Not Quite Up In The Air

This blog entry about the events of Tuesday, April 20, 2010 was originally posted on April 21, 2010.

DAY 1:“Hi, I’m a cardmember and I’m trying to get into one of the airport lounges,” I said to the American Express representative on my cell phone in Terminal 1 of New York’s JFK International Airport.  The customer service rep was attentive until she had to transfer me to another department, which transferred me back to the first department (but with another representative), who transferred me again — and suddenly I was on the phone in a long, long cycle of periodic hold music (like that time I called the monks in Bethlehem).  But I had time to kill, so whatever.

My trip to Asia started “not quite up in the air,” and I say that not because of the big ash cloud covering most parts of Europe spawning from the Icelandic volcanic eruption of April 2010, which grounded many flights across the northern Atlantic.  I mean I was almost up in the air in the George Clooney sense, from the Oscar-nominated film for Best Picture Up In the Air, about a jetsetting former E.R./Facts of Life star who obscured his empty life with a facade of business hotels and airport clubs.  As an American Express Platinum cardmember — something I might have not been turned onto as a grungy flashpacker until I was chosen to be in one of its online commercials — I was entitled to complimentary use of many partnered airport clubs (with their open bars and free snacks and cheese) including Delta, whom I bought my ticket from.  However, my flight was codeshared with flight-operator China Airlines, and they were pretty adamant about my Delta Flight 6972 not actually being a Delta flight but a China Air one, and refused me access to their Chinese club, like Rudolph to reindeer games.

Then one ashy April eve, Amex called to say… “Please hold, and I’ll transfer you.”  This was after I had met with the middle-aged Chinese woman at the desk who wouldn’t budge from her no-entry stance, and me whining like a little bitch about being denied access — a calm, and professional bitch I might add.  I knew that if I just persevered, I could schmooze my way in (like I did at the Lake Palace in Udaipur).  I went to the little desk in the corner of the China Airlines club lobby, and called the number on the back of my credit card.  

To make a long story short, I was on the phone with Amex for at least forty minutes, which was fine since I had time to kill; I had arrived at the airport three hours early and barely had to wait in line at check-in, and I breezed through security like a ballet, like that airport security scene in Up In The Air.  

“Asians,” says Ryan Bingham (Clooney’s character).  “They pack light, travel efficiently, and they have a thing for slip on shoes. Gotta love ‘em.”

I was ready to just sit back and chill out in the club, like I had in previous flights with Delta, only to call up customer service and be transferred on the phone from department to department to “concierge.”  On occasion I made small inquiries with the Chinese woman attending the desk, and all my arguments were solid: I bought my flight with Delta; it has a Delta flight number; I could have taken the cheaper United flight, but chose Delta for the club use; what am I paying you guys for?; I’m wasting all this time on the phone, when I could be in the club working on the internet — while imbibing on free booze and cheese (I didn’t mention that ulterior motive).  Both the woman and the representative on the phone were professional, even with my threats to Amex not to renew my card, followed by argument after argument.  

I knew that this was all a more pompous way to start off a Global Trip than it had ever been, but there wasn’t anything else to do and I had been on the phone for so long, I was determined not to let it go. 

Jesus, should I just drop it and get beer and food in the terminal?  Is all this bickering really worth it, just so I can drink some free booze and eat all the cheese I want? I thought to myself.  

Yes.  Yes, it is.  Cheese is



Eventually, push came to shove and I was let into the club.  I set up my laptop and “iPad nano” (aka iPhone) to recharge, poured me a glass of scotch whiskey on the rocks like a 1960s ad executive, and started binging on Pacific northwest Tillamook cheddar.  Bliss.  30 Rock‘s Liz Lemon would have been proud of me (regardless of the fact that it was Tina Fey who was in the Amex commercial about airport club access).

All cheesed up and exhausted from a long day, I boarded the midnight plane to Taipei.  I fell asleep before we even took off, with sugar plum cheese slices dancing in my head.

THE FLIGHT WASN’T TOO EXCITING.  I sat next to Priaw, a tweenaged-looking Thai girl who was traveling by herself, who slept most of the hours of the long-ass flight as much as I did.  We stopped halfway in salmon-jerky-a-plenty Anchorage, Alaska for a 40-minute refueling stop, just enough time to mock my Foursquare-obsessed friends by “checking into That Airport Snack Bar That Serves Udon Noodles With Reindeer Sausages (Anchorage, AK) on #Fauxsquare.”  After declaring myself the faux mayor of reindeer sausages, I wandered the terminal, amidst all the passengers setting up camp at any available electrical outlet, and checked out the mounted heads of animals — ironically across the way of the display of products no longer in production because they almost drove certain animals into extinction.  

