Saturday, August 17, 2013

(Almost) Stranded in Seattle

This is the story of 34-weeks-pregnant me trying to fly from Seattle to Dubai (home).

I can't promise that the telling of this story will be entirely coherent. The experience of trying to board that plane was one of the most stressful of my life! I'll do my best to make this clear but also succinct. Actually, there's no way this will be succinct. It should probably be two or three parts but I don't have the emotional fortitude to live through it over several days, so here it is, all at once. I'm basically sorting through this experience even as I write it.

As you may recall, I ended up having my home doctor in Sharjah fill out the required Emirates Fit to Fly certificate (obtained on their website). After a phone conversation about my condition and how I was feeling, she completed the certificate, emailed it to me, and I printed it out. It looked exactly the same (except for the issue date) as the certificate I had on the way from DXB to SEA. I had had no problems presenting that same certificate format at the airport in Dubai in July. Emirates Airlines employees had asked to see it three times (at the check-in desk, at the gate, and as I boarded the plane itself), but at no time did it raise even a single eyebrow. It was business as usual in July in Dubai.

I'm just trying to set the stage for my expectations regarding presenting the certificate yesterday in Seattle. I knew there was plenty of flak that could be given, but I wasn't sure which direction it would come from, and I did not fully consider the possibility that I would be denied boarding altogether. After all, I was in full compliance with the guidelines stated on Emirates' own website.

The trouble started at the check-in desk. The head clerk (I'll call her Angie) took one look at me and gave a huge sigh. Seriously. I think she had already had a busy day and was not looking forward to the additional hassle (me) that had just showed up in her line. She took the certificate from me and said she'd be back in 10 minutes - apparently, she had to present it to someone else to have it approved. I wasn't worried at all at this point. In the meantime, we got our bags checked and our boarding passes printed out.

Angie came back and did two things that made my heart sink: she told the luggage clerk to mark our bags as standby and not put them on the conveyor, and then she pulled me aside, away from Jeremy and the girls, to talk to me (my mom and dad, thankfully, were also at the airport to make sure all went well). Angie told me she couldn't let me on the plane because my doctor's note was not printed on letterhead. (She also mentioned the smaller issue of the doctor's stamp/seal not showing up when she copied the note. I wasn't really concerned about that because you can always change the darkness/intensity settings on a copier.)

Already, at almost the first hurdle, I faced a choice. Instinctively, I sensed it was an important one. I knew I was right, meaning I knew that I was using Emirates' own form, according to their own policy, as stated and obtained on their own website, as I had done on the DXB-SEA flight. But I felt that I needed to be very careful in how I said this to Angie, because I realized I needed an advocate at this point, not an adversary (and hooboy, how this ended up to be true!). So as nonconfrontationally as possible, I offered to show Angie where I got the form. Thankfully, she was very welcoming of that suggestion. She walked me back to the Emirates office behind the check-in desk and, on an employee computer, I showed her the policy and the form.

This seemed to help, though quite a bit more time passed before she re-issued our boarding passes (they had been taken away at one point - I eventually lost count of how many times that happened) and sent us to the gate. She said someone at the gate would need to confirm my Fit to Fly certificate, but at least we were making some progress.

We rushed through security (talking our way into the Premium line because time was running out) and to the gate. I thought some dude would be there to do a quick once-over on the note and we'd be free to board. Instead, we waited and waited and waited as everybody else boarded the plane and Angie (my BFF from the check-in counter) kept tabs on what was going on.

A bit more about Angie: I'll save the technical details for the letter I'm going to write to Emirates Airlines, but my impression was that even though there were half a dozen agents at the gate, Angie was the only one qualified (?) or authorized (?) or willing (?) to deal with me and a great many other last-minute problems that were presenting themselves at the boarding area. There were double-booked seats and people not showing up who should have, and people showing up who shouldn't have, and it seemed at times that Angie was the only one dealing with any of it. Angie seemed to realize this, too, and we witnessed a few tense moments between Emirates gate agents.

