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 Game 6 became a reality, I looked in to flights to Toronto from Atlanta and quickly realized the dollars requested were quite high. Over a thousand of them, in fact. I contacted my friend who works for an airline to hook me up with a standby buddy pass. A buddy pass does not come with a confirmed seat assignment but he told me there were plenty of unsold seats for my departure flight, and that he would feel comfortable trying his luck because there were backup options, and in a worst-case scenario, I could just buy a regular ticket for a flight the day of. 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 past couple 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 in the 4th quarter. A family of four with 20 minutes to departure. A couple with 15 on the clock. A single guy 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, as well as 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 on Friday, leading to people’s travel plans rolling over to Saturday. The 12:30 came and went, but there was a 2:00 to Buffalo (which would include some cross-border driving), and if not, I could buy a full-fare ticket to Toronto with a 3:30 departure. I’ve 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 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 at 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 has not been a seamless day, so I order it to go. That Pei Wei is made fresh to order (not sponsored) so it takes a few minutes. When I get back to the gate, people are 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 they 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 (it was also too late to get the ‘It’s time to check-in’ email). The agent informs me that if the airline doesn’t know the passenger is there prior to 60 minutes before departure, that seat is automatically assigned to someone else. But to whom?! I paid for a ticket! 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 belts and poles for lineups and knock a few over. No time to pick them up because I have to get to a counter WHERE THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO ONE! Everyone from this airline is at the gate. Did that agent know that and send me there anyway? I’d say the likelihood of that is 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 will listen. I couldn’t get anyone there so I went back toward security and realized I don’t even have a boarding pass for this flight. I don’t even have a boarding pass! What about a kiosk? Not in this terminal. Online check-in? Too late. Things are getting bleak. There’s a 5:00 flight with my buddy pass airline but that one is oversold so I can’t buy a seat. I could go back on standby for it but I felt helpless, especially now that I was on the outside. It’s over. I headed back to my car that I parked nine hours earlier.
And, that’s how I missed Toronto Raptors history. Four flights missed, but also, four Eastern Conference Finals games won.