Monday, July 31, 2006

The Strike

This weekend, my flight from Barcelona to Jacksonville was thirty hours late. For sixteen of those hours, I sat on the filthy floor of the Barcelona airport among thousands of other stranded, angry passengers and their thousands of hulking suitcases in the unairconditioned check-in area of the airport.

On Friday, Andrew and I sent Mom and Dad off to the airport for their early-morning flight back to the United States; a few hours later, we went to the airport to catch our own afternoon flight to Philadelphia, where we’d connect to Jacksonville. When we arrived, we walked into a mob scene. The Barcelona airport often has long, chaotic lines at its check-in counters, but this was a new kind of chaos. Even stranger, there were no airline employees at any of the check-in desks, and on the departures board, we saw that every single flight was marked as delayed. “Is everyone on strike or something?” Andrew joked, marveling at the ghost-town-like expanse of counters.

Indeed, we found out quickly, there was a strike—a strike by the Iberia baggage handlers who handle all the baggage for all the airlines. As announcements were made over the loudspeakers announcing the strike, a wail of despair went through the crowd. In Spain, striking workers have an unreasonable amount of power, and it’s illegal for law enforcement to order them back to work. We heard that they’d stormed the runway, preventing any flights from landing. Taxis and airport shuttle buses were prohibited from delivering anymore passengers to the already-packed airport.

Cancelled flights began to be announced. The departures board stubbornly pushed the times for remaining flights back by hour upon hour. Around five, an announcement was made: the airport had officially closed. Thanks to the strike, 544 flights were cancelled. A US Airways person held up a sheet of paper on which he’d written a phone number. “Call this number at 7 tomorrow morning,” he shouted at our chaotic group in Spanish. “Your plane will be here. You will have a plane tomorrow if the strike has ended.”

After we jotted down the number, Andrew and I bolted, knowing that the masses of other passengers would soon be trying to leave the airport as well. We managed to get onto an airport shuttle, and soon we found ourselves right back where we started: with our baggage, back at Plaza Espana. We’d never even gotten a boarding pass. We felt like intruders when we returned to our shut-up apartment, which seemed even stuffier and hotter than usual because we were so (non)travel-weary and exhausted.

In what was perhaps our most indulgent decision to date, we decided to book a room at a trendy hotel about two blocks from our apartment so we could spend the evening swimming in the rooftop pool and sitting in air-conditioning rather than brooding in our weirdly ghostlike home. Within an hour, we’d shed our luggage and clothes in the excellent room and were swimming on the roof. We could see our apartment building from the pool. Later, we had a lovely dinner and a cold bottle of turbio at our favorite neighborhood restaurant. It had been a terrible, stressful day—and we still weren’t home—but we managed to redeem it as best we could.

(Until late that night, we had no idea if Mom and Dad had made it home, or if they were still at the airport, unable to reach us. Through a series of phone calls, I finally found out from Molly that Mom and Dad had made it to Newark. They’d gotten out just thirty minutes before the strikers walked off the job.)

On Saturday, we woke early and called the US Airways number as instructed—a number that would up being nonworking. We called all kinds of other numbers for US Airways in Spain and the United States; no one knew anything about us, our flight, or even the strike. We found no information on the website or in the newspaper or on the news (though the Spanish newspaper El Periodico had a front-page article about the strike and a half-page photograph of the mob scene—in which Andrew stands out clearly). At eight, we resigned ourselves to just heading back to the airport to see if our plane was still there.

The airport was even more chaotic than it had been the night before. Planes were—finally—taking off, but delays were in excess of four or more hours. Many of the passengers from the day before had slept at the airport, which was now overcrowded with new passengers with flights scheduled for Saturday. Andrew and I found the US Airways counter, which was thronged with the group from yesterday as well as a new group heading to Philadelphia today. There were no lines to speak of—not unusual in Spain, but maddening for all the Americans who treat lines as sacred and who couldn’t understand why, exactly, this was all taking so long. Tempers began rising; the US Airways manager pleaded with one angry man to refrain from hitting another passenger, telling him what we all knew: that if this turned ugly, there would be no going back. Some flights were boarding; some, we knew, were taking off. But the US Airways flights to Philadelphia hadn’t even shown up on the departures board.

Among all this chaos, there was absolutely no police presence. Thousands of angry passengers; no air-conditioning; people with babies who were hungry and thirsty; so little room in the airport that you couldn’t walk at all without stepping on and over luggage; and there was no one taking any kind of control. Andrew and I marveled. If this had happened in NYC, we knew, there’d be NYPD barriers, clearly marked lines, and plenty of National Guardsmen. Here, we were on our own.

At four—after we’d been at the airport for eight hours, the second day in a row—we got a boarding pass and shoved our way onto our plane. When the wheels left the runway, the passengers applauded wildly. “Miracle of miracles,” the pilot announced, “we are on our way.”

We made it to Philadelphia, and we even made it onto a connection to Jacksonville that someone—somewhere—had managed to book us on. We’re finally home, back in the States, having been given a frustrating, exhausting, ridiculous, but somehow quintessentially European goodbye.

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