The start to this trip was inauspicious. I was at the airport, through security and at the gate with plenty of time, but this was the scene that awaited me when I looked out at the plane that was to take me on my first leg. The engine cowling is open and there are two mechanics examining the the engine. Despite my initial consternation, we managed to board on time, and as I got to the end of the jet bridge I noted a technician logging something and a part that looked like a valve sitting on the console next to him. I was hopeful the issue was repaired.
And it turned out to be. The door was closed, we backed out, and were on our way in short order. This was only my second post-pandemic fly-away conference and my third trip by air, and things seemed to be working. We were still all masked, but the planes all seem to be full and (with one notable exception) seemed to be running on-time. The second hop, from Atlanta to Little Rock was equally uneventful. Everyone was courteous and things seemed to work the way I remembered from years of business travel.
I took an Uber from the airport to the hotel. The driver was friendly, but his car was falling apart. There seemed to be very few people on the street downtown for a Monday afternoon, and the hotel was equally empty. People had obviously been traveling, but it didn’t seem like a lot of them were coming here. The hotel restaurant had only a few tables occupied and there were literally less than five people in the hotel lobby. I couldn’t help but feel I was in a post-apocalyptic movie. My last business trip to St. Louis saw a lot more people downtown. That’s a bigger event and attendance was a fraction of normal, but that was November.
The reception and conference event I was to attend in Little Rock normally sees 200 people. There were 20 at the reception, and most of those were vendors and the event staff. Maybe 10 were attendees. At the event itself there were approximately 35 people not counting presenters and staff. I guess things aren’t quite back to normal. I couldn’t get a sense for the reason why there were so few. Is everyone still concerned about Covid? Are there budget issues where customers weren’t authorizing travel? This event was confined mostly to people in Arkansas, not requiring air travel, and yet they had 10-15% of the usual turnout. I’ll be interested to see if this improves. Everyone I talked to was glad to get back to an in-person event, as I was, but no one could put a finger on why so few had come.
The trip home was a bit more challenging. Pre-pandemic I would leave a hotel in a major city about two hours prior to my flight. I did so again, knowing the airport was only about 15-20 minutes away. The Uber app showed no available drivers. There were no cabs outside the hotel, and no one to summon one. I went straight to the front desk to ask them to call a cab for me. The phone at their usual cab company rang unanswered. I did not think to arrange for transport the night before and the hotel shuttle would not start running for almost another hour. If I didn’t leave for the airport on time, I would miss my flight and there were not a lot of flights out of Little Rock.
I walked back outside to make sure I had decent mobile signal, to try again to get an Uber and that’s when I saw Pete. I didn’t know him at the time, but he appeared to be getting ready to go to the airport too. I approached him, prepared to offer to split cab fare or Uber cost.
Me: “Are you headed to the airport?”
Me: “How are you getting there? I haven’t been able to get a cab or Uber and I don’t want to miss my flight.”
Pete: “I’ve got a rental car, ride with me.”
We introduced ourselves as I got in the car. Pete is a genuinely nice guy. He works for a packaging company and we quickly determined we were on the same flight out of Little Rock that morning. I thanked him repeatedly and his reply was always “I was going to the airport anyways.” So thanks to Pete, I made my flight, had pleasant conversation along the way, and got to learn my lesson about early morning transport in the days of the pandemic. Delta got me home on schedule and none the worse for wear. It seems the machinery of travel is ‘mostly’ working, but things are not back to what we once considered normal. At least not yet.