Everyone says air travel is more difficult and more frustrating than ever. My recent experience flying through Chicago’s O’Hare airport certainly illustrates this fact. It was also an opportunity to reflect and learn something–about life and about myself.
Several journalists and I were flying from Quebec City to Chicago. We arrived at the Quebec City Airport three hours early only to find that our plane was delayed. I had a two-hour window for my connection, which included passing through immigration and customs and again through security.
The delay grew from a few minutes to an hour, then two. However, the gate agent told me many planes coming into Chicago were delayed and that my plane home was already running an hour and forty minutes behind schedule. She said it was very likely, if I hurried, I could still catch my plane.
But in case, just in case, she booked me on a flight the following morning. Could I get a hotel voucher if I missed my fight I asked? No, she said, “It’s ATC’s [Air Trafffic Controllers] fault. Not the airline. They allowed too many planes.”
The Quebec-Chicago plane arrived 2 ½ hours late. In Chicago, we taxied for a good 15 minutes, the pilot driving the little plane slowly through endless tarmacs before finally pulling into a spot. I hustled off the plane, gathered my bag at the carousel and zipped through immigration feeling grateful for the automated kiosk system.
I turned left and, when I went to put my bag through x-ray, the attendant demanded my photo receipt from the automated machine. The previous checkpoint guy had taken it, I told him. “You need it,” he said. “Go get it.”
I rushed back to the previous checkpoint and explained my situation. He looked at me coldly, “You don’t need it. Did I tell you to go that way?”
Well, no, I thought, but you didn’t tell me which way to go either. And the signs weren’t particularly clear.
I dragged my bag through a different door, this time the right one.
Maple Syrup Madness
Chicago is a huge airport and getting from one terminal to another even via their super-efficient sky train takes time. My connecting flight was at the opposite end of the airport, the last stop on the train. I rushed through endless hallways, tunnels, connecting walkways, up and down escalators following signs for my gate.
When I finally arrived at the United baggage area, the agent told me my flight was closed to checked bags. “Is there any way I can still make this flight?” I asked, visions of an uncomfortable night sleeping in the airport forming in my head.
“Just grab your bag and run for it,” he told me. “They might still let you on.”
And so I did.
But another security checkpoint loomed ahead. I had TSA Pre-check, the super-fast ticket through inspection stamped on my boarding pass. I stood in the relatively short Pre-check line and the agent swiped each Pre-checked passengers’ hands with explosive detection chemical. When I held out my hands, the machine’s lights blazed “Explosives detected.”
What? Maybe the DMSO I’d slathered on my aching tennis elbow before leaving the hotel was registering on the machine.
The agent pulled me out of line and instructed me to go through the regular inspection line.
But when I got to that agent, he said, “You’re Pre-check. Why are you in this line?”
The other agent told me to come here, I said.
“Go around there and line up in that Pre-check line,” he said, pointing to another longer line.
Enroute I passed a ladies room and ducked in to wash off any residual chemical that might be triggering the security machines.
This Pre-check line was longer, but there was no explosive detection chemical check. Since it was Pre-check, I didn’t take out my laptop or my liquids and just placed my bags on the conveyor.
As I waited for my bag to come through x-ray, I heard the dreaded words, “Bag check.”
I could see my gate. It was just feet away. I was so close to flying home.
“I’m Pre-check,” I protested.
But the big, burly TSA agent was having none of it. “There are over-sized liquids in your bag.”
Damn. I’d forgotten about the maple syrup and honey that had necessitated checking my bag in Quebec City. “The bag was supposed to be checked through,” I protested. “But my flight is leaving and the United agent told me to just grab my bag and try to get on.”
“There are at least three over-sized liquids in here,” the agent said, pawing through my dirty underwear and pulling out two bottles of syrup.
“There’s a computer to check,” the agent at the x-ray machine said as my day pack passed though.
“I’m Pre-check,” I protested again. “I didn’t take out my computer because I’m Pre-check.”
The TSA agent looked at me evenly and said, “Pre-check isn’t open.”
“But I didn’t have to take off my shoes,” I said.
“Yes, but the rest of Pre-check isn’t open,” he said.
Really? No signs indicated that. No one said that.
I watched with a sinking feeling as the agent pulled out my carefully wrapped small jar of honey.
Then my journalist friend who was booked on a different flight delivered the awful news: “Your flight is closed.”
I felt like weeping. I was exhausted from traveling for six days and running through the airport like a woman on fire. The airline wouldn’t pay for a hotel. I faced the prospect of spending an uncomfortable night in airport seats or paying hundreds of dollars for a last-minute hotel room.
“Stop, just stop,” I told the TSA agent. “I’ll check this bag tomorrow. My flight is gone.”
