Travel Rule # 1 is this: Stay positive.
This, above all else, will help ensure that your travels are effortless and enjoyable. I hold true to this rule – sometimes it’s more like desperate clinging – even at the expense of rationality and basic probability. I refuse to admit defeat over a missed flight until I see the plane taking off without me. I will not give up on a piece of luggage until the carousel stops going around and the overhead sign switches to another flight. In my estimation, conceding calamity never helps, but denying calamity for as long as possible certainly can’t hurt – unless the calamity is something like an imminently erupting volcano, in which case the normal rules no longer apply.
But despite my best efforts to maintain that upbeat, everything-will-work-out attitude, when the delay for my flight from Basel to Paris pushed past an hour, and my already-too-tight connection at Charles de Gaulle shrank from two hours to forty-five minutes, even I couldn’t deny it: There was no way I was making my next flight.
The corollary to the “stay positive” travel rule is that when it’s no longer possible to think positive – i.e., the plane, or the lava, is already in the air – then you just have to go with the flow. So I sat calmly in the Basel airport, eating my surprisingly adequate airport soft pretzel, and planned my next move. Should I try to make a run for the gate when we landed in Paris, then have the gate agent change my ticket? Or should I go straight back to ticketing? And if I had to spend the night in Paris, what should I go see first?
The flight from Basel eventually took off, and it landed in Paris a few minutes after 1 pm. My flight to Atlanta departed at 1:35. Yes, I had been right to concede defeat on this one. Thirty-five minutes to make a connection (an international one, no less) at one of the world’s most agonizingly sprawling, complex airports? C’est impossible!
As I climbed down the stairs from the small jet onto the tarmac, however, a little man in an Air France vest at the bottom of the stairs caught my eye. He was holding a sign: Atlanta 13:35. It took me a second to do the European-to-American time conversion and realize that was my flight.
“That’s me!” I gasped, and I ran right up to him, not for a moment pausing to wonder whether he was, in fact, a legitimate Air France employee.
“Come with me, quickly,” he replied, and hurried away from the plane, with me and two other men from the flight following behind like baby ducks. He led us – at quite a brisk trot, just shy of a jog – across the tarmac, over a low chain barrier, and around a corner, where an Air France van was waiting. We jumped in, and as he started the engine, he warned us with typical French pessimism (and that wonderful French accent), “We are going to try to make it, but it will be very close, I don’t know that it will be possible.”
He took off across the tarmac, weaving between parked vehicles, zooming around the curves of access roads, and generally holding his own in the class of the World’s Most Terrifying Taxi Drivers, all the while compulsively checking his watch every 30 seconds or so. I watched the large letters on the sides of the terminal buildings go by, counting down to our goal, terminal E; each building felt like miles apart. At one point, he told us to get out our passports; he explained that we would need to go through border control. He pulled up next to a building and pointed us through an unmarked door, where several customs officials were inexplicably sitting behind a table in an otherwise empty room, waiting to stamp our passports. Passports back in hand, we ran back out to the van, and he took off again – in fact, back in the direction we had just come from. More zooming around building corners and dodging of luggage cars ensued, until suddenly he screeched to a stop by a door with a big “E” next to it. “Come with me!” he called.
He ran us up an escalator and down a long hallway. And then we came upon the Waterloo of air travelers: the security line. But no, we were not to be defeated here, either. He took us to the far end, where there were several metal detector lanes shut down, and we were ushered through in a matter of minutes (though we still had to take off our shoes). We were really close now, and really running. As our gate number came into view down the vast terminal, he jogged ahead, waving his arms over his head to catch the attention of the gate agents. They were not pleased with us, either, and brusquely grabbed for our tickets as we arrived, panting, at the gate. We just had a moment to gasp at our driver, guide, and savior, “Thank you! Thank you!” before the agents pushed us onto the gangway. The cabin door slammed shut behind us. I fell into my seat and finally looked at my watch. It was 1:35.
On the ground in Atlanta, I was reunited with the two men from my Basel flight. The three of us were standing by the baggage carousel, watching the luggage dwindle as our fellow passengers collected their bags and moved on. We looked at each other, as the same thought seemed to occur to each of us at the same moment.
Yes, we had defied all odds of plausibility, pushed the boundaries of travel logistics, and managed to make the tightest flight connection of our lives. Unfortunately, our luggage had not. But I saw no harm in conceding this point, even before an airline representative confirmed it; sometimes you just have to be realistic.