14 minute read

Friday, January 20th, 2012 at 9AM started the worst traveling experience I’ve ever had.

Have you ever had to sleep in an airport? I’d never had the pleasure until just recently…

You see, my employer is based in Memphis Tennessee, and with me living in the Great White North of Michigan I travel down south at least a couple times a year. I’ve been traveling down there for the last, almost, 3 years without too many problems. Maybe a delay here or there, but nothing significant.

Until the aforementioned January 20th of 2012 when I was heading back home.

Earlier that day my boss asked me if I had seen the weather in Chicago, where I’d be making my connection flight to Grand Rapids from O’Hare International. He mentioned that they’d be having a few inches of snow and wondered if I wanted to try to get an earlier flight out to beat the storm. Me, being a Michigander, laughed at the “few inches of snow” and figured Chicago would be more than capable of handling it and my flight would not be a problem.

I left for the airport at 9AM to drop off my rental, get my tickets, get through security, and find my gate. All happened without incident and by 10:40AM the pilot had the bird in the air and I was happily heading home, byway of Chicago, and these “few inches of snow”.

At around 12:30PM the pilot notifies us of our arrival and that weather in Chicago was a bit rough but we’d be landing shortly. Since my connection flight to Grand Rapids wasn’t boarding until 2:00PM it was going to be a lazy, comfortable stroll to my gate, stopping for some lunch along the way. The flight from Chicago to Grand Rapids takes about 45 minutes so within a few hours I was going to be home, where I could rest up from traveling, catch up with my wife since I’d been gone for a week, and prep for my Land Navigation and Orienteering course that was happening on the 21st.

We landed, I grabbed a bite, and found my new gate and located a seat. While I sat there watching the news I also watched as passengers were being boarded on planes only to be de-boarded 30 minutes later. The weather was getting worse and they were delaying more and more flights due to visibility. This was a bit disconcerting. I did not like the pattern I was seeing.

After a, surprise, gate change, 2:00 was getting close. I kept watching the monitors at the new gate for any signs of delay. And, delay it did, first to 2:30 then to 3:00, then 3:20, and 3:50, and 4:00, and then 4:30… things were getting worrisome. During that time a man sat down across from me that looked very familiar. And after a little bit I had remembered where I met him, he was my instructor in a pistol class I took about a year ago. After introducing myself and confirming that it was indeed him, I found out he was on his way back from the Las Vegas SHOT Show event and on stand-by from another flight that had been cancelled. Pleasant. Well, 5:00PM came and went with no boarding and soon after the monitor at the gate said my flight was cancelled. Oh joy.

I got up and headed to the customer service counter where they gave me a wait list ticket for a 9:00PM flight. Yes! Another 4 hours I get to say at the airport! Since I had a lot of time on my hands I kind of wandered over to my new gate so I could scope out the area and find a place to kick back.

It was then that I started to wonder “What happens if I’m not given a seat on this flight? How will I get home?” Time to take action and be prepared. So, I headed up to the service counter at the gate to figure this out. See, Grand Rapids is only 3.5 hours of driving time away from Chicago, I could just rent a car one-way and drive myself home, so I wanted to know what my chances of making the flight were. Apparently not good. There were 50+ people on stand-by waiting for a flight on a plane that only seated roughly 50 people! The nice lady at the counter told me of a 1PM flight to Lansing THE NEXT DAY where I could put a hold on a seat, just in case. Lansing gets me closer to home, but it’s still a 1.5 hour drive home (making it a 3 hour trip for my wife). I told her I was going to find out about renting a car first, but that I may be back to do just that.

Cell reception wasn’t very good at that gate so I walked out into the concourse to get a better signal and call some car rental places. Since this was after 5PM on a Friday, not many were open, and those that were, were either sold out or were not doing one-way rentals for that weekend. Great. It’s either win the lottery and make the 9PM flight or sleep at the airport and catch the 1PM tomorrow. Sigh.

Missing the 9PM flight also meant I would miss the training event I had been looking forward to (and had already paid for) on the 21st. Double sigh.

I quickly got back to the gate, asked about the 1PM ticket and they hooked me up. At least I had a way home. Now, it was just wait to see if I was one of the lucky ones that got a seat on the 9PM flight.

