Mar. 2, 2007
Business Travel Nightmares
For lawyers, business travel is often a part of life. Some of us like it and some don't. But no matter what you think of your time sitting in snowed-in airports or sqeezed next to motormouths, it can't compare to these travel horror stories. By Susan E. Davis
We've all been there?stuck in a ticket line, stuck in a security line, stuck on the tarmac, stuck next to a passenger who will not, will not, will not stop talking, then stuck on the tarmac once again?when you are only minutes, it feels, from home. And we'll all be there again. But next time you're in a jam while traveling on business, consider these extreme travel nightmares. They're bound to make you feel better about your own plight.
"Popping? What Popping?"
Back in the mid-1990s, Norman Ronneberg, currently a litigator with Bullivant Houser Bailey in San Francisco, was traveling from London's Heathrow Airport back to his home in the Bay Area. The plane was filled and sitting out in the middle of the tarmac when the pilot announced that the flight had been delayed for security reasons. Then what Ronneberg describes as a "thwomp pop, thwomp pop" sound began.
No one at the airport would explain what was going on; Ronneberg's initial sense was only that "it wasn't good." But eventually the attorney correctly deduced that the sound came from shoulder-fired mortars being launched by the IRA. ("It was that era," he explains, "and we were at Heathrow.")
When asked just how it felt to be, essentially, a sitting duck, Ronneberg says, "I was a little confused. I couldn't figure out if the IRA meant for the mortars to not explode, or if they were just inept. And I felt fearful, since my wife was with me and we had young children at home. But it was also exciting being right in the middle of history."
"Are We There Yet?"
Then there are unguided missile attacks. Nan Joesten, a partner in the IP group at Farella Braun + Martel in San Francisco, was riding in a hotel shuttle bus at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport when she and her co-passengers heard a terrible noise. They looked up to find that one whole bus window had been blown out and another (the one right next to Joesten's head) had an eight-inch hole blasted out of its middle. "All the driver could say was that it reminded him of Vietnam," Joesten says.
A construction worker standing at the curbside realized that the cap on a standpipe (the nozzle that firefighters attach their hoses to) on the terminal wall had become pressurized and been blasted through the air. "So I staggered onto the sidewalk. There was glass everywhere?in my hair, in my jacket cuffs, even in my briefcase," Joesten recalls cheerfully. "I just wanted to get on a plane. But the police came and wanted to have me get back on the bus and give the details of the whole event. And I'm thinking, 'I do not want to have this conversation anymore. I just want a drink.' "
Joesten admits she never thought she would meet her maker in Texas. "But I know that if I had been taken out by a standpipe nozzle, I have really good lawyers on my team. And this is a pretty straightforward case of res ipsa loquitur. I mean, these things shouldn't be shooting through the air. Period."
"I've Got a Feeling We're Not in L.A. Anymore"
Brian Kabateck, a partner with Kabateck Brown Kellner in Los Angeles, travels a lot for his consumer litigation practice: to New York, to Paris, to far-flung places all around the country. But he admits he can be kind of, well, provincial when it comes to hotels.
Take the time he had a reservation at a Budgetel Inn, in Bowling Green, Kentucky. "I got it in my head that I'd be staying at a Ritz-Carlton kind of place," he says, "but when I checked in that was not the case. In fact, the only thing you got in the 'Leisure Suite' was a closet. When they asked me if I'd like a continental breakfast, I said, 'Yes, that would be very nice.' "
As promised, the motel desk gave him a wake-up call at 6:30 the next morning. So far so good. But Kabateck found no breakfast. He showered and dressed?still no breakfast. "I was getting irritated," Kabateck says. "Then I opened the door to my room and found what looked like a small trash bag dangling from the knob. Inside was a small juice box and a half-frozen muffin. I asked the front desk what time they had hung it there, and they said, '3 a.m. That gives it time to thaw.' "
"The worst thing is," he says, "my wife used to be a travel agent, and she often makes my reservations for me. I've noticed recently that when we travel together, we stay in really nice hotels, but when I travel alone, I get booked in these little dumps. You'd think I'd learn by now."
"How Can We Terribly Serve You Today?"
Spouses wield power, no question. But a number of attorneys mentioned the excruciating levels of power that "the counter people" have over air travelers these days. For instance, several years ago Luke Cole, director of the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment in San Francisco, had to fly from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. Alas, his back had gone out just the day before. Cole, who is a big proponent of being polite to service staff, begged the woman behind the counter to give him a seat that would recline. But when he got on the plane, he discovered she had put him in the only row with seats that do not recline?the very last row. "To add insult to injury," Cole adds, "the other two men assigned to my row were?how to put this delicately?large individuals. So from San Francisco to Dulles I was mashed between two huge guys in a seat that didn't recline. That's testament to the power of the counter folks in your travel."
