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Santa Rosa to Seattle: So South of “Expected”

The wine country has become much more accessible since Alaska Air via its Horizon Air division added one daily non-stop each way per day between Seattle and Santa Rosa.  The times are not particularly convenient.  The flight out of Seattle leaves at 1:40 pm and the flight departing Santa Rosa leaves at 10:10 am.  Still, it beats the heck out of flying into Oakland. 

Alaska’s newish ad campaign is “North of Expected.”  Apparently, this does not apply to Horizon.  Don’t get me wrong, Horizon is generally on time. Free beer and wine is a nice perk for the 1:40 pm flight out of Seattle; the closet “lavatory” with hand sanitizer in lieu of a sink, is not.  Having almost been barred from my flight, however, has seriously lowered my opinion of Horizon.

I am not a novice traveler.  Due to work and my proclivity to increase work travel during the nine months of gray in Seattle, I travel frequently – frequently enough to earn me MVP status on Alaska.  The perks of MVP is that I get upgraded to First Class 80% of the time and I can check two bags for free, which, on Sonoma trips, generally means two cases of wine.  It also means I pretty much have the system wired enough to spend a minimum amount of time waiting around in the airport, absent a flight delay.

For those of you who have never flown into Santa Rosa, the airport consists of a manufactured home that serves as the waiting area for the one gate, complete with two vending machines that are broken most of the time and a security screening area; a restaurant that bills itself as a “Steakhouse and Rawbar;” and a check-in area complete with rental car agency counters (3) that is approximately the size of my living room.  There are also a lot of Snoopy statues.  Security takes approximately 1 minute to go through – 4 if the person in front of you is a rookie with banned liquids – and once you get through you are stuck in the one room, with too few seats until your plane boards. 

Being a small airport, the crew that checks you in is the crew that greets the plane, boards the plane and sends it on its way.  As a result, the rule has always been if you arrive less than thirty minutes before take-off you are not checking a bag.  Today I learned that this rule has been expanded to you are also not getting on your flight despite the presence of automated machines that can spit out your boarding pass, unless you printed your pass online.

My husband and I arrived at the airport with forty minutes to spare and I dropped him off to check our wine while I backtracked up the road to refill the rental car and avoid the $7.99 per gallon fine.  I arrived back at 29 minutes before takeoff.  When I handed the rental car agent my keys, she asked what flight I was on.  “The flight for Seattle.”  She handed the keys back to me, “You’ve missed your flight.”  I looked at her, looked at the runway with the plane on it and almost scoffed as I informed her that “My plane is right there and doesn’t leave for 28 minutes.  Besides my husband has already checked our luggage.”  She breathed a sigh of relief explaining how people always missed their flights because even though they were here they couldn’t check in.

I proceeded to the automatic ticket machine to obtain my boarding pass, since my husband had not.  It offered to check me in to the Las Vegas flight.  Five others (roughly 10% of the flight) suffered the same predicament – all with no baggage to check.  Security assured me that someone would come out before the flight departed, call our names and send us on our way (this was, at it turned out, not true).  While we waited, my husband went through security to finesse the gate agent into sending someone back to us – have I mentioned it was still 20 minutes before take-off?  My husband came back 5 minutes later with a boarding pass for me and offered to try to obtain everyone else’s boarding passes if they would give him their names.  List in hand, he and I went through security and I headed to the restroom with our luggage while he again finessed the gate agent.  While I was gone, he was hustled to the plane, he could not tell the people they would not be getting on, he could not wait for me to get out of the restroom, he was told to move it or miss the flight – we were still 10 minutes before take-off.  When I came out he was gone, I was then hustled onto the plane, bags flying.  I sat in my seat thinking of the 5 stranded persons still right outside the gate, while the second gate agent chatted up the pilots and played around with the paperwork for another 8 minutes.  They then shut the doors and we taxied toward the runway where we sat for 20 minutes waiting for the private airport traffic to clear the runway.  20 minutes, 20 minutes which they knew about, while denying those 5 people, none of whom had anything but carry-on bags and all of which could have arrived 10 minutes before departure time had they printed out their boarding passes on-line, access to their flight.  That type of customer service is definitely South of Expected.

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