For the four of us, of course it was beyond stressful to just be sitting there, waiting to be told our fate, as the gate area emptied of passengers. Several times, Angie left and came back. As I recall, she was conferring with the airplane's purser about my condition. Finally, she told us that I would not be allowed to board. (This was the second of many times that I would hear this, the first time being at the check-in desk.)

Jeremy and I decided quickly to at least put him and the girls on the plane. We said a quick, uncertain goodbye (much like the one we'd given my parents at the security line), and they got on the plane without me while Angie went into the system to have their bags put on the plane and my bags pulled aside. My heart just about broke. I had thought I was stressed before, but I had to work very hard at this point to remain calm and collected and the picture of Fit-to-Fly-ness.

The purser himself eventually came out to talk to me and told me again that I wouldn't be allowed to board. He said it was a very long flight, and I was very pregnant, and they were still uncomfortable with my note not being on the doctor's letterhead. We went back and forth a few times and I remember saying to him, "my family is on that plane. My home is in Dubai. Please let me go home." He left again but things seemed very hopeless.

Left by myself, I had a few quiet moments to reflect/freak THE HECK out about what was happening. Whereas before, our worst-case scenario seemed to be that I would get on the flight the next day at the latest, realization was slowly dawning on me that these people did not want me on that flight, period, ever. Allow me to walk you through the implications of that happening: I would have to give birth away from home, without my husband and kids near me, and then sit and wait for travel documents to come through, which could take months. Not a happy prospect, especially since it was unplanned. Not at all.

Angie showed up again, but to my dismay, it was to answer some radio calls about the plane being "complete" - which she confirmed, without looking me in the eye - and that they could close the doors and luggage hold. She told me to have a seat over in the gate area but I said no, I'm standing right here (basically right in front of the boarding bridge walk thing) because I'm getting on that plane. One of the other agents nearby kind of gasped and said she was so impressed with my positive attitude. I guess she doesn't know desperation when she hears it! It was very clear to me that I was not getting on that plane unless I made it happen, and I wasn't even sure that was in my power.

It was at this time that I thanked God I had made a friend of Angie and not an enemy, way back when at the check-in counter. There were six (or so) agents at the gate. Five of them were half-heartedly wishing me luck and shooting me sympathetic but helpless smiles. So I turned to Angie and pleaded, "please, go fight for me. My family is on that plane, my home is in Dubai. Please help me get home." Bless her heart forever, she said OK, and turned immediately and ran - ran! - back on the plane.

A short time later, the head flight attendant (not the purser, but a woman wearing a higher-level stewardess outfit) and the captain of the plane himself (!) came out to talk with me. The captain told me he could not let me board. The flight attendant told me she could not let me board. Very kindly, the captain explained that this was a 14.5-hour flight, with much of the flying time being over the North Pole, etc. He said that the decision to not let me board was for my safety. The flight attendant concurred, and added that my certificate was from a doctor in Sharjah, which concerned her because it meant that I had not been examined in person (this was the difficulty I had anticipated but this was the only time it came up, and only briefly). Without going into all my failures trying to see an OB in the US, I told her confidently that the OB in Sharjah was my personal doctor who had seen me throughout the pregnancy, and that I had discussed my condition with her over the phone. Both the flight attendant and the captain seemed to be relenting ever so slightly as I told them more details. The flight attendant asked me a few questions about my previous labors, which I answered (I have no history of pre-term labor; in fact, Magdalena was born on her due date).

I added that I had all the paperwork Emirates required and that I was well within Emirates' guidelines for flying while pregnant. I asked them what I could do to give them more confidence that I was fit to fly. I offered to see an airport doctor. I offered to run a lap around the gate area, which made them laugh and actually (and oddly) seemed to improve my case's standing with them. Also, since they hadn't heard it before, I said again that my family was on that plane and my home was in Dubai and could they please help me go home?

At last, at last, I heard my first kind-of-yes from someone in charge, and it was the only one I would get. The captain said again that he was just trying to protect my safety. The flight attendant agreed. Then she kind of nodded her head and said I could board.

