Sino Trip 2014

We started the trip this morning. It was far too early for a retired pilot, and it had been a while since I’d experienced the general intellectual numbness that accompanies activity at that time of night. Fortunately, it goes away (usually), before you can get your hands on the aircraft. In any event, we were out of Colorado Springs at 6:20 AM, headed for Dallas. Daniel got booted from the exit row, because he was too young, and got a whole row to himself at the back of the MD80. The goodwill of an AA flight attendant was responsible for that. He had an extra legroom seat. I did not.

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Still, it was only 1:25 down to DFW, so not a big trip compared to what was to come. Getting off the aircraft, I gave Danny a map of the airport, and told him what gate he was to take us to. I only prompted him a little bit by telling him the “WooWoo Train” was on the roof of the terminal, and showed him the escalator to the stop. He did a fine job of getting us onto the train, and telling me where to get off (he’s had practice on that, but we’re still working on it). I would say the transit time between terminals was about 8 minutes, gate to gate. I think I’m going to like nonreving on American. One certainly can’t say any bad things about the equipment we’ll be riding on today. While the MD-80 we went down to DFW on is considered a “Jurassic Jet”, by the AA captain who was sitting in front of me on the first leg, what we’ll be transiting to, is the newest model in the AA fleet (till they start taking 787 Dreamliners later this year). Our ride to Hong Kong is the 777-300ER. Yes, that’s our Hong Kong flight immediately above, just waiting for us at Gate D27. Click on it, and admire. It’s quite the beast.

If you look closely, you’ll see a little  “hump” about a third of the way back, up on the roof. Remember that hump. Our aircraft even smells new, which can be good or bad. So far it’s good. We’re just overhead Kodiak Island in Alaska, just above the Aleutian Chain. One meal already served, and I swear every window shade in the passenger compartment is closed. Dark as the Black Hole of Calcutta, but plenty of air blowing through, and with 310 seats (130 of which are empty), it resembles a mini-theater with all of the seatback monitors flickering away. I recall that there may be more than 200 video channels on the AV system, which I haven’t really gotten to yet.

It’s taken me just over a third of the flight to acquaint myself with the vagaries of the aircraft WIFI system, linked to a chain of satellites that the phased array antenna (the hump) atop the fuselage keeps track of (sort of) as we follow our great circle route to Hong Kong. While the link has far too much lag to game with (we are still constrained by the laws of physics, and a server that has undoubtedly designated us as a “bandhog”), it is quite capable of handling text and browsing. In fact, our progress is being typed onto this blog in real time. Pretty cool!

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The “Seatbackometer”

Daniel and I are used to the route. Whether we’re headed to Hong Kong, or Seoul, we seem to follow this basic track. The JFK-HKG route takes you right over the pole. Might be worth the trouble to do in February, just so we could look down on the top of the world imagining how cold it is on the surface. So far, nary a bump enroute. We’ll see if it stays that way. I’ll take a little break from the blog, and get a room for this evening.

In Hong Kong

Well, the flight went pretty well, all 16 hours and 45 minutes of it. That’s translates into “quite a ways” for a nonstop flight. Those that admire Business and First Class on American will be happy to know that we were not completely ignored even in Coach, when the subject of the inflight snack buffet came up. The clever AA flight attendants had set up an array of drinks, and simple snacks in one of the galleys where coach denizens could go back and pour our own. Very nice of them, and quite considerate for those that do not yet have access to the upper reaches of luxury aboard AA. I have intentions of rising far very shortly though.

By the way, don’t be too concerned about the crewmembers getting their rest while enroute. At some point, during the journey, they’ll be more comfortable than you are. To see how the “pros” on a 777-300ER do it, click here.

Getting A Crib

The sat Wifi saved me. I was able to get a room prior to arrival, which took nearly three hours of web research. Please kids, don’t wait till the last minute to get a room, like I did. There may be 400 hotels in Hong Kong, but you probably don’t want to stay in three quarters of them, and I didn’t want to go to Mainland China to sleep (no visa). In any event, we locked in a deal at the Novotel Century Hong Kong (Accor). It’s a nice joint, and gives airline discounts. Sign up for their affinity club, and they’ll give you free WIFI. Otherwise, it’s $20US for 24 hours. The AC is powerful, which is always important this time of year, and they’ve quite a respectable Chinese breakfast buffet that will last you through the whole day. Even at midnight Hong Kong time, I’m still stuffed. Not bad for 18 hours later.

