This past Friday night, I was scheduled to leave Chicago's O'Hare airport for Manchester, NH at 7:05 pm. I left my client's office at 4pm, and straight away I knew I was in trouble -- not only was it raining something akin to an Amazon downpour, the lightning that exploded across the sky was horrifically dramatic. As a seasoned business traveler, I knew to expect the unexpected.
The cab ride to the airport took well over a hour for a trip that was normally 25 minutes. I suspect the ride would have been much longer if not for the aggressive driving of my Russian cabbie. My stomach was in knots by the time we arrived, but I was glad to have a time-cushion so I could catch my flight. Sadly, this was not required.
The United departure screen warned “Due to massive electrical storms…blah blah blah.” Basically, “You Are Screwed.”
There’s a very interesting bond that forms between stranded business travelers. To paraphrase a famous movie line, there’s a certainly calming feeling which overcomes you when you know that you are completed fucked. Me and my small band of brothers had all been through this before. We knew about the best we could do was sit back and enjoy the company of misery.
Non-business travelers tried to join in our fun, but us seasoned travelers knew that such interactions rarely last. We knew we were in for the long haul; most air travel “lay people” crack after the second hour.
7:05pm came and went. As did 7:35pm and 8:05pm. Eventually, the worst possible announcement was made. No, not that our flight was cancelled -- that would have been okay because at least we’d know something. Instead, our flight was “indefinitely delayed.” My new fraternity attempted to find passage on an alternative flight – there was a 4:30pm flight to Manchester which still had not departed, as well as a couple of flights to Boston – close enough for many.
The Boston options did not pan out – those flights were full-loaded with no stand-by seating available. But the extremely delayed 4:30 Manchester flight held promise. As an early flight, it was flying under-booked to Manchester. It was also scheduled to carry connecting passengers, many of whom had no better chance of making it into O’Hare as we had getting out. We put our names on the stand-by list.
It now became a waiting game – to be sure, there was an electric excitement not unlike watching lottery numbers being drawn. With each passing minute, this flight drew closer to take-off and the window for connecting passengers continued to close. But each time the clock reached the departure moment, the departure was pushed back – usually by 10 minutes, followed swiftly by another 20. It was like a mental torture test, and my platoon was determined to not let them beat us.
Slowly, the gate attendant called stand-by names for boarding passes. And I mean slowly. In 90 minutes, he had called 4 names. He had an evil sparkle in his eye, and a barely perceptible grin. Someone shouted out “what gives you the right to play God?” We are pretty sure the heckler’s name got summarily placed at the bottom of this list.
Around 8:50pm, there was moment of excitement. We were told that if everyone made it onto the plane and the plane pushed off by 9:00pm, we’d be flying home. Only 10 minutes? And what about reading off stand-by names? 8 minutes into this fiasco, it was called off.
The reason for the mad dash was because the pilot had to push off from the gangway by 9:00pm to be legal to fly. One second more, and he was forced to exit the plane. We were never going to make it. We were told that a new crew would be able to fly us home at 10:30pm.
By 11:00pm, I actually started to feel a little sad for those folks who had managed to make the mad dash at 8:50pm onto the plane. They were still sitting there, and they were not about to move anytime soon. The so-called 10:30 crew never completely arrived. By 11:00, they were one crew member short – the pilot. In one of those ironic twists that only seasoned travelers can truly enjoy, the pilot was sitting on a tarmac in another plane, looking for a place to park. There were no open gates because so few planes could legal take off. Our gate was occupied by a plane which could not push off because he was not there. Planes which were legal to take off could not push off of their gates because the ground was too cluttered with planes that could not park. It was NYC-style gridlock with 767’s for taxis.
Come Midnight, problems were starting to be resolved. And each solution often made two or more other solutions possible, so things started to clear at a geometric rate. The pilot arrived; boarding resumed. And stand-by names were called. Slowly, of course, because the gate attendant was still the spawn of Satan.
Rumor spread quickly that all but 2 of the 30 standby passengers were good to make it on the flight. Suddenly, it was a reverse lottery and we were all going to be big winners. But rumors are so rarely true. Four names were called. And then no more.
My core clan did not crack; we had long ago lost the novices at this game, but we stood strong. They would not beat us. A single electronic beep from my cell phone marked our reward.
I glanced at the screen to read the incoming text message. It was from United’s automated flight tracking system. Our original flight to Manchester, a terminal away, was getting ready to board.
With the running style and wide smiles of OJ Simpson in a television commercial, we dashed back to our original flight. It was not at the same gate, was not on the intended aircraft, and was not even the intended crew (this alternative crew having been forced to land in Chicago because they could not land in Detroit), but it was our flight. By 12:45am, we would be wheels-up and headed for home. My traveler family was excited, tired, barely showing signs of frustration, and ready to be done. We told jokes and laughed as we sat down in our seats, rows 19 and 20.
It was at this moment that my exhaustion and joy overtook my analytics. We were all seasoned business travelers and we had forgotten the golden rule. We forgot to expect the unexpected.
As we slowly taxied across the tarmac, we noticed a flurry of police activity on the ground – numerous flashing red and blues – not to mention a very large hearse. There was dead silence as we watched a honor guard slowly and delicately remove a flag-draped coffin from an American flight.
Not moments before, we were drunk with the joy of an ordeal soon passed and the expectations of reunion with our loved ones. Now we all took pause as we were reminded in dramatic fashion how trivial our problems can be.
When I finally made it to my house at 5am, I took a good, long look at my sleeping daughter. Everything that I saw around me – my family, my possessions, my freedoms to be who I was – I owe to that soldier and the countless others throughout history who fought so bravely and honorably to protect all of us. I will never get the chance to thank that brave warrior whose body I saw carried that cold April night, but I know I will never forget you or forget what you have done for me.
Rest in peace.