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Endless flight makes gulliver’s travels seem short

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Lynne D. Schwabe Lynne D. Schwabe
Lynne D. Schwabe is the director of development for the National Youth Science Foundation. She can be reached at schwabestatejournal@gmail.com.

Really, you couldn’t make this up.

I began on a Monday at 10 a.m., taking a shuttle to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to catch my 1:10 p.m. flight to Charleston. En route, I got a message saying that my flight had been cancelled and that I was rescheduled on a 6 p.m. flight. Not convenient, but I could deal with it.

About mid-afternoon, violent thunderstorms began to sweep across Chicago. I kept getting texts from the airline saying the flight was delayed due to weather. After about five such messages, I figured I needed a back-up plan, so I called a friend at the airline to ask for help. She booked me on a flight Tuesday morning just in case, and I heaved a sigh of relief, feeling only slightly smug for having this airline ace in my pocket.

The delay messages continued, long past the scheduled 6 p.m. departure time of the flight — 10 p.m., 11 p.m., midnight, 1 a.m. Finally at 1:30 a.m., the flight was cancelled because they didn’t have a crew. This was confusing, because we had been told previously that our aircraft had arrived and that a crew was on the way from Gate F12.

It must just be me. I’m sure running a huge airline is very complicated work, requiring many people who get the big bucks for making it work. But, really. You have a plane that is scheduled to fly; you need someone to fly it, right? Seems to me that these kinds of needs could be anticipated.

It was 1:30 a.m. The airline clubs and restaurants were closed; customer service people had retired hours ago. By this time, a not-so-merry band had formed, consisting of the people on the flight to Charleston. Using great logic, we decided that spending the night in the airport was our best alternative because: there was an hour wait for a taxi; hotels nearby were sold out; and we would have to be back at the airport at 6 a.m. anyway in order to check in for the new flight and go through security.

Have you spent the night at an airport recently? There are no places where you can stretch out … except the floor. Even the airport chairs for waiting customers are configured as such that there are arms in between each seat. You would have to be a caterpillar to physically drape yourself over these humps. People began settling in corners in interesting configurations of suitcases under heads, knees against walls, jackets used as blankets. Every charging station was occupied, as people attempted to recharge phones and computers.

The night passed … very … very … slowly.

When the rosy fingers of dawn began poking through the airport windows, we raced to get boarding passes printed for our next flight. This is when I discovered that my ace-in-the-hole ticket had been booked for March of 2015 instead of May of 2014. Luckily, I was able to get a seat on a plane from O’Hare to Washington Dulles International Airport, with a connection to Charleston.

We finally boarded the plane, which actually flew on time, to its destination. There was one dismaying incident: a Swedish exchange student got very ill, and in her mad dash to the bathroom to throw up, she made an intermediary stop beside my seat, threw up in the aisle, and all over my shoes and carry-on. A few handiwipes later, we had recovered and had gained a second burst of energy.

This was fortuitous because our plane landed at 12:01 and our connection took off at 12:33. I said to the airline attendant when she was rebooking us that we’d never make it.

“Oh no,” the attendant said, giving a dismissive wave of her well-manicured hand. “There are so many of you on the plane they’ll hold the flight for you.”

Sure. Huffing and puffing, after racing from as far as one could possibly be at Dulles to our new gate — in another terminal! — we arrived five minutes after scheduled departure time. The plane was gone and the gate agent snorted, “We don’t hold flights.”

At this point I began thinking this airline needed more communications training for its employees. At the very least, they should make sure the lies they tell are confirmed by their fellow employees. But I digress. We all scurried to customer service and were booked on a 6 p.m. flight to Charleston. Great. A bit more time sitting in an airport, but a light at the end of the tunnel. Life was good.

Until the thunderstorms began to roll in and the airport was closed down. Again with the delays, due to weather. I counted and over the course of two traveling days, I got 19 messages from the airline, saying my flights had been delayed or in three instances cancelled. The missed flight, I guess, was our fault for not being Olympic distance runners. As the 6 p.m. flight was pushed farther and farther back, people were beginning to lose whatever self control they might have formerly had. Loud curses were heard; tempers were lost. From the “long story short” department, we finally took off at about 12:45 a.m. and arrived in Charleston at 1:45 a.m. The luggage didn’t arrive, but we did. Finally.

By this time, I had been awake for more than 40 hours. My teeth had moss growing on them, and I had not had a shower or changed clothes in two days. Let’s just say, I was not my most fetching self.

All in all, I feel about airplanes the way I feel about diets. They’re wonderful things for other people to go on.