Italy Trip 2001 – The Trip Over

Sunday 17 June – Monday 18 June

Oy! What a trip! We get to Newark Airport and Continental has separate check in counters for different destinations, so we have to search for Rome. When we get our seats, I find out they have no aisle seats but the agent suggests I “ask at the gate.”

I do and the nice woman says she has none but will see if any come up. Luckily we get a pair of seats with one on the aisle, the 6 and 7 seats on a DC-10 2-5-2 configuration. After boarding, my father and I hear an odd noise, kind of like sawing but going up in pitch with each back and forth. Our scheduled (5:30pm) departure time passes, 20 minutes goes by, and the pilot comes on to say they are still loading cargo and luggage but we will be ready to leave soon.

A little after 6:00, the pilot comes back on to say there is a small mechanical problem, a pump in the hydraulic system. No problem to fix, but passengers can get off if we want. Figuring our connecting flight is a goner, Dad and I get off to try and have it re-booked.

An hour passes with no word from the airline but from inside the terminal we can see men working under the plane. Meanwhile, there is confusion with another flight (to Madrid) that is supposed to depart from our gate. At first, we think there is just a large group connecting on a flight from Rome but it turns out to be a different flight, which makes more sense anyway. Finally the airline officially moves that flight to the next gate over.

The DC-10 we were (supposed to be?) flying on was configured to seat about 360 – 400 people, most of whom were now sitting around the gate getting antsy. But the airline staff were not able to tell us anything and they were getting crushed by passengers anxious to get connections updated. And people wonder where air rage comes from!

Our flight was originally set to land at Rome Fiumicino airport at 7:45 am local time and we were to catch a 9:15 flight to Palermo. Since we (Dad and I, not that there was anything said by a Continental staffer) were now projecting an arrival in Rome at 10:00 at the earliest, so much for the original plan! We had been re-booked for a 10:30 flight but…

Around 7:30, we went back to the agent and asked for a food voucher, which we got along with a phone card. After getting pizza, we sat back down in the gate area. Shortly, the Continental staffers came on the PA to tell us the initial replacement pump, has been installed (yeah!!) but had failed the test (boo!!) The mechanics would try another pump and we should know more by 9:00.

[People sit around, grumpy, often walking over to the window to see if there is any observable progress. A few times men walk up the stairs and come in to the gate to use a phone.]

The few remaining passengers still on the plane are kicked off so the flight crew can have a break. People ask each other if our flight will get out tonight; some of the passengers are already a day late because at least one of Saturday’s flights was cancelled due to weather. Did I mention that our DC-10 was filled?

[We’re in the hotel lobby as I write this and my dad, who a few minutes ago had said he is not jet lagged, is now snoozing. After reading this, Dad said he wasn’t jet lagged, just recuperating from this morning’s walk.]

At 9:15, an airline agent comes on the PA. She doesn’t mince words. Passengers should get in line single file for immediate boarding, she announces. Some scramble to line up, but we sit and wait for the line to work itself down; the plane won’t leave without us. I speculate that we may be able to take off by 9:45 and if the pilot can make up a little of the lost time, get us to Rome for that 10:30 connection. Dad is less optimistic, guessing we’ll take off at 10:00. Of course, we are both wrong and the plane doesn’t take off until 10:15, 10:20.

Once up, the pilot announces flight time will be 7 hours 41 minutes (same as he’d told us during the original boarding) and arrive at Fiumicino at noon. The airline said it would arrange connecting flights for everyone who needed them, so we shouldn’t have any trouble. Our luggage was checked through to Palermo, where we would clear customs.

The flight itself was mostly dull and not too bumpy. The most annoying thing, not counting the nearly five hour delay, was that the in-flight movie was Miss Congeniality, a light comedy starring Sandra Bullock. Unfortunately, Dad and I had watched it the night before on PPV. We had hoped to sleep much of the flight but except for a few winks here and there we couldn’t. I never did get comfortable in my seat and my ass hurt pretty much the whole way over.

I would have read more during the flight but no other overhead lights were on, most of the people near me were sleeping or trying to, and I decided not to disturb them by turning on mine. I was happy to sit there and think about how much my ass hurt. Eventually, we landed.

Continental did have several customer service agents meet us as we came off the plane. Ours was a petite, attractive blond woman holding a sign saying Palermo and Milan. There were four people going to Milan but they needed to get their luggage so the agent told them to check at the airline counter after that since the next flight (after one leaving in a few minutes) wasn’t until 6:00.

Our flight, on the other hand was supposed to leave in about 45 minutes from a gate about as far away as Fiumicino had. She drafted an electric cart and waved us in, then sped off. Airport carts in America have horns so the driver can move people out from in front but this car had only a bicycle bell and the agent used her voice instead. Getting to the gate, we found out the rush wasn’t necessary as the flight was delayed 20 minutes.

One thing about Fiumicino, which is the secondary Rome airport now to DaVinci, kind of like Gatwick and Heathrow in London: they have the store thing down pat. There were more stores and restaurants we drove past than gates.

About 1:20 boarding began onto our MD-82 (a 2-3 configuration). Because of the timing, we had no chance to ask for an aisle seat and, to my severe discomfort, did not get one. The plane was full and the person next to me declined to switch. Thank God I didn’t know that the pilot was never going to switch off the seat belt sign; my stomach was bad enough already. Mid-flight, I told the flight attendant I had an emergency and he let me go “at my own risk.” Like I would let that stop me! A quick flight, by the time I sat again we were into the descent into Palermo. After landing, a 30 second bus ride to the terminal where we waited at the wrong carousel. When all the bags from our flight were out, we asked the Alitalia agents and were told to check the international carousel.

We got the key to our rental car but the Europcar agent declined to give us directions to our hotel and instead told us to ask the information booth. The gentleman there gave us a map and showed us the route, so we caught the shuttle to the rental car lot.

There were no attendants or agents in the lot. We wandered until finding our blue Opel Astra, license BM405BV, threw our luggage in the boot and hopped in. Now, its been years since Dad or I’d driven a stick regularly, but I had driven my buddy’s Porsche last month and Dad was confident, so when we told an automatic was more than twice the price, we took the stick. Who knew that in Europe, or at least on Astra’s, reverse gear can only be engaged by pushing a plastic ring under the gear knob up? That took us 10 minutes and more sweat and agita to discover. Swell.

But we were on the road for the final leg of this journey to Palermo, a short 25 kilometer drive. Which took almost an hour, since the gentleman at the airport information booth gave us the wrong name for the road at which we were to turn off the freeway. He told us the right road but it has a different name for its northern stretch. We improvise, went a few kilometers out of our way, got happy when we found the street for our hotel, one last annoyance when we had to circle around because, for a short distance Corso Vittoria Emanuelle became a one way street, and then finally pulled up in front of Hotel Centrale Palace at 5:00, almost 20 hours to the minute after we left Dad’s house in NJ. HCP has only valet parking, so I gladly handed over the key, we checked in, and I fell into bed. Hallelujah!!!!!

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