A couple hours pass. And then another gate change. I can’t stand gate changes since it always feels like there is a chance for miscommunication and a missed flight as a result. So, I head to the new gate where I inquire about the flight change (since they had no confirmation of my flight number up anywhere). The guy at the gate looks at my wait list ticket and says “That’s not a boarding pass, you need a boarding pass.” Me, “I know, can you get me one?” Him, “Sure, one second”… Seriously?? Yes! Things are looking up! He goes over to the desk punches a few keys, walks back over and hands me a genuine boarding pass for the 9PM flight! BAM! Elated I walk over to grab a seat and text my wife of what I had in my hot-little-hands… we were overjoyed.

While sitting in my moment of sunshine I started to look in awe at my awesome little ticket home. That’s when I saw it, the ticket had someone else’s name on it. Oh no. Now, I’ve never been on stand-by before so I didn’t know if that’s just how they do it, maybe they give you a ticket from an earlier cancelation. You know, kind of shuffling the open seats. Back up to the service desk I go. This time I got someone else and I laid it all out to them, showed them everything I had. Yup, wrong ticket. Seems the person who originally gave me the wait list ticket, 3 hours ago, had screwed up and issued it for a confirmed passenger and not me. UGH!

Another gate change. This is starting to become frustrating, to say the least, and I’m starting to get a bit raw. Off I go to that gate.

Nothing like sitting around at a gate with a hundred people waiting to get on a flight that only seats 50. It’s tense, you can feel it. 9PM rolls by and no boarding call, they haven’t even started calling names off the stand-by list. 9:30PM, nothing. When is this going to end? At this point I just want them to get on with it so I can hear, once and for all, that I’ll be curling up on a bench (if I’m lucky) to wait out the night. 10PM comes and they finally start calling names. They pick, 10, maybe 12, lucky souls that get to leave this wretched place. Boarding starts at around 10:30PM and the gate people are telling the unchosen ones to wait it out because they always have a few empty seats that haven’t been accounted for. Which they did, and about 5 more people win the lottery, unfortunately none were me.

I sit there, in utter disappointment, as I watch them close the gate and all chance of me getting home that night. I felt like Chewy in “The Empire Strikes Back” when the doors close leaving Han and Luke out in the cold of Hoth.

What do I do? Being one who doesn’t give up so easily I headed back to the customer service counter to see if they could find an earlier flight to Grand Rapids. Oh man, that was a long line, filled with very irritated, tired and weary people. I fit in perfectly. After waiting what felt like forever I finally get to the front of the line. I wasn’t there for more that 5 minutes and a guy taps my shoulder and asks me to follow him to another service counter. Nice. Getting somewhere. He brings me to another nice lady where I spill out my wonderful travel day’s events, she seemed genuinely sad for me. Aww. A few clicks on her keys and sure enough, a direct flight to Grand Rapids at 10:30AM the next morning! After a few more clicks I had, in my hands, a real boarding pass to the flight that was going to take me home. I even confirmed it with her, two times. While she was clicking away on her computer I had asked her about if the airport offered cots to the stranded passengers, her response was “That’s a good question” and never said any more. I thought that was an odd response but was too tired and excited about my ticket to push it any further.

Happy that I had found an earlier flight I resigned myself to my fate and went looking for someplace to get some dinner and have a beer. It was now past 11PM and, everything was closed! Are you kidding me?! One Starbucks, out of the many at the airport, was open. I think it stayed open mostly to serve the overnight airport staff. For $15 I had a sandwich, a banana, and a coffee. Dinner was served.

With my belly full, sans a tasty brew, and figuring sleep wasn’t really going to be an option, I went off exploring the airport. Being very tired from traveling all day I noticed I had developed a stumbling, lumbering gate. It reminded me of how a zombie walks. Looking at the other stranded people I noticed they were all doing the same thing, lumbering around aimlessly. I coined us all the “Airport Zombies”.

