Sunday, December 16, 2012

Nightmare work trip to Dallas on American Airlines

This past week I had occasion to fly down to Dallas to argue a case against enforcing a subpoena to identify several anonymous posters, then on to Michigan to defend the anonymity of another Doe defendant the following day.

My flight to Dallas on American Airlines is the worst experience I have had with an airline in recent years.  Generally speaking, I hate to entrust airlines, and especially domestic American airlines, with my baggage, because most airlines charge extra for checked luggage, because I hate to risk loss or damage, and because waiting in line to checked luggage, then waiting to retrieve luggage on arrival, usually adds thirty minutes to the flight.  On this trip, though, the quantity of the files I needed to bring along for the two consecutive oral arguments meant that I would need two online bags just for my work materials; my suitcase had to be checked.

Late flight and incompetent handling of checked luggage

I was flying directly from Washington National Airport (like most longtime DC residents, I choose not to use the name of the president that Congress added to airport name over strenuous local objections); shortly before it was time to leave for the airport, I learned that the flight was going to be delayed by an hour, so I stayed at my office and kept working.  I took the subway to the airport, and when I arrived, the flight’s departure time had been delayed another half hour.  I called former client Hank Mishkoff (I represented him in one of my early cyberlaw cases) and Sukhum Tangton, my brother-in-law’s cousin, with whom I was planning to have dinner that evening, to let them know about the delay.

As I sat waiting, my flight’s time of departure kept getting delayed.  Finally we were called to board the plane, and we began to taxi away from the gate; then, suddenly, we were brought back to the gate; the explanation was that the plane was too heavy, and we would have to return to the gate so that luggage could be shifted around.  Back to the gate we went, and we kept hearing sounds from the bottom of the plane as luggage was being moved.  At one point, a passenger said that he saw what looked like his bag being removed from the plane.  Finally, we were told over the loudspeaker that some baggage has to be removed from the plane altogether so that the plane would be light enough; these bags, the announcement sent, would follow along on a later flight.

So we left DCA nearly three hours late.  American Airlines serves free soft drinks to passengers in cattle class, but all food has to be purchased; there aren’t even peanuts or pretzels available gratis.  I would have been famished by the time I arrived had one of the flight attendants not taken pity and handed me have an unpurchased sandwich and bag of chips.  

We arrived at DFW after 8 PM; every time the pilot announced when we would be landing and when we would likely get to the gate, it was a little later.  Then I waited for my bag, which never came off the carousel.  And, in fact, my bag was not there – apparently, it was one of about twenty that had to be offloaded.  So, another wait on line to get a claim check and arrange to have the suitcase sent on to my hotel.

On the way to pick up my rented car,  I checked in again with Sukhum – surely it was too late for his children to stay at the restaurant to meet me?  No, he said, come along.  So I got my rented car and drove to meet Sukhum and his wife Tuk (Hank had an early morning meeting with a client and had bagged it).  There was construction on the LBJ Freeway and I found the signage exceptionally poor, and missed my turn, but happily I had a detailed AAA street map for Dallas and was able to correct my error and make my way to Chow Thai.   It was wonderful to see these distant relatives, whom we had met on our trip to Thailand fifteen years ago, and seen again when they came through DC before their children were born.  The restaurant was more substantial than most Thai restaurants I have visited.  Rather than select my own dish, I accepted a recommendation from Sukhum and the restaurant owner, who was sitting at the table with us (Sukhum had spent several years working there before finding his current job as a senior computer programmer).  The dish seemed to be a version of drunken noodles, delicious and just the right level of spicy, but although I enjoyed chatting with my hosts, I am not sure how good my company was – I was exhausted from the trip and still had to find my way to the hotel.

When I got to my room I called American’s baggage service and was told that more flights had arrived from DCA, the latest a bit after 10 PM, but that certain word would not be available on what bags had arrived until 90 minutes after arrival.  So, I worked on my argument preparation until past midnight and called back.  The news was bad.  My suitcase had not arrived on any of the flights that evening, and no more flights were expected from National until 9:40 AM – to late for my argument.  Even worse, there was no record of what had happened to my suitcase after I checked it in DCA.  For all they knew, the suitcase was simply lost.  So, to be sure that my bag did not head downtown while I was on my way back to the airport, I changed the directions for my suitcase to have it held for me at the airport, where I would have to collect it on my way to Michigan for the second leg of my trip. 

Before heading out to my argument, I contacted American to learn whether it had located my bag, and learned that, after all, my bag has come in at about 10 PM the night before, but had not been sent down to my hotel because I had changed the directions to “hold for customer pickup.”  The American clerk could not explain why the bag had been untraceable the night before.  I was left with a strong impression of institutional incompetence, and a determination to avoid American Airlines in the future.  It bad enough that the airlines lose your bags, but they even charge extra baggage fees for the privilege!

I recognize that the baggage problems I experienced may be due, in part, to workings striking back at the airline over feelings of mistreatment in recent years. Over the years, I have been happy to fly on American Airlines, having represented some of its pilots in the late 1990's.  Still, I’ll have to think long and hard before booking another flight on American Airlines.