In a flash, even before I could really understand what was going on, I had my boarding pass handed back to me and I was walking down the plane walkway with the captain and head flight attendant behind me. I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. In 10 seconds, I had gone from being told "no" by every single person with any kind of authority, to walking on the plane to join my family and go home. It was 6pm, 15 minutes after the scheduled departure of 5.45pm.

I had not seen Angie since I had begged her to go fight for me, and I didn't see her after I boarded because the flight took off almost immediately. I can't be sure that her efforts helped me, but I believe they did. She did for me what I could not do for myself, which was present my case to the purser and captain - repeatedly.

Two strange things: First, I cannot for the life of me recall where in the timeline this fell except that it was after Jeremy and the girls got on the plane, but at some point the purser or captain (a male, anyway) radioed to the gate and asked what my nationality was. They told him I was from the US. I have no idea if that helped or hindered my cause. Anyone want to speculate? Second, once I got on the plane (and oh what a sweet reunion it was to see Jeremy and the girls again, after realizing that if things continued on a certain trajectory I might not see them for months!), the flight attendants were so conscientious of my care. One in particular took me under her wing for the whole flight and made sure I had plenty of water and anything else I needed. It was a complete reversal of the pre-airplane attitude of Emirates, which was that I was practically anathema to them.

In conclusion: I don't often show an overtly spiritual side on my blog because that is just not how I roll. But I want to let you all know that I absolutely felt the influence of others' prayers on my behalf. I don't know how clear all of the above story is, but you should be able to decipher that I was told many times that I could not get on that plane...but I got on that plane. It shouldn't have happened, but it did. I believe this was a direct answer to the prayers of my parents, Jeremy, both girls, and myself. I am so thankful to God that he helped our family stay together and come home together.

Because I have never, EVER been so happy to be home! And with all our bags, can you believe it? Our luggage was put on the flight and pulled from the flight so many times it made my head spin. Same with our boarding passes. I was sure something would go astray.

I said jokingly at the end of my post about doctors' notes that this should be a lesson to us to never leave home while pregnant again. I am considering getting serious about that sentiment, but modifying it to be to never count on boarding an international flight while 30+ weeks pregnant. The end.


Nancy said...

Oh, wow! What a whirlwind. I'm so glad you're all home!

Shannan Deshazer said...

Now THAT is a great story and glad you told it while it was still so fresh in your mind.

Now since you invited speculation on your experience, I will offer mine. My mom is a flight attendant and has been for almost 30 years. The airline employees are so beaten down by policy and people taking advantage of the system on a daily basis that they have lost the ability to commiserate and empathize - seriously. The stories my mom tells me! They truly were afraid for your health and if you were to have that baby on the plane and with no where to land in case of emergency that airline would have been so liable. They were protecting themselves AND you. I'm so glad that everything turned out okay but I do understand the hesitancy of the airline.

Craig said...

Wow! Your mother and I were sitting on pins and needles all during that time at the terminal waiting to hear--expecting to hear--that you were on board. And we both said a quiet prayer for you. We were so relieved to get the call you were on board, and are so thankful.

Aimee said...

Good to hear you are home safe and sound! What a stressful experience! I flew at 32 weeks on Austrian Air and was never even questioned, and I was BIG. Well, I am glad you didn't prove them right and go into labor during the flight! The flight attendants were giving you water to keep you from getting dehydrated possibly triggering pre-term labor. They figured if they kept you happy and comfortable you would be good. As far as whether it was helpful or a hindrance that you were a US citizen, I am guessing it was a bit of a hindrance because in their minds you were "home." Can't wait to hear more once you are settled.

Jessie said...


elliespen said...

Oh, gosh. So glad it ended happily—with your luggage intact, no less! Miracles really do happen, and thank goodness for promptings.

Bridget said...

I totally understand it, too! But it was disheartening to face so much resistance since I was in full compliance with the airline's policy. If they don't want people flying at 34 weeks on a 14.5-hour flight, they need to change their policy to say so. I would never have risked being stranded in the US like that had I known what an ordeal it would be to come home.

Sarah Familia said...