While exploring I found a “charging chair” where you could plug in your phone and/or laptop to top off the battery. Since this had been a problem all day I decided to stop to charge my phone, and rest my legs. I sat there for a while, waiting for my phone to charge and watching the zombies stumble by. It was getting close to midnight and they started playing some recording over the intercom about only ticketed passengers were allowed in the concourse after midnight and anyone found without a ticket would be escorted out. I’m thinking “Seriously, you’re going to send security out to shake down everyone here that’s trying to sleep?” I would have been just a tad upset if some security guard came by and woke me up out of my, lucky, slumber, only to “check my papers”. That would have resulted in some yelling and “evil eye” glares. Thankfully, that never happened.

After my charging needs were taken care of I went in search of a comfy chair or bench to try to rest my weary zombie bones. I found myself in concourse B, which had some decent chairs, and started noticing everyone else trying to lay down and rest. The people varied from little kids to little old ladies and I thought to myself, can’t they find somewhere for these kids and little old ladies to sleep? What about those cots I asked about? Oh well, maybe this is just how it goes.

I picked a far off grouping of chairs that had a couple put together without an arm rest between them, this was so I could try to lay down. But, two chairs weren’t enough to fully stretch out so I had to kind of straddle an arm rest with my knees. It was not very comfortable but I forced myself to stay there and just rest and listen to the news channel they had playing on the TVs. It was maybe an hour before the discomfort forced me back up. Sitting there, uncomfortable, tired, and a bit cold (had they turned the heat down in this place?) I decided to get back up and walk over to the F concourse.

The F concourse seemed to have more resting zombies and therefore was tougher to find some decent seating. Well, seating with missing arm rests, apparently the other zombies were drawn to them as well. I picked a random chair to rest a bit and while I was zoning out I noticed a woman getting up from her spot and leaving. Looking over there I noticed she had left 4 chairs in a row without arm rests! So, I grabbed my stuff and headed over there, it was so nice to stretch my legs out completely. It still wasn’t what I’d call comfortable, but it was better than sitting in a chair or straddling an arm rest.

For whatever reason I woke up, yes WOKE UP, and checked my watch. It was now 4:30AM and I determined that I had been sleeping for almost 2 hours! Figuring that was going to be good enough I got up and checked the flight arrival/departure monitors for my 10:30AM flight. It was there, with a gate assignment, so that gave me some relief. Needing some coffee I found myself back at the only Starbucks that was open and got me an eye-opener. With coffee in hand I found a chair to sit in and started checking email and surfing the Interwebs.

I had emailed the director of the group that was holding the land navigation course, that I was now going to miss, and he was very nice and accommodating. They ended up shifting my registration to a later event in March, so at least that was taken care of. Later I found out that they had a “memorial service”, for me, their missing comrade, that’s too funny.

As the hours pass by I spent it reading, emailing, texting, and checking my various social networks. It definitely helped knowing that my flight was coming up. When 10AM closes in I make for my gate to wait for my flight home.

While sitting at the gate, people watching, some lady walks up and sits next to me. She’s obviously unhappy and from her grumblings I found out she was a fellow airport zombie. We trade stories of our travel experiences, etc etc. and somehow the topic of cots came up. I mentioned that I had asked about them and didn’t get anywhere and then she hits me with it… apparently they HAD COTS! They just neglected to tell anyone! She told me about how some gate attendant came up to her while she was resting and asked why she hadn’t just grabbed a cot. She mentioned that no one had told her, he mentioned that, yes indeed, they had cots down by baggage claim. Are you kidding me?? I could’ve had a decent, not great, but decent night’s sleep on a cot rather than find some chairs to “sleep” on.

After a bit she was getting annoying with all the complaining, even cursing loudly with kids nearby. So, I asked if she’d watch my bag while I checked to see if my gate had changed. Luckily it had, so I went back for my bag, wished her a good flight and scooted out of there.

If you’ve made it this far without gouging your eyes out from boredom, I commend and thank you. Therefore, I won’t bore you with the rest of the story since everything went smoothly and by 1PM my wife had picked me up and I was riding home where I spent the rest of the day napping.

Moral of the story? Don’t fly in the winter, and if you need to, be prepared for a night at the airport.

Oh, and look out for Airport Zombies! They’re a rough bunch and not to be taken lightly!