We just got back from a lovely trip to Seattle. Lots of family, good food, tromps through the woods…all these memories are safely ensconced in my mind. The weather was cloudy, cold and damp but very little rain. I saw my two nieces and my nephew and assorted girlfriends, stayed in The Edgewater Hotel, right on the water (main claim to fame…the Beatles stayed there a few decades ago) and rode on the ferry to my sister’s house on Whidbey Island. All pictures of this will have to wait as my camera is in my luggage which is, well, I don’t know where it is. And thus I segue into the real part of this post. (FYI, for those of you in other countries, a non stop flight from coast to coast takes about five hours. If you have to connect, you can be traveling for nine or ten hours…on a good day.)
It all started Thursday morning when I was packing my bag. I went to pull it up to roll it out of the bedroom only to find that I hadn’t zipped it shut. It was at this moment that I probably should have said…Okay, I’m staying another day. But no, I put my clothes back in, zipped it shut and got in the car to drive to the airport.
When we got to the airport we found out that our flight to Denver was already delayed FOUR HOURS. We would have landed in Denver two hours past our connection to Baltimore. When the guy behind the desk was saying the words “reroute you through Chicago” I should have said Okay, I’m staying another day. But no, we took our chances, thinking that the ugly storm that was wending its way across the northern states would be done by then and it wouldn’t be so bad. So we left our bags with him and went off to while away four hours in Sea-Tac airport. A little shopping, some food and a massage later and we got to the gate. After a confusing few moments when we thought our flight was delayed for two hours due to snow in Chicago, the plane filled up and flew off to our destination.
Landing in Chicago, we thought we were doing well until the pilot came on the loudspeaker and said that there was a little back up at the gate, we were going to have to wait for one to open up. At this point we still didn’t know how bad it was, although looking out we could see several other planes just hanging around. The pilot did mention that one plane had waited for an hour already and hoped we wouldn’t have to do the same. We were lucky, we got into the terminal in one and a half hours, some people were out in the planes for over three hours. Our flight was the last to leave Seattle bound for Chicago.
This is when the fun really began. Midway Airport in Chicago is much smaller than its big sister, O’Hare. It still gets thousands of passengers coming through it every day. This night was no exception. Unfortunately, no one was leaving. The problem wasn’t the weather, the problem was that due to FAA regulations, crews can only work for so many hours before they are required to stop. Therefore, there were planes at gates with no one to crew them. This regulation also applies to grounds crew. There were bags of luggage on the tarmac with snow on them. There was no one available to push planes away so others could come in. We stayed at our gate for four and a half hours when they finally told us that our flight was cancelled. By this time it was 2:30 a.m. My husband got on the line to Southwest and I got on the line to hotels and between the two of us, we solved the problem of the next 24 hours. (Thank God for cell phones.)
The hotel in Chicago had a magnificent view but a lousy bed (the kind where you sink in and roll to the center). We got a few hours of sleep and woke up to this view. The reports of Chicago’s wind and cold are not greatly exaggerated, I’m glad I didn’t have to be outside for too long. (And no, the airline did not compensate us for the hotel, this was an act of God…they are not liable for that.)
We had no clothes except what we were wearing. Fortunately we had toothbrushes, toothpaste and a hairbrush. We at least got to sleep horizontally and the next morning we had a wonderful breakfast buffet. We checked out of the hotel and got back to the airport…mayhem was ensuing and we soon became a part of it.
Crowds of people were trying to figure out where they should be, what line was the right one and where exactly did the line start? In the midst of it, flights were being cancelled right and left. Our flight in the afternoon was cancelled (we got to the airport at noon-ish) and R soon got us on the 9:00 flight that evening. (We have since found out that flight was cancelled as well.) We then had to continue standing in line to get the boarding passes because the self serve electronic kiosks would not accept our confirmation number. Two and a half hours and we were still in the same line. It was ugly.
(The woman in the blue coat is a reporter form the local CBS affiliate. There were TV crews from all the major stations trying to get interviews with disgruntled passengers. They had plenty to choose from.)
At this point we started to hear rumors that they might shut the airport down due to high winds that were supposed to start up in the evening. I looked at the forecast and there was another storm headed for Chicago. I started to think of other alternatives, renting a car, getting on a train, staying in Chicago for a couple of days. Quite frankly, I was going to go nuts staying in that airport with thousands of other weary, angry, panicky travelers. Children, raging mothers, small dogs all together with no idea when it would end. It was awful. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say it was the worst travel experience I have ever had, and I’ve had a few. I’ve done my time in airport hotels, and one time it took me over 24 hours to get home from Sioux Falls SD. This was a whole new experience for me.
Without going into too much detail, we eventually found a company to charter a private plane out of there. As we taxied out to the runway, I looked at the terminal and saw only three planes at the gates, all the rest were empty. I thought of all the people inside, hoping to get on a plane and not knowing there wasn’t even a plane to get on to. If we hadn’t found this other way, I’m pretty sure we would still be in the airport trying to find a way home. As it was, we pulled into our snow covered driveway (the thermometer was reading 4 degrees fahrenheit) at 10:30 p.m.
I know that this experience is nothing compared to trying to leave a war torn country but I honestly feel a little bit traumatized by it all. I was trying to stay in that numb “travel mode” where life becomes timeless and you just exist, but I was utterly exhausted when I got home. Our luggage is still MIA, and when I tried to call someone I was told by an automated voice that I would get a call back in three hours. I have heard that people coming into Midway have to sift through piles of luggage from all over the nation in order to find theirs. I am hoping ours made it to Baltimore, but in the long run, I can afford to buy a few new shirts and some underwear. The only thing I will be sad to not see again is my camera, but even that is replaceable. And before I left Seattle, I downloaded all my pix onto my brother’s computer so he can send me a zip disk if I need them.
I realize that my story was actually a mild one compared to some of the other people standing around me last night. I realize that I am fortunate to have been able to afford a hotel room and to find another plane to take me home. But I am so glad to be out of Chicago. I am home, I am safe. Home is such a wonderful place to be. I will leave it again to go on other adventures but Dorothy had it right…there’s no place like Home.