I am currently on a Boeing 767 en route to Sao Paulo. We’re flying over Suriname or some other such paradise, and it’s night, and I can see the flashes of about 27 thunderstorms raging on underneath us. Occasionally we fly right through one and shit gets really exciting, which is just as well because, since they put all the prehistoric planes on the South American routes, there’s no in-flight entertainment except a flickering map with our plane on it – which is how I know we’re in Surinamese airspace, and why I’m pounding on my laptop instead of watching Batman Vs Superman or an equivalent painfully-long time-expunger. In this scenario the storms are the entertainment – the saving grace in a scene that otherwise would not be worth documenting, leaving me with no introduction to whatever it is I’m about to write. But it’s also fitting, really, because I would have nothing to write about at all if it wasn’t for a storm.
This blog so far has been about all the interesting things I have done in all the exciting places I have been on my travels. It’s all been lovely, if I do say so myself, but there is a part of the jet-setting experience which is often brushed under the carpet in the travel blog realm. Sure, it’s not glamorous and it’s unlikely to trigger gushing comments from envious readers, but does that mean it can’t be made in to an interesting read? Well, who knows, but I’m going to try. Because, folks, this is the real world, and if you travel enough, it’s gonna to happen to you at some point (yes, probability is a bitch). This is the mega-disruption. The layover shiteshow. This is the story of the 50 hour journey (which couldda shouldda wouldda in a perfect world been done in 12).
So, some background: I already knew that I wanted to go to Brazil this summer to visit a friend who is spending a month there… but I also really wanted to go back to Chicago to visit my old neighbours and jump in the lake. I was looking to travel in peak season, and I’d left it quite late by this point, so flights to Brazil from Edinburgh were around £700 return. Flights to Chicago were also around £700. £1400 on flights in one summer? That’s not gonna happen. Then, with much glee, I discovered that the more destinations you add to a Google Flights trip, the better the price becomes – with one catch: all legs of the journey have to be on the same airline. I ended up getting a multi-centre trip from Edinburgh to Rio and then from Sao Paulo to Chicago and then from Chicago to Edinburgh for only £850. Which is a goddam steal. The airline is United, so to get this hoofing great price I have to endure layovers at 2 United hubs (Chicago and Houston) on the way to Rio (the other 2 legs are all direct). This makes the trip a little longer than necessary, but it all would have been fine. Except storms.
In this scenario the storms are not the entertainment. The storms are the exact opposite of entertainment, if such a concept even exists. The first was a feisty little fucker floating around somewhere over Michigan that my Edinburgh to Chicago flight had to waste half an hour going around. In a 23 hour trip, half an hour might not seem like a significant delay, but it turned out to be the trigger for this whole subsequent fiasco because it squeezed my layover time down to 70 minutes and that, let me tell you, is not nearly enough time to negotiate Chicago O’Hare.
Here is a comprehensive list of the stuff you have to do during a layover at O’Hare. From landing:
- wait for 15 minutes on the plane because there’s a queue for the gate
- run to immigration.
- queue to use the “residents, green cards and repeat ESTAs”machine
- work out how to use said machine and wait for your receipt, which is apparently void.
- queue again to see an actual person/get your passport stamped
- wait to collect your bag off the carousel (even though it has been ticketed all the way through)
- go through customs checkpoint (there is a queue)
- re-check your bag (what are baggage handlers even for?)
- take the transit to Terminal 1
- go through security (queue)
- get to your gate, which is probably far away
WTF, O’Hare. Why do airlines even give you layovers of less than 2 hours if THIS is what you have to do?
I knew by step 6 that I was going to miss my connection to Houston, so I got myself re-ticketed on to standby for the next one. I was number 7 on the list. 6 people got standby spaces that day… It’s after 6pm by now, the next fight to Houston is going to get me in too late to make my flight to Rio (the only flight of the day), and this was the point in the journey where I realised that you just gotta roll with shit.
I was looking around the terminal, watching delayed passengers everywhere getting angry with airline employees. And for what? Out of everyone around me, I probably had the most reason to be grumpy; I had just got off a delayed long-haul flight, I had been at the airport for hours already, I was still 5,000 miles from where I was trying to get to, and I had just resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to get to there anywhere close to when I had planned to, but I was pissed for about 2 minutes in total before deciding that, on the scale of things it really wasn’t that bad.