Traversing The Town

We hiked quite a ways today. I do believe it was 6-7 miles, and #1 son was perplexed as to why my shirt was all wet. He is still mystified by high humidity, and temperatures. It is a phenomenon he would know little of, having been raised at 7,500 ft. in Colorado for his whole life. This trip is more education, and work, than pleasure. He’ll start picking up on what the rest of the world is like, I’m hoping.

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Hong Kong Island from Kowloon side

Hong Kong had taken the day off as even they sleep in on Sunday. Most of the street crowd was families with kids. Of course, we had to make the rounds of the tourist haunts. A quick subway ride over to Kowloon, gave us a chance to get some shots of the bay view. It’s impressive in the daylight. Hopefully tonight, we’ll be back for a view of the light/laser show. That should not be missed.

Where We Don’t Stay

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Where we don’t stay.

Dragging #1 over to the Peninsula Hotel was met with some degree of protest, “It’s an OLD hotel dad! Why do you want to go there?” Well, a picture being worth a thousand words, I towed him (virtually kicking and screaming) into the lobby. It’s fun to watch someone, even as jaded as my own offspring, drop his jaw. Yes, the Peninsula is a nice joint. A real nice joint.

We dropped in during Sunday tea, and it seemed that every family, that had daughters, brought them in with very formal white dresses. Tea at the “The Peninsula” is something of a right of passage for Hong Kong girls, and there were a lot of them in attendance, flanking the path to the lobby. I estimate there were 100 families waiting in line to attend. Daniel’s first impression was ratcheted up a bit with the string quartet playing on the balcony. We lurked for a moment, realizing all the while that we really didn’t belong there, but being mightily impressed nonetheless.

Even the doorman was far classier than I. He should be. It’s “The Peninsula”. Worldwide, he would be in the top five in his profession. A chat with someone of his stature couldn’t help but raise my own. So why weren’t there any Rolls Royce’s parked out in front, like the last time I dropped in 30 years ago? Well of course, they were out and about transporting the “residents” of the hotel around town. They would return, and be parked in front later in the day. Yes, he confirmed that “Sunday Tea” was a significantly traditional event at the hotel. After a bit more chit-chat, I told him that when I got rich, this would be the first place I’d come to stay. This was met with a very un-inscrutable guffaw. Nice guy, that doorman. P1000623 After a few shots of the bay, and the Star Ferry, we headed back to the hotel. I don’t normally get to view street demonstrations, out in the Colorado woods, so it was interesting to find ourselves watching ~1000 people with signs and bullhorns going down the street. We were camped out under an awning during a passing rain shower. A Chinese fellow was explaining to me that it was a protest against increasing violence within the city. He allowed as how it was all due to the breakdown in families, resulting in lowered respect for societal/familial standards. Sound familiar? I guess we’re not alone.

Why They Build Up

Hong Kong is challenged by the fact that they really have very little real estate to build upon, so with most of that being vertical, their architecture must be the same. Even their churches go straight up.

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Hong Kong church

It’s only serendipitous that I got this camera angle. There’s something going on in this picture. I’ll have to think about what it might be. Nice juxtaposition, I think.

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A dichotomy of the spiritual and secular

Ruminations On Hong Kong, Then On To Singapore

Well, a bit of tourism, a bit of business. That’s all finished in Hong Kong, so we’re off on the next leg of our journey. Hong Kong, I love your work ethic. It is probably the only city in the world where you will commonly see women, in business suits, running down the street in heels. We’ll be back.

Why Chinese Communism Is An Oxymoron

The Special Economic Zones (SEZ’s) in China (of which I consider Hong Kong to be the pathfinder), are one of the most business friendly venues in the world. I know, I know, they are all Chicoms, right? Not…..entirely. china_SEZCentral planners fill Beijing, but they also want cash. Maoism couldn’t do it for them, and that’s why they created the SEZ’s. These Special Enterprise Zones are probably the easiest places in the world to start a business. Thank Deng Xiaoping for that heroic  accomplishment.

