My trip from Kenya to Colorado.

A year before I came to BFA, I was returning from Kenya to the States. I had been teaching in Kenya for the preceding year. I had cobbled together my own flight plan for the return trip. I flew KLM from Nairobi to Amsterdam (from whence I had a little sidetrip to Turkey), then Amsterdam to Newark, NJ. I was to spend 1 day in Newark, for an exit interview with Africa Inland Mission (AIM). Then I was to fly to Denver on Vanguard Airlines, where I would be picked up & spend a few days with some old friends. Then, I had a Delta flight from Denver to Portland. Simple, right?

Well, everything was fine up until the end of the Turkey side-trip – well, apart from a singularly unhelpful Turkish bus-ticket agent, but that's a different story. As I was boarding the KLM flight from Amsterdam to Newark, I saw the stack of (American!) newspapers and thought, “You know, I never pick one of those things up. But, hey, they're free, and I've been out of the country for a whole year; I may as well grab one this time.” It was a good thing that I did.

Somewhere over the Atlantic, I decided it was time to read the newspaper. I paged through, reading this, skimming that, until my eyes hit a small headline atop a 1-paragraph article. It read, “Vanguard Airlines Declares Bankruptcy.” All flights were cancelled. Have you ever seen a movie where one of the characters is trapped in an inextricable predicament, and the camera shows a closeup of the character's tonsils and then zooms out as the character screams? Well, that was me – sitting in an airplane somewhere over the Atlantic. I was headed to Newark, with no means of getting from there to the other side of the country.

The good news, however, was that several other airlines had announced that they would give discounted rates to last-minute ticket purchases by verified holders of Vanguard tickets. So, after arriving in Newark and spending the night at the AIM headquarters, the next morning began with a lengthy session on the internet. I analyzed the flight options available from the various airlines who were offering help. Eventually, I decided that Delta had the best flight available, for my purposes. In fact, it would even get me in to Colorado Springs, instead of Denver – which would be good for my friends who lived there anyway (and thus wouldn't need to drive in to Denver to pick me up). Not wanting to leave anything to chance, of course, I called up the Delta 800 #, and explained it all to them. I especially wanted to make sure that there would be no problem with my flying from Newark to Colorado Springs, instead of the planned Vanguard flight from La Guardia to Denver. But Delta assured me that my plans would work fine.

So, still reasonably early in the day, I happily grabbed my bags and hopped a ride to the Newark airport with the AIM folks, who were driving in to transport some other people, anyway. They dropped me off & I was on my own. I found the Delta ticket counter. Happily, there was only a short line. Soon, I was speaking with a Delta employee – one of the two kindly gentlemen who were working the Delta ticket desk that afternoon. I explained it all to him, and he said, “Hmm. Let me see… I haven't heard anything about anything to do with Vanguard Airlines.”

That was my first clue that something was wrong. I could only hope that he would find the right information to allow me to buy the cheap ticket and get on the plane. A normal last-minute ticket, of course, would be ludicrously expensive. But we had plenty of time before the plane left, so I wasn't too worried.

I should have been worried. I was stuck at that counter for I don't know how long – surely it was over an hour. The kindly gentleman remained very good-natured throughout the entire time. So did the other gentleman, who helped the first one sort through their questions about this peculiar transaction. They soon found some documentation on the coverage of Vanguard ticket holders. But then they wondered about the different departure and arrival airports. I told them that the Delta folks on the 800 # had said that was no problem. I can't really recall how that all worked out, but we got past that question pretty easily, I think. That turned out not to be the problem. No, the real problem for them was that I didn't have a “ticket.” That is, my Vanguard ticket was just an electronic ticket ; I didn't have a physical Vanguard ticket in my hands. These gentlemen were trying to carefully follow the instructions they had been given. And their instructions had a list of requirements that must be fulfilled in order for the customer to receive the reduced fare ticket. One of those requirements was that the customer “must have a Vanguard ticket.” And I didn't have a “ticket.” I tried to explain that an e-ticket was probably still a ticket. I tried to explain that the lady on Delta's own 800 # had said that it was all good. I tried to explain that I really didn't think Vanguard even possessed physical tickets; all of their tickets were e-tickets. I tried to reason with them, that surely an e-ticket should qualify. I tried to point out that their very own printed rules did not make a point about a “physical ticket”; it merely said a “ticket.” They kindly considered my appeals. They pored over their documents to determine the correct course of action. They called a third kindly gentleman out from the back office. They called their headquarters and asked. But they kept coming back to the fact that I just didn't have an actual ticket, so I must not qualify. Unfortunately, whoever they called at the Delta headquarters, was not the same person I got a hold of at the 800 #, because that person also said that I did not qualify.

