Anyone who has flown in many airplanes has stories of turmoil, missed flights, and other headaches. But how many people can tell a tale of deceit to board a flight? Let me tell you about Standby Passenger Walt.
My story takes place in the mid 1990’s. I was flying to Fayetteville, Arkansas on TWA, an airline that has not existed in over fifteen years.
For those of you who have ever flown to Fayetteville, Arkansas, I don’t mean XNA – the Northwest Arkansas Airport opened in 1998. I mean the old FYV – Drake Field in Fayetteville – the main airport before XNA opened.
This whole story happened pre-9/11 when security was not as tight as today, when paper tickets were the norm and when cell phones were not common.
After landing in St Louis, I walked to Concourse B – a large open room with a wall of windows overlooking the commuter flights waiting to take passengers to their final destinations.
On the horizon, thunderstorms were building. I hoped our flight would take off before the storms hit. I was going to Fayetteville for a quick 8 a.m. meeting with a flight back out before noon. A canceled flight would mean missing the meeting and being stranded in St Louis overnight for a wasted trip.
Boarding time came and went while the storm grew in the distance. The harried gate agent announced that mechanical difficulties were being addressed and we would board as soon as possible.
Time ticked away. The storm drew closer. Lightning danced across the horizon.
Two hours late, the agent called our flight. Our paper tickets were examined and passage was approved. The waiting prop plane was too small to allow luggage beyond a simple briefcase, so I was forced to check my suitbag at the side of the plane.
A passenger occupied every seat, the hot and muggy air adding to the claustrophobic feel. We hoped for cold air to be pumped in the cabin, but the pilot announced he would taxi with only one engine to conserve fuel. His concern was that any takeoff delay would burn too much fuel, a fate that would require us to return to the gate for fuel and a further delay. We sweated in our seats as we inched to the runway, a long line of planes in front of us. The skies grew darker and more threatening.
I chatted with the man in the seat beside me. A salesman. His destination the same as many heading to the Fayetteville airport – the headquarters of Walmart in nearby Bentonville. He had an 8 a.m. presentation the next morning. A canceled flight would be a disaster.
The storm hit. Winds blew. The plane rocked. The temperatures cooled, but we still were suffocating in the humid air. Sweat soaked my clothes.
The pilot’s caution with the fuel was insufficient and he announced that we were returning to the gate. Too long of a wait. Too much fuel burned.
My seat mate moaned that they better not cancel the flight. He had to make that meeting. Since we both had early meetings, we made a deal. We could rent a car together and drive to Fayetteville, taking turns sleeping in the car. The drive would take five or six hours, leaving us a couple of hours of sleep before our respective meetings.
The plane trekked back across the soaked airport and parked in front of the terminal. With the driving rain, the crew announced that our checked bags would remain on the plane for quick re-boarding once fueling was complete. We unloaded on the tarmac and were soaked as we raced back inside the buiding.
Upon our return to the mobbed terminal, we received the dreaded news. The airline canceled the flight and our bags were hostage on the plane.
Officially, the cancellation was blamed on the weather. Airlines are loathe to cancel a flight due to mechanical issues because they become responsible for hotels, meals, and other expenses of their travelers. But weather is the golden excuse because they officially owe you nothing but a seat on a future flight. With only two flights remaining for the night to Fayetteville, those seats became invaluable.
The gate agent announced for everyone to line up for rebooking. As any frequent flyer will tell you – NEVER do that. While everyone is waiting in line, there are ways to jump to the front of the line. Airline clubs are the best answer. The second best answer is to call the airlines while everyone else is waiting. Pre-cell phone days, so I headed to a bank of payphones and dialed.
My newly made friend followed, still offering the rental car option. I told him that sounded good, provided I could not get back on another flight. Besides, I pointed out, they had our suitcases. The suit I wore was soaked in sweat from the sauna of an airplane, so we would have to wait to retrieve our poor bags that had been gate checked. If we were unable to get on one of the two remaining flights, that back up plan worked as soon as we could retrieve our luggage.