To be rich is glorious. –Deng Xiaoping

The western entrepreneurs that have done so in China, tell me that compared to the US, establishing and operating a business entity in China is a dream come true. The difference? Why simply that the government supports business activity in the SEZ’s. As the US regime(s) continue to fancy themselves as neo-western Europeans, and bleed domestic businesses dry, Mainland China views capitalism as the engine of their future. I am no fan of central planners, but on this point they are wise. As strange as a business friendly philosophy might seem in the West these days, it is a reality in China.

Back To, And Out Of, Lap Kok

We caught the 6:25 AM bus (free) from the Novotel Century, to Hong Kong Station. There is a 9:00 AM departure on Cathay Pacific that we’re very optimistic about. The loads are favorable, and our hope is to arrive in Singapore just past noon.

The Airport Express

The Airport Express

Hopping off the bus, we walk across the station hallway, buy two $10 USD tickets on the Airport Express, hop on the train, and we’re strolling into the Lap Kok terminal 24 minutes later. We haven’t broken a sweat since we were waiting on the bus at the hotel. The Airport Express, is THE way to get back and forth to the airport in Hong Kong. Don’t even think about a cab, this isn’t Kai Tak. The Express stops within the airline terminal.

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Airport Express To Lap Kok

After waiting a short time in line at the ticket counter, we present our standby etickets, passports, and winning smiles. The agent is a younger fellow, and brightens up when he sees my US Airways ID. “You are merging with American, correct? And you are now Oneworld?”

I confirmed that he was quite correct, though the whole thing wouldn’t be complete till mid-2015. In the interim, we would slowly become fully integrated. As yet, we have no AA ID’s, or AA computer access, but by fits and starts, I allowed we would have it within another year. He offered that he was looking forward to it as well, as the US was one of his favorite nonrev destinations. We both agreed that coupling the two routemaps would help everyone. He gave us our boarding passes, with seats already assigned, and wished us a pleasant trip. For a nonrev, this is key. There was enough room that we had seats 1:30 prior to departure. We were creeping up on a guarded sense of optimism regarding our chances.

Danny is becoming adept enough at crossing international boundaries, to let him loose with his passport, and having him transit immigration on his own. I’m becoming impressed with his confidence. Don’t get me wrong. The Chinese Immigration folks are just as tough as the US, but better organized at it. Lines move more quickly. Sorry TSA, and US Customs. You are lagging. Regrettably, there is some catching up to do. Cathay-Pacific-Airbus-A330-300_PlanespottersNet_257276We board the Cathay Pacific A-330, and push back on time for our 3:30 transit to SIN. As my 30 year long-term memory serves, CP is renowned for their cabin service. I would have to say that it is still true. We had three beverage services enroute, and a full breakfast back in Coach. It was the best airline meal of the trip. There was only time for one movie, but it was a short flight. We like Cathay Pacific.

Singapore

Ah, Singapore. A city-state where a foodie can easily access what is probably the widest variety of quality eats of anywhere in the world, and spend very little money while doing it. Daniel and I plan to do some of that while we’re here. Every time we come, we really wish we could stay longer. So many Hawker Centers, so little time.

As to our arrival, it went without flaw, until we arrived at immigration. We entered the queue at about 12:15 P.M and didn’t actually clear till nearly 1:30 P.M. That wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t been herded into the slowest moving, longest line ever. Well, that’s not true. I’ve tangled with PHL’s custom’s and immigration setup on a number of occasions, and it is undoubtedly, consistently, a form of slow death for those that don’t have Global Entry. Someday I’ll wax poetic about that program, as it has everything a 21st century traveler deserves. Of course, if you’re pining for your great grandfather’s immigration experience, then by all means ignore what Global Entry offers. I’m already getting involuntary senior citizen discounts at Burger King, so I have less time to waste than most others reading this blog.

Unfortunately, my bona fides aren’t worth squat in Singapore, when transiting their immigration. After exiting that “veil of tears”, everything else went swimmingly. A short airport tram ride over to Terminal 2, put us on the escalator to the subway. Thirty minutes later, and $4.00 USD poorer, we were in the basement of the Fragrance V Hotel. It’s one of the easiest transitions to a hotel of anywhere in the world.