Eventually, the kindly gentleman reached a final verdict. “No, I'm sorry. We just can't let you in on this Vanguard replacement fare.” Of course, it mostly didn't matter any more – because the flight I had wanted had already left by then! The only reason that I was still sticking it out with them is that I knew there was a later flight that could also have gotten me to Denver. Of course, during this whole time, the line behind me was getting longer and longer. The Delta desk had only 2 employees working. And I had 1 of them tied up for over an hour. In fact, for good chunks of that time, I had both of them working on my case! There wasn't anybody getting through the Delta ticket line! (Indeed, for a little while, I had both of them, plus the third guy from the back office, all working on this sticky question of whether or not I qualified as a Vanguard ticket holder!)

But eventually, I failed. So, I then left the Delta desk and found a telephone to call Delta's 800 # again. I explained what had just happened, and the lady said, “Well, they shouldn't have done that. There should have been no problem.” I suggested that perhaps she should tell them that. After hanging up, I re-evaluated my options. I was stranded at the Newark airport. The AIM folks had long since left. It would be difficult and expensive to stay another night in the area. And besides, I'd just face the same problems again tomorrow. So, I looked back at my notes from the web. I could always take another shot at the Delta ticket counter, for the later flight. But look! There was also an ATA flight that would get me to Denver. Granted, it was Denver at midnight, instead of my hoped-for Colorado Springs at a reasonable hour. But it was something.

So, I proceeded to the ATA ticket counter (which, coincidentally, was right next to the Delta counter). I got in line. Then, I realized that I had better call my friends in Colorado Springs, to clue them in on the changed changed plan. [At that point, they thought I was in the air on Delta.] So, I got out of line, went back to the telephone, and clued in my friends.

I soon returned to the line at the ATA ticket counter. Happily, there was only a short line. Before long, I was talking to the ATA employee, a rather bored, depressed young lady. I explained my situation. I pointed out that ATA was giving a reduced fare for travelers who held a Vanguard ticket. She said, “Hmmm. I haven't heard about Vanguard passengers…” She asked her co-worker – who fortunately knew all about it!! So, she punched in various codes on her computer terminal, and then in a bad-news tone of voice, she explained that I would have to pay $100. I tried to contain my glee as I assured her that that was quite all right. (The original Vanguard ticket had cost me, as I recall, about $140.)

As she completed the transaction, she handed me my boarding pass and then in a cheery, well-rehearsed monotone said, “You have been randomly selected to have your baggage inspected, blah blah blah. And, oh look! There just happens to be a guy standing right behind you who is ready to take your suitcase into the back and open it up!” Yeah, right! Sure, I was “randomly” selected. I was selected because you saw me standing at the Delta desk all afternoon, then you saw me get in your line, leave, and come back 20 minutes later. That's why I was “randomly” selected!

So, I got to wait while they inspected my luggage. Eventually, out they came, we checked my luggage through, and finally I proceeded to the departure gate. Of course, it couldn't be over quite yet! As I handed my boarding pass to the ATA attendant, she said, “You have been randomly selected to be screened before boarding, blah blah blah.” So, I got to step aside and get extra-specially inspected (e.g., take off my shoes to make sure there was no shoe bomb in there, etc., etc.).

And that's the story of how I flew across the country for $100. (I had put the Vanguard ticket on my credit card, and therefore was able to get the credit card company to reimburse me!) Oh sure, it cost me the better part of a day, and a whole lot of energy and stress. But it only cost $100.

Then began the Three-Day-Long Blind Date. But that is certainly a different story.