An airline agent answered the phone after only a short hold. She worked hard. The flights were full, but she got me wait-listed on both flights. Better, she bumped me as near the top of that list as possible. Just a few people ahead of me with higher status. Airlines seats are not, in any way, a democracy. The more you fly with an given airline, the more likely you are to get anything done with them.
While on the phone, I asked the airline agent about my new friend. She could wait list him, too, but low on the list. He didn’t have many miles with them. Odds were nil. Instead of giving him the full story, I just smiled and said he was on the list.
Looking around the packed waiting area, I suspected we were going to be driving. So many flights had been canceled and the gate agents were buried trying to solve flights.
Over the din, I heard the announcement. “Standby passenger Walt for Fayetteville. Standby passenger Walt.”
Did the gate agent say Wall? I was positive she said Walt, but maybe she didn’t read it right. I hung up the phone and waded through the crowd, my new friend following me through the mob. Passengers were yelling, crying, screaming and the harried gate agent looked at me as I approached.
“I think you paged me,” I said.
“Walt?” she asked.
I nodded and handed her my paper ticket and boarding pass from the canceled flight. She glanced at the information, ripped off the old boarding pass, and hurriedly stapled the new one to my ticket. She waved me through the gate door.
In the light of hallways, the name was clear on the boarding pass. The first name was not close to my own. The last name was Walt. She had given me someone else’s seat.
I glanced back through the door at the sea of people crammed in the terminal. My eyes met the poor salesman who had hoped to share a ride to Fayetteville. I could return to the chaos and point out the error, or I could go get a seat.
No choice. I walked down the steps to board the waiting plane, a lone empty seat in its midst. I stowed my briefcase, buckled my seat belt, and waited for the door to close.
Somewhere, in that giant room, was a man with the last name of Walt. Had he heard the page? Was he talking to the gate agent at that moment? Would my deceit be revealed?
Movement at the cabin door. The flight attendant conferred with someone just out of sight. I held my breath. Waited to be publicly called out.
The door closed. The lock bolted. The taxi began. I didn’t relax until we lifted off the runway and began our short flight to Fayetteville.
We landed in Fayetteville and were escorted off the plane and into the dark terminal. Only a few flights a day came there. We were the next to last. Our small group stood waiting on our checked luggage. One by one, a suitcase appeared and was reunited with its passenger. Our group grew smaller and smaller.
Until I was alone.
A single bag sat in front of me. Not my bag. I checked the name tag. Last name Walt. Poor Mr. Walt missed the flight, but his bag arrived.
Unfortunately, my rumpled suit would not perform well for a morning meeting, so I worried more about my own missing bag.
I approached the baggage agent’s office. “My luggage is missing.”
He perused the computer. Looked at me confused. “That’s weird. It doesn’t show you on the flight. Do you have your ticket?” I handed it to him. I had discretely removed the boarding pass in flight and he never asked to see it.
“Well, that is just weird.”
I shrugged. “It was a madhouse in St. Louis with the canceled flights and storms. Must just be a computer error. Any idea where my bag might be?”
I knew the answer, but still cringed when he said, “Probably St. Louis.”
“Too late for the last flight of the day, huh?” I calculated how early the first flight of the morning would be and whether I would have time to retrieve my suitcase, change clothes, and still make the meeting.
“You may be in luck. It was delayed. Let me see if it left yet.” After a few minutes on the phone, he spoke, “Sorry about the mixup. They made sure your bag is on the last flight. It will be here in about an hour.”
“No problem. I appreciate you being nice about our screw up. You wouldn’t believe how many people get mad at me for stuff like that.”
I smiled. “No worries. Things happen. I will go check in my motel, get some food, and come back for it.“
And an hour later, I returned and two bags sat in the baggage agent’s office. I retrieved mine. Mr. Walt’s suitcase continued to wait for its owner to arrive.
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