The first thing Danny wanted was a meal at a Hawker Center. Lots of noodles, and “additional ingredients”. I just stuck to noodles, and we both topped it off with crab on a stick for dessert. Again, it is really cheap to eat in this town. The total bill, for the two of us came to about $4 USD. A year in Singapore would be a good start on what they have to offer.

National University Of Singapore, Graduate Business School

Great video clips, regarding this school, can be found by clicking here, and here.

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National University of Singapore Graduate Business School

NUS section to be continued….

The Path Less Taken

Had the flight loads been favorable, we would have simply headed back to Hong Kong to catch American on to Denver, through Dallas. Unfortunately, HKG didn’t look so good, and neither did Seoul for that matter. No problem! We’ll just visit Japan, on the way. There is a 6:00 AM departure from Changi on United, as I recall.

Pull out the notebook computer, check loads, buy the tickets, list ourselves, and we were all good for the morning departure to Narita, without having to adjust the pillow under my head. There was a bit of a complication, since as much as I’d like to go to the airport for $4.00 USD on the subway, the MRT doesn’t start till 6:00 AM on that route. That requires  a cab, but as it turned out, it wasn’t terribly expensive ($18.00 USD). That’s lots less than I’d pay in the US. At 4:00 AM there is very little traffic on the road out to the airport, and we actually got there a little faster than the MRT would have taken (fewer stops). By 4:25 AM we were checking in at United. Hooray! We have seats assigned already.

The last time we flew out of Changi, we weren’t allowed onto the concourse till shortly before departure. I really wanted to spend some time out there as it is probably one of the cushiest passenger facilities in the world. I asked if it was permitted to go to the gate. No problem. We zipped right through Security and Immigration, out onto the concourse, where everything was……….closed. Well, it was 0 dark thirty in the morning so what should I have expected, if I’d bothered to think about it at all. We walked about a bit, looking at all of the shuttered shops and restaurants, just imagining what it would have been like “if only”. This is a great video of what it would have been like, had we the sense to be there at the right time. Click here.

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The concourse is open, but no one’s home

At least the restrooms were unlocked, and clean!

At least the restrooms were open, and clean!

Our flight to Narita was a United 777. Boarding was normal, and as we hunkered down in our seats for the six hour flight up to Japan, cheerful UAL flight attendants were passing out copies of the Straits Times, complete with headlines reading, Malaysian Airlines 777 Shot Down Over Ukraine. That’s quite a welcome aboard, but we’re not getting off, because we’re nonrevs, and we have a seat! The United service was very nice enroute. The coach breakfast was quite adequate, and there were enough beverage services to keep us from drying out. The seats were comfy as well, with enough padding to keep old bones happy.

This trip back home was going to work out just fine, since our United connecting flight to DEN was to be a nonstop 787 Dreamliner. As I reclined my seatback, I was comforted by the thought that there were going to be plenty of empty seats available on the Denver flight. I was glad that I had made sure to ask about that at the Changi ticket counter. What could go wrong?

…….and into the fire

Well, the flight from SIN worked out very nicely. We arrived at NRT (Tokyo’s International Airport) right on time. We had plenty of “pad” before our next flight, nearly four hours, so we decided to stroll around the facilities. Coming around a corner, we noticed that the passenger service counter had a line that had over 300 passengers in it (stong minor chord struck in the background). Signs and portents were immediately indicating that all was not well.

For us, this was a realization that a nonrev disaster had just occurred. Glancing at the flight status boards, there were not one, not two, but three cancellations inbound from the US. That is a bad thing, because it also means that there will be three cancellations back to the US. These aircraft were widebodies, hauling more than 300 passengers each. That’s about 1,000 butts, looking for seats that don’t exist at that level. What flights were still operating, were going to have every single seat filled going anywhere in the US.

There was only one place to go. A “bunker” was needed, and for us it was the Admiral’s Club. Not to drown my angst in cheap/free booze, but to get a reliable internet connection, with an unrestricted VOIP capability. That line at customer service is no place for a nonrev. Our only salvation is research, research, research. It was going to take some talent to get out of NRT, and it became immediately obvious that we were going to be in NRT overnight, and that was probably the most favourable outcome. After an hour of research, it confirmed that the only effective tactic was to begin triage. We’d see about a hotel later, since it was too late to make a reservation anyway. We’d also show up for the only remaining flight that had a possibility of an empty seat, but it appeared to be pretty hopeless.