Ooh, nightmare, horrible nightmare, but I'm so glad it had a happy ending! (Because a 14.5 hour flight when you are 34 weeks pregnant is ordeal enough.)

Hurrah for planning ahead, strategizing, and divine intervention (and Angie).

Jeremy Palmer said...

Bridget, it wasn't a quick decision to get me and the girls on the plane. In fact, I refused to leave Bridget when she and the flight attendant both suggested that I take the girls and board. I said "I want to board with my wife." Finally, after repeated commands from Bridget, I relented and boarded with the girls. This was probably a good thing since Bridget repeated "My family is already on the plane and my home is in Dubai."

Ali said...

I HAD to read this Bridget and I can relate, though I flew both away and torward my home at the time. I was lucky that my doctor in Sharjah was also the official doctor for the airline and made sure to get me on a plane with a doctor on board. We also had issue with documentation and was lucky to resolve it. I gave birth a week and a bit later and felt at any time I would not be allowed on. Here is my spiritual take on it, the Lord cares for you and your child. He will always watch out for you at those precious times. He is closer to you then than at many other times. He will always alleviate what could have been a worse situation. For you, that meant flying with your family to your home. For me, it meant flying away from them. If it was meant to be that you stayed, you could have done it because he would have enabled it. Each experience is a lesson in miracles, the power of prayer and the love of God.

Crys said...

I am so glad you got home! Praise be to God and to Angie!

Katie said...

Wow. How scary. I'm glad you made it home!!

mle said...

Oh man Bridget, so very glad you made it home. I knew we should of got a letter from my ER dr neighbor friend! Yikes!! After all that stress I think I would of gone into labor. Should I send Angie some cookies for you? 😉

Bridget said...

I know! By trying to protect me so much from going into labor on the plane...they almost put me into labor on the plane from the stress.

Bridget said...

I thought of you as I was writing this post. I know our situations were different and I should have emphasized that the part about being stranded in the US for the rest of this pregnancy and the birth was so traumatic to consider because it would have been completely unplanned. If you flew after 36 weeks, did you have to fill out that extra jumbo paperwork that is on Emirates' website? We'll have to talk soon. :)

Allie said...

You handled it well. When I have a problem I try to be as nice as I can to the person that's just doing their job. I had a nightmare of an experience recently with our TV, internet, and landline phone. I was at their mercy. I still don't have a TV and our internet connection is spotty but it will be fixed by September hopefully. I'm glad you finally got to board the plane! Allie

Hannah said...

Congratulations on getting home!

Jen said...

I honestly cannot comprehend this brand of stress. Amazing.

My speculation about why they asked your nationality:
1. If you weren't a US Citizen, there might be immigration ramifications, an expired visa, etc, that required you to leave the United States that very day.
2. It may have been a crafty way of ascertaining if there was any way, whatsoever, that you could accuse them of some sort of racial discrimination.
3. If you were Emerati, maybe they would have given you some sort of preference (for reasons I can't think of at the moment)?

And well done on having the presence of mind to even KNOW that you had to make Angie your friend. It seems to me like you made all of the right decisions.

Also, I would probably file this under "D" for "Divine Intervention."

Cait said...

This reminds me of the time I almost missed my flight to Madison (not as dramatic, obviously) when Lulah was a baby and I was visiting and I really think if there is a God (he she they) were telling those angel airline reps to wait for me to come get on the plane (I was realllllly late getting to th airport, now we arrive at least two hours before). This story is definitely filed under "crazy and hope to not repeat" and I will keep it in mind as a situation not worth mimicking (though the surprising your parents was awesome!!)

Liz Johnson said...

I am just so incredibly impressed. I had all sorts of thoughts about the potential liability/litigation when I read this the other day (on my phone, which refuses to let me comment for whatever reason), but they're gone. And now I'm just left feeling so grateful that you got on that plane.

I admit that I sometimes secretly wish a woman would go into labor on a plane and have a perfectly normal, uncomplicated delivery, just to show people that labor isn't as scary as it seems on TV. Also so that I could get my doula on - I'm never terribly useful in an emergency situation, so it would be fun to finally be of some use that way. :)


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