Wednesday, June 28, 2006

A rather extraordinary flight

My most recent flight certainly wasn't the first flight that looked like a weird story. For example, one of the previous flights from 2000 - in which Evgenij Vitchev has played an important role of a driver of a broken car - was published on "The Invisible Dog", a well-known Czech private internet daily.

However, the flight from Boston to Prague was probably the first flight of mine that could be a subject of a book or a movie. ;-) Such a movie would not be quite as dramatic as United 93 but it would not be too different either.

Boring introduction: trying to plan a flight in advance

Last summer, I had to buy a very speedy round trip ticket Prague-Boston-Prague. As you can see, the Prague International Airport remains my the location of my aviatic headquarters, because of immigration restrictions. The date and time of the flight back to Prague had to be changed 5 times, as you will see.

What I needed was late June. Originally, they could only reserve May 8th because of certain limitations. The date was later changed to May 25th after I bought the ticket in August 2005. Much later, one month ago, I spent two days - by telephone calls with Continental Airlines and by a personal visit to the Logan International Airport in Boston - by changing the May 25th to June 27th. That was the second change.

The rough plan of the flights can't be changed. My flights in both directions were Prague-Frankfurt-Newark-Boston and back through the same cities.

While I was at Logan in May 2006, the woman scheduled the final flight from Frankfurt to Prague to June 27th, too - about 12 hours before I arrive in Prague. That plan looked slightly acausal, so I asked her to change the last flight of the sequence to June 28th, and she did so. That was the third change, neither of which I really needed.

I was hoping that this had to be the end of the useless difficulties, and the only painful thing expecting me were the 3 parts of the long trip. However, one week later, I noticed that the departure from Frankfurt was 9:30 am. The arrival to Frankfurt was 9:30 am, too. The only reasonable approach to that newly discovered problem was to ignore it: the experience has made it clear that a further communication with the Continental Airlines leads to no progress whatsoever. So I decided that I would simply fly as far as I could, which probably meant to Frankfurt, and then I was planning to fight for another flight.

Yesterday, on June 27th, the Gentleman at the ticket counter in Boston agreed that I was going to miss the 6/28 9:30 am flight from Frankfurt to Prague, and he promised me a flight at 7 pm instead - something that would make the total length of the flights close to 24 hours. If you count, this was the fourth change of the plan. The fifth change will be one of the punch lines of the story that has not yet started. ;-)

The flight from Boston to Newark was straightforward. It was delayed by two hours because of a "ground stop" and several other extraordinary measures. I spent many hours at Logan and one my fun activities was to shoot various people with my camcorder. How many of you are looking around who are the most interesting people around and what are they doing when you wait for an airplane? The passengers that attract most of my attention in 95 percent of cases are young representatives of the politically correct sex.

Before the flight to Newark, it was actually a 10-year old boy who won the contest because he was an interestingly alive, curious, and emotional kid - frankly speaking, something similar to how I could have imagined myself at his age. It accidentally occurred that he, together with his older brother, was sitting next to me in the plane. It turned out they were from Brazil, even though I originally thought that they were either Scandinavian or Irish, and the language they were speaking to each other had to be Portuguese but I just couldn't tell. But of course, these kids can speak several tongues and they are native speakers in all of them.

The selection from Newark to Frankfurt was more diverse. It fitted the usual 95 percent template and I have recorded two winners on the videotape. On the plane, I was sitting next to a tall German left-wing inorganic chemist from the University of Michigan (and originally from Cologne) who designs materials for the linings of the power plants, among other things. He complained that the airplanes are produced for dwarves and explained me that he did not like America (except as a place for a job) because the country did not care about the environment and because of similar issues. You can guess whether your humble correspondent agreed with most of his points. But it was an entertaining and insightful conversation - somewhat analogous to what we used to talk about with Jochen Brocks. I also told him some things about sociology of high-energy physics, the character of the difficulties separating us from thermonuclear energy, and other things.

