When discussing my travel planning faults it only seems appropriate to wax biblical like my friend Matthew:
“We have all fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23)
And to quote from the one of the finer films of all time, Raising Arizona, who at the time was biblically paraphrasing,
“Now y’all without sin can cast the first stone.” Nicolas Cage, 1981.
It was all starting off so perfect. We stayed at the airport hotel the night before to set ourselves up for success. We checked in, made it through security without a hitch, even saw some friends from Pittsburgh before we boarded our flight.
Once on board the plane to Dallas we took off on time, the Sherpita behaved herself more or less and even made some friends on the plane. We had one of those flights where someone in the back comes up to us and says, “I didn’t even know there was a baby on the plane, wow!” It’s amazing how many people just assume that if there is a baby on the plane it is going to be a screaming, crying mess of shame and pain.
A Good Idea
We arrive early into Dallas and I find that the first of two flights to Mexico City on American is delayed. We have time so we hustle to that gate. They are just starting to board and there is a standby list. I approach the desk and ask to standby and they indicate that you cannot standby for an international flight. I don’t really think that’s true because I have flown standby back from London before, but I guess that was after missing a flight, not trying to fly earlier. I’m still perplexed because there are 11 on the standby list right behind the agent. I was never good at letting something go, especially if I feel like someone isn’t being truthful with me.
“What about the nine of eleven standbys you have already cleared for this flight?” I ask.
“They are employees.” She said without batting an eye.
What she said might be true, that you can’t standby for an earlier flight, that does seem like a Customs and Border Protection kind of policy. It still seemed odd that on a Thursday there are eleven employees all standing by for the same flight and not to a destination like Cabo or Cancun, but to Mexico City. Either way, we weren’t getting on whether the policy was real or not.
It’s a real shame we weren’t able to get on that earlier flight. Seriously. I am alluding to future events here for those who may be imperceptible to clues.
I am so good at being right. And I should be, it happens all the time, just ask my wife.
We walked straight from the lounge to the boarding line in one continuous motion and broke down the car seat right away. We were offered customs forms but told them we were just connecting in Mexico City and they moved on to the next person.
This “connection” in Mexico City is a trick I have learned after years of flying. There were no seats in business open for saver level awards, but those all went through Dallas and Miami. There was however space open in business from Pittsburgh to Mexico City and Mexico City to Lima. It’s not a “rule” that you must connect in a hub city but something tells me this is an unspoken norm. I didn’t really care about norms, I just wanted to fly in business and whether I connect in DC and then Miami to get there, or Dallas and Mexico City makes no difference to me.
Mistake Count: 1
We boarded the plane, everything was going smooth. First class was half full (or half empty depending on how you choose to look at it) and we settled in behind a polite Mexican family. They still serve a full hot lunch on this flight and came by to take our order. When the meal really doesn’t matter like on this short flight I don’t expect it to be amazing (long haul Asia flights would be a different story). I tend to order the opposite of whatever my wife does so that we can try both. She ordered the beef (with broccoli and macaroni and cheese) and I ordered the “lasagna” that was clearly not lasagna rather cheese stuffed manicotti. I guess it’s all the same really (red sauce and cheese in noodles), but it seemed pretty different to me at the time.
We were then offered immigration forms, which I declined again because we were simply transiting and not clearing into Mexico. I was kind of dick about it. The Stewardess was insistent stating:
“Even if you are transiting you need to clear immigration”
“I don’t believe that’s the case” I said as I started to google it on my phone.
“That’s the way it is everywhere, just like when you enter the US” she responded.
Now I know it’s not true because almost nowhere makes you clear customs like you would in the US. Our system is so atypical that most foreign transit passengers in the United States need the process explained quite clearly as well as US residents returning home. It defies logic that landing in a connection city (New York, Chicago, Miami) requires travelers to claim their bags that were to be checked through to their final destination, walk through the Department of Agriculture checkpoint (usually just the last officer standing on a podium that glances at your bags and collects one of the two forms you filled out on the plane). Then immediately following the exit behind them is a re-check where you put your bag on a conveyer belt and then re-enter security.
That’s not how they do things elsewhere. There might be, possibly, a transit counter where you have to show your onward travel documents and have them looked over once, but other than that it looks very much like a domestic connection. Our complicated process is one reason why the US has not really made a play to be the next Dubai of the world, like London or Tokyo before it. Allowing passengers to hub and spoke in the US without the complications of this clear, claim, re-check, terminal change, re-enter security non-sense we do here would make the US very attractive for several markets.
