rented Hyundai Sonata to see it more clearly.
At around 11 a.m., the mountainous descent was pushing us into warmer temperatures. And after one final pass, Denver emerged on the horizon, followed by more cars, more billboards, and more weed facilities. We could collectively see the small victory in our paths, and we pushed onward to it amid conversation over the conspiracy theories surrounding Denver Airport.
40 minutes later, we were at the rental facility. The road in was bumpy, we though the car had a flat tire for a moment, and Rachel said, “I don’t care, I’ll push this thing through at this point to get to the airport.” (Thankfully, the road was just bumpy.)
We unloaded, we boarded the shuttle, we saw the fiery mustang outside of the airport that apparently had killed the sculptor who built it after a piece of it broke off and severed his femoral artery. We reached the terminal, and a few minutes later, we all had pleasant exchanges with ticketing agents who thanked us for arriving early. We had righted a wrong.
For the next few hours, we talked about work, tattoos, the TV show ‘Friends’ and more unpleasant travel stories. Annie departed soon after for Houston, while Rachel and myself soon left for Austin.
There were birds in the airport and we all thought it was ironic.
A little over two hours later, we were back in Austin, and lo and behold, our bags had arrived before us. Again, the irony was not lost on either of us, and how the bags combined with timing had been both the beginning and the end of the day and how the events unfolded.
But we had taken a potentially bad situation and turned it around in our favor. And when I got home, I thought to myself, that happened exactly as it was supposed to.
Thanks Rachel and Annie.