Fly me

“Delta,” they used to say, “is ready when you are.”

They’re right. I wasn’t ready for what lay ahead. And neither were they.

After a week of Thanksgiving partying in Detroit with my large extended family, I spent Sunday evening — and Monday morning — camped out on the floor of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, hoping that I wouldn’t get bumped at 7:30 a.m. from yet another standby flight back to Los Angeles.

Sunday had started out in a promising fashion, of a sort. It took 15 attempts to get the Delta Airlines computer to engage the task of producing boarding passes for my venture, but an hour of banging away finally bore fruit. After having my Southwest flight to Detroit earlier in the week cancelled at the last minute and my luggage lost upon arrival, i was encouraged to find online that the first leg of my flight out of town — the 5:20 p.m. to Atlanta — was only running a half hour late despite the onset of snow flurries an hour earlier and inclement weather in Georgia.

That would barely cut into my two-hour layover before proceeding home.

When I reached Detroit Metropolitan Airport, a dutiful two hours ahead of time, I noticed that my departure had been pushed back to 7 p.m. Uh, oh. That would make my Atlanta connection problematic, but the Delta ticket agent checked his computer and assured me the plane was actually in the air early, would arrive at 5:40 and depart no later than 6:15. Problem solved. But just in case, he gave me a backup standby ticket for the 10:30 p.m. flight from Atlanta to L.A.

My plane did not get out of Detroit until 7:10 p.m. It landed at 8:50 p.m., but sat on the tarmac for 45 minutes waiting for an open gate. I O.J.’d through the airport to my connecting flight, which itself had been delayed a half hour, but stood with my nose pressed to the window and watched as my plane, its doors closed, sat waiting for permission to taxi to the runway.

I dashed down the concourse to my 10:30 p.m. standby flight in time to watch as it was delayed first til 10:45, then 11:15. Not that it mattered. I was 32 on the list, and near as I could tell, only three people had not claimed their seats.

It was the last flight to L.A.

Upon announcement that the flight was filled and the unfortunate bumpees would be processed elsewhere, our hoard careened down the concourse toward what one would-be flyer called the “I got screwed by Delta” line that held upon our belated arrival at least 300 people from other errant flights.

Aggrieved customers, armed with cellphones, called loved ones to relate their plight while Delta agents obligingly handed out yet more standby tickets for Monday and offered to book flights for Tuesday and Wednesday. We were encouraged to blame God for the weather conditions and the FAA for any ancillary evil, but they insisted Delta had no complicity in our fate. We also received a card that offered us lodging at the local Wellesley Inn with the prominent directive: “Bill to customer.”

Although my Monday 7:30 a.m. flight was already “totally booked,” the agent assured me I would be on it and personally guaranteed that he would get me on a plane if I were still there when he showed up for work Monday night. He seemed like a man of his word and I didn’t know enough then to invoke Rule 240.

I decided to spend the night in the airport terminal and save the $127 hotel expense. I wasn’t alone. Mostly individual flyers were scattered about, some stuffed into stiff, unaccommodating chairs; others strewn across the floor. Laptops had replaced cellphones for contact with the outside world. Children in pajamas wandered about the concourse.

Finally, I hunkered down for the night in a cozy corner with my book, The Predator State (How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too), pulled my Delta courtesy blanket tight and tried to block out the incessant chatter from the airport intercom system and the overhead television.

The next morning, I was ready to go home. But was Delta?

I vied with 52 standbys for the Monday 7:30 a.m. flight. I was pulling for the older gentleman with the cane, but when I heard he was 43 on the list, I knew he was doomed. I was number 12 and didn’t come close. Although Delta had assured me that all of the seven flights to LA were booked solid, they offered $600 vouchers to the first four people who agreed to take a flight later that afternoon. I’m not quite sure how that works.

Atlanta has a huge airport, with half a dozen concourses spread out across a mile. Fortunately, they have a train that shuttles people from one end to the other, because I bounced from one end to the other, getting shut out of the 8:30 flight before lining up for the 9:50 plane.

Again, I was low (15) on the standby list, which had somehow grown to 63 from 52 earlier in the morning. But amazingly, they called my name and told me to grab the “last” open seat. I dashed aboard, plunked myself down and sat amazed as the plane departed.

The seat beside me was empty.