And things weren’t even over yet. When she was finished being moaned at by some dude in a suit, the nice United lady at the boarding counter called me over, and with a bit of keyboard wizardry, managed to get me re-routed on to the direct flight to Sao Paulo, which was due to leave at around 9pm. She really didn’t have to do this, she could have just told me to wait for the next Houston flight like everybody else, so this was pure goodwill by her and the airline. Goes to show that good things can always happen…
…Sure, the sudden arrival of storm number two meant that the flight never actually got off the ground that night (after over 3 hours on the stationary plane waiting for the lightning to stop and another hour taxiing very slowly towards the runway, we had to turn back to the gate and get off because aviation regulations meant the pilot couldn’t be in the cockpit for 4 hours plus the 11 hour flight time), but I still consider myself lucky, because, of the 50+ other flights that were cancelled that night, ours was one of the only ones that was rescheduled for the next day under the same ticket, retaining its flight number and meaning we didn’t have to get re-booked.
Why was this such a good thing? Because at 2am the United Airlines customer services desk, where you go to be re-booked onto another flight, had a queue extending the entire length of the concourse. I stepped out of the gate, looked left and right, and the line of people went literally further than my eye could see in both directions. These folks queued for hours all through the night, then (as I was snuggled up under a blanket on the fuzzy carpet of my gate) a man on the tannoy said “thank you for your patience, but our staff need a break, customer services will reopen at 5am. You can stay in the line until then if you want”. Never have I wanted to use the hashtag #blessed more than during the whole time I was not in that damn queue. Here’s a panorama I took for scale:
Such was the chaos of the situation, the City of Chicago brought in cots (foldy beds) and blankets, and the Chicago Police Department were called in to make sure all the stranded folk didn’t get too crazy. I took a walk to Terminal 3 where all this official stuff was happening, but I didn’t fancy being placed in a cot in a row of other cots in a terminal that was starting to resemble a post-disaster triage zone, so I skilfully wangled a blanket and pillow off a lady who was doing a good job of not giving them away (I must have looked needy), and took them back to old familiar Terminal 1 to scout out somewhere nice to settle down.
There is something satisfyingly primeval about roaming around trying to seek out an appropriate spot to make a nest for the night. These are the skills that I would have had to master had I been born Hannorg the Bronze-Age Heathen and not Hannah the Netflix-Loving Millenial, and there is a lot to think about. You don’t want to be near an air con vent, for a start. Nor do you want to be in the section with all the unnecessarily bright fluorescent lighting. Some of the gates have carpet, which is definitely desirable, and you want to be up against a wall, if possible, for “shelter” of course. Other things to avoid settling down near to are tannoy speakers, rubbish bins, and babies. Bonus points if you get a window spot, cause you might just wake up to this view:
All through the night you’re reminded loudly that your liquids need to be in small bottles, and that you should be keeping a vigilant eye open for suspicious items, but when morning comes, and you’re greeted by a Chicago sunrise and the smell of coffee are you really that bothered? There’s still five hours to go before the re-scheduled flight is supposed to leave, which means plenty time for breakfast, Kerouac and people-watching.
Speaking of people, the folk on your flight become your “gate buddies”. You sat with them at the original gate before the flight, rolled your eyes at each other when the desk crew said the inbound plane was arriving “imminently”, sat with them on the plane for 4 hours wondering if the lightning was ever going to stop, and spent the night at gate C20 with them like one big sleepover where people are actually trying to sleep. You see one in another part of the terminal and, as you would a hometown acquaintance in another city, you smile at them. They’re your airport constants. Nobody’s very much in the mood for talking or making friends, but you get to know them in your head, and amongst yourselves you forge some degree of community spirit. Like the car behind you in a seven-mile tailback – it’s not ideal, but you guys are in this together.
Anyway, after 22 hours at O’Hare, I re-boarded the plane, as promised, at 11am, and this time we actually made it into the air. The fun is far from over, though, because this flight is scheduled to land at about 11:30pm in Sao Paulo, which, inevitably, is just shortly after the last flight to Rio departs. United have booked me on a Gol flight to my final destination at 6:45am, which means that I will be spending another night on the floor of another airport, and that I am 100% stealing this blanket and pillow.
So there we have it. The Shit Storm Shitstorm. Undeniably shit in comparison to sipping caipirinhas on Copacabana Beach, but – the annoyance of missing a day of my holiday aside – there was never really a point where I felt I was actually having a bad time. There was plenty to still be happy about: I had a roof over my head, a good book to read – there’s wifi, plug sockets, people to watch, and a pretty decent selection of food joints – I mean, I had a Chicago-style hot dog for breakfast, people. There are no socially-dictated meal times in this kerosene-scented purgatory and that, if nothing else, is definitely something to make the most of.
I really should be passed out like the rest of the people on this plane, but instead I’m sitting writing about my layover because for some reason I came away from the experience feeling inspired rather than frustrated. When things don’t go to plan you can either get all pissed about it and let it ruin your day… or just embrace the unpredictability of travel and say to yourself: “at least I might get a blog post out of this“.