I’ve joked before that planes never work when I am on them, but after last week, not only am I not so sure I’m joking, but turns out I don’t actually have to be on them, I just gotta be looking at them with a vague desire to board at some point in the near future… and boom – for the fourth time in ten months my sky vessel is going nowhere and I’m sitting at the gate looking at the red, bold, all-caps CANCELLED notice, wondering from where in this terminal I might be able to steal a blanket.
The atmosphere at gate K15 (we’re at Chicago O’Hare) was already pretty tense. About three hours before they pulled the plug on our flight, the televisions in the seating area had informed us that there had been another vehicle-based terrorist attack in London. This was a British Airways plane bound for England, and as the story broke people crowded nervously round the monitors shaking their heads and muttering such things as “for fuck’s sake” and “oh not again”.
Everybody went back to their seats shortly after, but despite having absolutely no new information to reveal about the situation, the news channel continued to talk only about that the entire time we were sat there, drumming the same sordid details and vague speculations into our brains to the point where children were crying and the abortion of their trip home was just about the last piece of shit news some of these people could deal with.
Me? I’m so used to this I don’t think I even reacted. Maybe I rolled my eyes a little at the lady sitting opposite me. Looked at my phone to see how much of my life I’d wasted slouched in this seat when I could have been back in Humboldt Park engaging in more well-mannered frivolity with my boyfriend and our favourite neighbours. But the drama-seeking nutcase in me also perked up a little. Call me crazy but, while of course I prefer when things go smoothly, there’s something mildly enjoyable about the odd bit of chaos. The old plans are out the window and I have no clue what the new ones are. Where will I sleep tonight? Where will they fly me to tomorrow? Will I get a free breakfast? Anything can happen.
I also enjoy the rapport that builds between delayed and stranded passengers at an airport gate. This started to manifest itself among us about an hour into the delay thanks to alt-right douchebag Richard Spencer being interviewed on CNN by W. Kamau Bell, brazenly spouting the most atrociously racist, sexist, xenophobic crap I’d ever heard on TV, provoking everyone at the gate to begin looking around at each other with the same “are you listening to this shite?” expressions. Bonding stage one (eye contact and mutual disdain) complete.
Then of course there was the Finsbury Park terrorist attack which depressed everybody further but accelerated the aforementioned disdain-based bonding. Add to the mix a precocious Mancunian child who couldn’t go for more than thirty seconds without asking someone new what they thought might be wrong with the aircraft, and everybody in our cluster (the rows of chairs directly facing each other) was pretty much best mates.
After rolling a baseball into my foot, Precocious Mancunian Child asked me what was wrong with my leg, which meant I had to reveal to the entire cluster that I had been running drunk and very enthusiastically with three pizzas, tripped, and (successfully) sacrificed the skin on my knees for the welfare of my hungry guests. They enjoyed that one. Bonding stage two (small talk and anecdote sharing) complete.
When they cancelled the flight after over three hours of incremental delaying, we began actually talking to each other. Apparently only when you’re no longer going somewhere do people begin to show an interest in where it is exactly that you are no longer going.
The only person with remotely interesting plans was Hot Trevor. Hot Trevor is heading to Manchester to meet his boyfriend, chill out in Europe for a bit, then he’s going out to Australia to utilise the work visa he has recently obtained. Hot Trevor is still in an excellent mood, despite the disruptions to his plans, presumably because he knows that, whatever happens, he’s not going to have to live in Trump’s America anymore.
I stuck with Hot Trevor because his vibes were chill. Also because he was given a voucher to the same hotel as me, which meant I could just follow him and not have to work out where I was supposed to be going.
I had thought about just going back into town and spending one more night in the Castle, but it was pretty late by this point and it seemed like a good idea to stay close to the airport in case I got booked on to a super early flight in the morning. I regretted this decision when we discovered that the “airport hotel” American Airlines had booked us in to was not the Crowne Plaza at O’Hare, but the one in Northbrook – a 20-minute drive away.
This might have been ok if they hadn’t booked 100 of us in there, or if the hotel had more than one 15-seater shuttle bus, but they had, and they didn’t. 40 minute round trip, 15 seats, 100 people… not looking good whichever way you maths it.
