Entering the United States through Dulles International in Washington, D.C. always makes me sad. The International Arrivals Terminal is such a pathetic display of disorganization and worn-down glory it feels like arriving in some third-world hell hole instead of the world’s sole remaining superpower.
When you have an airport where you have to hire people to stand around all day to yell out directions to hordes of tired travellers, you have failed Airport Design 101 in the worst possible way. Add to that the concept of moving between terminals on custom buses that look like rejected props from Starship Troopers.
But you know, please don’t fix it. After all, it’s just the port of entry in the NATION’S FREAKING CAPITAL. No reason to spend money. We got wars to wage and car manufacturers to bail out. Priorities.
There’s a reason I’m ragging on the state of disorganization and malaise at Dulles International: it made me miss my connecting flight in the most ridiculous and avoidable fashion possible.
The story: Andrea and I leave from Gothenburg at 10:30 a.m. Swedish Time on August 6, 2009 (1:30 a.m. Mountain Time), change planes in Copenhagen, and arrive at Dulles from Copenhagen on flight SK925. A nice flight that takes us into Washington at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. 10 minutes early. And then there’s immigration. No problem, just a few minutes of standing around in line getting sweaty for a while, since apparently the airport IN THE NATION’S FREAKING CAPITAL can’t afford, oh, how you say? Ah, yes, air conditioning.
And then it’s time to pick up our bags for customs. This is important: The deal is that YOU CANNOT enter the country without your luggage. Which is fine. But at Dulles, they have elevated getting your luggage into something that would make Kafka nauseous. See, there are only four baggage belts. But there are many, many flights. So the solution, appparently, is to have employees pick the bags from the belts and put them by signs on the floor. Which is shintzy but workable, IF, and only IF the people put the bags by the CORRECT signs. Would you like to make odds on this happening? Hint: It does not.
So I find one of our three checked bags sitting on the floor far from any sign. Just, you know, sitting there. So I guess which belt it probably came from. And tell my daughter everything is fine, we’ll just watch the belt and our suitcases will show.
Which, 20 minutes later, as the belt shuts down, they do not.
And did I mention we have a two-hour layover? Which ordinarily is plenty of time to take care of everything, stroll to the gate, and eat a delicious Wendy’s burger in Terminal C.
But the belt stops and our two suitcases are very much missing. So I ask the closest official-looking person if these are all the bags from flight SK925. He doesn’t know. Tells me to check with one of the 20-year-olds in ill-fitting cheap suits walking around. They are apparently the luggage supervisors. Ask one of them. But no, he works for United. I must talk to the Scandinavian supervisor. Fine, where do I find the Scandinavian supervisor? Go to the service counter. OK.
There’s a long line at the service counter. Where, it’s important to note, the name Scandinavian Airlines is prominently displayed together with other airlines like United. Tick-tock. We’re losing time real fast. Andrea is being a total champ, but her dad is getting more frazzled by the second.
Finally! At the service counter. Which is staffed by two extremely harried-looking women who apparently have to stop what they’re doing to have conversations on the phone every thirty seconds.
They can only handle United bags. Which does make you wonder a bit why we’ve been directed here. But I suppose you can’t be expected to know how things work at the place where you spend EIGHT HOURS EVERY DAY. One of the service counter ladies tells me to talk to the SAS supervisor. Who isn’t there. Which is the reason I’m talking to her. So she pages him.
I stand around for a while, talking to another woman off of SK925 who’s also missing bags and has a tight connection.
No SAS guy. Ask the woman to page him again. She does. No SAS guy. Woman at the counter is starting to take pity at the sweaty guy with a tired seven-year-old and pages the SAS guy’s supervisor. Who shows up and starts to talk in her walkie-talkie.
No SAS guy anyway.
Let me just interject here that a trans-atlantic flight has just landed and the ONLY person who can deal with luggage issues is NOWHERE TO BE FOUND. And there is NOBODY ELSE. Also, YOU CANNOT ENTER THE U.S. WITHOUT CLEARING YOUR BAGS THROUGH CUSTOMS. I’m assuming there are special cells in Gitmo for people who try.
At this point we’re twenty minutes away from our flight leaving and the SAS person who is THE ONLY PERSON who can help us is JUST NOT THERE. Missing. AWOL. Gone.
Judging from the state of Dulles in general, I’m guessing this guy is curled up with a bong somewhere, but I don’t know. Either way, we’re going to miss our flight unless a miracle happens.
Finally, the United lady behind the counter breaks out the luggage claim papers and, telling me she shouldn’t do this, writes down our tag numbers so that we are now legal and can enter the country. Oh, the happiness.
Our connecting flight is at gate D8. I ask her if it’s possible for us to make that gate on time. Sure, it’s right over there (handwave).