After evaluating our situation, it was a repeat of when Black Forest was afire last year, our house was threatened, and we were in Lithuania. Following a thorough analysis of the situation, it was time to go have lunch.

The Admiral’s Club, at least the one at NRT, is great for free food. Sandwiches, soups, eggrolls, rice, booze, coffee, tea, milk, softdrinks, and anything else you need to cover your travel depression, is available in abundance. We fed….copiously.

After feeding time, we reanalyzed the possibility of getting on an American flight to anywhere in the US. There was no possibility of that happening for us. We stood by for the United flight to Denver, but those seats had evaporated as well.

Adventures In Sleeping

P1000651 Yes, you have to be desperate to even consider this, but we are strangers in a strange land. This option was considered, and hurriedly discarded. For those weighing the possibility, it is $34 USD per pod, and NO, you cannot share a pod to save money. Even nonrevs have their limits.

There was nothing else to do but to go through Immigration, and take the Hilton shuttle.

Checking into the Hilton was quick, efficient, and courteous. Very …… Japanese. For those that have yet to visit these islands, it is something so pervasive, and endemic to the culture, that it is better experienced, than described. Spend a week here, the next time you can arrange it. While other countries are good for varying sights and foods, Japan is a unique culture.

Helpful Japanese Travel Hints:

The Japanese are simply raised by a different standard. For instance, if you’re in need of directions in any of their cities, think very carefully about whether you really require the help. By asking a Japanese passerby for directions, you have personally obligated that individual. It will be difficult to disentangle yourself, unless they’ve discharged the new responsibility you’ve just placed upon them. Don’t worry, they all speak English (or did). Like my Spanish and German, their English fluency recedes over the years, so ask a young one. They have forgotten less. Be assured that they will do their absolute best to get you pointed in the right direction.

Most of us are in luck. As “Outsiders”, we are considered Gaijin, and thus are allowed a certain degree of latitude in our behavioral standards. There are limits though. If you have a run in with the Police, or become too unruly, you will simply be deported. The Japanese standards of hospitality and tolerance are not unlimited towards Gaijin.

By their nature, and upbringing, the Japanese are a strikingly honest lot. One need only visit one of their train stations. In large cities, there will be literally thousands of parked bicycles awaiting the return of their riders.

Hold on to something substantial…..the bicycles are not locked. That’s right. People do not steal in Japan, at least by Western standards. One really needn’t concern yourself about theft while visiting. Simply put, it is a largely urban population, with a strong sense of agrarian civic responsibility.

If you’re not a farm kid, or never grew up in a small village, you won’t get it. If you came from either of those origins, you’ll feel right at home.

A Second Shot

Did I tell you we like air conditioning? Don’t do Asia, in the summer, without it.

The next morning I went down to the Hilton Coffee Shop where they have free internet terminals available. The next problem was discovered fairly quickly. Non-rev passengers rely on a fairly specialized set of servers that provide information and listing services. Unfortunately, the system was not allowing a booking within 24 hours of departure on American. That was unfortunate, as it only allowed us to get on one of their flights another day out into the future.

RATS!

That leaves our original UAL NRT-DEN flight as our only option this afternoon. The bad news is that the flight is full.

This is beginning to have the feel of, Groundhog Day.

Alright, you still go to the airport and standby for the flight, even if there is no chance of getting on. As a non-rev, it is your station in life and you must accept it for this turn of the wheel. Next time, perhaps you will be reborn in a higher caste.

Last Flight Out

We’re back at the gate, standing by for the UAL nonstop to DEN. Daniel just found me in the boarding area happily announcing, “Dad! There’s an America West pilot standing by for the flight too.”

“How do you know he’s America West?”

“He has an America West tag on his bag”, he replied.

I furtively cruised around the designated area, and there was a pilot in uniform, with an America West bagtag. I challenged him on his affiliation, and indeed, he was an old America West pilot (America West/USAir/now nearly American), but an interesting America West pilot nonetheless.

We had never met, but I’d heard of him. While I was a commuter for most of my airline career, this guy may have the longest commute of any pilot in the world. I am not kidding.