Of course, I learned many useful things, too. For example, Detroit is becoming a dead city, he argued, where the crime rate exceeds the crime rate of all other areas in the U.S. The people are afraid to live there and the skyscrapers are vacant. I will have to check these surprisingly sounding assertions.

He also confirmed my hypothesis that it could be fun for me to try to see the city of Frankfurt. I was ready to find the "local" railway station and spend a few hours in Frankfurt. Most of the city had to be destroyed during the Second World War, but there are still things to look at. But I was not really dreaming about the visit because it was just not a right time for such tourism.

The real story is getting started right now.

As explained above, I was expected to wait in Frankfurt for 10 hours. This is much like the 50 years that some people propose as a reasonable estimate for a truly significant progress in string theory in the future. But sometimes, things can become extremely dynamical in a very short period of time.

When you're sometimes doing certain things that are far from routine, you can get stuck in a quagmire of problems. You start to see that one problem is likely to create 2.6 new problems which is close to or even above the critical mass.

Whatever you do, these problems create newer problems, and the total time that you need to solve all of them may become obviously divergent. Such a general description can apply to most kinds of bureaucracy, problems with overly convoluted flights, as well as the scientific research or the public defense of important ideas. You know that things are sometimes bad, and whether or not you do something, they will become even worse, reduce the optimism, constructive activity, and the mutual understanding, increase the amount of ignorants who publish their silly opinions in the Wall Street Journal, which leads to another and bigger explosion of irrationality, and so on. The similarity with a nuclear bomb is clear.

This situation is analogous to a perturbative expansion in the strongly coupled regime; see Chapter 12 of Brian Greene's "The Elegant Universe" for other analogies. ;-)

On the other hand, things can sometimes become extremely convergent. You see that every new problem that occurs is just a small perturbation on the previous problem, and you know very well that when you sum up all the time that is needed to solve all of these problems, you obtain a finite number. Even if a subproblem splits into two, you know that it won't invalidate the convergence properties. In the case of convoluted flights, you actually need the result not only to be a finite number but a number that is smaller than the time until the departure of the plane that you
want to catch.

This was exactly what happened in Frankfurt.

After I picked my luggage in Frankfurt, I went to the Continental ticket counters, but instead of the E area, I originally went to the D area. Meanwhile I noticed that my 9:30 am flight to Prague - with Czech Airlines and Continental Airlines - was delayed by one hour. One hour is a lot but it was not enough. The plane was just leaving. I could not catch it. However, I noticed that there was a flight of Lufthansa at 12:15 pm. That would be great to get this one.

Eventually I arrived to a Continental ticket counter. Unlike all other open counters, there were no people waiting in line there at all. After the first two sentences of mine explaining my situation to the women, she said something like "Vy musíte by Èechún" which means "You must be Czech" in Slovak language. Not only her knowledge of many languages was completely authentic but she could recognize that my accent was neither Hungarian - as most people who offer their opinion say - nor Slovak (which is her country): it was Czech. Some people, especially women, have these abilities that I will never fully comprehend because I sometimes fail to distinguish even British English from American English.

I semi-jokingly told her that it could be a good idea to switch me to their bitter competition, Lufthansa, and she said that such things don't work. After she exchanged several German sentences with her colleague, I was told "Yes, you have the 12:15 pm flight with Lufthansa". It was 11:16 am.

As you can see, the Czechoslovak friendship turned out to be a critical ingredient in this story.

These flights to Prague are almost never delayed, so I literally had 59 minutes left. The tasks for these 59 minutes became obvious: I had to find the airport train to go from terminal E to terminal A; then I had to wait in a long line and to check in my luggage (that I simply could not afford to send directly to Prague because of the uncertainty about the flights). Then I had to go to the terminal B. At terminal B, you must wait in two lines for two independent security checks and walk for half a mile or one mile. When you get to the gate B55, you must negotiate with the agent and ask her to assign you a seat because I did not yet have a seat in the airplane.

Of course, you didn't really have 59 minutes because you must be in the airplane 15 minutes before the departure or so. In fact, the boarding starts 35 minutes before the departure, so what I had was actually 24 minutes. Is it possible?

The previous mistake I did when I went to the D area instead of the E area to find the Continental ticket counter turned out to be a virtue because I could abruptly find the two elevators and get to the airport train real fast. It was clear that another error means the end of the story. The terminal A was rather long and I could not afford to lose additional time. My suitcase was too heavy and unstable to run. Fortunately, there was an electric vehicle nearby. I could not jump on it but I attached my heavy suitcase (with wheels) to that vehicle and I was running next to it, around 10 miles per hour, which saved me about 1 or 2 minutes.

When I got to the ticket counters of Lufthansa - between A55 and A200 or so - there was a rather long line of people that could easily be quantified as a one-hour line. It was absolutely clear what would happen if I decided to wait. What is the lesson? Of course, I could not wait. Following the deep philosophy that equality is a stupidity, I used the "head & shoulders" approach and asked the guy who controls the line to make an exception for me because my flight was departing in 45 minutes or so. He sent me to the end of the line.

I still knew what it means to go to the end of the line. ;-) So I explained my situation to another uniformed officer who was standing nearby. He told me that I might be right but I should ask the first guy. I had already done so, but I explained the second guy that the first guy did not quite understand the situation and he must be explained by the second guy what's going on. Of course, eventually it worked and I spent about 2 minutes in that line, receiving a priority treatment.

It is not a problem for a bright reader to add another episode about long corridors.

When I got to the first security check of the terminal B, it was relatively fast. I did not have to take my shoes off - but of course, I always had to remove my laptop and the camcorder from the carry-on luggage. The second security check, a mile further, was more difficult, and there was another long line of people that I could not circumvent. One of the guys in front of me had 4 clocks on his arms and he was shocked that the clocks should be screened together with the suitcases. Another guy was stunned that his laptop had to be removed from his carefully locked suitcase, and so on.

But all these things have worked in some miraculous way, after all. The boarding started at 11:40 am and I was at the gate at 11:41 am. The last task was to be assigned a seat number. Unfortunately the woman told me to wait for 5 minutes. She had about 6 telephone calls that she considered more important, and the 5 minutes became 18 minutes, but eventually she called Herr Motl and gave me 7C.

Everything was fine. At 12:10 pm I joined the official bus that took us to the aircraft in another very different part of the large airport, and the aircraft took off at 12:27 pm, only 12 minutes after the official time of departure. In Prague, my
luggage was actually the 4th one that appeared which was really fast and the passport control was even faster. We arrived at the new Terminal 2 in Prague which was extremely clean - including the restrooms that have impressed some of my American neighbors from the flight (I don't know whether they also tried the restroom in Terminal 1 which was dirty and stinky). The Terminal 2 still looked rather empty; its capacity is not yet used efficiently, I guess.

The punch line is that when things suddenly start to fit together, the progress can become real fast. It's a matter of time when the critics of string theory will be undeniable identified as jokes. Maybe they should already start to look for their hideout. And that's the memo.


  1. Hello Lumo!
    How are you?
    I was interested in your article, about your trip, especially trip to Prague.
    You know next summer I would like to visit this wonderful city. Do you have some pictures of it?
    Can you tell something about weather in Prague? Is there hot in summer or cold? What kind of people there, something about Prague hotels which one is the best? Or in general have you liked it?
    So I would be very happy if you answer to me.

  2. Everyone would agree that Prague is simply magnificent and magical every season. Well, it so happened I visited Prague in the summer, great weather, blue skies, sunshine and panoramic view of Prague is just breathtaking! In the heat of the summer you can relish a frosty glass of Czech beer in some Prague little pubs along the river or cocktails in cafes at the square. Stop at stone churches to cool off, listen to live jazz band at the famous Charles Bridge, stroll through the winding alleys of the Old Town Square, enjoy the panoramic view of Prague Castle from terraces of hilltops, enjoy, the world is yours!