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The Trip IV

The Trip (Part 4)

(Part Four)

The Bethel sky was clear and the sun shining on Sunday morning as I carefully walked across the ice covered tarmac and up the stairs to the plane.

Normally Alaska Airlines flies Boeing 737-400 combi aircraft to Bethel. These carry freight in the front and passengers in the back. However, this plane was a regular 737 and every seat was filled before we lifted off for the 56 minute flight to Anchorage.

The trip went smoothly and seemed even shorter than normal. The stewards hardly finished serving drinks before they prepared the plane for landing. But that only allowed my mind to stay focused on my next problem—how to get home before Christmas morning.

It was early Sunday afternoon when I stepped off the jet bridge and into Anchorage terminal. On the way to baggage claim I glimpsed the Alaska Airlines customer service lines that wrapped around like a TSA checkpoint at rush hour. I continued on and collected my bag. After walking just a few feet from the carousal I stopped. Where was I going? What was I doing? Did I want to get a hotel room or join the long line I had just passed and see if there is a seat available on a flight, any flight, heading to Seattle tonight? I walked back and forth and then in a circle before I stopped near the center of the large room. With a sigh of determination I turned and joined the lengthy customer service line.

When you are in a slow moving line you can stand silent and alone in your own universe or you can meet people. I got to know a Bering Sea fisherman, half a dozen students from an Alaskan military academy and a several families just trying to get home for Christmas.

An hour later it was my turn to talk to the customer service agent. She leaned forward, one elbow resting on the counter. Her hair was slightly disheveled. I could imagine her day—I was a small part of it. I leaned on the counter with her and said, “I’m not sure where to begin. Maybe with this.” I handed her my scrap paper ticket.

Without blinking an eye she started typing on her keyboard. “How many changes of itinerary have you had?”

“Ah…I’m not sure.”

“Why did they cancel your Christmas Eve flight and put you on this later one?”

“It’s all blurring together at this point.”

She continued to type.

“I’d like to get home sooner if possible.”

“I understand.” For nearly a minute she stared at the screen and punched keys. “I can get you on the 9:40 flight tonight.”

“What?”

“They scheduled a larger plane for that flight,” she said handing me a boarding pass. “You can only check your bag four hours before the flight, so you’ll have to come back in two hours for that.”

“Thank you. Merry Christmas,” I said walking away with my new boarding pass.

I bought a news magazine and ate a burger and fries for supper. At exactly 5:40 I checked my bag and then joined the TSA line. I arrived at the gate long before the flight appeared on the board.

As I read my magazine in the nearly empty waiting area a woman approached me. “Is this the gate for the 9:40 flight to Seattle?”

“Yes.”

She sighed and sat down near me.

I’m not sure who spoke first, but we were soon talking. She worked for the Lower Yukon School District, just north of my district, and like many others was trying to get home. She wanted to get to Seattle and then try and catch a flight east to Chicago. We talked off and on until the flight boarded and then were surprised to discover we were seated together. I was in 7C, she was in 7B.

The flight from Anchorage to Seattle is normally just over three hours. As we landed, just before two in the morning, the pilot announced that tailwinds shortened our flight. I wouldn’t have known; I slept most of the trip.

I walked briskly to baggage claim, confident that I was nearly done with airports, at least for a while. My son Robert sat dozing near the carousel. He spotted me as I approached and we embraced. We stood together as the bags tumbled onto the carousel. My luggage has never been one of the first to appear, but it has frequently been one of the last. That morning was no exception. Two lone individuals stood on opposite sides of the carousel as we walked away. 

Kyle Pratt, finally home for Christmas

The drive home from SeaTac Airport takes about an hour and a half. We caught up on family events and the news of the world for most of the way home.

As Robert turned in the driveway I knew that many of my fellow teachers were still struggling to get to their destination, but for me the journey that began with a failed attempt to leave Eek on Friday afternoon was ending. I looked at the dashboard clock. It was 4:10 a.m. on Monday morning. We were home.

The Trip III

(Part Three)

The Bethel runway lights are broken? A moan echoed through the terminal. “Are they kidding?” I asked no one in particular.

They weren’t.