Hot Trevor and I elected not to get involved in the stampede that occurred as the first shuttle came and went and went. We shared a “nope” glance, then he called us a cab, and we recruited an elderly couple to fill the remaining seats, thinking that if we split it, it wouldn’t be too expensive. Turns out Helen and Steve were so grateful that we had chosen them as our taxi buddies, and/or so enamoured with the conversation we provided during the trip that they paid for the entire $60 ride. This was one of only two good things that happened in 48 hours, so savour this feeling of hope and triumph while you can, dear reader.
The hotel room was annoyingly plush, and I made a mental note to tell American Airlines that I would have settled for a dive motel that was even moderately near the airport. I needed three things: a bed, wifi, and a telephone – the latter of which was needed to get me rebooked on a decent flight home.
I had automatically been put on to tomorrow’s flight to Manchester via Philadelphia, which didn’t work for me because my final destination was Edinburgh, and I’d missed my train there. The nice lady at American left me on hold for a long time, but eventually booked me through to Edinburgh via New York. I had to transfer from LaGuardia to JFK myself, but that’s manageable, and I was happy because the flight wasn’t leaving Chicago until 11am so I might get a decent amount of sleep in my overly plush bed, which would be important because I arrive into Edinburgh at 7am Monday, and have to start work at 9.
Haha nope. Because this hotel is not an “airport hotel” and so only offers three morning shuttles to O’Hare and they are at 4am, 6am and 10am. Even an 8am shuttle would have been a bit too early, but that one was mysteriously absent from their offerings, so it was up at 5:30, less than three hours from when I finally got into bed. But… by far the biggest blow of the whole Crowne Plaza Saga (say that again, it sounds good) was that I didn’t get my free breakfast as they don’t start serving until 6.
Getting from Chicago to LaGuardia was drama free, which is a sentence I’ve never written before. Upon landing, as I scurried through the airport looking for the bus to JFK, I did notice that the departure boards had a suspicious number of cancelled flights on them. This I ignored for my own sanity.
The bus was fine other than the fact that neither the wifi or the plug sockets worked, and it got me to JFK with plenty of time to check my bag in for my next flight. T8, the American Airlines terminal, seems oddly chaotic even for this airport. Apparently there’s a storm moving up from the Gulf and most domestic flights are cancelled. My trans-atlantic is unaffected by this, so I can bypass the queue of about 1000 people waiting at the re-booking desks and head straight for the self-print machines.
I am a child of the modern age, wholeheartedly supportive of contraptions that maximise efficiency and minimise human contact. I gleefully scan my boarding pass and wait for the machine to spit out my bag tag so I can give it to the friendly baggage handler and be on my merry way.
The self-service machine won’t print the bag tag because of some kind of pricing discrepancy/conspiracy, despite the fact I have only one bag, it is well underweight, and it’s free anyway. The people at the bag drop station have zero capacity to print bag tags, and because they cannot take non-tagged bags, they send me out to “speak to an agent”. Because all of AA’s agents are busy re-booking the thousands of people whose flights are cancelled, there are two left on this side of the terminal to deal with everybody else. The queue is therefore very long. It is also not moving, like, at all.
Getting a bag tag printed is literally a 30 second job. It involves a human, a scanner, and a printer, the likes of which used to be found at every check in/bag drop desk in the airport. Now, in this age of tech-fuelled efficiency, there are apparently just two non-automatic stations that can print a bag tag should the self-service machine not be able to give you what you need. There is also no staff override on the self-service machines, so despite there being 30+ machines with bag-tag-printing abilities and multiple floor-based agents milling around with very little to do, these assets could not be brought together to get a single bag tag printed.
So I waited in the customer service queue to get my bag tagged. Because the situation is so badly organised, there are people in this queue (either by accident or because they are sneaky and evil) who are supposed to be in the re-booking queue, and there’s no AA staff making sure that the people in this queue just need a bag tag or some other quick fix. It takes me THREE HOURS of standing in line to get a tag for my bag. By the time I get to the front of the queue, my flight is long gone and I DO now need re-booked, and the lady at the desk has the audacity to say that I should have been in the other queue. Where was this smart thinking when 27 people in front of me were needing complex re-bookings and I still had a chance to catch my flight?
