Attitude Is Everything
After a month visiting my family and friends in western Pennsylvania, Caffrey and I departed for Seoul, South Korea at the end of November for the first leg of our Round the World (RTW) trek. I offer two versions of our traveling day to share the lesson I learned about attitude. We will encounter many unexpected hurdles this year. I am choosing RIGHT NOW to approach each challenge with a positive outlook.
The airport security line in Pittsburgh extended out into the cold night air. We could see it continuing to form as we gathered our belongings from the hotel shuttle. Encumbered by backpacks, front packs and towing two stuffed suitcases, we bumbled past angry faces, crossed the atrium, and went up the escalator. Plopping a total of six bags at the foot of the Air Canada counter, we handed our passports to the agent for check-in to Seoul, South Korea, with a transit in Toronto.
She busied herself with the check-in system, her brow furrowing in confusion. We heard tap-tap-tapping of keys. She glanced at us, then down at the screen. “It says the link is down,” she told us, moving to the other computer.
More tap-tap-tapping, sweat appearing on her further furrowed brow. She looked around and repeated her statement to nobody in particular. We continued to wait. Ten minutes passed without any obvious progress on our check-in. Other prospective passengers were beginning to queue. My husband and I unzipped our heavy winter jackets.
Again, “I don’t know. It just keeps telling me the link is down. I see Rez-5 and then the error.” Was she expecting us to provide tech support? Another agent meandered over, viewing the screen over her shoulder. She went into a lengthy but ultimately unfruitful monologue about how this happened last week. Our agent finally picked up the phone and made a call to someone named Marie.
Marie guided her through a work-around process that spewed out boarding passes. Handing them to us, our agent apologized, “Because the link is down, they will have to verify your passport at the gate.” We reviewed the tickets and saw they did not include our TSA Pre-Check status. We showed her our Global Entry cards, but she said she was unable to print boarding passes with TSA Pre-Check. We surrendered our two suitcases, heaved on our backpacks and front packs, and shuffled back down the escalator. The security line situation had not improved. We did note, however, that the TSA Pre-Check line was practically empty. I stewed.
A clerk leading a small group told us to follow him to the Alternate Security Checkpoint. Doubting there was a secret fast-track but hoping to avoid standing in the cold at 4:30 in the morning, we followed him back up the escalator, outside and across a loading zone, and into a roughly-constructed hallway. We could not see the actual length of the line because the hallway curved and disappeared behind an interior door. We resigned ourselves to a very long wait.
An hour and half later, we emerged from the security checkpoint and hurried to the gate, arriving just in time for boarding. It was only 7:00 in the morning with a full day of international travel ahead. I was already exhausted and fell asleep during the short, two-hour puddle-jump.
Two hours later, another impasse at the immigration counter in Toronto. “You’re fine,” the officer sharply pronounced, looking at me. Turning his glare towards my husband, he asked for his ETA. We were clueless. “Your ETA. Did you fill out the online visa application? Do you have a printed copy of your visa?” We had just driven to Toronto last week and knew nothing about needing a visa to enter Canada.
We explained that we were just transiting through the airport enroute to a connecting flight to South Korea, which is my husband’s home country. The officer drew thick red lines all over our customs form, scornfully pointing us to a door through which nobody else had exited. “Down the stairs, straight ahead. You need an ETA.” Sweet talking was not going to work. We followed his directions and stood in yet another line.
“So, what you needed to do was fill out the online application for an ETA. Rules have been in place since last year,” explained a hefty uniformed woman with a tight hair bun and lackluster lipstick. “Since you didn’t do that, we can’t let you proceed onward to your connecting flight. Air Canada should never have let you onto that flight in Pittsburgh without proper documentation.”
We were about to argue, but she continued. “You can, however, pay us $200 to process the ETA for you right now. You should have time, since you have a three hour layover.”
“Why can’t we just fill out the online application right now? It’s just $7.00…”
She cut us off. “Nope. No time. The application would have to go through Montreal for approval. Could take days. Your choice. You can head back to the U.S. or we can process the visa for you right now for $200.”
I could barely breathe. I was furious. “This feels like extortion,” I blurted. “How secure is a policy that lets you circumvent it by paying $200??” She blinked at us and said “Your choice.”
My husband and I looked at each other. In fact, we had no choice and we knew it. “We’ll pay the fee,” we said in unison. Another officer had overheard our exchange and offered us a snippet of sympathy. “If it makes you feel any better, Air Canada will have a much larger fine to pay for letting you proceed to Toronto without proper documents.”
The clock ticked off another two hours. ETA finally in hand, we once again rushed to our gate. We had just 30 minutes to grab a bite at the Premium Lounge. Frustrated by the continuous delays this morning, we also hoped to knock the edge off with a cocktail. Alas, the lounge was serving only breakfast and the bar was closed. Fitting end to a frustrating morning.
