[This post is reconstructed from semi-coherent posts and tweets on Facebook and Twitter. Social medial experts call it microblogging. I call it leaving a trail to remember I was there. If you want to read about the newspaper account, click here. If you forgot who or what Winston is, click here. If you want to read past installments click here.]
I arrive at the airport with no mishaps: read departure time correctly, remember to pack everything including iPhone, iPad and their accoutrements, comfort upset Patty (my real dog), remember passport (barely) and tickets, get limo on time, and hit no traffic snags. I lug my spanking new red overnight suitcase purchased to better identify my luggage in the sea of black. Medication is split between bag and purse in case something is lost. The cotton waist pouch under my clothes contains money, birth certificate, copy of passport, credit cards and other personals in case I’m mugged. I check the suitcase and watch it disappear in the bowels of the airport. Security flows relatively smoothly. I’m not selected for “advanced security clearance.” A wave of my new enhanced security chipped U.S. passport gets me everywhere I want to go. The Golden Arches beckon and I indulge in a Big Mac happy meal reasoning this is vacation time. I walk miles through the main terminal, down into the even longer funky multi-color lit people mover and into the United’s steel and glass terminal Concourse C.
The lounge holds seats for the 6 surrounding gates. It’s a very hot humid day and the AC is barely detectable. I find my gate – Chicago to Ottawa departing at 7:00PM, take a seat and chow down. Rubbernecking reveals the plane is at the gate. Things are going swimmingly. A gate door opens and I breathe in the heady aroma of jet fuel, infusing me with a sense of contentedness and well-bearing. How I love the smell! I’m doing what I love, traveling, to a place I love. The only thing better would have been to leave from the international terminal, but no worries. Winston sleeps in my bag, snuggling his bottle of happy pills. I’m almost fond of him. Almost. I’m cool.
After quickly popping into the women’s restroom and not the men’s (don’t ask), I gather my things. The airline rep announces the flight is delayed until 8:00PM. We look out at the mildly overcast sky, puzzled. My Ottawa connection to London is at 10:30PM-ish. A passing flight attendant confirms I’ll need to clear customs in Canada first, so there’s no way in hell I will make that flight; I’ll need to reschedule. Damn it!
I find customer service has a maze and a long line. Pulling out the trusty iPhone, I call their line and wait on hold as I stand. Everybody around me is doing the same thing. After 50 fruitless minutes, I decide to sort things out in Ottawa and return to the gate.
We board quickly. I luckily get a single row seat still worrying about the London flight. Will I get another in the morning? The plane taxis, and taxis and taxis and I wonder if we’re driving there instead. A flash catches my eye, then another and another. It dawns on me we are taxiing into a lightning storm, while in a pressurized metal can. This is not good. The pilot chirps rather loudly over the PA system, “well, we’re not taking off folks; there’s a storm coming. So, just hold on!” WHAT?
Suddenly the heavens open and a curtain of rain hits with a WHOOSH. The rain is so torrential we can’t see out. I’m usually unflappable during travel. The increasing lightning storm around our little sardine can has me only slightly concerned. That is until the gale hit, rocking the plane back and forth. “Oh shit,” I mumble. The passengers around me obviously think the same thing as we clutch our armrests. The wind whips and howls. It’s like the Blizzard of 2011 except with water. Everybody is actually remarkable calm considering. They probably are pondering the weighty question of why we waited to taxi into a lightning storm like I am. I mull how long it would take United to go out of business after paying out outrageous settlements to our heirs because all the passengers and crew were electrocuted or drowned or both. I feel the solidarity with my co-travelers and hope we will be commemorated by President Obama in a special ceremony. I’m cool. I wonder if the others are medicated too.
The storm abates. The plane has not shaken apart or sprung a leak. The chirpy pilot returns. I start to hate him. “The storm looks like it’s passing over but the tower says we need to return to the gate.” No shit. “The problem is it will take time to find a gate, maybe upwards of an hour.” Out come the phones to call customer service. I try but notice my battery is low so opt to wait. The flight attendant passes through with cups of water. She later does the same with salty pretzels -after we drink the water. We taxi, and taxi and taxi back and double park along a median strip. I listen to a woman behind me give extraordinarily complicated directions to a third party for booking another flight. I chat with a stressed young woman from Ottawa who has to be at work the next morning. The pilot chirps from time to time. I imagine sticking him with pins to fix that chirp but Winston snorts in my bag so I switch to rubbing his tummy and he goes to back to sleep. I’m cool.
We finally are in hailing distance of a gate and dumped. After three hours in a plane without ever taking off, nobody cares. Ironically we could have flown to, back and to Ottawa in that time. We trudge into the terminal which turns out to be Concourse B and hordes of milling people. Instead of emptying out, the place looks like the middle of the day. I again find customer service behind a maze behind a line and queue behind a young newlywed couple.
“Guess I’m not getting to London anytime soon,” I say.
“Oh we just flew in from London,” says the groom. “The turbulence was awful from the east coast. But wasn’t that exciting?
I am clueless.
“You missed it? The concourse was evacuated. A tornado was in the area and they moved us down to the people mover area cuz this place is glass. Hundreds of people down there.”
“Yeah I missed it,” I yelp. “Because I was sitting in a little metal plane out in the middle of nowhere waiting to get hit by lightning or sucked up!”
“Wow!” the bride says.
“Guess you guys were on your own,” he snickers.
11:00PM – 12:30AM
Eavesdropping passengers around us join in with their stories. We eventually piece together that the storm was so big, all eastbound flights were cancelled. It doesn’t look good but there is nothing I can do. Shit happens, as they say. Hopefully I can reach London by Wednesday night. I’m cool.