Wait for it ……… He commutes to Phoenix for his job, from his home in Thailand. He may be one of a kind.

Nice guy though. He was standing by for the jumpseat. I would have been as well, but my cockpit security clearance had expired long ago. We chatted a bit, and it sounded like not a great deal had changed.

His parting admonition was, “You are SO lucky you’re out of this game!”

I believe him, but he is not the first that has told me that.

Triage

While this part of the story is probably going to sound like a morality play, it may be the most important lesson you can learn as a non-rev. Pay attention!

After checking in at the counter, and confirming that we were on the standby list, we were also dutifully informed that the flight was sold out and there were no seats available. I thanked the gate agent, and told him that I would stand well out of the way, but I would still standby if any of that changed.

The boarding process had nearly completed, and another announcement was made that there would be no seats available for non-revenue passengers. The other standby passengers, many of whom had higher boarding categories than I, promptly stomped off down the concourse in a huff, leaving Daniel and I alone in the boarding area. After a few minutes, the agent began to call standby passenger’s names, but nobody was left in the boarding area but us.

The wind was beginning to shift. Suddenly, the gate agent called our last name, and I approached the counter.

“We have one seat available. You’ll have to be split. Will you, or Daniel, take the seat?”

Well, I had been considering this. Daniel had progressed very nicely on this trip in his dealings with Immigration. I had no concerns about him being able to clear a Customs and Immigration gauntlet. Additionally, since it was a non-stop to DEN, there was very little likelihood that he was going to be “derailed” enroute.

“Daniel! You’re going by yourself today. Here’s your passport,” I announced.

While he was surprised by how fast things were changing, he took his passport, and the agent accompanied him down the jetway after he waved to me.

By this time, there was a gate supervisor at the counter as well. After the agent returned, I approached them.

“I just want to thank both of you, for being kind enough to get my son on the flight. I really appreciate that you were able to do that for us,” I offered. One should never neglect a statement of appreciation, especially in Japan.

They were a bit startled at my comment, I think. They bowed to me hurriedly, and started talking amongst themselves, while tapping on their keyboards.

Well, that was nice, I thought to myself. Daniel is on his way, and my social obligations are completed with the agents. I gathered my carry-ons, and moved across the area towards the window. Perhaps, I’d be able to get a picture of Daniel’s Dreamliner as it pushed back from the gate. I’d still have to get back to the Admiral’s Club to text or call his mother, advising her that he’d be in Denver about noon. This was going to turn out alright, even if I didn’t get on the flight.

As I gazed out the window, my tactical planning was interrupted by the agent.

“Do not leave! Please stay in the boarding area. There may be a …… possibility,” the agent cautioned.

Perhaps God is smiling on me again, I thought to myself as I approached the counter.

A bit more keyboard work ensued.

“Do you have your listing paperwork?” the agent asked.

I handed it to him, and he tapped away even more hurriedly. Pulling a boarding pass, he handed it to me.

“I believe there may be just one seat left on that flight. Please hurry down to the aircraft, and stand by the door. Do not go in, but stand by the door. We will see.”

We Are The Borg. You Will Be Assimilated. Resistance Is Futile.

Taking my place, at the outside of the aircraft doorway, I chatted with the flight attendants who had raised their collective eyebrows, when they saw me lurking outside their door.

“I’m non-rev,” I offered, and they promptly relaxed.

“The agent is checking to see about one seat on the aircraft, which would be very nice as my son is already boarded.”

One of the pilots stepped out into the jetway.

“Are you a pilot? We have an empty jumpseat,” he offered.

“Used to be, but retired now”.

Smiles all around amongst the crew. I was once again, part of the family.

“Here, come on into the galley. Is that your bag right there? Do you still drink coffee?” The flight attendant’s took my carry-on’s as I was assimilated through the door.

A cup of decaf was shoved into my hand, with one half and half (thank you very much). I made pre-departure small talk with the crew. You never really lose the skill. It stays with you, like an old tattoo.

“23F. The overhead is open where you can put your bag,” the agent informed me as he returned from the rear. I thanked everyone and hurriedly took my seat.

Through no fault of my own, I’d be sleeping in my bed tonight. Nice.

United-787-Dreamliner

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