Posted by: thewhitesintokyo | March 11, 2009

Our Trip to the Ooooooohklahoma & Texas

You’d think taking a trip to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and Waco, Texas with a bunch of high school boys might be uneventful, but our trip with the Varsity Ensemble was full of bizarre travel experiences making the week unforgettable for the boys and the chaperons.

On the plus side, the boys sang exceptionally well at the ACDA Convention (American Choral Directors Association). Actually, Hal Leonard publishing is now flying several people to Tokyo this week to make a sort of educational film about the choir and their unique approach to choral singing! Randy Stenson, the group’s director (from Minnesota, woot woot), incorporates physical movement into every note that the boys sing. The result is a beautiful, mature, cohesive sound, and a performance that is much more visually interesting than many choirs in the Lutheran tradition who simply stand rigidly with their hands at their sides. On the choral side, this was a very successful week for Mr. Stenson and for the boys in the choir.

Now for the ugly side of airline travel…

When we first arrived at the Delta counter in Tokyo’s Narita Airport, we were told that our second connecting leg to OK City had been canceled because Atlanta’s airport was snowed in. We could still land in Atlanta, but would have to stay there one day. Luckily, we had only planned sightseeing and rehearsals that first day, so we didn’t miss anything too important, like a concert or singing clinic.

We worked with the Delta agents to find another solution, and settled on staying in Atlanta overnight and then flying the following evening to Austin, Texas, where we would meet three of the chaperons with our rental vans (who themselves flew out earlier on 2 different flights to OK City to pick the vans up because there were none in Austin).

Confused yet? We’re only just beginning.

Even the simple transition of getting from the Atlanta airport to our nearby hotel proved difficult. Since the boys were expecting 70+ degree weather in Texas and Oklahoma, none of us were prepared for the frigid snow and wind of Atlanta. In clothing totally inadequate for the conditions, the boys waited over an hour outside for the hotel shuttle to come pick us up. At that point, Rachael and I (the only adults with the group) realized that the boys needed to get inside or they could get sick, ruining the whole tour and therefore the point of our trip. So, I found two opportunistic gentlemen at the airport and struck a deal to use their private airport shuttles (that were not being used) to take us a few miles to our hotel. A good deal on both sides: They made a quick buck and we got out of the cold and to our warm hotel for $2 a head.

Once we arrived at the hotel, things went mostly as planned for the week. The Varsity Ensemble sang at Baylor University for a successful joint concert with their men’s choir. The following day, Mr. Stenson gave a clinic on his movement techniques with the university’s mixed choirs and director, many of whom will become music teachers in the near future. We took a campus tour, which was surprisingly impressive, and the boys got a taste of the American university experience that is between one and three years away for many of them.

Next, we traveled in our three white vans to OK City to prepare for the ACDA convention performances. We attended one of the convention concerts and heard some mind-bendingly good choral music. Rachael and I had a blast, to say the least. Most of our “free” time was spent shuttling the boys back and forth a dozen times from the hotel to a nearby mall for food or “exotic” shopping at Abercrombie, Pacific Sunwear or Hollister. These trendy Tokyo guys sure love their shopping.

The week came to a big close with the midnight announcement of the Hal Leonard video and the numerous praises from choral directors and publishers at the convention. Since our flight left at 5:30am the following morning, most of the boys (and Rachael) didn’t even try to sleep.

By 3:30am, the boys were assembling downstairs, and we set off for the airport. When we called the airline and asked when we should arrive to check in, they informed us that the airport didn’t even open until 4:30am, so no earlier than that. Although we had arrived MUCH earlier for our Tokyo leg of the flight, we trusted their recommendation. That was our first mistake.

Upon arriving, Delta had only ONE gate agent that was able to check us in. And because of the weather mix up and the Tokyo Delta employees’ poor handling of the tickets, each ticket had to be manually re-entered into the system, rather than checking in the entire bunch of 30 as one group. This took between 5 and 15 minutes per ticket, and with the one agent (yes, agent, singular) there to check us in and no supervisor around to help (until 6:00am), only 11 boys and 4 adults got checked in for the flight. Those students and two adults boarded the plane while Rachael and I tried to deal with a hostile, rude, and arrogant gate agent who would neither hold the plane for the second half of our group or explain what the problem was (we were on opposite sides of the security checkpoint and couldn’t contact the rest of the group).

Judging that nobody had come through security in about 20 minutes, we decided not to board the plane and walked back through security to the gate. While we were greeted with applause from the guys in our group for not getting on the flight and leaving them behind, this quickly became a very frustrating and difficult situation. The other 13 already on board went ahead without us.

For the next hour, the gate agents (and their supervisor who eventually arrived) tried to find a way to get us home. This was important for two reasons:
1.) We had already gone through a lot, so leaving 17 of us behind was just not acceptable.
2.) Second, the boys (and their accompanist, Mrs. Stenson) had to be back on Monday for an International Honor Choir rehearsal with Henry Leck.

Finally, using my laptop and 20 minutes of free wi-fi, I found the only remaining flight from the U.S. to Tokyo that day that had more than a handful of open seats. There were three problems with this flight:
1.) It was an American Airlines flight, so we’d have to go through some “higher-ups” to get all 17 of us approved for it.
2.) The flight was from Dallas, not Oklahoma City (where we were at the time).
3.) It was already 7:30am, and the flight left from Dallas at noon.

Try as he might, the lead agent at the Delta counter could not find enough spots on flights to Dallas that morning to get us there in time for the flight. He gave up on the option. Then someone had the bright idea of driving to Dallas. It was a three and a half hour drive, and we had four hours to get there. Was it within the realm of possibility? Yes. So, we went “all in.”

Rachael ran downstairs and rented two minivans and a small car, we handed a list of the 17 remaining people to the lead agent with the hope (not even assured yet from the higher ups) that he could get all of us on that flight, and we left Oklahoma City for Dallas.

Driving quickly (ahem), we watched the GPS slowly update our arrival time to earlier and earlier times. By the time we pulled up to the airport, we had shaved 26 minutes off the original estimated time and given ourselves just enough time (15-20 min) to check-in before they began boarding. We ran in and began checking the boys in. For the first time in our entire trip, we could actually check ourselves in at the self-service kiosks. It felt wonderful.

That feeling quickly dissipated when three boys’ tickets were not found, and we were told they wouldn’t be getting on the flight. I can’t explain the despondent looks on their faces, but needless to say, these boys had been through a lot and were devastated to be left behind. Again, we were fortunate in that one teacher also didn’t make it on the flight. So, he stayed with them, and the rest of us boarded the plane to return home.

If we’d had only 15-20 more minutes, we would have been able to go to the Delta counter and have them transfer the remaining four names, but that was just plain impossible.

And in a nutshell, that was our trip.

But wait, there’s more! Since Rachael and I checked in for the original flight and didn’t board, our bags were sent to Atlanta and didn’t arrive at our apartment for three days (after many phone calls with the airline).

AND here’s the best part. I just received an email from Delta saying that they are sorry for what happened…and sorry that they can do NOTHING about it. No reimbursements, no apology awards, NOTHING.

Needless to say, we will not be flying Delta again, and we highly advise anyone else from doing so. What a week!



  1. That sounds like it was a whole mess of fun. Sorry my industry is such a mess sometimes!

  2. Yes, fun is definitely the word I’d use to describe it all.

    It was a mess, but what can you do? We’re heading out to Thailand in a couple days with another group…let’s hope it goes better eh?

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