I thought it might be fun to start a semi-recurring topic of strange but true stories from the road. It seems like my life is a series of these (whether I’m traveling or not) and they form a web of cautionary tales and been there done that life lessons that help me travel smarter!
I’ve been traveling heavily for consulting for fifteen years now. And over the years, I’ve seen some bizarre things. I’m sure some of you have as well!
One memorable story that has been told again and again around our offices was about a strange week on the road about two years into my career. I was transitioning one of our analysts into a project consultant role and took her on her first business trip. It was to be a combination trip – we were to leave Dallas on Monday morning to fly to Denver on American and then connect to a tiny regional flight on United. We’d spend three days on a client site in that small town (Monday afternoon through Wednesday morning) and then on Wednesday we’d fly back to Denver to overnight near the airport so that we could catch another tiny United regional flight to go make a sales visit to help another consultant finalize specs on project we were bidding and then hop back to Denver where we’d have a couple of hours to catch our flight back to Dallas on American.
Seemed easy enough… that was my standard weekly trip back in the day.
So it begins…
We caught our Monday flights with no hiccups and made it to Scottsbluff Nebraska on the tiny 14 seat prop plane. (This was pre 9/11 so the pilots flew with no cabin door. There was no flight attendant or bathroom. And three passengers sat across the bench at the back of the plane with the middle seat staring directly up the aisle into the cockpit.)
There were not a lot of options back then in Scottsbluff so we settled on an Applebees and grabbed a quick lunch and watched the locals, particularly one who appeared to stand out in the small town – a very hairy man wearing a woman’s dress who was traversing back and forth between the parking lot and the restroom hallway. He would walk back to the pay phone at the back of the restaurant and pick up that phone and then walk back to the parking lot only to repeat the routine a few minutes later. No one paid any attention to him so chalked it up to small town life and local personalities and went on about our business. My young colleague was amused, but I chalked it up to normal life on the road – “happens all the time!”
We didn’t make it out to eat again there until Tuesday night when a waitress, bartender, and manager all decided to swing by our table. “You must be the consultants everyone is talking about”, the bartender said. We figured he was making a lucky guess until he mentioned that his aunt had been our cashier earlier that day when we’d grabbed lunch in our client’s cafeteria. He said they didn’t get many folks through that weren’t “regulars”. The waitress said we stood out because we were wearing clothes that weren’t from “around there”.
And then there is tequila with the Queen
We had no idea we stuck out so much but on Wednesday, we were back in to each lunch before catching our afternoon flight, this time grabbing a quick bite at the bar and talking to the same staff members who now wanted to congregate and ask us questions about life in Dallas. The man in the dress was back and periodically approached the bar and asked to use the house phone – we heard him explain to a manager that the Queen was waiting for his call and he needed them to clear the line so he could call Buckingham Palace. We were impressed with how calmly the staff dealt with him.
The restaurant staff decided we needed a “send off” gift so they poured a tray of tequila shots and brought it around to our table. We did one shot with them but needed to get to the airport so we left them with the balance of the tray (which I suspect was polished off quickly) and boarded our flight to Denver.
It was a horribly bumpy flight and took much longer than scheduled, not what you want when you have just had a late lunch and a tequila shot with no restroom on board but finally made it into Denver for the night.
And then all Hell breaks loose
The next morning, we returned to catch our flight to Kearney Nebraska and waited out a long delay first by stopping by the Admirals Club where we decided to stash our bags for the day (remember, PRE 9/11!) and then went to the United Express gates where we spent time chatting with two cute young guys (much younger than us) who turned out to be our pilots. One had JUST graduated from flight school in Dallas and was beginning his first week flying. They told us that United started the morning behind schedule due to delays from the day before so we’d be backed up for two hours all day. They also explained that we’d be with them all day because we were flying Denver-Kearney-Yankton SD-Kearney-Denver – so while we went to see our prospect in Kearney, they’d be flying to Yankton and back.
