Time was when I associated Houston with space travel and dire urban planning. That’s all changed. Houston has now elected its first openly gay mayor, Annise Parker, who seems a very capable administrator. Secondly, I was recently lucky enough to transit successfully through Houston’s George Bush International Airport from a late flight to a tight connection. If it weren’t for the good people of Houston (and my fellow passengers from Costa Rica), I’d never have made it. So, thank you Houston, very, very much.
I’d been on holiday in Costa Rica before taking the bus north to go surfing in Nicaragua with a friend. While I was away, I received an invitation to a job interview in Paris. The only way to get there in time without completely mucking up my friend’s short Thanksgiving break was to attempt a less than 90-minute transfer in Houston. The first leg – 10 hours by bus from Granada to San Jose – went fine, though the border crossing was a sweaty shambles and we both picked up a lingering tummy bug, or D&V as soldier boy calls it. The second leg was when the trouble began.
Continental had just joined the Star Alliance (I do most of my travel on United. I know, I know. The worse they treat me, the more I fly.). They hadn’t yet figured out how to offer online check-in to other customers, or maybe it was just another of the many travel ‘perks’ non-Americans enjoy when flying into or through the country. My shiny 1K card got enough attention from the check-in guy to successfully re-route me (except for the leg with Lufthansa who can’t possibly trust their partner airlines to issue boarding passes), but couldn’t get me a seat with my friend. Which is not a deal-breaker on a packed plane I was just happy to be boarding. But, knowing I had an extremely tight connection, they put me in the second last row of the bloody plane. And then, for no obvious reason, the plane took off half an hour late.
Now picture the scene. The plane is landed and I am stuck in the back of it, with less than 50 minutes to get me and my hand baggage off, through US immigration, more security, find the gate and onto another plane. I’ve had to shell out two and a half thousand dollars for my new ticket and I already know I’m going to be unemployed very soon. Forget about the career prospects. My very kind prospective employer has agreed to reimburse me, but if I don’t show for the interview, I’ll never see the money again. One of the last and sticky few off the heaving plane, I find my friend and we sprint up the gang plank and into the building.
Right into the back of two lines of over a hundred people, each ambling achingly slowly towards a rent-a-cop who is examining everyone’s passport and arrival documents but who does not, himself, constitute a formal checkpoint. He has no obvious purpose other than to make people wait for another 30 minutes before they join the long immigration lines. He’s bored out of his mind and he’s not even an agent of the state. And I’m not having it.
We walk apologetically to the front, wait for the person he’s dealing with to be done, smile, state our case and ask if we can skip the line. He gives the indifferent answer beloved of officialdom around the world; ‘Sure. If everyone else in the line says you can.’
This is the right thing to say if you are a surgeon in rural Ireland who keeps receiving letters from members of parliament asking for their constituents to skip to the top of the line. Then it is perfectly correct to respond; ‘Of course, Public Representative X, Mrs. Ryan can have her gallbladder done next week, if you’re quite happy for me to write to everyone else on the waiting list and let them know why.’ Hospital waiting lists are opaque. You don’t know who’s ahead of you and have to trust that only urgent cases are dealt with first. Not so in the airport.
So I turned around to the couple of hundred travelers, waved and said ‘excuse me’ very loudly, and then something along the lines of the following;
“Folks, I have a really tight international connection and I’m going to miss my flight. I’m going to Paris. It’s for a job interview. I’m getting laid off and I really need to be there. Is it a problem for anyone if I cut the line?”
I was hoping for silent assent. What I got was a response worthy of a Richard Curtis film. Dozens of ‘yes’s’, a cheer of encouragement and good luck, and even a couple of ‘you go, girl’s’. And out of the line popped a German woman on the same flight as me who we managed to whoosh through the control as well.
There was no time to say thank you properly or savour the moment, but I’ll admit to enjoying the sullen acquiescence of the airport guy. The German woman and I did a couple more sprints, begged our way through the US citizens’ immigration channel, flashed the ridiculous 1K card to get quickly past final security, and did the walk of shame as the last people onto Continental’s overnight plane to Frankfurt. Which then sat on the tarmac for over an hour.
So, the main thing I have to say is ‘Three cheers for the kindness of passengers on Continental flight 1490 from San Jose to Houston on 30 November!’.
The second thing is that lots of people will be stressed out and running around like lunatics in the next couple of weeks, and we would all do well to treat fellow shoppers, travelers, drivers etc. with a little generosity. Sometimes a little kindness can go a very long way indeed.