The alarm on my phone gently woke me as it had every day prior, and for a brief moment, I forgot that I was not in my usual bed. The few hours of sleep were surprisingly restful even though my initial attempt at sleep was unsuccessful. The audiobook of holiday stories I eventually plugged in did little to lull me off to dreamland, but my restless mind finally acquiesced around three hours before my alarm was set to wake me for the early morning flight to Oslo.
Quickly shaking the fog of sleep, I reattached my sleeping bag to my pack, slung the bags over my shoulders, and started the short journey back to the international terminal. The vendor with the sandwiches had reopened, and whatever prepackaged food was being heated gave the area a surprisingly appetizing aroma. I had no intention of stopping.
In the international terminal, the airport was surprisingly busy for 5:30 am. Masses queued for the bag drops and check in counters, families with carts full of luggage quarreled over repacking, and panicked travelers weaved through the crowd to catch their flights. Smug in my having arrived the day before for my flight, I walked lazily through the terminal and stopped at an empty bench to repack some of my things in order to squeeze my sleeping bag into the pack for easier checking.
Having successfully compacted my relatively small amount of things, I sauntered to another set of check-in kiosks. After punching in the code I had by now memorized, I was able to get a printed boarding pass, but the machine refused to provide me with a baggage tag as it appeared it was giving all the other customers. Looking around slightly frustrated, I located the SAS check-in area at the far end of the of terminal.
After making the excessively long trek out to the flagship airline, I noticed that the crowds of the other airlines were only the tip of the iceberg. The check in line (of which there appeared to be only one) backed up to the end of the serpentine area. Preparing my new boarding pass, I approached the attendant at the beginning of the line.
“Till Longyearbyen?” he confirmed.
“Ja,” I responded in the affirmative.
He pointed to an area of more check-in kiosks and said something too quickly for me to understand.
“Oh. um.. I’m sorry?” I asked for clarification.
“Oh! Yes. You can get a luggage tag from those machines and drop it over there. The line is much shorter,” he explained after seamlessly switching to English.
“Oh! Thank you!” I responded with a smile and walked quickly over to the machines.
Scanning my boarding pass, I entered the one piece of luggage, and the machine said Thanks! Have a nice flight!
Slightly frustrated, I tried again.
I looked about the area and identified a well-dressed man with a name tag. Assuming he was an SAS employee, I approached him to ask if I was doing something wrong. With a courteous nod, he stepped immediately ahead of another traveler to take the next machine. Repeating exactly the steps I just had, he arrived at the same screen.
“Oh. You need to pay for this hand luggage. You cannot do that here,” he stated plainly.
“Oh. Got it. Thank you,” I responded as I snatched back my boarding pass and stepped hurriedly back to the growing line.
As I approached the man with whom I had spoken just a few minutes earlier, I explained the situation, and he nodded in sympathy.
Remembering the notice on the travel reward booking site, I had partially expected this, but I failed to consider the complexity of the process. As I stepped into the line, I checked the clock: 6:05.
It was really only at that point did I realize that my flight was set to leave at 6:45.
Shuffling along the row, I glanced almost continuously at the clock. As the minutes ticked by, the extra layers I had worn to make space in my bag grew ever more uncomfortable. The lack of airflow under my thin rain jacket that enclosed the stack of sweaters trapped the moistening air over my core, down my arms, and beneath the heavy pack on my back.
Overheating, I tried to relax and shrugged the bag of my back and opened my jacket. Zipping the shoulder straps under their travel covering, I kicked the bag forward along to collect a layer of white dust on its front. As I rounded the corner of the third to last layer of the serpentine, I checked the clock yet again: 6:15.
How did I completely fail this timing exercise?
I tried not to contemplate the mistakes of the morning and focused on accepting this as a lesson learned. Granted, it was a lesson someone who has circumnavigated the globe should have learned by now, but I’ll give the defense that most of that journey did not involve airports.
Finally reaching the last half section, I prepared my passport, boarding pass, and credit card. Holding the large bag resolutely in one hand and wearing the other tightly on my back, I braced myself to rush the next available attendant.
As soon as the next customer gathered their boxy, colorful rolling bags and made space at the counter, I was approaching, tossing my large pack onto the conveyer belt. Handing over my boarding pass and passport, I waited impatiently as the attendant pulled up the flight information.
“Do you know when your flight leaves?” She asked in a half concerned, half condescending voice.
“Yeah. In about 30 minutes,” I responded with full condescension.
“25 minutes,” she rebuffed, matching my attitude.
Turning back to the clock I had stopped watching, I muttered a curse as I realized her estimate was actually generous.
“I don’t know if I can check this,” she said worriedly. “But let me…,” she trailed off as she turned to a colleague behind the counter. She began a conversation in Swedish that I only partly understood but knew fully conveyed this young backpacker’s incompetence.
After a short deliberation, she picked up the phone, hopefully calling someone connected with the aircraft I was hoping to get this bag on. The conversation extended to the point that I feared it would take us past any time limit I had not already breached, but when she hung up the phone, she looked confident.
“Ok,” she said clicking items on her screen. “You will need to take this special baggage just over there,” she indicated to my right with her eyes. “Go as quickly as you can, and then run back to security,” she nodded to my left.
“So, special baggage over there,” I pointed while she prepared the luggage tag, “and then back to security that way?” I confirmed, slightly confused, having noticed the security beyond special baggage to my right.
“Um… Yes. That will be faster,” she confirmed. “But you need to go now.”
With this final statement, she looked me in the eyes with a stern lifting of her eyebrows, and I understood that this may be possible, but it’s going to be close.
