My strategy for this February afternoon flight on Southwest Airlines to Baltimore was to head to the back of the plane. Because I’m one of those people who waits to the exact allowable moment 24 hours before the flight to print my boarding pass, I could’ve sat upfront with the A seating group; however, I thought I had outfoxed them. From the gate agent I found out that the flight was only 70 percent full. That being the case, I reasoned that if I went to the back, most of the passengers would be siphoned off as they passed through the front part of the plane leaving me with arm room from 30 percent emptiness.
As I headed back, I put my overcoat and carry-on case in an overhead bin, and then, just to fully implement my plan, I sat a few seats further back. I buckled myself into the aisle seat hoping that by take off time the two seats next to me would be vacant.
My plan would backfire even worse that I imagined.
There must’ve been a rush of new passengers because the plane was practically full – including two husky guys who sat in my row. From New Orleans across the confederacy I flew feeling an elbow at my ribs.
My favorite sound in the world is the “ping” from the cockpit indicating that it’s OK to get off the plane. I bulldozed myself to the bin, grabbed my overcoat and suitcase and plodded toward the entrance.
Our destination was Washington, but because the trip was last minute it was more economical to arrive through Baltimore. Or at least it would have been had the freeway linking the two cities not been jammed with traffic and slowed by accidents. Our taxi driver at least had a heartwarming story. He was a native of one of those “_____stan” countries that made up the former Soviet Union. The only way his family was able to move to America was through the intercession of Bill Clinton when he was president. My heart would have been warmed even more had the fare only been $50 instead of $100. The taxi driver was certainly learning to appreciate capitalism.
After settling in the hotel room I had to run an errand, so I grabbed my overcoat and headed toward the elevator.
While descending, I noticed something strange. Somehow during the flight either the coat has shrunk or I had gotten bigger. I knew it wasn’t the latter, given Southwest’s peanut-based food service. I reached into the coat’s pocket and pulled out a set of someone else’s keys.
Back in the room I came to terms with what happened. Another passenger with a coat that looked exactly like mine had put his luggage in the same bin. We had walked away with each other’s coat. Worse yet, for him, not only did I have his boarding pass for a flight to Connecticut, but the keys included those for his car and his home.
Dreading the voicemail hell that comes with calling a 1-800 number, I tracked down Southwest’s Lost and Found department where I actually linked up with a real person who said she couldn’t give me the passenger’s phone number, but agreed to place a call and to leave a message for him. I gave her my office number along with instructions to have him leave an address and I would mail his coat to him and then he could mail mine to me.
Somehow this plan worked. Later that night I checked my office number. The man had called and said that although he had no keys when he arrived in Connecticut, he called a son who picked him up and who had a spare key to his house. He left his address. The only problem was that he no longer had my coat. He left that with the Southwest Lost and Found in Baltimore.
Once again I weathered voicemail and was connected to a live person. Southwest had my coat and they would mail it, all I had to do was give a Fed Ex credit number. The hotel helped me ship the other coat to Connecticut, but for that, too, I had to give a shipping credit number.
At first I felt guilty for taking the wrong coat, but then I realized the other guy probably got off before me so he made the initial wrong grab. In retrospect I wish I had sent his coat to him C.O.D. but no, I absorbed the cost. The bill for the combined shipping, I would later learn, was $90.
Curiously, none of this would have happened had I just taken a seat in the front of the airplane. I would’ve been crowded, but I was crowded anyway plus it took me longer to get out. All was not lost, though. I did beat the system at least once: Somewhere over Virginia, when the flight attendant passed by, I got an extra bag of peanuts.