Flying is a Pandora’s box that makes you either ask yourself why or thank the heavens for an amazingly precise and efficient flight.
It all started the night before. At about 11:58 pm I got an email: Dear passenger, your flight has been cancelled. Just like that.
I barely sleep before early flights, waking up constantly to check the clock and this time, ironically, I was checking to make sure I was not late for a flight that wasn’t going to take off at all.
But, after a lousy two hours of sleep, I went to the airport. There was practically nobody at 3:45 am, except airline personnel, which was great. I had their undivided attention and was ahead the future mass of passengers too disgruntled to understand that airlines had no control over the weather.
“The best I can do for you is Washington-Munich. Your flight would leave at 1:20 pm.” This kid was pretty much fresh out of high school. His pimple-ridden face would otherwise be a dermatological thesis if not. I wondered if he had faced hundreds of cranky passengers before. Otherwise, this was his trial by fire, “I ticketed you both (I was travelling with my coworker), so you don’t have to check in later.”
“Great!” It was, really. It meant I could go back home and rest (which I did), have some breakfast (which I did) and have a proper shower (which I did).
And after all this, I bypassed the gigantic line at the airline counter, buzzed past security, and before I knew it, I was boarding. I had an aisle seat in the emergency exit, with more legroom, and the middle seat was empty. A pilot (flying as a civilian) sat on the window seat, and he was kind enough to explain a lot of geeky technical details, which I found very interesting.
This seemed pretty good for a cancelled flight, until the landing.
“Well, folks, from the cockpit…” Pilots have that tone, it’s a certain murmur, when they give bad news. “There’s a thunderstorm over Washington and the folks at Air control have sent us to Baltimore. When we land we’ll give you more info.”
A bumpy landing ensued.
“We’re not going to leave soon.” The pilot next to me winced and showed me his phone with a pretty neat weather app. A giant red and yellow blemish covered all of Washington, including the airport. We were whisked away to a corner “I say it’s about an hour.”
Huh, an hour. I checked my tickets: things got interesting. An hour-delay would give me just 40 minutes for the connection. But ironically the storm left Washington and was now headed for Baltimore. The winds picked up, the lightning increased at the distance, and it got closer. Rain smashed against the window and a howling sound surrounded the aircraft.
“Picture the plane facing east-west,” he told me. His thick Texan accent dragged the words and made them longer, “do you feel that?” The aircraft trembled and shook.
“That’s the storm. If we were north-south, we’d probably shake a whole lot more,” he chuckled. “We’d probably be flying just by the force of the wind.”
“Plus the aircraft is pretty light. We burned a lot of fuel.” He smiled. “We need to refuel.” He then stopped and peeked outside the window and into the corners. His pause concerned me.
“Check it out. That’s the truck,” All I could see was a blinking light get nearer. Flashes lit up the stormy Baltimore skyline. For instants, it seemed like daytime.
“I wouldn’t do that. That’s a fuel truck, filled with fuel,” this guy had peculiar humor, “in a thunderstorm. I don’t about you, but that sounds like trouble to me.”
Great. That’s uplifting.
Still the truck plugged itself to the wing. The engines lowered to an idle and the A/C was shut down, only to let the caloric capacity of one hundred and fifty mediocrely showered humans generate a thick, warm air that crept into our noses. For about twenty minutes the truck remained stuck like a parasite to a massive whale, and then it disappeared back into the thunderstorm.
We didn’t move. The crew walked up and down the aisle, offering food and drink, for a cost. They smiled and kept us calm. It’s really a tough job. And to my amazement, no one complained. Even the babies wouldn’t cry. But still, we didn’t move.
Then the pilot turned to me.
“Your plane just took off. Sorry, buddy.” Had it really been that long? Well, there was nothing I could do then.
After an hour and fifty, we took off for a short, ten-minute flight. We landed and got herded into funny looking buses. The sardine cans on wheels took ages to reach the other terminal. In the security and immigrations section, the system crashed and it took the officers thirty minutes to restart it. I then hustled to the baggage claim where my bag floated amidst the sea of luggage as three wide-bodies and our plane had been diverted to Dulles.