Like a thief making off with the goods, I snatched my bag and picked up my knees, accelerating to my right as quickly as the slick, dusty floor would allow. My boots bounced lightly along the surface and ducked behind the rows of customers at the counters that stood between me and my destination. When the path opened, I lengthened my stride and shot down the empty line chute as if through the end of a race.
Cross the finish line, I slammed on the brakes, coming up just short of another backpacker, a tall young woman in sleek traveling gear, laying her pack on the large independent conveyor belt. The attendant had just scanned the tag and was walking slowly back to his computer on a low desk to the left.
“Just a moment,” he said in heavily accented Swedish. “I need to confirm that it is okay,” he alerted the tall woman. I held out my bag expectantly, waiting for her to move.
“Okay. The bag is alright,” he confirmed, and I immediately threw down my pack and held out the tag as the woman stepped aside. The attendant unhurriedly scanned the tag and repeated the process. As he leaned over the computer, I bounced on my toes, ready to spring out under my lightened load.
“Okay,” he began to say and jumped at the starting gun.
The chute was still empty, and I accelerated out between the stanchions. Skipping between lines of travelers, I flew down the corridor back the way I had come. Entering the area of the other airlines, I scanned the signs for security. I needed to get to gate 4, but I had no idea of the layout on the other side of security.
The queuing area of two abandoned airline desks stood empty, and I juked around a stanchion to take advantage. As I approached the end of the area, my reentry to the flow looked blocked. A woman with a baggage cart a stroller stood at one of the ticket kiosks. Her things were spread, but the gap between the cart and the stroller was sufficient, if only just.
Leaping to get my hips over the handles of the stroller, I cleared the gap smoothly and caught my stride again as I reentered the flow. Scanning the signs to my right, I saw only “Gates 11-20”.
With the end of the terminal in sight, I began to doubt the woman who had told me to this way. Not wanting to risk the idea that this security gate would not connect me to the others, I halted, pivoted and turned back.
Back through the oncoming flow, back through the stroller gap, back past into the SAS area, back across the check in line, and around a group of other passengers into the security line, I hustled, my heart rate now racing and my under layer fully soaking with sweat.
The first line moved rapidly, and I used the moment to prepare my things; emptying my pockets, removing my computer, and chugging the water in my bottle. After quickly handing over my passport and boarding pass to the security agent, he smilingly waved me through. My brief bout of confidence ended rapidly as I scanned the lines: three of them, each 25 people deep and apparently not moving.
I looked up and spotted another line on the upper level. The stairs to my right were empty. I shot across the flow of passengers into the lines and up the stairs, two at a time.
Reaching the top with was also the end of the line, I recognized my fate. The situation was no better here, perhaps worse.
I’m going to miss this flight. I’m actually going to miss a flight for the first time in my life.
The self-pity lasted about four seconds until desperation set it in.
I strode past the line until I was within about four passengers from the front. Just hoping that everyone in the immediate vicinity spoke English, I announced, “I’m really sorry, but my flight leaves in about ten minutes. Would you mind if I cut in?”
Much to my surprise, the entire front section of the line apparently was made up of Americans who responded colloquially with such reassuring phrases as “Yeah, dude. Go for it.”
Tossing my computer into a bin, my bag in another, and my jacket in another, I shoved my things into the machine and strode through the scanner without waiting for the attendant. Fortunately, my belt was too cheap to be made out of real metal, and my boots apparently went unnoticed.
Without even trying to reorganize anything, I slung on my bag, wrapped up my jacket, and tucked my computer under my arm as a slid around the outgoing line. Rounding the corned for the stairs down, I slipped on the dusty floor but caught myself in a less than graceful clomping of feet. Thinking back to days of stadium training, I bounced down the stairs with the quickest feet I could muster and used the extra energy to spring out when I hit the floor.
Looking at the gate signs I realized my folly and the wisdom of the attendant. I was at gate 27, the exact wrong end. Winding my way around the shops and milling customers, I shouted mixed phrases of “Excuse me!” “Ursäkta!” “Sorry!” “Förlåt!”
The terminal split, and I lost sight of the signs that had 1-10 on them, but I kept moving. The terminal entered the duty-free shop, and I didn’t slow as I rounded corners around bottles of cognac and whiskey that cost more than my budget for this entire trip. With no indication, I bet on the left, and a distant sign proved me correct. The crowd thinned, and I hurtled down an incline.
Gate 4 came in sight, and the area was completely empty. Hearing my rapid footsteps, the attendant shouted, “Geoffrey?!”
“Yes, sir!” I responded, with some apparent need for excessive formality.
“You missed your flight!” He retorted.
“Fuck you,” I muttered as I approached with my boarding pass extended.
“Where have you been?” He asked with hands spread.
“Running!” I said instead of Shove it.
His colleague, more reasonably, had gotten on the phone to the flight crew. “Boarding pass,” he said, extending a hand. Scanning it with the satisfying beep, he handed it back, and I shoved off too fast, running into the closed and locked door to the gangway. I pressed it again, and it gave as the attendant hit the button behind his desk. Squeezing through the opening gap, I launched into stride again and rounded the corner, thundering along the suspended passageway, just to see the lead flight attendant apparently reaching out to close the door. Hearing and seeing me, he stepped back, and I ducked into the aircraft, only slowing once inside.
“Thank you,” I said breathlessly to the row of attendants whom I had nearly bowled over.
As I walked calmly down the aisle, the voice of the lead attendant came over the intercom: “Boarding complete.”