Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Trip Home

We got to the Almaty Airport a little before 10 pm, and were dropped off at the departure level of the terminal. Instead of walking right in, we crossed the bridge to the parking deck, took the stairs down, and started across the parking lot to enter the terminal at the arrival (ground) level.
Right adjacent to the terminal stood a hotel. We decided to walk over there, just for the hell of it.

The hotel had......rooms. We were shown two kinds: (1) 2-bed spacious (plain but quite suitable) en suite (toilet and shower) rooms for 18000 tenge ($150); and (2) 2-bed smaller rooms with a sink, with the toilets (but no showers) a walk down the hall for 7500 ($62.50). We decided that a good, unhasseled nights' sleep would be prudent, so we put room choice 2 on the credit card (our only credit card purchase for the entire trip). A bed to call our own. So much for sleeping at the airport.

We got up the next morning, had a leisurely breakfast with two hearty bowls of what the menu called call kasha, but what is closer to a buttered cream of rice soup. It was delicious, and Carol ate about 1 1/2 of the bowls. Mike got a blintz, which turned out to be a crepe with butter. An order of tea brought a cup of water and a tea bag.

At 10 am we took a leisurely 3-minute walk the terminal. No fuss, no rush. Finally, at 11 am, having found nothing at the airport on which to spend our last $9 in tenge, we exchanged it back to USD and checked the bags.

Our flight, sold to us by Expedia, was as follows:
Air Astana KC901, leaving Almaty at 12:30 pm Kazakh Time (+6), and arriving Heathrow Terminal 2 at 3:15 pm England Time (+1).
American AA091, leaving Heathrow Terminal 3 at 4:45 pm England Time (+1), and arriving Chicago O'Hare at 7:20 pm CDT (-5).
A by-now cancelled United UA1414, leaving O'Hare at 8:55 pm CDT (-5) and arriving Atlanta at 11:45 pm EDT (-4).

We knew we could not check the bags through to Atlanta because the third flight did not exist, but we knew we had to check the bags as far as O'Hare.

BIG PROBLEM. Our connection time at Heathrow was only 90 minutes. This one hour and 30 minute period is apparently so tight by current standards that the computer could not allow Air Astana to check the bags through to Chicago O'Hare, nor could an appropriate luggage handling tag be printed. After 45 minutes, the Air Astana reps just handwrote ORD AA91 on the luggage tags, and we were off.

We were seated next to the Engineering Manager of Air Astana Airlines. This gentleman, a Brit who was beginning a two week vacation at home, is in charge of safety and maintenance for Air Astana's 30 or so airplanes. We talked about a lot of things, including who regulates Air Astana (the British, the Europeans, the Arubans (where the planes are in fact registered), and the Kazakhs). The first three, along with our gentleman, who has over 30 years of experience in the airline business) make sure that this is a well-run airline.

An example: Air Astana has a number of 50 passenger planes for its service to the smaller cities of Kazakhstan. They use Fokker 50 seaters. This gentleman's informed opinion was that the Antonov AN-24, on which we had ridden from Osh to Bishkek, is one of the most dangerous airplanes in service in the world. It is underpowered and without a substantial margin of error in case of engine problems or overloading. (Maybe that's why the pilot revved up the engine so much before we took off at Osh.)

The Almaty-London flight was uneventful, but we neared Heathrow about 30 minutes late. We ended up in a holding pattern and landed at 4:15 pm, with just 30 minutes to spare. With the permission of the flight attendant, Carol and Mike unceremoneously ran to the front of the plane before it even finished taxiing to the runway, and were the first ones off.

It is a long way from Heathrow 2 to Heathrow 3, including a shuttle bus ride. It took us 20 minutes to get there. We got on the American Airlines plane 10 minutes before its scheduled departure, pretty sure that our bags had not made it.

On the American flight, also uneventful, Carol found 3 adjoining seats, and slept. Mike watched a couple of movies and some TV shows. Finally we landed on time, and found no luggage belonging to us in the carrousel. We formally entered into the United States, then went to the United Airlines counter. There we were assigned seats on the 6:45 am flight to Atlanta the next morning, a free hotel near the airport, and $30 in dinner and breakfast vouchers.

We were 11 hours jetlagged (10 if we pretended we were in Atlanta) and pretty much out of it. We used the dinner vouchers for 2 bowls of soup, and a Caesar salad, with real lettuce. (We had barely seen lettuce on the whole trip, and probably would not have eaten it anyway, out of safety concerns.)

We could barely sleep (even after trying to listen to Joe Lieberman at the RNC), because it was mid-morning Kazakh time when we went to bed, and mid-afternoon KzT when we got up. Doing the best we could, we presented ourselves at the O'Hare check-in. We received the Homeland Security special search because Mike presented as his ID the expired Georgia license he had kept in his wallet for ID during the trip, and because we had no luggage! We used our breakfast vouchers at [welcome home!] McDonalds (wise move, since only drinks were served to peon class on the flight).

At Hartsfield Atlanta, we filed our missing baggage claim. Under existing rules, United, the last airline in the chain, is responsible for finding our luggage, even though they had nothing to do with losing it. Oh well.

We took MARTA, the Atlanta subway train, to our car, which our kids left for us at the appointed parking lot, picked up the mail, did some grocery shopping, read 6 weeks of accumulated e-mails, and went to bed at 8 pm. For our first meal at home, we enjoyed a large salad of fresh tomatoes, cucumber, onion, olives, and lemon juice and olive oil. (We had not eaten anything with lemon juice and olive oil on the whole trip, to the best of our knowledge.)

By the end of the day, still no word about the luggage. As a damn-fool move, we had packed the defunct camera, with all 850 photos, in the backpacks, along with both of the disks we had copied in Bukhara. Carol feared that we might never see any of it again. Mike was coming to feel the same way.

Update: On Sep 4, at 10 am, we learned that the bags had been found and that there was a substantial probability that they were on American Airlines flight 47 to O'Hare. On Sep 5, both bags were delivered to our house while we were at work.


Timothy said...

It's nice to be home, isn't it!

Irma said...

Such travel is exciting but not for the faint of heart!