If my journey to Game 6 of the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals was in a boxscore, it would read: Tas Melas (DNP – stuck at airport).
When the Raptors won Game 4 against the Bucks and Game 6 became a reality, I looked into flights to Toronto from Atlanta and quickly realized the dollars requested were quite high. Over a thousand of them, in fact. What was usually around $400 was close to $1100. Could I afford it? Yes, but I have trouble paying amounts far higher than normal, plus, we had just been laid off NBATV, and hell, I’d find a way to outsmart the airlines. By the next afternoon, I felt the need to book something, so I bought a ticket to Buffalo (which came with a 2-hour drive). The following morning, I remembered I had a friend who worked for an airline who could hook me up with a standby buddy pass. A buddy pass did not come with a confirmed seat assignment but he told me there were plenty of unsold seats on flights to Toronto, and that he would feel comfortable trying his luck because there were backup options with other airlines— in a worst-case scenario, I could just buy a regular ticket for a flight the day of. I canceled my ticket to Buffalo and bought a standby to Toronto. Sounds like a foolproof idea– what could go wrong?
Game day. Saturday, 7:30am: I get to security at the Atlanta airport for my 9am flight. Only 90 minutes to spare. That’s how good I felt. I breezed through security but I was not in a good spot when it came to actually flying. Every seat to Toronto had been snatched up over the previous two days. I needed no-shows. I hang with J.E. Skeets until he boards and says, “I know I’ll see you strutting on there.” It got close– I started in standby spot number six, dropped to nine, and got all the way up to three, but the only people strutting were those getting to the gate late in the 4th quarter: a family of four with 20 minutes to departure, a couple with 15:00 on the clock, a single person moseying like he’s two hours early but with only ten minutes till takeoff. Missing that first flight was both exhilarating, because it came down to the wire, and fascinating because of the people watching.
10:00am: Flight #2 was at 12:30pm. In the meantime, I did some more people watching (and judging) at a bar. A man drinking a breakfast pint of Bud Light asked me for a micro-USB when he saw me charging my phone. Noise-canceling headphones are important on a plane. I get it. He then quickly ordered another beer, pounded both, and left. Another man with an Irish coffee. And another guy with a double Maker’s Mark? And a beer to chase it down? At 10:30am? Things on this flight looked worse. It was sold out and they were giving away vouchers of six hundred, eight hundred, and eventually a thousand dollars to get people off the plane. It was about then my friend texted to inform me flights had been canceled due to weather and mechanical issues the previous day, leading to people’s travel plans rolling over to Saturday. The 12:30 came and went, but there was a 2:00 to Buffalo, and if not, I could buy a full-fare ticket to Toronto with a 3:30 departure. I’d come this far.
1:00pm: 60 minutes until Buffalo— the backup to the backup which was supposed to be a lock. There were dozens of available tickets 48 hours earlier but Friday’s airport issues changed that. I noticed a worrisome sign— the same people I had seen for the 9:00 and 12:30 to Toronto were waiting to get to Buffalo. Uh oh. I started the process of paying for the 3:30 Toronto flight when it looked like Buffalo was standing me up. I paid for it at 2:05, got the confirmation email, and was at the gate by 2:15.
2:15pm: 75 minutes before the 3:30 takeoff. There were no gate agents. Well, I’ve got a seat on this one, so I’m gonna go grab some Pei Wei fried rice. I’m confident, bordering on cocky with my newfound ticket power, but this had not been a seamless day, so I ordered it to go. That Pei Wei is made fresh to order (not sponsored) so it took a few minutes. When I got back to the gate, people were lined up at the podium. I sit down to eat and let the line dwindle. With about 50 minutes before takeoff, I head to the counter. I ask to check-in. The gate agent looks at me like I’ve got a chicken ball on my nose and tells me, “You can’t just check-in. You have to check-in at least 60 minutes before the flight.” “But I have a full-fare ticket!” After some disagreement, it starts to seep in that this ticket was with a totally different airline than my buddy pass and the new airline had no idea I was at the airport. I didn’t scan my documents at one of their kiosks because I was already in the airport, I didn’t go to their counters upon entering the airport (because I was already in the airport!), and I didn’t think to check-in online after purchasing the seat (no way they were sending me an ‘It’s time to check-in’ email an hour before the flight). The agent informed me that if the airline doesn’t know the passenger is there 60 minutes prior to departure, that seat is automatically assigned to someone else. But to whom?! I paid for a ticket! She waved the boarding passes in front of my face: “What about these people who have their tickets?” Those sweet, sweet boarding passes. The flight, just like every flight I tried to get on Saturday, was oversold, which is a whole other air travel issue. The agent told me she could get me on the flight later that night, which would literally be during the game. Could I have gone around and asked someone to take the next flight in exchange for their seat on the 3:30? In hindsight, I suppose that was an option, but there was no clear thinking happening at this point. Plus, I was having a pretty heated discussion with the agent— some kind soul should have just offered it to me after overhearing my dispute, obviously. Also, in hindsight, everything flying to that part of North America was a hot ticket that day. Some people on this flight had had to stay in Atlanta overnight.
The agent said I could either call customer service or head to the airline’s counter which was on the other side of security. I headed to the information desk and that person gave me the same info. Feeling desperate, I left the cleared area and ran past security toward the airline’s counter in the concourse. I’m booking it. I ducked under some of those retractable lineup belts and poles and knock a few over. No time to pick them up because I have to get to a counter WHERE THERE WAS ABSOLUTELY NO ONE! Everyone from this airline was at the gate. Did that agent know that and send me there anyway? I’d say the likelihood of that was somewhere between 99.99% and 100% percent. I tried to get someone to the desk, while at the same time calling customer service, while at the same time telling my story to anyone who would listen. I couldn’t get anyone there so I went back toward security and realized I didn’t even have a boarding pass for this flight. I don’t even have a boarding pass! All I had was an email receipt. What about a kiosk? Not one for that airline in this terminal. Online check-in? Yeah, right. Things were getting bleak. There was a 5:00 flight with the “my buddy pass airline” but that one was oversold so I couldn’t buy a seat. I could go back on standby for that flight but I was feeling pretty helpless, especially with now being on the outside.
It’s over. I headed back to my car that I parked nine-plus hours earlier.
And, that’s how I missed Toronto Raptors history. Four flights missed, but also, four Eastern Conference Finals games won.