Back in the USA!

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We are back in the US of A!

We made it back in one piece, but not without a little travel drama.

The Virgin Australia flight boarded efficiently and on time, and we recognized a number of fellow Cruise members returning home on the plane as well.

We were a bit delayed, however, since mysteriously the Captain came over the PA system and announced “A passenger has decided not to fly with us today. She has already left the plane, but we must find and off-load her luggage.”

So we waited, enjoying the excellent
Virgin on-board entertainment system, and then took off. The pilot made up the time, and the 12 hour flight was uneventful and rather enjoyable, insofar as such a long flight can be.

I watched 3 movies as well as one of the last three episodes of Boston Legal (which I have been saving for just this purpose). I’ll wax eloquent on Boston Legal during the next cruise when I have seen the final two episodes. The team that produced Ally McBeal, The Practice, Boston Legal, Harry’s Law, etc., is among my favorites in current TV.

The three movies were as follows:

Red Dawn (the remake): I actually liked it. After one willingly suspends disbelief that North Korea could invade and occupy all of the U.S. (I think Arizona, Montana, and ??Mississippi?? were still unoccupied), and that our response was not to turn North Korea into a sheet of glass (I’m not necessarily endorsing that…but it would be expected), the film moves well. The other thing about it is that the dialogue subtly suggests that this is not really about NK vs the USA: it may be about a foreign power invading others under the pretext of saving them from their own problems. Hmmm? When has that happened recently?

An interesting note is that the villain country was originally the PRC, until they objected, and the producers realized that they would lose a huge potential movie-going market. Post-production digitally changed everything to North Korean. Aside from the previous Dear Leader, I don’t think they watch our films, so no loss of Market share.

The second was Paranormal Events 4: Don’t bother. I would turn this off is they were showing this for free on KOFY Creepy Movies.

Hitchcock: A great movie: the acting is perfect by two giants of the screen, and the story quite entertaining about the making of Psycho! I am looking forward to seeing it again.

While in the airport I was also very happy to see that Kate Moss’s The Labyrinth is now a German-South African mini-series, filmed on location in Carcassonne. Anyone know if this is available anywhere?

So, the flight went well, and the service was Virgin’s usual high level of inflight service. My assessment of Virgin is that they are a great airline–in the air. Their ground service leaves a great deal to be desired.

A case in point: this trip. We made our SF-LA-Syndey-Auckland and Syndey-LA-SF reservations well in advance (months). In January we checked with them to make sure that our frequent flyers numbers were in the reservation. Lo! and behold, they had redone the schedule without letting us know. After a long battle on the phone, we arranged to fly in a day earlier.

The 14 hour trans-Pacific flight was typically fine–even pleasant. We got to Sydney in the morning, and went through customs, since the Sydney-Auckland flight was a separate leg. We went to the Virgin counter to check in, only to find that our flight did not leave until 3pm: many hours would be wasted in the airport.

We very politely asked the ticket agent to change the short (3 hour) flight to one of their many earlier ones.

The surprising response came, “Sir, we cannot change any pre-booked flights here at the airport. We don’t actually work for Virgin,” she said, with a Virgn uniform on standing under the Virgin Australia sign at their own ticket booth. “You’ll need to call the toll-free number from your own cell.”

OK, we had provisioned the phones to work overseas, and so we called. After several minutes on the phone with a very confused Virgin agent (in the Philippines, no less!) Chris got nowhere, and he went back to the ticket agent and went ballistic. Needless to say, our tickets were changed (with a $100 change fee) and we got to Auckland on a non-Virgin, cross-listed flight as three different airlines.

On the way back, US Customs took so long to process the plane (more on this later) that even with a almost two hour window, we didn’t make the baggage transfer deadline. We rushed from Terminal 5 to 3 across LAX (!), dragging our bags along. We got to the ticket window at 11:05 for the 11:35 flight, but the baggage window had already closed, and they would not take us.

Then there was a great deal of hemming and hawing and speaking to supervisors about changing our flight. The next one was at 2:40 pm, but they could only put us on Standby. We didn’t like it, but it was the only choice, and so we took it, with assurances that the plane was not full.

The bottom line on Virgin Air: I was one of the founding members of their Elevate frequent flyer program, and was one who petitioned the U.S. Government to allow Virgin America to get established here in the US. I want to like them.

In the air, it is one of the best experiences, no matter which fare class you are in. The attendants are great, and go out of their way to help.

The booking and ground operations are deeply flawed, and really off-putting. I’m not boycotting Virgin, but I am very wary now, and will “trust but verify” each step. Later today, I will be making sure our Elevate points got posted properly.

After clearing security, we went to Gladstone’s in the terminal for some delicious Shrimp Cocktail, Clam Chowder and Cod Tacos.

Sure enough, the plane was not full, and we got on just fine. The flight was peaceful, and we slept the short jaunt back to SF. We got home to be greeted by a jubilant Skye Terrier.

Now, about the U.S. Customs in L.A. Both Chris and I have traveled extensively over many years, and neither of us has experienced this. The Customs was badly understaffed, and disorganized.

When we all got off the plane, we walked the normal multiple football fields to the customs area. This was a 777, so there were a lot of passengers.

As soon as we arrived in the customs area, we were greeted by a guard whose first words were “Everyone, up against the wall!” Nice…welcome to the USA.

She then had us form two lines, US Citizens and non-citizens. Then she consulted over her walkie, and reorganized the lines as those with connecting flights and those without. The connecting passengers then went to claim their luggage first. It came down two different carousels, and many of us, after waiting quite a while, found that our luggage had been off-loaded and stacked to the side already. Cool announcements, guys.

We then queued up to have bags inspected. The line stretched all along the walls of the entire luggage area, the length of two full baggage carousels.

For the whole plane, there were two–2!–customs officers clearing the whole line. If you were lucky enough to be approved, you went out, if not, you went to the inspection tables. Happily, we were approved, and exited, but it was still too late to drop the bags at the transfer point, and we began the mad dash to terminal 3. The whole process from disembarkation to clearance took about an hour and a quarter, or near 90 minutes.

Now I stand behind all of our men and women in all of the forces that keep us safe. This was not the fault of the Customs agents who were on duty. This was a management problem, not being clear about procedures with the ground personnel, and no providing enough agents to expedite the passenger lines.

I guess our taxes are going to our wars like Iraq (can you say, Red Dawn?) and providing bail outs for dishonest and inept business who should be closed. You or I do not get bailouts, only those “Corporate Persons–too Big to Fail.” Robert Reich is correct to remind us of the old saying: “We have two systems: Socialism for the Rich, and Capitalism for the rest of us!”

Let’s get those taxes working for the people–citizens and our visitors!

But in the long run, these were minor irritations in an overwhelmingly wonderful experience Down Under!

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Over the next three weeks I’ll keep you up-to-date on the happenings in San Francisco and San Jose, and some linguistic fun.

Sorry for the brevity and typos: Sent from remote on the phone.

Thank you!

Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant, Member and Customer Services

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