Flight from Hell

My 4pm flight from Cleveland to O'Hare normally takes 75 minutes. Last night, my 4pm flight got me home some time early this morning. I got into bed around 2am or so. And it still wasn't the worst flight I've been on!

The best thing I can say about the flight home last night was that it was not the worst flight I’ve ever been on.  It’s not even close.  The flight, itself, was actually fine.  What was wrong was O’Hare and it’s chronic mishandling of flights.

History lesson before we start.  At least once a year I go from Chicago – Cleveland – Chicago.  I go to see Taffy, my grandmother (don’t call her grandma or Harriet!) and to make her feel good.  She claims it’s to fix her internet.  I think she just wants to hang out.  Anyway, the flight to Cleveland is usually problematic.  Half the time, the 6:30pm flight gets canceled.  The 8pm flight is canceled about 80% of the time, in my experience.  I wanted to take the 5pm flight, but I get off work at 4pm, and I knew making that flight would be rough.  The later flight’s problem is Hopkins, which shuts down much earlier than O’Hare, which never shuts down, and they don’t always have the staff to handle one more flight.  We all know this and try to avoid that flight because of it.

Coming back from Cleveland is generally more of a problem, because O’Hare sucks.  If you fly at all, you know this.  Part of the problem is O’Hare can’t get their shit together and sort out how to handle the volume of traffic.  You’d think for a Hub city they’d have their act together and expect a lot of people, and a lot of planes.  With three runways, they should be able to do it.  But it’s the other part of the problem that stumps them: the weather.  In their defense, the weather in the Midwest has been epically horrific this last year.  We’ve had the wettest winter and spring on record, and since last summer, we’ve had a ‘new’ phenomena called ‘Microburst storms’ which nail us hard and fast.  When that happens, it cripples O’Hare, because it can’t send its flights anywhere, and now, oh shucks, what do we do with the planes that landed!?

Point being, when the weather’s bad, flights get backed up.  What people don’t understand are flight patterns.  We get that the Earth is round, so while it looks like a straight shot from the C-cities, draw a line on a ball and look at how it curves.  Flights have two choices: curve northward or curve southward.  Most airlines send flights curving one way to go Eastward, and the other to go West, and each airline isn’t the same.  There’s also flying altitude, which is even numbers one way and odds the other, just in case you wondered.  Normally American Eagle (who flies the run) seems to go Eastbound to the north and Westbound to the south.  This, of course, depends on the weather.

Yesterday, Cleveland had some Microbursts while I was there (one woke me up at 6am, another happened while we got a little drunk at Nighttown in the morning), and Raymond, Taffy’s driver, asked if I was worried about my flight.  “Not really.  Whatever happens, happens.”  Prophetic words, eh?  Raymond drove me to the airport, with Taffy in the back, and my bottle of Drambuie in my bag.  Oh yeah, that was my birthday present from Taffy.  I love her.  Of course, that meant I had to check my bags, which ended up adding an extra three hours to my ordeal.

I got to Hopkins around 90 minutes before my 4pm flight because Taffy was worried that I’d miss the flight if we got there later.  That wasn’t a problem, really, since Hopkins has free WiFi, so I flipped on the computer and settled in to play on the net and talk to folks.  The plane was supposed to board at 30 minutes to flight time, but as that came and went, I fired up Weather.com and checked what was going on.  It looked like a massive storm system was coming in just south of Chicago.  I reflected on my flight out to Cleveland and went ‘Aha, I flew over the lake and lake on the way in.  That’s north, so my return flight to the south is delayed from the weather.’  About half an hour after our original boarding time, we got on the plane.

We all get settled in and on the runway, the pilot tells us to turn off the electronics, so I text home and say I should land in 90 minutes (I always pad for stupidity) but since I have luggage, pretend it’s 2 hours, and when to leave home.  I read the Sky Mall and AA in flight magazines while waiting for take off.  It’s only when I’m done with both that I realize that we’re not barreling down the runway.  That’s odd.  Normally I only get about half-way through the second magazine before they clear us for electronics again.  That’s when the pilot says, “Well if you haven’t noticed, we’re waiting.  Looks like there’s a delay in O’Hare due to weather, so we’re going to head back to the gate and let you out.  Probably won’t take off for another hour or more.”  What a bummer, but whatever.  I can’t get WiFi on the plane (I think that’s the Faraday Cage in action, since I can get it on the jetbridge), so once I get back to the terminal, I whip out the iPad and check the website.

Everyone else starts pestering the flight guys, the desk people.  I network.  I Tweet what’s going on, check Facebook and blogs.   Before the other people find anything, someone tweets me ‘There’s a tornado.’  This is not the one that nailed Joplin, MO (and my heart goes out to them!), but another that was sighted in our airspace.  I poke around and finally find what I wanted to know.  There’s a huge storm sitting on the south curve of Lake Michigan.  It missed Chicago proper, but it’s screwing up flights in and out of the east of O’Hare.  Worse, there’s a massive storm system coming in from the Rockies (West, for you geographically challenged).  I get an update: plane expected to depart at 6:30 pm, so we should board by 6.  People are panicking now, because no one with a connecting flight will make it.  While the airline workers try to calm people down, I mention to the group what the status is.  It works!  Everyone relaxes.  I point out that no planes are going anywhere from O’Hare, so their connections are delayed or canceled.

Half the plane decides to try their luck elsewhere.  I know from experience that when the problem is weather, you get nothing trying to jump to a new plane if you have to fly past the storm zone.  If you were headed East (and needed to go O’Hare – NYC, which happens sometimes, or more likely, O’Hare – Paris) you had a chance.  If you were headed South (O’Hare – Texas) you likely could get another flight.  But a bunch of morons went to try Denver as an alternate hub.  And those of use who wanted to just get home asked ‘Anything open at Midway?’  Nothing was open.  Midway was catching the left overs from O’Hare but only had minor delays and no cancelations.

