By Sarah Pridgeon
As you read these words, I will be once again recuperating from a transatlantic flight. You might think I’d be used to all the back and forthing by now, but boarding that plane is always a source of dread. To demonstrate rather clearly why that is, let me share with you the worst journey I have ever experienced – one that took four whole days to complete.
The debacle began as I shot out of bed and began to zip suitcases and check passports. When I cast a cursory glance at the website, my flight had disappeared entirely – it had been cancelled due to a storm on the East Coast. Apparently, and this was a brand new thought for me, if the old planes can’t leave Chicago airport then there’s nowhere for the new planes to park.
My replacement flight was booked for 7 a.m. the next day, which meant a 2.30 a.m. departure. My father having pled age and general decrepitude, I climbed blearily into an airport taxi instead.
All seemed to be going well until we hit the M4, one of the biggest and busiest motorways in the south. A loud pop and a wiggle later, we were huddled on the hard shoulder with a blown tire.
Assistance, of course, does not trouble itself to hurry at that time of night. I pinned myself against the door in an effort to avoid the gigantic trucks whizzing by, three inches from the wing mirror, while my taxi driver blustered ineffectually into his cell phone and the time trickled slowly away.
When help finally came, two hours later, I fully expected to be stranded in the airport with no means of communication or transport. Not even my driver could help – he wouldn’t leave the car at the drop-off point for fear that they would assume it was abandoned luggage and explode it to be on the safe side.
For once, however, the fates seemed on my side. The flight was as delayed as I was and the kindly representatives at the check-in desk were more than happy to rush me through. Flooded with relief, I set off on the mile-long hike to the departure gate.
Unfortunately, somebody had broken the plane. I’m not sure which twiddly bit had fallen off, but they didn’t seem able to replace it and we were told that, once again, our flight was cancelled. We were to be housed in a nearby hotel until they could figure out a new plan.
As all 300 passengers trudged wearily through customs, I wondered aloud why we were being made to do so when we hadn’t actually been anywhere. Two hours later, I wondered even more loudly how it’s possible to lose 300 suitcases from an airplane that has not moved.
Finally reunited with our belongings, we made our circuitous way to the hotel and settled in to wait for word. When it finally came, I discovered that I not only had another day to wait, I had been booked on a journey that would take 27 hours to complete.
Though the hotel was about three feet from the terminal, the roads to reach it were as sensibly laid out as a bowl of spaghetti. Some time later, I approached the customer service desk with the air of a wounded deer, but to no avail: my flight was the best available option, contrary to all appearances.
Resigned to my doom, I spent the evening trying to purchase a toothbrush for less than $300 in the airport stores and complimenting the hotel staff on how well they were dealing with the influx of stranded passengers when they clearly only had a bag of rice and a tomato in the kitchen cupboards.
Determined to stay positive, I decided that things were going better the next day when the lovely lady at the check-in desk did her best to ease my pain by moving me to an empty row. This precious gift granted me nine hours of flight time with my feet up, resting on three pillows under a pile of blankets.
This may have been a small mercy under the circumstances, but there’s nothing quite like getting business class space for economy prices. Meanwhile, I made friends with the lady opposite with me, who was traveling to Belize with nothing but a tent, a sleeping bag and a bottle of rum she was fully prepared to share.
At Newark Airport, I joined a queue of some 200 people trying desperately to find their way home. A row of representatives who should have finished work several hours earlier did their best to solve every problem, but the horror stories kept coming.
For example, several among our merry band were stranded for at least two more days and, because their delays were due solely to weather, were not eligible for a hotel room. A jovial Canadian gentleman who had taken it upon himself to herd the confused crowds onto the airport shuttle system turned out to have been there for almost a week and still had no idea when he would be leaving.
My own problem was easier to solve: I just wanted to lay my head on a hotel pillow and freshen up before the next stage of the journey. By the time I had navigated the broken train system and overworked buses, I was only able to close my eyes for an hour. This was still preferable to sitting on a bench in the departure lounge for 12 hours.
The fourth day dawned and I had begun to feel like Tom Hanks in The Terminal. Too tired to properly form sentences, I labored my way through airport security for the third time.
At a certain point of an experience like this one, everything starts to seem a bit surreal. Sitting by the gate, I watched a startlingly beautiful sunrise over the Manhattan skyline while a CNN newscaster on a nearby screen spread panic about a Velveeta shortage before handing over to, of all people, Ice Cube for a gritty report on current events.
I boarded the plane hoping for one small favor from the heavens: that it would take off without incident. Instead, the pilot got himself stuck in traffic. Meanwhile, the stewardesses fussed and fretted because there weren’t enough overhead lockers for our bags.
Turning to the lady next to me, I mused that the situation was very similar to the Titanic, only with lockers instead of lifeboats. She raised an amused eyebrow and commented that it might be best if this was the only similarity between the two vehicles.
The minutes ticked by as I seethed in my seat, but all was still not lost. Once again proving that United is the Little Airline That Could, the pilots made up such an impressive amount of time during the flight that I did make my connection after all. This rather begs the question of why the planes don’t always go that fast, but on the plus side I was now just a single hour from my destination.
Or at least, I was only an hour away until we discovered that my final plane was drastically over its weight limit and unable to take off. I still cannot fathom how a plane with the right amount of passengers carrying the appropriate number of bags could have tipped over its limit so dramatically, but I suppose it’s possible that some of my stranded peers had snuck into the baggage hold.
Unless they could make the math work, some of us were going to need to get off the plane – and I think we all know who would have been first down the ramp. It is fortunate, therefore, that another miracle worker was present with his abacus and I lost 45 minutes instead of my seat. Finally, four days later, I touched down on home soil and collapsed with glorious abandon into the waiting arms of my husband.
Though a four-day journey with little sleep is a harrowing experience and the jetlag no help whatsoever, I’m grateful to have met all the interesting characters along my way and I’m certain that things could have been an awful lot worse. Even so, it took a great deal of willpower not to book my current journey to England via boat.