Customs. Nobody asks to see our missing bags papers.
Security. End up behind Borat and his entire sheep-herding family who are completely new to the wonders of the Western World like English and bags. Fantastic.
Cutting it real close. Real close.
Get into Terminal C. Where is Terminal D? Ah, past Terminal C. Walking as fast as possible with a tired seven-year-old girl. Terminal C goes on for a while.
Finally, Terminal D. Get to D8. Empty. Crickets. Fuck. Missed the flight.
At this point, I’m DRIPPING.
See, here’s the thing, if it was just me, it wouldn’t be that big a deal. I’ll sleep under a bridge for a night if I have to. But when it comes to my daughter, things are different. I’ve got to work something out.
Find a United service counter. No other flights tonight. Noper. Book a flight for the next morning at 6 a.m. At this point I just want to get as far from this airport as possible as fast as possible.
Lady at United counter tells me United can’t put me up in a hotel since it’s SAS’s fault, so they’re the ones who have to pay up. Diggable. Where is the SAS service counter? Terminal B.
All right. Terminal B it is. At this point it’s about 5:30 p.m. Eastern Time and both me and Andrea are getting really tired and hungry.
Onward to Terminal B. 10-minute walk and another little stupid effing Dulles bus shuttle abomination and we’re at Terminal B.
Nice-looking terminal. Clean, with a wide thoroughfare. Pretty much the opposite of the cramped third-rate-mall feel of terminals C and D. Walk down with Andrea, who is getting very, very tired and grouchy. She wants to eat. She wants a toy. She wants lemonade; above all, she wants to sit down and relax. Explain to her that we can’t eat and relax until we find the SAS service counter and get a hotel room set up.
Walk down the lenght of the terminal, stopping intermittently at manned gates to ask if they know where the SAS service counter is? “Oh, yeah, it’s right down there.” (Handwave.)
Finally we’ve walked the entirety of Terminal B at Dulles International. No sign of Scandinavian Airlines.
Walk back the other way. Andrea is so tired she manages to trip over her feet and hurt her knee. So now I’m walking with a little girl who’s screaming her lungs out.
It’s a bright terminal, with a wide lane to walk, not a lot of people, with a white, shiny floor, and I’m walking slowly down it with a screaming child. I’ve been on the go for about 20 hours. Her screams echo and people are staring at me.
Back to the bottom of the terminal. Again, not a sign of SAS. If they’re here, they’re pretty well hidden.
See four people at the gate of an Air Austria flight. Ask one of them if they have any idea where the SAS service counter is.
“Yes, they usually use gate B42. But that flight left, so they’re not there anymore.”
So apparently a whole bunch of people have told me to walk up and down Terminal B for no other reason than that SAS sometimes has a flight out of there. Brilliant.
Andrea looks like she’s about to pass out and is sniffling miserably. So I ask, “What am I supposed to do now? They lost our suitcases and we’re stuck here.”
The woman says she’ll try to get a hold of somebody. Talks on the phone in some Asian language for a while, then tells me somebody will come to gate B40 to help me.
OK. I thank her and we go over to gate B40 to wait.
At this point, I really have no idea what to do. Worst case, I’m going to have to pay for a hotel and hope to get reimbursed. There’s no way I’m keeping my daughter in the terminal till 6 a.m. the next morning.
A guy shows up and I give him the abbreviated version of my tale of woe. Miraculously, he gets me a hotel chit.
It’s about 7:00 p.m. and we’re outside Dulles waiting for the shuttle to the Dulles Airport Hilton. No shuttle. Tired. I call the hotel and after 7 minutes and 43 seconds on hold (thank you timer on iPhone) am informed that yes, the shuttle rolls continuously. Should be there any minute.
And it arrives. And we go to the hotel. And Andrea falls asleep in the shuttle. As we roll up to the Hilton a thought stabs me—I never saw our mysterious benefactor at the gate actually call to check if the Hilton had any rooms. We could be rolling up to another Dulles-style disaster and have to find another hotel and try to find SAS again to get a chit for THAT hotel. DAMMIT!
But the hotel does have a room. After we arrive, since we have no luggage, I purchase a $7 pair of underwear, we eat at the hotel restaurant, and go to bed.
The next morning, Friday, as I take a shower at 4:30 in the morning, Andrea writes a note: “Thank you, hoitel peopple” which she hands over to the concierge as we check out. We take the 5 a.m. shuttle back to the airport, make the flight, and make the connection in Chicago.
My wife picks us up at Sky Harbor, and we’re at the house around noon Mountain Time Friday.
Our missing bags show up 0:35 Sunday morning.
I will not fly through Dulles again if you put a gun to my head.
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