Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Big Ships: Days that Try Your Patience

Oh dear.  This is one of *those* stories.

The redeye flight from Montevideo went really well.  We only left a little late (it wouldn't be Copa if we were on time).  The kids fell asleep on the flight, and it seemed like they were going to get some rest. 

As we descended into Panama City (Tocumen Airport), it was raining and visibility wasn't that great.  It wasn't too shocking when the pilot pulled back on the stick and we ascended again for a go-around.  We flew around a bit, not really circling, but taking a sort of erratic flight path.  Once we started to descend again, T gestured from across the aisle: "Are we diverting?"  My brain went into overdrive - where could we divert to?  Bogota?  How would we get out of Columbia?   But I looked at the map and we were still definitely headed towards Panama, so I though, nah, we're not diverting after all.

As usual, T was right.  We landed at a small airfield on the west side of the Panama Canal called Panama Pacifico, which is apparently a landing strip in a former US military zone that's now an upscale living development.  But as far as I can tell it gets no commercial service.  They announced that we were going to wait for the rain to slow down over at Tocumen.  Five other copa planes were also diverted and collected on the tarmac at Pacifico.

A couple hours later, they announced that Tocumen was opening back up, and once we refueled, we could go - yay!  But no.  For unclear reasons, it took another 3 hours by the time all the planes got refueled (yes, for some reason we had to wait for everyone.  Maybe the fuel guy was the same guy who ran the control tower?) and it was our turn to take off.  Once we got to Tocumen, they didn't have a gate for us (are you shocked?) and it took awhile to get us to a remote pad and get a bus to pick us up.  Then they rolled the stairs up to the plane... and the hydraulics failed so they couldn't get the steps all the way up to the door.  So we had to wait for another staircase to be brought around.  You can't make this stuff up.

By the time we disembarked, we had been on the plane for an additional 6 hours on top of the original 7.5 hour flight, for a total of 13.5 hours.

This delay blew all our connections.  Though the Tocumen airport was shut down while we were at Pacifico, and our onward flight to JFK was delayed during that time, that flight left very shortly after the airport reopened. 

We headed for the Copa Club to get help.  It was swamped.  I called up United and had them on the phone - our onward ticket from New York back to Denver was on United, and since Copa and United are bosom buddies, we thought maybe they could work a miracle.  There was a United flight from PTY up to Houston leaving in a little under an hour, and it looked like it had plenty of space!

T took the kids and entertained them while I attempted to negotiate.  It took me about 15 minutes of standing at the counter waving my arms around to get someone to help me.  There was no line - anyone attempting to form a line was jumped in front of.  The agents completely ignored me. Finally I got it through that I had United 1K on the phone willing to help if they'd just talk to them. 

Unfortunately, the Copa agents had called the United gate in PTY and asked to put us and about four other people on the Houston flight, and United refused to open the flight up to make it happen.  The phone agent was helpless as the flight was under airport control.  So there was nothing anyone could do but let the Houston flight go.  Then it came out that Copa cancelled their evening flight to JFK.  This basically guaranteed that we would be spending the night. 

I had a really nice agent helping us, and she got us rebooked for the following day through Washington Dulles instead of NY, which was better for us in several ways.  She also said that they would be providing a hotel voucher and escorted us to the family room (with toys and bean bags) while we waited for the voucher. 

And wait we did.  Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but we then waited another two hours for the hotel voucher because they insisted on printing them for everyone who needed them all at once (like fueling all the planes at once, maybe??). 

By the time we got escorted through immigration, baggage claim, customs, and got put in a car, it was 5pm rush hour traffic, and the kids were super cranky.  We thought the hotel was an airport property and right up the road, but it turned out to be downtown Panama City.  To add to the chaos of rush hour, there was a big World Cup football match being played a few blocks from our hotel starting at 6:30pm, so there was game traffic too.  C had sacked out in the stroller while waiting for immigration, and D fell asleep in the car.

Once we checked in, we went down for dinner.  Since we were Copa guests, we got a dinner voucher for one of the restaurants that happened to be the pool bar - outside in the muggy heat.  We survived and got dinner.

At the restaurant, we ran into Ricky.  D had met Ricky at immigration, and Ricky practiced a few English phrases ("how are you?" "What's your name?").  Ricky is 3.5 years old.  His family was also stranded by Copa - they were flying from Caracas up to Chicago, said his mom.  When Ricky saw D, he exclaimed, "Amigo!  Amigo - hey!!"  I told D that "When he says 'Amigo' that means you!"  D and Ricky ran into each other and scrambled on the ground like little cubs, and then they ran around the pool area together, getting hot and sweaty, and giving the moms panic attacks.  I guess toddlerhood knows no language barriers.  They were a really sweet family.

We headed up to bed and totally crashed, exhausted.

Now this all seems like a terrible ordeal.  I will say, in full disclosure, that this went pretty darn well, and I'm pretty pleased with the whole thing. 

1) Our kids were *AMAZING* when stuck on the airplane.  There were no tantrums.  No crankypants.  They just played and napped and watched shows.  They were less bothered by the whole thing than their parents.  I was so incredibly proud of them.  What amazing behavior.

2) It gave us the opportunity to rest.  Coming off that redeye was going to really suck... since we had three flights to go.  A good night's sleep meant a good rest of the trip.

3) I was running out of diapers.  Somehow I had mispacked the diaper bag and only had two left.  This allowed us to claim our luggage and get the extras I had packed. 

4) Going through Dulles allowed us to maintain our east coast (mileage earning) routing, while cutting out a flight segment (LGA-IAD) and a cross-Long-Island cab ride.  Saving the $40 fare is nice, but avoiding the hassle was the real key.

So although I ran out of clean clothes and smelled pretty bad by the end, and though it was fatiguing, I really believe there were good things to come out of it.

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