Next time I’m not taking a gray or black piece of luggage. I’m thinking neon green will do.
With bags on hand, we ran across the empty airport (being one o’clock in the morning) and up the stairs. I kept rushing my coworker and he kept asking me what the hurry was (he’s only flown four times). When we reached the counter, and I caught some air, I just said: you’ll see.
“We need to get to Munich.” I told the airline employee.
“Hum,” she said. Of dark skin, French accent and attitude, and respectable elegance for the time of day, she chewed her lip. “Well, I can’t get you on the Sunday at 5:25 pm that’s full. I can’t get you on Monday, because it’s full too. You’re going through Heathrow?”
“Heathrow, darling. You’ve heard of London, right?”
“Yes, I have.”
“Good. You’re going there. Then your connection is with our partner, to Munich.” She handed me the tickets. Another one-hour connection.
“Is one hour enough?”
“If it says, it is.”
“Fine. Do you think you can find me a Plus seat? I’m not exactly small (6’4’’). I paid extra for the bigger seats on this flight.”
“You’re not even on the plane yet, and you’re asking for special seats? The flight is full.” She replied. “Well, let’s do this. If you shrink, all seats will be comfortable. You’ll fit right in.”
I don’t get French humor. She typed away and spoke in French that she was thirsty and hungry. She typed. Nothing. Then she typed again. What is it they do on those screens?
“I found you a bigger seat. Also, you two are going to have to share a room.” She gave us the vouchers. She had done her job. I pulled out some cookies and water and placed them on the counter. She was bound to have a long night.
I turned around and saw my coworker flabbergasted at the sight: one hundred passengers in line.
“That’s why you run.” I told him. It might seem selfish. And some people say that gentlemen don’t run but for increased possibilities at a decent bathroom, I run.
The next morning, after a good night’s rest, we awoke to a restaurant full of cranky passengers, except us. We’d taken an approach of humor to the situation. After all, we had rested, eaten plenty and taken a shower. Plus the flight was not early, which meant we could relax and take our time.
When we arrived at Dulles, we came upon the lovely news that the flight was delayed exactly one hour. This meant that, to ponder on whether I would make the connection, I had 6 hours and a half. We both chuckled and said: “we’re not making it.”
I climbed aboard and then it hit me: I had a window seat. I hate window seats. I walked up to row 27 and there sat a burly, three-hundred-pound man.
“There better be a 90-pound Asian in that middle seat, because otherwise we’re screwed.” He muttered.
It was no Asian but l the old, frail Swedish lady sitting there was not much of a nuance. She did move a lot in her sleep. After six hours, we landed only to know that indeed our flight had already taken off. We’d be delayed another hour. So we had some of the world’s most expensive coffee.
“Is there anything else we can miss?” My coworker asked me.
“Sure. We can get to the hotel and find that there is no reservation because the system failed and there is no room so we don’t have a hotel. They could lose the luggage in the re-route. We could even get lost and I don’t speak German.”
“Neither do I.”
“You see? Everything can happen.”
Still, compared to past years, I was truly calm, save a few moments of discomfort. Perhaps the other experiences have told me that there isn’t much I can do.
Airports are complex, far too complex. The variables within them, just like in a country, are said to have their own minds and personalities, surpassing the control of the very same individuals who created them. They’ve grown to be so complex, it’s best just to keep them at bay rather than trying to tame them.
So getting angry at a woman behind the counter trying to fix a problem she didn’t create to get you into a plane that is bound to be full, whether you are in it or not, for an airline she doesn’t run, which by the way is an airline that doesn’t care about an individual passenger, will most likely generate more conflict than solutions.
It took me three days, four flights, three delays and one cancellation to get from Costa Rica to Munich. Yet, looking at it from the positive side, I earned more miles than those I had planned.