I took the papers (she wasn’t offering me a choice) and slid them on one of the empty seats next to us in first class. There were only six seats occupied in the cabin, 7 passengers with the Sherpita.
Mistake Count: 2
Due to a seat being switched out and some late arriving connecting passengers we got a tardy start to the flight. We had two hours though, no need to worry.
The flight was smooth, we disembarked and waited for the stroller. It took forever, almost until the entire plane was emptied out. This is frustrating as we were on a business class seat on an international flight, tag that stroller and put it where it will come off first, other airlines can do that American should be able to do the same. Our connection was under two hours now and we were frustrated.
We walked a short way through the airport to the customs hall where there were lines for nationals, and foreigners. We found a helpful face, and I used my rudimentary Spanish, it would be embarrassing if we were wrong, but not the end of the world. She indicated that we did have to clear all the way through customs.
Just to defend my cockiness, here is the webpage I saw from Mexicana, which one might think would know the procedures and policies on arriving passengers, transiting and connections given that they hub internationally there.
No problem. I just grabbed a few and got in line, filling it out sloppily as we walked. One for me, one for the Sherpstress, we did not need one for our infant daughter. The line snaked around the un-airconditioned, quite disheveled customs hall and our time was growing short, we were down to less than an hour and a half. We handed our passports over, she counted our passports (three) and our customs slips (two) and sent us back to finish a form for our daughter.
We were growing impatient and it wasn’t my wife’s fault or some sort of quasi-dual responsibility. My wife suggested I fill out the forms on the plane despite being right, even though we wouldn’t need the forms as far as we knew and I scoffed and tossed them aside. She said we should fill out one for Lucy just in case, despite the customs assistant clearly saying that we only needed one for each adult, and I passed again.
Mistake Count: 3
The customs hall had cleared of other passengers and nearly all the customs agents too which slowed the process even further as we waited for someone to return to stamp us through. I was becoming worried as we made the polite banter with the agent who seemed to take forever to stamp our passports and let us get on our way.
But the process wasn’t over yet.
You must claim your bags (we were only carrying on) and walk through a “Declare/Nothing to Declare” line where a mystery button is pushed to determine whether a random search needs to occur. We were ready to go and asked the customs agent (busy flirting and refusing to break his conversation for the only people waiting in front of him in the entire arrivals hall). He pushed the button, no inspection required and then asked us for our forms.
“We just gave our forms to the customs people, here is the stamp in our passports” I said with a tone somewhere in between furious and whining.
“You need a different form to pass here.” He pointed to a wall where I could find the new forms and fill them out.
Then we approached again and he had gone. He was apparently the only button pusher allowed though another customs official was there, they apparently hadn’t cleared the security checks required to push that giant red button. He returned, pushed it, and collected the form. He was still looking over it as we advanced through the doors, I wasn’t waiting for him to find a clerical error.
We were fully through customs and security now and we were running behind significantly – we would need to add security for our next flight to our already tight timeline. Our eyes were focused on International departures. There were no monitors near the customs exit and our boarding passes for our flight to Lima was not very descriptive. We arrived in T1 on a oneworld carrier and assumed other oneworld carriers would also depart and arrive from the same terminal. This is the case in many other airports. For example, in London where a oneworld airline British Airways has their hub, most other oneworld carriers also connect in their terminals. Similarly, most Star Alliance carriers now convene in the newly renovated T2 at Heathrow. It makes sense because passenger itineraries are most likely to include other carriers with whom airlines codeshare flights.
As you might have imagined, by the way the rest of our trip was going, this was not the case, but the location of our next flight was terribly confusing. Signs indicated where flights to certain continents were flying from, but those are intermixed throughout the terminals. Flights to South America seemed to go from both T1 and T2 at MEX. So we stopped and asked. We asked the same question, in the same words, showing the same boarding passes to airport officials, security guards and even shop employees and got pointed back and forth in either direction in T1.
I decided to head for international departures where I did not see LAN, but did see their co-brand TAM (they are in the process of their merger) and thought that perhaps the checkin desk was run by TAM at this airport. I walked up to business class checkin disheveled with my wife and a baby, I am sure I did not look like what they expect for first or business class passenger. She didn’t hide her suspicions, took one look at my boarding pass and indicated T2. I asked if she could call LAN considering that we now had less than 40 minutes to departure and she said she could not. As an Emerald on oneworld I have yet to find a less interested employee at a business or first class checkin than she was. We passed the taxi rank and were now running through the airport following signs for T2.
I really look forward to telling you how this one ends, but that will have to wait until next time.