Ok, right up front you need to know that there will likely be very little of real value that you can take away from this post. If you need some Scripture applied to your life or some passage or question to ponder, this is probably not going to do the trick. You’re going to want to check some other posts for that… Also, it’ll be kind of long. I’ll try to keep it light and make it worth your while, but… you’ve been warned. I had to find some humor in a crappy situation to keep my grip on sanity intact and just thought I’d share.
I’m a pretty flexible guy when it comes to changing plans, and I’m fortunate enough to have found a girl who could not only put up with that for life, but actually could encourage it and help me make something useful out of it! But we neared the edges of our flexibility last Friday, and at the hands of United Airlines were nearly stretched beyond repair. Ok, that may be exaggerating a bit, but we were definitely forced far from Plan A.
Plan A was a pretty simple plan. On Friday, we were to get up early for a quick drive from Cincinnati to Dayton to get on a plane that would take us to Chicago. Once in Chicago, we would get our flight to Omaha, where we’d be meeting a group of our high school students for Turning Point at Nebraska Christian College. Pretty straightforward plan. Typically for a trip like this, I’m driving the students and not meeting them, but still… other drivers were available and the plan was put into motion.
Only… not quite.
Our flight from Dayton was a little slow to get out, due to some cold, foggy weather, but once the antifreeze was sufficiently sprayed all over the wings (we got both pink AND green!), we were on our way. Incidentally, this was the first time I’d actually seen the de-icing take place in person. A guy in a cherry picker with what basically seemed to be a fire-hose attached to a tanker full of antifreeze fluid sprays it all over the plane as the driver of the tanker slowly drives around it. Now you know!
The flight from Dayton to O’Hare, in Chicago, is pretty quick. By the time the in-flight sodas were slurped down and the garbage collected, our descent had begun. One item of note that, in hindsight may be the linchpin to this whole debacle: there was no coffee on this flight since evidently, whatever process exists to put potable water on the plane for making coffee… was out of commission. I’m sure the lack of caffeine is what caused the rest of the day to unfold as it did.
As our descent progressed, back into the cloud bank that seemed to envelope every part of our country from Denver to DC to Cincinnati to Chicago last week, I was just making out the neighborhoods of Chicago and marveling at how precisely the garages behind houses were lined up in one particular area. The plane slowed and the garages became closer and more clear. Makes and models of cars were just becoming identifiable on the streets and I knew we were getting close. Then suddenly, I felt the thrust of the engines, the pitch of the plane shifted, and we began to climb. What? Were we really climbing? Did the pilot’s gauges lead us astray in all that cloudy mystery?
No. Apparently, there was another plane not quite clear of our runway, so we had to circle back for a while and get back in line to land. At this point, I pretty much knew Plan A was way out the window. When you throw something out a window at 15,000 feet, it tends to do a lot of damage, so I was a little concerned. My concern was heightened increasingly as we sat on the plane, waiting for another plane to pull out of our gate so we could get going. But there’s got to be other flights to Omaha from Chicago right?
When we waited at the gate for our bags to be unloaded (yes, it was one of those little planes), bag after bag kept coming, and I kept thinking “Guess there’s no point to rushing now, our other flight was scheduled to leave 5 minutes ago.” Our bags were the absolute last to be brought up to the gate, and in what may have been fate’s cruelest twist of day, I was right. Perhaps the only flight to leave O’Hare on time all day long was the one we were trying to catch!
We didn’t waste any time getting to the United Customer Service desk and were booked on an evening flight that wasn’t optimal, but would still get us where we needed to be, almost on time. We were also put on standby for a flight that was to leave about noon. We were the first two on the standby list, and the attendant at the desk was very reassuring that we’d be able to get on that flight. I wish she’d been less optimistic! Had she leveled with us and been more open with how things were stacking up with flight after flight delayed (and full) I’d have rented a car and been out of Chicago by 10:30 and been on time getting to Omaha.
We grabbed some food and began the wait. Then we continued our wait. After that, we waited some more, and then I got up because I saw Miss America. Wait? What? You’ll remember that in 2011, a 17 year old from the little corn crops and cattle herds state of Nebraska won Miss America. You do remember, right? Everyone here remembers, because her name’s Teresa and she’s from our church. I don’t often run into former students at airports, but when I do, I like to make sure it’s one of the famous ones! 1 of 3 bright spots of the day was getting to sit and catch up with Teresa, who was on the afternoon flight to Omaha to catch a ride to Lincoln, where an exhibit was opening celebrating her win and it’s place in Nebraska history.