We arrived at the airport in the wee hours of the morning, wide awake and excited for the trip ahead. This was the start of our round-the-world global adventure!
We strode past a long security line and into the atrium. Our excited smiles were greeted with angry scowls from the Steeler-clad travelers. Airports typically operate on a skeleton crew in the wee hours of the morning, so I expected the lines would clear once staff began reporting for duty with the rising sun. We were early for our flight, so I wasn’t worried about time.
There was no line at the Air Canada check-in counter. We handed the agent our passports and placed our two large suitcases on the scale. After what seemed an abnormally-long time, the agent told us that the “link was down”. We waited for probably about twenty minutes as she tried another computer, consulted another agent, and finally called technical support. I started forming a plan B in my mind, in case we were unable to check in. As disappointing as it would be, we had the flexibility to reschedule, if needed.
“Thank you, Maria,” the agent said as she hung up the phone. Maria apparently had the magic touch because we now had boarding passes. The agent apologized for the delay and even made one final attempt to print boarding passes that reflected our TSA Pre-Check status. Unfortunately, the system would not cooperate. Thankful that we could at least proceed forward on our journey, we hoisted our packs and waddled downstairs to the security line.
The line extended out the door and into the cold winter air. Just as we were about to start putting on our hats and gloves, a clerk leading a small group told us to follow him to an Alternative Security Checkpoint. I doubted that we would luck into a fast-track through security, but we followed him anyway, up the escalator, outside, past a small loading zone and into a make-shift hallway. We joined the queue. We couldn’t see if this line was shorter or longer because the hallway curved and an interior door obstructed our view. But at least we didn’t have to stand in the cold outside!
The line inched forward, slowly but surely, with the pace picking up gradually as more security staff clocked in for their morning shifts. 90 minutes later, we reached the security conveyor belt and placed our belongings in the appropriate bins. Our bags are usually subject to additional scrutiny when TSA agents discover our drone. We were lucky this time, though. They just let us right through.
We hurried to the gate, arriving just in time for boarding. It was only 7:00 in the morning with a full day of international travel ahead. I hadn’t slept much the night before, so I napped during the short, two-hour puddle-jump.
We strode up to the immigration counter in Toronto, handing the officer our customs form and passports. “Do you have an ETA?” he asked my husband. We must have looked confused. “Unless you are a United States citizen entering Canada from the United States, you need a visa.” My husband was South Korean, with a permanent resident card for the U.S. “You need a printed copy of your visa approval before I can permit you to enter Canada.”
“But we are just transiting to Seoul, South Korea. We aren’t staying in Canada.”
He scribbled thick red X’s on our customs form and then directed us to a door that nobody else exiting the immigration area had used. “Head out that door and down the escalator. Straight ahead. You have plenty of time.”
We were a little confused, but it seemed as if we could resolve this in due course at the Immigration Office. At the counter, we were greeted by a hefty uniformed woman with a tight hair bun.
“So, what you needed to do was fill out the online application for an ETA. Rules have been in place since last year,” she explained. “Since you didn’t do that, we can’t let you proceed onward to your connecting flight. Air Canada should never have let you onto that flight in Pittsburgh without proper documentation.”
We were about to argue, but she continued. “We have another option for you, though. For a $200 fee, we can process the visa for you right now. You have plenty of time, since you have a three hour layover.”
“Why can’t we just fill out the online application right now? It’s just $7.00…”
She interrupted, saying “Sorry, but no. The application has to go through Montreal for approval and that could take days. Look, it’s your choice. You can head back to the U.S. or we can process the visa for you right now.”
My husband and I looked at each other. Going back to the United States when we had just started our Round the World trip was out of the question. Besides that, the cost for additional flights and lodging would exceed the $200 fee anyway. “We’ll pay the fee,” we said in unison.
Another officer had overheard our exchange and offered us a snippet of sympathy. “If it makes you feel any better, Air Canada will have a much larger fine to pay for letting you proceed to Toronto without proper documents.” (Thank goodness “the link was down” in Pittsburgh! If the computer system had been properly checking traveler documentation, we may still be in Pittsburgh!)
We exited the immigration office and cleared security again with 30 minutes remaining to grab a bite at the Premium Lounge. They were serving breakfast, along with a beautiful bar of fresh, healthy veggies. I enjoyed two plates of crisp romaine lettuce wraps filled with corn salad and a dollop of coleslaw. As we nibbled on sweet cream puffs and sipped our coffee, my husband and I recounted this morning’s luck. We were thankful to be sitting here, about to board our flight for the first leg of our global trek.