We got into Kearney late so rather than the slight cushion we originally had (roughly 3:45 had originally existed in that block), we instead had to grab a fast food drive thru lunch in the car and quickly head to our meeting where we walked in exactly at the start time. We wrapped that and got back to the airport (still about 45 minutes before the original flight time) – but we figured we’d be in for a long delay due to the turn up to Yankton so we weren’t too concerned. Back in that era, 45 minutes before the flight was very early to arrive at the airport, especially at a tiny outpost!
The Kearney airport is like many of the tiny regional airports that dot smaller communities that only have service 1-3 times a day. It was a single counter with a metal detector and xray machine and seating for about 20 people in a building not much larger than a doublewide trailer. We walked in and were shocked to see 20 heads ALL turn when we got in the door. The counter agent jumped over the scale and immediately scolded us and hustled us through the metal detector and said “Where have you BEEN? We’ve all been waiting on you for over an hour! This plane needs to leave NOW!”
It turns out that United had reviewed the operating schedule for the day and as they had no through passengers to Yankton, they decided to catch up the schedule and go Denver-Kearney-Yankton-Denver and cut the turn around. And thus all the other passengers who had arrived between 90 minutes and 2 hours before their flight had been waiting on *us*!
Luckily the pilots knew what we’d been doing so they had tried to get the departure held. The counter agent (who was also the person who loaded the bags, boarded the plane, pulled the blocks out from the wheels, and turned the lights off in the terminal and locked up and drove away as we were taxiing) quickly hustled the 8 of us onto the plane and we took off for Yankton in a forming snowstorm.
Yes, a snowstorm
We landed at Yankton just as the white stuff was kicking up. The pilots touched down on the runway and stopped the plane long enough to lower the stairs to allow the single United employee to escort a lone little old lady out to the plane and put her on the plane. And then she too turned off the lights in her station and drove off while we sat on the plane, freezing, and watching our pilots panic because the storm was pushing towards Denver and there was now a traffic hold there.
My old school cell phone (it was 2001, mind you) was dying but I realized that we needed to call the Denver Admirals Club which closed at 7 pm (and our flight to DFW was an 7:30 pm departure) as our bags were there! I managed to squeeze out a quick call to an angel of an agent there who agreed to stay with our bags until we landed. We also weren’t checked in yet (and this was before smart phones) so he agree to print our boarding passes and have them ready.
That was a smart move in retrospect. We had to take a long routing to get around the weather and we landed in Denver, the operations were so backed up with United that it took a while to taxi and terminate the flight. And also by this time, we were both feeling the pain of no bathroom stops for the majority of the day.
We finally deplaned in Denver at 7:10 pm and took off in full sprint mode (both of us in skirts and hosiery and heels) from the far end of one concourse and onto the train to the next concourse. And we came off the train to that wonderful agent who was standing at the escalator with our boarding passes and both of our bags. He had stayed late to be sure we got them!
“RUN!” he told us.
Yes, it turns out that while United was backed up, American was running perfectly on time – and wanted their planes out of Denver before the storm hit. So run we did.
We made it to the plane just as the agent was calling final boarding, passing two guys in suits who were hanging out at the counter, no doubt waiting on our seats.
We collapsed into our first class seats, sweaty but laughing at the insanity of it all.
The two guys in suits passed us (I guess they were hoping to grab our seats?!) and one smirked and said “it must be nice to use your daddy’s points to upgrade to first class” as he passed.
Oh, if only he knew!!!
It turns out we were extremely lucky to get out that night. It was spring break which is crazy town for Denver (as I now know) and the standby list was long. The snowstorm which would hit later that night messed up operations in the region for days.
I learned several lessons that week:
- Never leave your luggage anywhere when you are depending on an airline getting you back to it within a short window.
- It’s impossible to fly under the radar in small towns (or near client sites), so check your behavior on the road!
- Watch your itineraries when you are flying on a schedule that includes airlines that do not have an interline agreement.
- And always use the bathroom when you have the opportunity!
This is but one of several crazy stories I have from my time in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming. I’ll share more in the future.
Do YOU have any strange but true stories you want to share from your travels? Email me and I just might feature it a future post. (credited OR anonymous, to protect the guilty!)