ACS: Flight of fancy


Getting to New Orleans for this meeting has been tricky for some – including the student who drove all the way from Cincinnati, Ohio when the airline he was planning to travel with ceased operations. I think I can top that, however…

Myself and two colleagues from Nature Publishing Group flew with Virgin Atlantic from London on Saturday, arriving in Washington Dulles just after 3 pm. After eventually passing through immigration, we collected our luggage, cleared customs and then rechecked our bags for our onward flight to New Orleans – we had plenty of time, it was now just after 4 pm and our flight was due to leave at 5:30 pm. We were then given ‘boarding passes’ – and I use this term loosely – and told that seats would be assigned at the gate.

After our second trip on the very odd buses at Dulles – I think they resemble what I suspect people in the 1960s would imagine vehicles of the future to look like – we arrived at our gate, only to be told that we were on standby. Apparently in the dictionary that is used by United Airlines’ employees, the word ‘confirmed’ means something completely different from what most of us would expect it to. Never mind the fact that we had just flown across an ocean, we weren’t getting on the flight…

Apparently the plane was a smaller one that it should have been and we were the chosen ones sacrificed for the greater good – if only it had been explained to us so eloquently, perhaps it wouldn’t have felt quite so bad. I take that back, it still would have sucked. At this point, we had run into Bruce Gibb – a chemist from the University of New Orleans – who just happened, coincidentally, to be flying back home from a trip to Portland. What was he doing in Washington, I hear you cry… well, he had been scheduled to travel via Denver, but United Airlines had kindly re-routed him through Dulles and then bumped him from the same flight that we were bumped from.

Looking on the bright side, however, our luggage made the flight… (although I thought that in the post 9-11 haze, bags could not fly without their owners – can someone comment on this?). At this point, after I accused them of kidnapping my bags, we were instructed to go to the ‘customer service’ desk (again, another description that has precious little to do with the reality of the thing) where we would have our flights rescheduled – perhaps for the 9:55 pm flight. Well, glaciers move faster than the line we were waiting in, and we eventually reached the front after roughly four hours… no 9:55 pm flight for us.

United told us that they could fly us to LaGuardia in New York (yes folks, that’s the wrong direction!) on Sunday morning and then there was a connecting American Airlines flight to New Orleans that would get us in around 1 pm. Only problem was that they couldn’t confirm we’d get seats on that American flight, and we suspected that they were just trying to dump their problem on to another carrier. The only direct flight on which we could get a confirmed seat was the 9:55 pm flight on the Sunday evening – getting us in at around midnight… much too late to set up our stand at the exposition.

During our slow progress in the customer disservice line, we got chatting to Teresa, a senior from Cornell College in Iowa, who was due to receive a travel award (a little ironic don’t you think?) at the ACS meeting. The catch was, however, that if she didn’t arrive by approximately 5 pm on the Sunday, it would have been forfeited and given to someone else. So, the three of us from NPG, plus Bruce and Teresa decided to give up on United and hire a rental car – what’s a 1000+ mile road trip between newly formed friends.

We left Dulles just before midnight on the Saturday and hit the road. Bruce took the first 200-mile, 3-hour driving shift. Teresa was charged with the important job of being a chatty passenger and keeping the driver awake while the others got some (rather uncomfortable) sleep in the back of the Ford Escape. She then repeated her entire life story a second time when I did the second 3-hour driving shift.

So, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, lots of junk food, enough Mountain Dew Code Red to sink a ship, and many games of ‘I spy’ later, we arrived at New Orleans airport, 17 hours and 1133 miles after leaving Dulles. And miracles do happen, our bags were waiting for us and hadn’t been diverted to Timbuktu. And best of all, Teresa made it to the ceremony in time to get her travel award – and no one can say she didn’t deserve it at that point!

As Bruce pointed out, it took him longer to get to this ACS meeting than any other – and this one was in his home town! I leave New Orleans on Thursday and as much as I loathe the idea that I must fly United (which I will never do again if I can avoid it), I’d rather not have to do another road trip…


Stuart Cantrill (Chief Editor, Nature Chemistry)

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