Mixed reviews for a Dallas hotel

I stayed at the Aloft Hotel in downtown Dallas, which I had selected because it is walking distance to the courthouse – always a priority for me when I am arguing — and the cheapest recommended room I could find within walking distance of the courthouse.  The room was large and comfortable, but the hotel itself leaves something to be desired – it is away from any local restaurants and the breakfast available downstairs (for purchase) is strictly second-rate: in “re:fuel, our grab 'n go pantry” you can find items you could buy at a supermarket, along with selected and not very interesting bakery items, plus you can order hard boiled eggs and bacon at a window; you pay for these items at the front desk and then eat them at a table in the lobby.  There is free coffee but NOT free tea— you have to pay for tea bags.  But you can get free tea bags in your room and, in fact you can have the front desk call the housekeeping department to bring a free tea bag down to the lobby, which you then put in the hot water you can get in the lobby.  Very odd.

Arguing in blue jeans

In any event, I was left to argue my motion in the blue jeans and other clothes I had worn on the plane (thank goodness they were clean.  Now, I am not fond of the strange costume that American men must wear to be dressed up, with a shirt buttoned tight around the next and a price of cloth wrapped even more tightly around the next, tied in a stylized format; if it were up to me, I would always be attired in comfortable pants and shirt.  But particularly as a public interest lawyer I have always felt I should live up to the big-firm dress model, and I was worried that the local judge might feel that I was not paying him sufficient respect when I showed up the following morning in casual clothing.  Even if, in the back of my mind, I was hoping that Texas might be the best place to show up for oral argument in blue jeans.

That turned out to be the case. Not only was the judge understanding of the reasons for my attire, but he raised his leg way above the bench to reassure me that, although his tie and dress shirt could be seen underneath his black robes, he too was wearing blue jeans.  After the argument ended (we won on the merits but lost on our personal jurisdiction objection which probably means I’ll be coming back to Dallas once the plaintiff makes a better showing of the basis for discovery, and then again for an appeal of the personal jurisdiction ruling), he also mentioned that, when he was in private practice, he had once had to argue in blue jeans before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit for exactly the same reason.  The humane reassurance was certainly appreciated.

A good airport meal

I then headed back to DFW to catch my flight.  I got back in plenty of time for lunch at the airport, and enjoyed an unusually good airport meal at Pappadeaux’s Seafood Kitchen,, the airport location for a local chain.  The Atlantic Cedar Plank Salmon was well prepared and flavorful, if a bit pricy for lunch.

Eating in Detroit

The flight to Detroit was uneventful.  My original plan had been to stay in Lansing overnight so that I would not have to worry about getting to the argument in the morning, but there were no hotels within walking distance of the courthouse, and even more important and my local counsel and longtime friend Barbara Harvey had offered to pick me up at the airport, put me up overnight, and drive me to and from Lansing.  The chance for an extended visit with old friends was too good to refuse.  I had dinner with Barbara and her husband Mike Friedman at their favorite Italian restaurant, Ciao Ristorante in Dearborn.  We began with a delicious appetizer, a portobello mushroom stuffed with gorgonzola cheese and spinach.  For my main course I had grilled salmon with a cream sauce

Salmone all' griglia alla crema

Barbara had an interesting salad of spinach and mango (which was just a bit firmer than would have been ideal).
Insalata di spinaci e mango

I did not have room for the entire main dish, but because Mike decided to have an espresso, I had dessert– an excellent bread pudding topped with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream.  We got three spoons and had no trouble leaving a clean plate!

Early Wednesday morning, after a night in Barbara’s very familiar third-floor guest room, where I have stayed many times before, Barbara drove us to Lansing for my oral argument.  Tuesday, Lansing had been packed with more than ten thousand demonstrators opposing the adoption of so-called “right to work” legislation in Michigan.  When we arrived Wednesday morning, however, the town was back to being its normal sleepy self.  After the argument in Thomas Cooley Law School v. Doe, Barbara drove us back to Detroit and dropped me off at the TDU offices where I had a nice chance to visit with longtime friend (and one-time client) Ken Paff. 

At his suggestion, we had lunch at La Shish, the only remaining outpost of what used to be a chain of  the go-to Middle Eastern restaurants in the Detroit area.  Barbara and Ken both related to me the sad story of the chain’s founder, a leader in the Arab-American community in Detroit of the chain.  He was arrested after speaking at a charity banquet at which the leader Hezbollah had also spoken, and charged with lending material support to a terrorist organization.  He then decamped to Lebanon after a search of his household in connection with the arrest led to the discovery of some very real financial shenanigans.  I have good memories of eating at the old La Shish, and today’s lunch lived up to the standard I remember.  I ordered a frozen fruit smoothie and Lashish Tawook with Lemon, featuring delicately cooked pieces of boneless chicken breast with a flavorful sauce; Ken got the Chicken Ghallaba, a nice stew of chicken pieces and vegetables.  It was a fine lunch to end my trip.


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