The man on the PA continued. “Alaska Airlines is adding an extra flight tomorrow. All of you will be rolled over onto that plane and your flights rebooked.”

I borrowed a phone from my friend Julia, who looked to be near tears, and informed my family that I would be spending the night in Bethel. “No, at the moment I have no idea when I’ll be home,” I said.

As I strolled to the counter to retrieve my bag a new fear flashed through my mind. A whole plane load of people would now be looking for hotel rooms in a town of 6,000 people.

Quickly, I retrieved my luggage and went to find a taxi. I’m not sure how we did it, but after standing in the freezing cold for about ten minutes I crammed into a cab with four other people.

Fortunately, I was the first one dropped off. I walked into the Long House Hotel and found a line of five families at the check-in counter.

Reaching the front of the line, I said, “I need a room for tonight.”

“Do you have a reservation?”

“No.”

“Were you on the flight that was cancelled tonight?”

“Yes.”

He nodded. “That sure has been a bonus for the hotel tonight.”

“Do you have any rooms available?”

“A few.”

With a look at the line behind me I said, “I’ll take one.”

I woke the next morning, Sunday the 22nd, just after 6:00 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. I didn’t have to be at the terminal until 10:00 a.m. so breakfast sounded like a good idea, but the restaurant wouldn’t be open until 8:00 a.m. I climbed out of bed, bathed, shaved, dressed, packed and was standing at the door of the restaurant before they unlocked the door.

When they opened I took a booth all for myself and ordered eggs, pancakes and sausage. Lord knows when or where I’ll be eating next. As I finished my meal I heard someone ask, “Would you like some company, Kyle?”

Looking up, I saw Brett, the Principal of Eek School, with his wife and two young children.

I motioned for him to join me. “So, you didn’t get out of Bethel either.” Brett and his family had been trying to leave town on an Era Airlines turboprop flight to Anchorage.

“No,” he said as he sat down. “When the weather delayed us getting out of Eek, we missed our flight. Era is so backed up….” He let the sentence die with a shake of the head. “We spent the night here and now we’re scheduled to fly out on Christmas Eve.”

We spent the next few minutes sharing travel horror stories and then wished each other luck as I left to pack a few last minute things and head to the airport.

We had been told to return to the Alaska Airlines terminal at 10:00 a.m., but at 9:35 when the taxi dropped me off it was already busy. The line coiled around the waiting room like giant snake, and I was the end.

The line slowly moved forwarded while growing longer. The waiting area got ever more crowded. Over an hour later I stepped up to an agent. She confirmed I was booked on the 11:00 a.m. flight to Anchorage.

I looked at my watch. It read 10:50.

“We’re running behind,” the agent said and handed me a boarding pass.

“So, I’m only booked to Anchorage?”

She sighed. “The only available seats are on Christmas morning.”

It was my turn to sigh. “If that is all you have book me on it.”

The Christmas Morning Ticket

The agent typed on the computer for a minute and then wrote my connecting flight information on a scrap of paper, tore it from the sheet, and handed it to me.

I stared at it for a second. “This is my ticket,” I asked waving the bit of paper.

“It’s more of an itinerary than a ticket. Show it to the agent in Anchorage when you pick up your luggage.”

Feeling not a bit confident, I walked over to the growing TSA line.

(Part Four tomorrow)

The Trip II

(Part Two)

After removing the freight from the plane loading our luggage was easy and quick.

Just before takeoff the pilot turned in his seat and gave the usual speech about seatbelts and, in case of a crash, where the emergency transponder was located, then he said, “If we get to Bethel and I start circling it’s because the visibility has gone down over the airport.”

At that moment visions of us flying around and around over Bethel, but ultimately returning to Eek darkened the already cloudy day for me. The pilot went on to say, “It has been doing that all day.” However, he seems confident we would land in Bethel.

 I had planned to take video as we bumped down Eek’s icy dirt runway and get a shot of the village as we lifted in the air, but instead I was scraping frost off the inside of the window. When the window was clear I did took the video of frozen tundra which you see here.

The Caravan that you see in the video is much bigger than the Cessna 207s that normally service the village. This is fast luxury flying from the for us.