“Okay,” he said, stepping back from the jumble that was now my rollaboard.
I couldn’t get the bag closed. “I can’t close it,” I announced, feeling tears welling up.
The agent put some muscle into it and got my bag zipped. He pointed the way out of security.
Blessed Kay B.
At the United ticket counter, I told the agent I needed a boarding pass for tomorrow’s flight. She punched in some numbers and handed me a boarding pass. In the seat section, there were stars instead of a seat number. “Don’t I have seat?” I asked plaintively.
“Oh, I can do something with that,” agent Kay B. said, typing away. I rested my forehead on the tall counter. Damn I was tired. The tendinitis I’d been battling all week made my elbow throb.
“Is there any way you can get me a voucher? This roundtrip ticket was $1,000 and now I have to buy a hotel room.”
Kay handed me my boarding pass. “Here’s your boarding pass. It’s a window seat in Economy Plus seating, which gives you a bit more leg room.”
Then she gave me a pink piece of paper. “This is what you do. Call this number. They represent all the hotels in the area and they all have airport shuttles. This coupon will give you half off.”
Then she provided detailed instructions for getting to the shuttle area.
A call to the 800 number booked me a room for $68 at the Renaissance. Not bad. With a boat load of other stranded passengers, I waited 45 minutes for the hotel shuttle. Once at the hotel, the clerk was courteous and helpful.
By now, it was 11 o’clock. “Are any of your restaurants open?” I asked hopefully. The crackers and cheese I’d eaten had worn off long ago.
Food from the bar, restaurant, and room service had just closed she said. But she produced a couple of menus and said brightly, “They deliver here all the time.”
And they did. Twenty minutes later, a tasty Chicago pizza with slightly soggy crust arrived for $25.
The hotel room was also quite nice; a bargain for $68.
After a few pieces of pizza and a phone call to let my family know I wasn’t coming home, I collapsed into bed. The clock read 12:45 a.m.
My alarm and wake-up call came early, about 3 ½ hours later. Feeling groggy with hair slightly askew, I sipped a cup of hotel coffee and shuttled through the darkness to the airport. My strategy was to get to the airport plenty early so I could check my bag.
As I was checking in at the kiosk, I said to the agent, “My flight was screwed up and I missed my connection yesterday. Could you not charge me for the bag?”
She sent me to the United counter, but the woman said she couldn’t waive the fee. “But it cost me $83 with tax for a hotel room last night because my flight was delayed and I missed my connection.”
“It wasn’t our fault,” she said firmly. “I can’t waive the bag fee.”
“Certainly you can waive the fee,” I persisted. “It wasn’t my fault the flight was late.”
“No, I can’t,” she said, clack-clacking away at the keyboard.
I felt my blood boil. With only 3 ½ hours of sleep the night before, I was beyond tired. I handed the woman my credit card and said, “Well, you’re a dis-empowered employee.”
“You will not disrespect me like that,” she shot back. “I don’t have to take that from you.”
God, I thought, she could make my bag disappear forever as I watched her paste printed labels on my suitcase. She slapped my credit card and boarding pass back on the counter. I kept my mouth shut.
This time, getting through security was uneventful. Later, as I stood in line at Starbucks, a woman passenger turned and smiled. “Here, take this breakfast voucher,” she said, holding out a card she’d been given by the airline. Apparently she’d missed her flight yesterday too, but the airline gave her vouchers. I gratefully accepted and enjoyed a breakfast wrap courtesy of United. The free food improved my mood.
In talking with other passengers, I learned many on my flight had missed connections and were a day late. Some had flights cancelled and had received hotel and food coupons; others, like me, had gotten a discount hotel coupon. Still others ended up with nothing.
The flight home was easy. As I slid into my broad United Economy Plus seat with extra legroom and an electrical plugin in the brand spanky new B737-800 and no one occupying the middle seat, I felt grateful for United Airlines agent Kay B. who’d taken pity on me and tried to make a bad situation better. As I sipped coffee and wrote this, I thought about the cheerful woman who’d given me her food voucher.
I reflected on the friend who’d go out of her way to pick me up at the airport because my spouse couldn’t and felt grateful.
Was this the best air travel experience I’d ever had? Not by a long shot. However, considering how many miles I fly every year and how many hundreds of thousands of planes take off and land annually, these kinds of delays are pretty rare.
Did I keep my Zen cool throughout? No, I wish I could say I did.
As I gazed out the plane’s window at a beautiful puffy cloud layer and, later, at the wrinkled terrain below, I contemplated what this experience had taught me.
This is the best I could come up with: Travel is a lot like life–it’s got its ups and downs. It’s no better, no worse than anything else. And when life’s (and travel’s) downs happen, deal with it.
And be really grateful for the people who make stressful times a little easier. I know I am.
– Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor