Update: I received a call from Stephania Meyer at American Airlines. She agreed that a muffin is not a "personal item" and that the gate agent was aggressive where a little bit of assistance would have been nice. She also offered the helpful information that Farah's diaper bag should not have counted as a "personal item" either, which means that even WITH my muffin, we were never above the item limit.
She asked how she might help "make this right" and I asked for two things: an apology, and an assurance that the gate agent in question will be taught that parents loaded down with parent-stuff are customers, not problems. She provided both. Thanks for all the support today. And I am sorry that so many of you empathize so completely.
I admit we looked a bit like pack mules heading toward the tarmac at Miami International, unwittingly on our way to becoming the latest example of how mixing children and airplanes can make otherwise rational people very cranky.
I was wheeling my worn and trusty carry-on, while also holding my purse, a bag with a muffin I'd bought at the Starbucks next to the gate, and the doll-size backpack that belonged to 2-year-old Zadie, who, in turn, belongs to my colleague, Farah.
Farah, meanwhile, was pushing Zadie's stroller, holding the little girl by the hand, digging their boarding passes out of her own purse, hoisting a logo'd tote bag from the work conference we had just attended, and all but carrying an insulated juice box cooler in her teeth while juggling the rest.
We looked like we needed help. Not the threat of arrest.
"You'll have to check that," the American Airlines gate attendant snapped at me, pointing to the cartoony backpack that I was holding for Zadie. "You have more than two items."
No, I told her, there were three of us, and between us we had six.
Nuh uh, she said. Tote bag, juice cooler, two purses, backpack, rolling carry-on and ... my banana-nut muffin in its bag. That makes seven. And she knotted a checked baggage tag around my suitcase and told me to leave it where it was.
A lot blurred together after that. I showed her how nicely my muffin fit in my purse. Farah showed her that her purse and juice box carrier fit nicely in her tote bag, which is where they were when we'd arrived at the airport, but had come unpacked trying to entertain Zadie in the waiting area. I sent Farah and Zadie onto the plane, and stayed behind to get my laptop out of my carry-on. (The only time I have ever had a suitcase lost by an airline was when it was gate-checked, which is why I was reluctant to do so this time, and I certainly wasn't leaving my computer behind.)
That's when things got really bizarre.
"You can't touch your suitcase -- it has been checked," the attendant shouted when I unzipped the compartment that held my laptop.
By "checked," of course, she meant she had put a tag on it a moment earlier. And if I kept breaking security rules, she told me, she would have to call the police.
"So is that why I can't take this suitcase onto the plane even though I showed you that I only have two items?" I asked.
"Yes," she said. "The bag has been checked and you cannot touch a checked bag."
"You can't just remove the tag and let me take the darn bag on the plane?" I asked. (Ya know, because a) it would be the right thing to do for a customer b) as it happens I paid a ridiculous extra fee so that I could have "priority boarding" which is advertised as a way to ensure that there is enough overhead luggage space when you take your seat -- space for the bag that I was not being permitted to bring?)
Her answer -- "I'll make a deal with you. You can take the tag off, but if you get on the plane and there's no overhead space left, then they will bring your bag out and it will not make this flight," she said. I haven't been dared like that since a slumber party in seventh grade.
With that it became clear that this was never about the too-many-item-rule (after all, we were within those limits from the start, unless you seriously count a Starbucks muffin bag to be a personal item) nor the "checked"-luggage-can't-be-unchecked fiction (since she had just offered to uncheck it). It was about the steady increase in hostility toward families at airports. Had I walked through with my suitcase, purse and muffin on my own, I am certain I would have been treated like I always am -- a frequent business flyer who is toting her own food because what is served on the plane is either unpalatable or nonexistent.
But I was with a 2-year-old, and a mother who looked a bit like a Sherpa. The irony, of course, is that this particular mother is the managing editor of the Huffington Post Parents section, and I am its senior columnist. Between the two of us, we bring you most of the articles you read here lately about how flight crews, TSA officers, and passengers are becoming downright hostile to traveling families.
Now we have a story of our own.
I didn't take the gate attendant's deal. Nearly everyone had boarded the plane by then, and I was pretty sure there would be no room in the overhead bins. I was equally sure that, when my bag failed to fit, this particular gate agent would delight in making sure it was bounced onto a later flight.
When her back was turned, though, I did snatch my laptop back and bring it with me to my seat. Where -- after the pilot gave permission, of course, because I am all about the rules -- I used it to send a tweet to @AmericanAir -- and then to write this piece.