The weather stayed clear and we were soon on the ground in Bethel. It was now about four in the afternoon of December 21st. As I walked from the plane toward Grant Aviation terminal in Bethel I considered my options. I had no hotel reservation. My travel itinerary had me arriving home, with Santa, late on Christmas Eve. I decided to head over to the Alaska Airline terminal and try and get on the evening flight to Anchorage. I knew that it was very unlikely that I would get a seat, but I saw no reason not to try.

The Alaska Airlines terminal in Bethel, consists mostly of a waiting room with three ticket counters, a TSA checkpoint, baggage carousel, and bathrooms around the edges. By modern airport standards its small and drab. The clerk behind the counter shook his head slowly. “Every seat is taken, but I can take your name down in case something opens up.”

I thanked him and sat down with my friends Dirk and Julia in the waiting area. Dirk had missed his flight on Friday, but had managed to get rebook earlier and get a seat on the night flight. Julia was even luckier; she had originally booked herself on the upcoming flight. I sat between them wondering just how long I would be in Bethel.

Three hours later, as I chatted with my friends, a voice came over the waiting area. “Kyle Pratt, please report to the ticket counter.”

I nearly ran.

Going up to the same clerk he said, “I’ve got you a seat on the flight tonight and as he typed my information in he added, “a seat has opened up on the red eye flight to Seattle. Do you want it?”

“Yes!”

For over an hour I relaxed in the glow of knowing I would be home by morning. Then I again heard the crackle of the PA system. “Attention in the terminal, the runway lights here in Bethel are broken, they won’t turn on, and consequently the 9:30 flight to Anchorage has been cancelled.”

(Part Three tomorrow)

The Trip

(Part One)

The trip from Eek was a like a trip across the river Styx.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement. As I’ve mentioned before, there are no roads in the region of Alaska where I work. Travel in winter is by snowmobile, bush plane or dog team. I had chartered a plane for five teachers (including me), the principal, two children and a dog. We planned to fly out of the village on Friday, when school closed for the Christmas holiday, land at Bethel, the regional airport, and go our separate ways. Some would fly out Friday night to Anchorage; others would stay a day or two and then head on. I planned to stay the night and then catch the Saturday Afternoon flight to Anchorage.

However, the village was a strange site on Friday. In the past, Eek has always been a frozen blanket of snow and ice by December, but on Friday the temperature hovered around freezing. Bone chilling water stood on frozen lakes, streams and rivers. Rain mixed with snow and then froze with each dip in temperature. The dirt runway at the edge of the village was an ice rink and the planes couldn’t fly for fear of icing on the wings. We waited, but didn’t go anywhere that day. One teacher missed his flight out of Bethel that night.

My flight was scheduled for 1:30 Saturday afternoon. I awoke Saturday morning around seven. It was still completely dark when I stepped outside and looked around the village. There was no rain and I could see lights at the far end of the village. Those were good signs, but it was windy. At about ten in the morning we had the first hint of sun. It soon became clear that when the wind died down fog rolled in. When the wind picked up it gusted too hard to fly. We talked to several bush airline companies, including one that has a reputation for flying in marginal weather, but soon abandoned all hope of flying out any time soon. As the plane I should have been on boarded in Bethel, I reluctantly phoned Alaska Airlines to reschedule my trip home. The customer service agent was very nice, waived all fees and booked me out of Bethel and gave me the first open seat out of Anchorage—on Christmas Eve. With a sigh I took the new itinerary. At least now I had time for the weather to change.

And change it did, just minutes after the plane that I should have been on departed from Bethel the weather started to clear. Two hours later we got a call from Grant Aviation asking if we were still interested in getting to Bethel.

“Yes!”

Grant had a Cessna 208 turboprop, commonly called a Caravan, coming into Bethel from another village. They would refuel and deice and then fly to Eek for us. Nearly two hours later the phone rang. “The Caravan is fifteen minutes out from Eek,” the woman on the line announced.

We packed last minute items, climbed into the wagon or on the ATV and headed out to the airport. The plane arrived just minutes after we did, but it was full of freight for the village. Before we could board we had to haul the boxes off the plane. Still we were happy to do it, glad to be starting our Christmas break. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking the hardest part would soon be over.

(Part two tomorrow.)