Chicago O'Hare

The Zen of Holiday Airline Travel

Chapter One: Optimism Against the Odds

Early morning, icy rain on the way, waiting to fly from St. Louis to Chicago. Long lines, blank faces. Flight delays. Semi-panic at Gate 19. Gray people, stressed by too much holiday time with family. Privileged refugees. Families lugging Target luggage crammed with enough stuff to sustain an American lifestyle for 3-5 days.

Stranded journeyers, dreaming of a return to Cleveland, Phoenix, Minneapolis St. Paul. But our living rooms seem distant as we wait for nuggets of news about our flights. The system so fragile, a wave of hard rain – just a forecast or a real problem? Maybe no one is getting home to Rochester today. Maybe Denver will never stop cancelling inbound flights. All we can do is hope. Now they’re welcoming everyone to board flight 5184 to Houston, but the flight is oversold. They’re offering an $800 flight voucher. Not bad; it was $600 on the flight in last week.

Indulging in Dunkin’ Donuts, taking refuge in a confected high, and we’ll worry about the sugar crash when we’re safely crammed into seat 39F. CNN, playing on a dozen monitors, adds entertaining obscenity by broadcasting Trump’s latest fusillade.

A heavyset middle-aged lady plays solitaire on her iPad with a resigned air. A guy with a cowboy hat and St. Louis Cardinals jersey looks like he doesn’t have a social life, unless you count hanging with the guys and catching the game.

All of us know we’re here until we’re allowed to go home. We are powerless in this world, an ecosystem of random chance.

But at least we’re headed somewhere. Existentially, we have a leg up on the clerk in the Sunglass Hut. She’s pacing an empty store front, not going anywhere, even if the flight from Denver finally gets in (which I’m hearing it might not). She’s traveling nowhere. Or perhaps she’s the lucky one. Maybe she has a relatively happy, healthy life right here locally. She’ll go home and pick up her kid and make a batch of chocolate chip cookies. Watch the flight delay madness on TV.

CNN now boldvoicing news of horrible weather – storms, deaths in Texas, footage of emergency workers. A serious-voiced announcer with wreckage in the background. Here at Gate 19 we take it in stride. The flight takes off.

Chapter Two: Collapse

Flight lands in Chicago O’Hare around lunch time. News reports of freezing rain on the increase. Okay sure, probably some delay ahead – no big deal.

A business guy sips a Diet Coke and talks non-stop on his phone. He’s got it under control. Even from his beat-up plastic seat here in Gate 27 he finesses his universe. An older guy and an Asian woman with fuchsia hair appear reasonably happy as they peer at her iPhone. The hip young couple – his haircut actually looks pretty cool.

The flight crew guys, a squad of four of them waiting, chatting. They have gold stripes on their blue coats, a quasi-military look. They have rank. They’ve seen it all.

Then, after a three-hour delay, the United rep at the desk announces that our flight has been cancelled. A mad dash to the desk to rebook. But the pandemonium rushes ahead of us. The system has, for the foreseeable future, collapsed.

Some 245 flights cancelled in O’Hare alone. Hundreds more flights cancelled on the east coast and Midwest. Because it’s the holidays all those flights were fully booked. No one can rebook because the alternatives – if they’re running – are already taken.

The next 30 hours haze into a blur. Lines from the United service desk stretch hundreds of feet down O’Hare’s main hallway. The standby list goes to seven pages. At one point I’m 73 on the list, then I’m 37, then I mysteriously disappear from the list. Getting through to a United rep is a long shot. Calling means merely listening to on hold music. Any United rep has a long line between you and them – and every traveler requires at least a 10 minute harangue. A furious man opens his laptop and yells that he has an email with a confirmed ticket. I realize I could be on standby for days, so I tell United I need a confirmed flight. I’m told the next available flight is five days away.

People cut in lines. Tampers boil. The airport itself starts to get strained. There’s talk of United setting up cots, but the airline rep I ask about them doesn’t know where they are. I book a room at a nearby Holiday Inn around 11 o’clock; when I get there I face a line of 20 people waiting to check in. At the desk I’m told there are no more rooms. But I have a confirmation number, I say. Too bad, we’re all booked up.

Find another hotel, finish checking in past midnight. Set my alarm for 4:30 AM because I’m on standby for the 6:18 AM flight. The TSA security line the next morning is thousands of people long, snaking through constructed barriers. A vast hall of bleary-eyed mummies. I get to my gate around 6:30. No dice on standby – too far down the list. I witness one of about a half dozen standby dramas, as crowds push forward, hoping to be one of the lucky 7-8 passengers to fit on the overbooked plane.

An upset customer argues with a United clerk, pointing out all the confusing inconsistencies. They go back and forth, and finally the exasperated United clerk semi-yells, “everything changes all the time!”

That, then, is the final zen of travel, and of course, life itself: everything changes all the time. The path of no journey can be relied upon, not on United Airlines and not in the larger world. Nothing is permanent, including your connection in Philadelphia. Those who seek the security of constancy will be sorely disappointed.

I finally get a rebooking out, on the second day at 4:07 PM. All the passengers line up at 4:30, and United announces that the flight is missing a single crew member. Status unknown. A collective silent groan ripples through the crowd. A lady walks away in disgust. But some 10 minutes later the flight crew member shows up. We hustle on to the plane. I buckle my seatbelt and get a text from United about a weather delay, but it’s not real; we leave not long after. Or maybe the delay was real, at the moment it was sent. Who knows? Everything changes all the time.

The zen of holiday airline travel: not so easily mastered.

In the photo above: O’Hare’s futuristic basement walkway between concourse B and C. I traversed it constantly as I dreamed of a spot on standby.