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“I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” You know how the song goes, right? You can count on me—but please make sure you’ve got snow, mistletoe, and at least 30 or 40 gallons of Alton Brown Aged Eggnog, heavy on the Sailor Jerry.
You might rightly think of that as a fair trade. Make the effort to get on a plane, train, or in an automobile, and in return you get the old-time Christmas feeling of your youth. But there’s also a reason folks decide that the last place they want to be during the holiday season is on a plane headed, well, anywhere—and that includes the Bahamas, Canary Islands, and that insanely beautiful house in Ex Machina.
Confession time: the West Coast is, actually, home. I’m one of the 12 people in the city who was born and raised in Lotusland. The rest of you are mostly from Ontario, and that includes my long-suffering partner—she’s from exotic Kitchener-Waterloo, which is actually pretty idyllic around Christmas, mostly because there’s usually snow. And few things are as wonderful during the most wonderful time of the year as a pop-top Grolsch pulled from a snowbank.
She lives out here now, so I happily get on the plane and go back to Ontario most Decembers. Sounds like a dreamy marshmallow world, right? Most of the time it is.
Don't worry, Flair Airlines—we'll get to you in a minute. But, for a bit of foreshadowing, and thanks for ruining Christmas.
Vancouver’s second snowpocalypse of 2022 was not one of those marshmallow-world times. You know how you hear about hellish experiences at the airport around Christmas? Ever wonder what really goes on? Sure you do.
The funny thing about hellish situations is that sometimes you see them coming. On Monday night, Vancouver looked as beautiful and peaceful as the last 10 minutes of The Shining, all fluffy, softly falling flakes and pristinely snow capped trees.
The horrifying part of that—having to get to the airport Tuesday morning, knowing that to live on the West Coast is to accept that God’s little mysteries (like the endlessly rotting leaves of fall, or two feet of frozen precipitation twice a year) are problems that time will eventually take care of. Why bother plowing and salting the streets when, 3,297 car crashes later, that shit’s going to melt and everything will be back to normal? Including the leaf-clogged sewers grates.
Ever tried to get an Uber when 90 per cent of the city is unnavigable to anyone not driving a Snowcat? The goal for “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was seemingly simple—get from East Van to Vancouver International Airport in time for a 1 p.m. departure, with blast-off from the Drive taking place at 10:30. Easy, right?
The first Uber booking was torpedoed by frozen fingers and auto-filling—I’m not sure who lives at 1939-B Charles Street, but it’s not me. By the time we figured out where the driver was, he’d already fled the ’hood, leading to a $5 penalty for being a no-show. The next two drivers accepted the bookings, but then evidently found themselves wondering what kind of assholes are driving around the city when everyone else is either tobogganing, cross-country skiing, or drinking Hot Buttered Rum at Havana.
Total time lost: 45 minutes. Important because the airline app assured us the plane was indeed leaving at 1 p.m.
Two cancellations later—and with the recommended three-hour-in-advance check-in time shrunken to a terrifying 90 minutes—a driver in a charmingly grubby economy car fishtailed his way up the street from Commercial Drive, got stuck trying to pull onto Victoria and, after frantically spinning his wheels for a good two minutes, merrily asked how much Uber was charging us for the ride to the airport.
The answer was somewhat complex. One hundred dollars for the first booking, which was cancelled by the driver 10 minutes later. Booking number two was $120, which wasn’t enough to prevent the driver from cancelling as well.
Our driver hit the daily double with a $130 booking, plus service charges. Upon hearing “$130” his eyes lit right up, and he asked if we’d be willing to pay him in cash instead. Like, literally, in cash. While disappointed at the answer “No”, he was at least entertaining on the ride, and not just because he drove like Danica Patrick on ice.
As anyone who’s ever laughed their asses off at “I want a fucking Toyota, a fucking Datsun…. four fucking wheels and a seat” in Planes, Trains and Automobiles knows, it’s the airport where the real hell starts when travelling during the holidays. Our lovely carrier this year was Flair Airlines, not for their ample legroom or hyper-attentive inflight services, but for their cheapness.
And sure enough, with a budget airline, you get what you pay for. And then some.
First the good news—despite a heinous traffic jam on the departures ramp, our ever-enterprising Uber driver got us to Flair check-in at 12:01, giving us a nerve-racking 59 minutes to check our bags, make it through security, and Usain Bolt it to the boarding gate.
There were countless others in the same boat, none of which seemed to concern the check-in lady, who kept leaving her post to talk to some guy in a roped-off area about sunny Mexico. Finally, after an agonizing 20 minutes, it was over the first hurdle: bags were checked and assurances were given that—even though the departure time on the app still read 1 p.m. (which explains the $130 panicked Uber ride)—we had plenty of time.
That turned out to be insanely prophetic.
The first sign that something was amiss was the lack of anything resembling a gate or a departure time on the flight board. The YVR information desk was a ghost town, but, proving God sometimes looks after village idiots, we weirdly found ourselves at a gate where the boarding screen promised the flight would indeed be leaving at 1pm.
Until that is, said info disappeared at 1:15 with zero explanation.
Here’s a funny thing that would eventually become impossible to ignore. Most other airlines— WestJet, Air Canada, Fred’s Funtime Air Emporium—had actual employees manning their check-in desks.
Flair’s sat empty. For a good hour. While everyone sat around wondering what was going on.
