The Black Hole of the Midwest

Today’s mid-travel adventures go like this:

  • Get through security at the Fort Wayne airport at 12:38 p.m.
  • Settle in to the waiting area for my flight, which will begin boarding at 1:40 p.m. for departure at 2:11 p.m.
  • Please note: this flight has nothing to do with Chicago. The plane will not approach Chicago, it will not take a shortcut through Chicago, it will not give Chicago a passing glance as we make our way south and west, headed towards Big Sky country. Instead we will fly under Chicago, to Dallas/Fort Worth. When we take off, we will be exactly 190 miles away from Chicago O’Hare by car (if you take US-30 W; 211 miles via IN-14 W or 227 miles by US-24 W) and that distance will immediately begin increasing at a speed somewhere between 460-575 miles per hour. I have, in fact, purposefully scheduled my flight plan to not involve Chicago in any way. At most, I will gesture rudely out the window at Illinois as we bisect the state on our way to Texas.

  • Announcement at 1:41 p.m.: We’re all here and ready to go, but the airplane scheduled for use in this flight from FWA to DFW is delayed in holy bananas how are they still ruining my plans Chicago. It is waiting on the tarmac at O’Hare International Airport, ladies and gentlemen, while flight control attempts to unsnarl the traffic jam on their runways. It should arrive at 2:15 p.m. and we’ll do our best to offload, load-up, and take off at 2:45. Come talk to us at the Gate 8 Desk if you require assistance.
  • Nerves start in, but no need to stand in the line at the desk for a missed connection: I will no longer have time for dinner in Texas, but if I speed walk (and/or run, depending on arrival and departure gates) I can still make the next plane.
  • Still no sign of a plane at 2:15 p.m., but the rolling grey of a storm has spread across the horizon and is rapidly approaching. Less than two minutes later, an almost-literal sheet of rain hits the large airport window to my right, the wind blowing so hard and suddenly it shoves an unused but prepped boarding ramp at the building. Everyone looks up at the window as it groans in protest, watches the rain continue to rapid-fire against the glass for a moment, then goes back to their phones.
  • The rain tapers off in time for the announcement at 2:23 p.m.: Due to weather, the airplane from Chicago—which had been circling the skies above the mess of clouds over Fort Wayne—has been diverted to Detroit. They will wait out the storm, refuel, and try again. Flight board now reads, “Departure Time 5:11 p.m.”
  • By 2:24 p.m. I’m third in line at Gate 8. At 3:00 p.m. I head downstairs to reclaim my checked bag and text my ride, hoping he’s available to pick me back up at the airport and drop me off at my apartment for the night. I have been rescheduled for a flight that leaves first thing tomorrow morning.
  • At 6:53 a.m. To Chicago.

UA 666

Because I find complaining about airlines cathartic, I wrote the following Monday morning, twenty hours into what should have been a seven hour trip. Transcribed from my chicken-scratch and organized into bullet points for your viewing pleasure, here’s what the last two days looked like for me:

  • First flight left on time, 12:35 pm Mountain Time.
  • Diverted to Madison, WI when a thunderstorm shut down Chicago O’Hare.
  • Storm ends half an hour after we land in Madison. