The first odd thing is that the primary air carrier between Miami, Florida, and Meridian, Mississippi — a distinctly southeast route, if you ask me — is Northwest.

It is not a nonstop flight.

And I was actually going on from Meridian to Houston — and then back to Miami. So it was:

Miami – Memphis – Meridian – Memphis – Houston – Memphis – Miami.

I felt a little like a FedEx package: Memphis, Memphis, Memphis.

No Saturday stay-over, so the whole thing was going to be $1,050 in coach. I asked about first class — sometimes when you have a full-fare coach ticket, first class is just a little more because you’re already paying five times as much as the guy in the seat next to you — and somehow wound up with a $746 first class ticket for the whole trip.

Well, when I got to Meridian I had an exciting time (no, really) and then found at the last minute that I would not be going on to Houston after all. The reason for that part of my trip had been canceled.

When I arrived at the Northwest counter in Meridian, there were just minutes before our little DC-3 was to take off for Memphis. Its little propellers were whirring to beat the band. (OK, it was a Saab or something. But it did have propellers vaguely reminiscent of Casablanca, even if the avionics were a half century more modern.)

The desk agent did not look as if he could route me back to Miami instead of on to Houston in seven minutes, so I grabbed a Northwest schedule and read it on the plane.

We were to land in Memphis at 1:10. My Houston fight would leave at 1:55. There was a Miami flight at 1:45.

Cell phones are such wonderful things. Before you knew it, even as I was wheeling my bag along the tarmac off the DC-3 and up the stairs to the extreme far end of A-Concourse, I was connected to a Northwest reservationist.

YES there was a seat on the 1:45 to Miami! YES they could make the change!

Ah, brave new world. Ticketless travel, bags with wheels . . . the aforementioned cell phones — not to mention being able to fly in the first place.

The only catch was that I’d have to go to the ticket counter to have the fare recalculated.

“But,” I explained, clutching my cell phone as I rolled down the Concourse, “there’s no time.”

A supervisor was found. By now I had made my way from A-25 all the way to the hub of the terminal and was headed toward B-concourse. The supervisor agreed to take my extra payment over the phone.

Extra payment?

The cost of not flying to Houston, added to the cost of not flying back from Houston to Memphis — the cost, that is, of making this a simple Miami-Meridian roundtrip instead of Miami-Memphis-Meridian-Memphis-Houston-Memphis-Miami — would be an additional $796, she said.

“You are saying,” I found myself unable to resist paraphrasing, “that if you only have to fly me back to Miami right now — one flight instead of three — the cost of my first-class ticket will go up $796?”

“Yes,” she replied.

By now I was yards from the Northwest ticket counter, at the joint of Concourse A and Concourse B.

“OK, thanks,” I said, hanging up (as if cell phones ever hung anywhere — how will we ever explain “dialing” and “hanging up” to our grandchildren?).

Well, I thought, as I approached “Chip” at the counter, I can always just go to Houston and come back tomorrow. But that’s a strange way to save $796.

I handed Chip my ticket, asking to get one of those nice seats leaving for Miami in 19 minutes.

Chip said not one word. He clicked and clicked and tapped and clicked and — tap, tap, tap — he then left his post and walked … deliberately … all the way to the opposite end of the ticketing trench and then all the way back with some kind of form and a ballpoint pen. Something told me I was in Chip’s hands and should just keep my mouth shut. Chip was about twice as old as you might expect from his name; Chip seemed a wise and logical old hand; Chip was, I could see reading upside down, writing me out a refund.

With 13 minutes to go, I had a first class boarding pass to Miami (and no one in the seat next to me!) and a $155 refund. Not to mention the pretzels, peanuts and unlimited diet Pepsi that would constitute the First Class meal service on the normally-two-hour flight between Memphis and Miami.

I am usually the first one on the plane — indeed, the first one at the airport — so fast-walking down Concourse B to be the last one on board was a new experience for me. But as it turned out, I had more than enough time. There was a “very minor mechanical problem that would be fixed promptly.” After half an hour, we all got off that DC-9 and onto another just like it nearby. I didn’t mind. I was not running an hour late, as I saw it, I was running a day early — and with an empty seat next to me!

We boarded, we got our emergency instructions again (oh, so that’s how you fasten the seatbelt) and, finally, left the gate.

We taxied out, then turned around and taxied back. A faulty gauge on the instrument panel. But this problem was fixed pretty quickly (and still I was almost a full day early), and off we went without further adieu.

And this, as someone noted, is how it worked before Y2K.

Tomorrow: What the Heck Were You Doing in Mississippi?



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