I fly O’Hare for one reason only: I fly American Airlines.  I’ve been screwed by United so many times I refuse to fly them.  They regularly cancel flights and more than once refused to compensate me for a cancelation that was due to equipment failure.  I used to take the peanut flight from Continental (every 90 minutes there’s a Midway – Hopkins flight), but United bought them out recently, so we’re screwed there too.  Delta doesn’t do the run very often, so I’m left with the only airline where my knees don’t touch the seat in front of me in a non-exit row.  That’s important to someone five-six!  Still, I started shopping around until I remembered I had a very nice bottle of booze in my bag.  Fuckit.  I’ll take my chances.

By 6:30pm we’re on the plane again, this time half-empty, and I snag the two seats in the exit row, to stretch out.  Winning.  The pilot sighs as I settle in and the flight attendant refills my water bottle for free.  “We have another delay.  I’d like you all to stay on board, though.  This should be quick.”  One guy leaves, two others get on, and we manage to take off by about seven, which I think “Hey, 3 hours late isn’t that bad!” remembering the time United strung us on for almost 6 hours once, without a single update.  The ‘turbulence’ is bad.  Technically it’s ‘heavy chop’ but the point is the pilot doesn’t want to serve drinks.  That’s probably why the attendant refilled my water.  Outside, it’s clear on the north side of the plane and grey-black on the south.  We’re clearly skirting the storm and are going to pay for it on the thermals.  I read eBooks until the chop is so bad my stomach drops like I’m on a roller coaster, and at that point, I stow everything, huddle in my coat, and fall asleep for 20 minutes.  Yes, I can sleep in this stuff.

I wake up as we’re descending for a landing and get my cell phone out and on my knee.  As soon as we land and get the all clear, I text home.  After thirty minutes, I text and say we’re waiting on a gate.  Actually we’re in line with five other planes, all waiting.  The screenshot is the “Damn You, Autocorrect!” conversation that ensued.

We don’t get off the plane until a little after nine.  The pilot is very open with us, telling us that he’s radioing in often, but the control tower isn’t replying.  He presumes they’re overwhelmed, as the other pilots (who are radioing each other) aren’t getting answers either.  Only one flight got to deplane, and they had an overflowing toilet (the pilot lets us start using the toilet at this point and we all joke that we could totally break it).  The best guess we come up with is that storm has grounded flights, and the gates are filled with those planes.  They need to move those planes out to get us in.  I remark “Since the Eastbound flights are able to go, I bet they’ll loop us around the gate and have us disembark on the other side.”  Twenty minutes later, they do.

After my (correct) comment about the boarding time, and now this, the ATF guy is eying me.  I had my eye on him earlier, so he asks how I knew that.  I told him it was obvious, just like his job, and he nods, readily accepting that I’m one of those savvy fliers.  I also point out that I’ve been flying for 34 years, probably longer than our Flight Attendant.  She says it’s true and had started serving booze and soda around the 8:30pm mark.  The ATF guy and I stick together, getting down to the baggage carousel in record time only to find it’s busted.  We move to the next one, and one poor airline woman is announcing that because lightning is hitting, we’re delayed at getting the luggage off the plane.

Spirit Air had just gotten their last load off, and people ask why them.  I try to explain about unions and timing, but basically everyone is (rightly) pissed because no one knows anything.  One guy decides he’s going to fill out the ‘please send my bags to my house’ form, but ATF guy and I watch him fill out the form and walk out of the airport with it.  That’s right.  He never turns it in.  “Well I know someone who’s going to be pissed tomorrow,” I joke.  ATF guy and I laugh.  The carousel suddenly turns on.  ATF stays in line, I go to see what’s up.  By the time I get back to the line (having OCD’d enough to determine it’s the same 17 bags going around, and nothing new), three people are ahead of me.  ATF offers to let me in, but I point out it won’t matter enough.

As I’m in line, I hear my name and turn around.  It’s a coworker, coming back from the annual, totally unofficial and non-work sanctioned, Vegas Trip.  Happens every May.  She flew through the storm that is now pounding the hell out of O’Hare.  We chat for a while, and I explain the situation and why I’m in line, and she sticks with me.  She wishes someone would just explain what’s going on, or update us.  Seconds later, a little Eastern European woman steps out in an outfit screaming ‘Upper management’ and says, in an accent that reminds me of my pediatrician, “Operations are now resumed!  Your bags are being brought to baggage claim.  We do not know what number.  Thank you.”

Immediately we all work together.  I have a good, clear, loud voice and repeat her announcement when I’m on the other end of the room.  The official person has a high, thin, soprano with no carrying tone, so she seems thankful.  The carousels start up again (and somewhere in all this, the Logan’s Run jokes were born and died), and my coworker says she hopes it’s her flight.  First is San Francisco, which we announce ‘San Fran, number 4!’ so people know.  Then ‘Vegas!  Vegas is on four!’ and she has her bag and leaves.

It’s a while more (Pittsburgh and Baltimore on three) before Cleveland shows up on three as well.  I’ve sorted it out now and tell people as I leave “Looks like West Coast sites are on four, East is on three.”  I stop to help a family of five get where they need to be, and don’t text or tweet anything as I all but run to find where my girl’s parked the car.  We get in and rush home in the light rainstorm, which picks up and becomes powerful just as we get inside.

But now, after around eight hours traveling for a 75 minute flight, I am home.

And the Drambuie is safe.

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