The other stranded passengers realize the same thing and after awhile people laugh and talk. We save spots for each other for toilet and food breaks. Occasionally some hothead screams on his phone and those around him murmur in disapproval.
“Don’t be a dick,” smirks the groom.
As we enter the maze, we spot an elderly distressed Japanese couple with an increasing disgruntled rep. They clearly don’t speak English. Word passes down the line and a young woman volunteers to translate. She quickly handles everything much to the couple’s relief. We cheer the woman as the smiling couple departs and motion her to complete her business. It’s a feel good moment and everybody looks at each other smiling. I idly mused if enough people had playing cards we could break into bridge groups, or maybe do pinochle. I’m cool.
I approach the airline rep. Let’s call her She so I don’t call her something else.
“What’s you final destination?” She asks.
“Well I can’t help you. We only do domestic here.” She’s mouth forms a grim line.
“But I had a connection in Ottawa.”
“Sorry, we only do domestic here. You’ll have to leave security and go to the international terminal or go to customer service in Concourse C.”
I stare at She. “Are you SERIOUS?”
“Ma’am we only handle regional flights here.”
“My regional flight originated here. This is where I was supposed to leave from.”
“But your final destination is London and that’s international. You need to go to Concourse C. She scowls.
“Are you seriously not going to help me after I’ve been standing in line for a hour and a half? You want me to stand in another line?”
“There’s nothing I can do,” She spat.
I step away in complete astonishment.
‘She refuses to help me,” I say to the line.
“What?!” says the line.
“Yes? Did you say something?” She calls over.
“I can’t believe you’re refusing to help me!”
“Ma’am, you’ve got to go Concourse C. It’s that way!” She points viciously.
Winston stirs in my bag.
“Rarf?” he asks.
“Shut up!” I snarl. He goes back to sleep.
I’m so not cool.
I storm down into the not so funky multi-color lit people mover and up back all the way to Concourse C where customer service sits behind a maze behind a line literally gates long. I waylay a young pert rep supervisor in stilettos pretending everything is under control and tell her what happened. “I don’t know why she wouldn’t help but we’re take care of you here,” she coos and beats a hasty retreat.
I queue with an old English lady who is as dotty as I am furious. I compose a scathing but brilliantly crafted testimonial and indictment of the airline in my head. An ironclad legal defense for airport rage blooms in my mind like an epiphany as I sense a Wednesday night arrival slipping away. I’m handed a voucher for a reduced hotel room; they do not reimburse for weather-related cancellations. The line inches and stalls, but mostly stalls.
Winston quivers with fear in my bag.
A young rep supervisor arrives but he’s not wearing stilettos.
“We’re taking about 25 people over to Concourse B. They handle domestic and international there,” the supervisor announces. People tiredly drudge towards him like dying men to an oasis.
“But I was over in Concourse B and your rep refused to help me saying she didn’t handle international! She REFUSED! And I’ve been standing in lines for almost THREE HOURS!” I am incandescent.
“What!” The supervisor has the grace to look indignant. “I don’t know why that happened. You stay with me.”
I remain close as he organizes a group and issues order into his walkey-talkey. He’s apparently a real honcho because other reps crowd around waiting for instruction. Wild horses couldn’t tear me away from him now. He marches us through Concourse C, down through the damn headache inducing multi-color lit people mover and back up to Concourse B. The crowd is herded to the scene of the crime. He barks more orders; it’s almost time to shut down operations and send the reps home.
The supervisor shepherds me past gates looking for particular people. He finds an older rep willing to help me when she hears my story although she’s technically off duty. Let’s call her Ms. Wonderful. Ms. W. exudes experience and compassion and I deflate like a balloon. She motions me to a terminal and gets to work.
I drape myself across the counter in exhaustion as she searches and mutters. Ms. W. discovers the issue is how to get me out of the country. The eastbound cancellations also affect international hubs in Atlanta, Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey. I can’t get a flight on any other carrier either direct or non-direct. My heart sinks. The trip is quickly turning into an expensive long weekend abroad. I debate whether to give up and go home. Winston stirs. I groan. Ms. W. offers two options from which to choose. Winston peers out with interest. I decide to sally forth and pick option B: an early flight to Reagan Airport in Washington D.C., shuttle to Dulles Airport, and then a night flight to London. I would arrive Thursday morning, and still see the show that night. This trip can still be salvaged. I’m proud of my optimism and persistence. Winston harrumphs and goes back to sleep. Little bastard.
I wear a fleece hoody zipped to my neck but I’m cold. The airport AC had been set to 32F after all. People wrap themselves in blankets which are flying off the shelves at the only open drug store in the terminal. I rush in and get one for myself. Starbucks is also open, selling hot coffee by the vat. I decide caffeine now is a bad idea.
I walk miles up and down the concourse, wrapped in a blanket with a phone in one hand and an AC cord in the other looking for an available outlet to recharge the damn thing. I see bundled shapes huddled by plugs, sometimes hogging two, recharging their phones, iPads and laptops. It’s every geek for himself. I eye a spare outlet but a shape moves and gives me the evil eye. I move on. I find a spare and plug in, but realize I need to guard the phone. It’s so cold. I give up after half a hour.
I walk up and down the concourse looking for a place to sleep. It made no sense to pay for a hotel since the flight was at 7:30AM. Sleeping bodies lie everywhere, on seats, on the floor, across a stage, up against pillars. I’d seen newscasts showing hundreds of travelers trapped in airports and wondered what it as like. I wonder no more. Finally I spot a row of armless seats not under an air vent. Mummifying myself in the blanket and using the bag as a pillow, I stretch out and slip into semi-unconsciousness.
NEXT: London or Bust