Denver or the Airport from Hell

Last week was the review for both LUX and the Homestake lab, on site in South Dakota, and also my first North-American trip out of the East Coast. I am not going to say much about the review itself as that is just boring, but a number of related events are worth recording for posterity, starting with… the plane trip there.

The first thing to know is that there is no major city in South Dakota, at least by the standard of other states –it is a big, empty place with lots of hilly woodlands and even more flat plains, and few people inbetween. As a result, getting to our (in the process of being) renovated gold mine requires flying somehow to Rapid City and then a 1.5 hour drive north. Flying to Rapid City from Rhode Island just doesn’t happen with less than 2 or 3 stopovers and about 20 hours of cumulated travel time… not ideal. The plan was therefore to fly from Boston early in the morning on tuesday in order to get to Rapid City early afternoon, whereupon much pre-meeting meeting fun could be had. It was, at first glance, a solid plan.

Thus were we (David and I) picked up at our respective houses at 5am and drove all the way to Logan airport, to board shortly after –and still in a slight stupor– a Boeing of some sort, carrying us all the way To Denver, our one scheduled stopover, across two timezones and in a record time of just shy of 4 hours. That went fine. We quickly located the gate for the next leg of our trip and even had time to spend in the “Red Carpet club”, courtesy of Rick’s miles program. The plane being due to take off at 10:30 we were standing right in front of the announced gate at 10. Then 10:15. Then 10:25… still nothing. Inquiries were made at the desk, where a flippant United clerk told us that the gate was closed and that, indeed, it really was another one at the far end of the airport. Nevermind that all screens said it was the one we were standing in front of, or that the electronic billboard on top of the gate itself said so as well (a fact he was trying hard to rectify by mashing his keyboard even as he was pointing this out to us). The man had seemingly made an announcement at some point in that peculiar airport lingo made of improbable accents, unintelligible borborygms, doubtful hand-mic coordination and unique acoustics and therefore the matter was clearly settled and out of his hands. But could we please have a nice day. Hmm…

Customer service was, coincidentally, pretty close to the real departure gate for our now ex-flight –that is to say, at the other end of the very long terminal B. We therefore had plenty of time to watch our plane take off while waiting in line for new tickets. As it turned out, another plane was ready to leave two hours later but it was already overbooked, though we made a point of waiting in line till the last minute just in case. The next one would leave at 3pm and our tickets were confirmed for this one. We boarded it and took off, other collaboration members joining up at this point. Things were looking up!

Not for long. 15 minutes into the flight, the plane made an entertaining 270 degrees turn and started losing altitude. The pilot shortly made an annoucement that the emergency power system –some sort of dynamo located in the nose of the plane– had broken down and was causing a tremendous amount of noise in the cabin. He preferred turning back and having it fixed in Denver rather than continuing on to Rapid City for the remaining 30 minutes of the flight. Par for the course at this point…

And so we landed again, exited the aircraft, and went back to see our friends at customer service (on the other side of the airport once again). This time they booked us on a Frontier flight, departing at 8pm from another terminal entirely. We crossed half the terminal again, took the little trolley, and then crossed the other terminal halfway as well to reach a remote gate there. After about half an hour of sitting around, a Frontier employee helpfully informed us that although we had been issued tickets by United, we were still supposed to go through their (Frontier’s) customer service office as well which was located… do I even need to say it at this point? Went there, done that, came back. Plane was delayed another hour just for kicks, which might have been a good thing anyway given that a snow storm was now raging over South Dakota.  By the time we boarded the guys from Case had joined us, having left their own campus sometime in the afternoon. The plane took off and surprisingly did not lose any vital part of its structure over the next hour, which means that we were eventually allowed to land at our intended destination, quite late and on a snow covered runway.

A 1.5 hour drive in the snow was still ahead of us at this point but who’s counting anymore? We arrived at the hotel in Lead just before midnight, and I have no idea what happened afterwards. The next morning, review talks were starting at 8 but that will wait for another entry. In case you didn’t do the maths? That’s 11 hours we spent in Denver.

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