Sidebar: I actually had a pretty decent time in the queue. In front of me was a couple of other Scottish girls on their way to Las Vegas, who were pretty good chat, and behind me was a guy called Aristotle Loumis, owner of a greek-based sunglasses company called Ellison, and all-round fun dude to be stuck in a queue with. I think everybody also appreciated the opportunity to rant about how hellish their journeys had been so far, and that’s always fun – they’re tired, you’re tired, nobody is expecting much from the interaction, but you still feel socially involved, which, for me, is just the right sort of stranger engagement. I meant to say this earlier, but I call people I meet in these scenarios snafu pals. I’ve made a lot of snafu pals recently. Hashtag solidarity. End sidebar.
Thankfully, a nicer lady appeared and said she would re-book me. She was very pleased when she managed to get me on a flight via London Heathrow that same night. “You’re flying tonight babe!” was the last thing she said to me as she printed me off some sorta tickety thing and waved me off to the British Airways terminal.
Terminal 7 was straight up zen compared to the absolute chaos of Terminal 8. My feelings of serenity diminished somewhat when I tried to check in, was denied, then discovered the ticket she had given me was for 10pm tomorrow night, but rather than assume nice T8 lady was a conniving reprobate conspiring to get people out of her queue and into another part of the airport as fast as possible, I chose to believe that she was stressed, under pressure, and not super good at reading dates, which allowed me to maintain some of the zen. WE ARE STILL ZEN.
There was no room on tonight’s 10pm flight to Heathrow, so nice T7 lady sent me to Gatwick on the 9:30pm. My connection is still from Heathrow though, which means another fun bus trip across another gigantic metropolis, but what even is that at this stage? I would say yes to anything if it got me on to the right island, or even a nearby one. She nevertheless assured me that there would be “quite enough time” to get between airports. I can’t remember if I believed her.
When I was through security, I managed to find a space on the floor of the gate between a bin and a family with 3 kids where I could sit down and use the 30 minutes of free wifi to get some mailings scheduled for work (since I’m now going to be missing a whole day in the office). Then I had snacks.
Obviously the flight was delayed, although I wasn’t really aware of it then because the whole concept of time had mostly lost its meaning. Oh! but remember back in Chicago when I told you that only two good things happened during this two-day adventure? It’s time for the second one, yay! Drumroll… I got a whole row of seats to myself. Yes, that’s it. But the prospect of becoming fully reclined having had 2 horizontal hours since Saturday night (I don’t know what day it is now) was very welcome.
At Gatwick, the dude selling National Express bus tickets assured me that the 12:05 bus would get me to Heathrow in time for my flight, even after I showed him my boarding pass that seemed to have a very soon boarding time on it. He was lying.
Missed my connection by about 20 minutes. If I hadn’t it would have broken a very clear pattern and I would have been a bit suspicious, so it was probably just as well. It was 4 hours until the next available Edinburgh-bound flight, so I found a table and tried to salvage what was left of the workday – even though the W. H. Smith in T5 had run out of sandwiches, which is not only a bit shit when you’re hungry, but a sure sign the apocalypse is coming.
I also showed an old Indian lady how to connect to the wifi on her phone, and logged her into my Heathrow Rewards account so she actually get on to the internet. It was an awful lot of work for somebody who only had 6% battery left, but she was delighted and said “bless your soul” which, as my soul is not often blessed, was definitely a highlight of the afternoon.
I arrived in Edinburgh at like 6pm. Apparently it was Tuesday. I’d pitched up to O’Hare at 5pm on Sunday for what supposed to be one 8 hour flight. I’ve been to 6 airports since then. How does this even happen? and, more importantly, why does it keep happening to me?
Like the last time I had an aviation megadisruption, though, there was never really a moment where I thought “oh this is terrible”. It wasn’t a bad time. It was pretty full-on for 2 solid days – always something to sort out, always places to be got to, always interesting people to talk or listen to, always some drama occurring within earshot. And I like full-on – it’s miles better than boring. Plus, I had two breakfast burritos in one day and a dazzling bonus view of Manhattan. How often do you get to do that?
Maybe It’s just because I’m weird. Maybe it’s because I’ve done this so many times it seems like a normal part of travel to be embraced (and then written about), combined with a desire to find absolutely anything to be entertained by because the alternative is to mope around, depressed about the accumulating number of hours of your life you’re spending in airport purgatory…
…Or maybe it’s because I know I’ll probably get a nice compensatory offer from the airline that will pay for my next trip. Who knows. I’m still happy.