Eight hours back on the plane until we arrived in Taipei’s international airport.  I passed that time sleeping, reading, and chatting with Priya, bestowing travel wisdom like Ryan Bingham to young Natalie Keener — although it only went as far as “Yes, the bathroom is back there.” 

TAIPEI’S TAOYUAN INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT (picture above) was hot, humid, and bustling when I landed 12 hours into the future of New York time (with the time zone change).  Crowds from all over Asia were scrambling for their check-in desks, rolling their luggage and balikbayan boxes, and it reignited my wanderlust.  In one baggage situation, a Filipino woman approached me to check out my luggage weight as I waited in a long line to check in to my connecting flight (and check-in in a real way, not a dumb figurative Foursquare way).  

“[Can you check in with me? I am nine kilos over,]” Julie asked. Funny, this happened to me the last time I flew to Manila.  Julie was accompanied by her “broker,” a frantic Taiwanese female travel agent who was seeing her clients off.

I don’t know if I was an easy target for them, as a solo traveler wearing an unnecessary blazer and futzing around with two cell phones, all businessman-like. They figured I had some kilos to spare and asked if we could check in together, so I could “donate” my spare weight allowance. “Okay,” I obliged compassionately, yet cautiously — Julie seemed legit after all, and I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.  Plus, much to my relief, there was no need for her to put some of her stuff in my bags, since the strategy was to just check in together, so we would get a combined weight allowance that would hopefully average out amongst two people.  

“I am overweight because I had to buy whiskey,” she bashfully admitted to me, although it was supposedly for her friend back in Davao.

There was still a long line ahead of us, but The Broker came over and snagged us over to another desk with no line for group check-ins.  Apparently, Julie was in an organized travel group of what seemed to be other Filipino caregivers on leave, and suddenly I found myself having cut the long line — and without any help from American Express.  Lucky, yes — but not without the stress of wondering if I had fallen into an elaborate scam, since we had to move to another desk, and suddenly Julie was rolling my bag in one direction and The Broker was running around the terminal in the other direction to God-knows-where to gather her people with all the passports in her hand — including mine.  Plus, I was chewing the supposed gum Julie had offered me; although it did come out of an official Wrigley’s package.

“That’s her boss,” Julie told me, pointing out a man next to her friend and fellow caretaker. “She’s on vacation because his father is dead,” she continued nonchalantly.  I’d call that legitimate reason for some downtime.   

All was good in the end; Julie got her 9-kilo-extra luggage in without a fee, and I got out of waiting a long time.  Not quite like Up In The Air, but it worked.  There was no airport club to try and get into this time around, so I simply got a cheese sandwich at a Mr. Brown Coffee in the terminal. 

The final leg of my 26 hours in transit was easy. I helped the Filipino caregivers next to me on how to fill out their immigration and customs forms. Julie sat in the seat behind me. 

“Thank you for the baggage,” she said with a smile, tapping me on the shoulder. 

And that’s how I began the adventure of my first stop of the “other Asian appetizers” in this trip: a jaunt back in the Philippines.

Sent from my iPad nano

Next entry: Five Filipino Years Later

Previous entry: Here I Go Again On My Own

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Comments for “Not Quite Up In The Air”

  • first (just for good ole times)

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/21  at  05:31 PM

  • I love the Taipei Airport, perhaps because it’s where I always land before I head to Thailand, or because it has yummy food. Not sure.

    Glad it started out w/o a scam.

    And yes, cheese is DELICIOUS.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/21  at  05:42 PM

  • more foursquare bashing!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/21  at  05:50 PM

  • Cheese IS delicious!  Way to persevere!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/21  at  06:57 PM

  • You’re starting to sound like me, skirting the rules just for fun and the principle of the thing.  Well done.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/22  at  03:48 AM

  • Mmm…..cheese.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/22  at  04:15 AM

  • When he was talking about asians in Up in the Air, he obviously wasn’t talking about Filipinos.  They cannot travel light at all.  They travel with balikbayan boxes.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/22  at  05:53 PM

  • ...but did you also cut the cheese?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/22  at  10:04 PM

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This blog post is one of eighteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Chinese Leftovers And Other Asian Appetizers," which chronicled a trip to Shanghai and Huang Shan in China, as well as brief excursions to Manila, Taipei, and Seoul.

Next entry:
Five Filipino Years Later

Previous entry:
Here I Go Again On My Own


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