Finally, a quiet, unassuming fellow who wasn’t exactly dressed in Flair flair—he wore a YVR yellow reflective jacket—materialized, sitting there silently and almost Yoda-like. Speak when spoken to, yes? He did. Shed some light, did he, on what was going on? Try not, do—but at least try.
For the four hours that followed, the boarding gate screen mostly displayed nothing indicating we were even at the right place for a Flair flight. Every now and then there would be an update. The flight was rescheduled to 3 p.m.. Then 5.
The serfs, peasants, and common rabble—including yours truly—would periodically approach YVR Yoda, who would whisper things unheard by the rest of us. The enlightened would then come away and share whatever info they had gleaned—the plane was on its way, the plane was parked somewhere at the airport, the plane was just trying to give everyone a taste of what unforgiving, everlasting hell is going to be like.
One passenger finally asked “Do you want me to just tell everyone here what you said? I can yell it out.”
Yoda didn’t answer. And he didn’t flinch when, predictably, some male Karen finally lost his shit, punched the Plexiglass separating Yoda from the common people, and shrieked, “WHY DON’T YOU JUST FUCKING CANCEL IT!!!!!!”
Instead, at 6 p.m., five hours after scheduled departure, a disembodied voice—like Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey, only disturbingly sexier—came on the PA to announce everyone had to move to another gate. This move included YVR Yoda, who was joined by a YVR Yodette, who like her brethren, sat there silently, perhaps knowing all and saying nothing.
There was no Flair flair.
Which, along with the lack of anything resembling basic information, enraged a guy (who wore a wrestling hoodie, but looked like a Dungeons & Dragons fan), to where he doom-screeched at Yoda: “You’re a fucking asshole! FUCK YOU!!!!!” YVR Yodette said nothing, and instead sagely watched in silence and the dude stomped off in three-sizes-too-big sweatpants.
There were morsels of information for those who cared to approach and seek counsel—the plane was late coming in from the Congo, the plane was parked somewhere in the YVR underground, the plane was being fuelled up by Beelzebub himself.
At 7 p.m. the dam broke and we were loaded on board. Where we sat for an hour waiting for a fuel truck. And other hour for a “push.” And then sat for an hour waiting for de-icing. And then sat there for a half-hour while we were, honestly and truly, up next for de-icing. At least the captain provided real-time updates—a first on the day.
As for the cabin crew, little things like, you know, water, were non-existent.
But if you walked back and asked nicely at the rear of the plane, they’d give you a modified Dixie cup (not a bottle, “that costs money”). And while the flight attendant playing chess on his phone seemed entirely uninterested in who was getting parched enough to drink their own urine, the female flight attendant at least answered the request after a half-minute of dreamingly staring off into space in blissful ignorance.
With Flairy Kasparov and La-La-Land Linda committed to lounging in the galley at the back of the plane, that served as a green light for the inmates to take over the asylum. Needing zero encouragement was the guy on the aisle behind me who spend his entire time on board laughing hysterically at jokes only he could hear, yelling "fuck" every 6.7 seconds, and making hideously realistic farting noises—which seemed to amuse him every bit as much as the standup routine going on in his head.
The punchline? After four or five hours on a plane in which someone set the temperature in the cabin to “broil,” the captain came on to announce that the plane was finally de-iced. Which would have been great, except that it coincided with transit regulations stating that he’d been on the job for longer than allowed, and therefore the plane would be heading back to the gate, where we would be asked to disembark.
But, don’t worry: “We’re trying to find new pilots!” You know, at midnight. In a city that’s been ground to a halt by the snow for 24 hours.
If the world was perfect, the new pilot would have been YVR Yoda, with YVR Yodette riding shotgun.
Instead, there were no pilots to be found wandering YVR—smoking cigarettes outside the 7-Eleven, or staring off into space and contemplating the endless futility of life over cold coffee and Boston Cream donuts at Tim Horton’s.
But that was okay because when we got off the plane there would be a Flair representative there to help straighten everything out!
Spoiler alert: No there wasn’t! The gate desk was manned by no one.
The airline evidently did manage to dredge up a couple of random pilots though. Seconds after we got off the plane, the boarding-gate area was weirdly flooded with a couple-hundred Flair customers who told us they'd be getting on the plane and immediately going to Toronto. Maybe they'd been waiting 22 hours for their Flair experience instead of 12, and therefore got preferential treatment.
So where do things stand right now? I’m writing this at 2:10 in the morning, two hours after the plane returned to the gate to look for “new pilots.” The luggage has yet to arrive on the carousel—according to a guy wearing no Flair-wear by the crumpled Flair cardboard sign in the baggage area, they can't get the plane cargo door open to get at the bags. Which is kind of a bummer because we’re supposed to be back at 9 a.m., when Flair will try the whole thing again.
Honestly, people, weather happens. Showing you care isn’t hard. And, importantly, now you have a window into how those Instagram clips of people getting enraged at airlines start before shit goes bananas.
As for right now though, all that’s missing is “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” on the YVR stereo system.
Which is fine, because I’m fucking never leaving the West Coast again during holiday season.
[Update: After getting a grand total of two hours sleep on the floor at VYR, Mike Usinger arrived at the Flair desk at 6 a.m. to discover, along with dozens of other traumatized Flair passengers, that the 9 a.m. flight had just been cancelled. Barring a holiday miracle, he won't be going home for Christmas).