I’m not sure she made it on time, as the flight was about 3 hours late, but I have seen photographic evidence that she did get there – eventually. A lot of people were using the word ‘eventually’ at O’Hare last Friday. They used lots of other words as well (my keyboard zaps me when I try to type them, so I can’t share those words!) as flight after flight was delayed and shuffled from one gate to another. As Teresa and the rest of the passengers finally boarded the plane to Omaha, we knew the call for standby passengers was due. We had seen one person request to be taken off the flight and leave, so we knew there was at least one opening, but another never did materialize. Which brings me to another of the 3 bright spots of Friday. They called my name as I was at the top of the standby list, but when they didn’t call a second name (that of my wife who was second), I stepped back and let someone else take the final seat. A few other guys waiting on standby for another flight asked me, “What happened, now?” I looked over at LuAnn and said “I got married 18 years ago.” There was no way I was leaving my wife stranded alone in Chicago! Duh.
We checked at the service desk to see if any other possibilities had opened up, found that there were none, then settled in for another long wait. The 5:15 flight had already been pushed back more than 2 hours. At this point, I was frustrated beyond belief and kicking myself for not renting a car in the morning. I was also getting hungry. Here’s a quick tip for you if you ever run an airline. When your customers are stranded all day, whether your company is at fault or the victim of weather related delays, it would be a great practice (if you’d like to keep calling them your customers) to offer some food vouchers or something! This seems like a no-brainer to me, but, what do I know? The ‘policy and procedures’ nature of our dealings with United were the most frustrating part of the day. I understand delays. I’m flexible and I’ll roll with just about anything. But could you treat me like a human being instead of a piece of breathing luggage that sort-of, kind-of wants to get from Point A to Point B eventually?
I heard and overheard a lot of “That’s all we can do.” directed at stranded passengers. It was sad, really, to think that a company had bound itself in so rigidly that, as the dominoes fell one by one, the living breathing human beings who’d put their trust in that company had become little more than inconvenient. Granted: many of those human beings reacted in a way that wouldn’t have made it very easy to be accommodating. I don’t know much about the corporate culture of United, but at least with the individuals we talked to behind the counter, it seemed that there was little trust in their employees. They had a script to follow with no room for creatively solving problems – just stick to the script. I’m not that good with a script.
As we sat and waited for the last flight, on which we had seats, I was getting more and more frustrated and discouraged. To be honest, the situation had gotten the better of me until my awesome wife helped me find a little humor. At this point, I began a series of tweets to share the funny side of being stuck. It wasn’t as much an attempt to entertain, as it was a way for me to dig out of the funk I was beginning to wallow in.
Two couples settled in next to us at the temporarily assigned gate. Others did, too I guess, but these two were chatting back and forth about the trip to Ireland they’d just been on. I heard mention of a couple towns near Omaha, so I asked and they were from a small town not too far from where we went to college. We talked a little and they left to go exchange the last of their money. I noticed that after they’d gathered everything up, there was an ipad left, so I ran after them to see if it was theirs. It was.
Looking back, I guess I could have had a new ipad! Instead, though I earned the trust of a random group of people I’d never met before. (Amazing the traction you can get out of a little bit of integrity!) It wasn’t the last time we’d see them. While our random friends were out exchanging Euros for Dollars, the flight was moved to another gate.
LuAnn and I headed over only to notice on the board that the flight was actually cancelled completely. I hoped to get to the service counter before the general announcement was made, but we did slow down enough when we crossed paths again to let our friends know the flight was canceled and the best option at that moment was to get to the counter. We beat the crush of humanity that formed in line behind us and began to discuss with the service reps what our options were. They were limited. We’d be put on standby on all the Saturday flights to Omaha. Luckily we were again at the front end of the standby list…
Yeah right! How do you suppose that would have played out on the Saturday after a packed and backed up Friday at O’Hare? No thanks. “Could you rent us a car?” I asked… but that’s not in their script. The look on LuAnn’s face said “I’m done, let’s just go.” Actually, it may have even been the words coming out her mouth that said that – the details are a little fuzzy due to the effects of spending all day in the mind numbing buzz of the terminal. We had no interest in paying for a hotel room and another day of airport meals, so we headed out to find our own rental. But not alone. Our random friends from NE/IA didn’t really want to stick around either, so we rented a car together. No vans were available at the place that actually answered the phone at the rental kiosk, so we crowded 6 adults in a Crown Victoria. Yes, they’ll fit 6, but don’t expect to be comfortable ~ especially if you’re the youngest sister of 15 children and you get stuck in the middle of the front seat! Sorry, Kim.
As strange as it sounds, this was the third bright spot in our day (night). Kim and Bev are sisters and had traveled with Jack and Dennis to Ireland. It was a joy to get to know them a little bit as we shared space in a police cruiser disguised as a Town Car. After flying from Dublin for a lot longer than we’d been stuck in Chicago, they were still in good humor and really fun to talk to. Which is extremely fortunate, because when you’re stuck together for 470 miles in close quarters, your sense of humor is the only thing that allows everybody to fit! This is probably as close as I’ll ever get to my fantasy of hitch-hiking across the country and it was great!
We missed the first night of Turning Point with our students, but Day 2 was great even without sleep!
I guess that’s life in Plan
B C… ah whatever, let’s just go.