"Keep Your Shirt On"
Denise Howell, a lawyer, blogger, and podcaster in Newport Beach, took her seven-and-a-half-month-old baby along on a flight from Orange County. Even for someone who doesn't carry babies through airports, a benign trip can turn into a nightmare very quickly. But babies complicate things. With her laptop, stroller, diaper bag, baby toys, baby blanket, and car seat, Howell wound her way through the security-line barriers. "Even then, I felt the dread ripple back through line as others grasped what was about to ensue," she says.
Once at the scanning machine, she removed her PowerBook from its case and put the computer in one plastic bin and the case in another. (That's bin numbers one and two, by the way.) "Then I put the diaper backpack in bin number three and my shoes, belt, and jacket in bin number four," Howell explains. "Then I separated my baby from his toys and blanket (amid considerable protest), and plunked them in bin number five."
Next, Howell had to detach the car seat from the stroller and set it on the table next to the line of bins. "Then I fed bins one, two, and three through the machine, folded the stroller and put it in line for scanning behind the remaining bins, unbuckled the baby from the car seat restraints, and hoisted him on my shoulder."
At this point, Howell says, "I glanced backward and wished I hadn't." Howell was still not done: She still had to feed bins four and five through the scanner, as well as the stroller and car seat. She put her watch in bin number six, looked for bin number seven (just in case she needed it), and stepped through the metal detector. Once cleared, she walked to the end of the conveyor belt to begin the whole process in reverse. "I sympathized with the fourth guy in back of me," she adds, "because he probably thought he wouldn't make his plane."
"Sorry, Wrong Number"
San Francisco attorney Martin Dean flew into Boston during a late-night snowstorm some years ago to give a lecture at a Mac conference. After carefully making his way to a major downtown hotel ("They had, like, 1,200 rooms," he notes), he checked in, picked up his electronic room key, and headed up to the 23rd floor. "Then I dragged my overhead projector, my suitcase, and my bag with the unwrapped sandwiches from the airport all the way to the furthest corner of the building, where my room was," Dean says. "At that point I had already decided to order room service that night."
Then Dean opened the door to his room?to find an 86-year-old woman, clad only in a champagne-colored slip, inside. "She commences to scream like you would not believe," he exclaims, "and then her husband comes out in his boxer shorts, brandishing a toothbrush and poking me with it!" Dean has not spoken at another Mac conference since.
"Be Careful What You Wish For"
When you travel, sometimes it's just so tempting to do a little sightseeing. But beware: Ed Thompson, California state director of American Farmland Trust in Davis, was once flying in a Piper Cub over some fields in southern Illinois. "We noticed a bunch of cop cars," Thompson says, "so we decided to circle down closer in and get a better look. We couldn't tell what was happening. But an hour or two later, when we returned to the airport, we found out a drunken sniper had been out in the field shooting at stuff."
"In Case of Emergency, Secure Your Own Face Mask First"
Nancy Sher Cohen, with Heller Ehrman in Los Angeles, was flying from Cincinnati to Hartford, Connecticut, when her plane suddenly took a nosedive and people began screaming. It took a few minutes for the pilot to come on the intercom, but when he did, he said, "I hope you can understand me since I am speaking from behind my oxygen mask. There is a rather large crack in the windshield of the plane. In nine minutes we will be making an emergency landing at LaGuardia Airport. Please fasten your seat belts." A few minutes later the plane landed. Says Cohen, "I didn't appreciate the fact that the pilot was the only one on the airplane wearing an oxygen mask. Gee whiz, if it's necessary for him, it should be for us!"
Two hours after landing, the airline still had not brought in the promised bus to take the passengers to Hartford, so Cohen flagged an illegal taxi and paid $435 to be driven from New York to Hartford. The driver, of course, wasn't familiar with Hartford, so Cohen called her destination hotel for directions. She mentioned that she was right in front of a Hilton, and the receptionist said, "There is no Hilton in Hartford." Notes Cohen, "We were at a stoplight at that point, and we turned right. Fifty feet on the left was the hotel. When I checked in, I took the fellow who answered the phone out to the street and pointed to the big red "Hilton" sign. He said: "You know, I never knew that was there."
Susan E. Davis (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Bay Area writer and a contributor to California Lawyer.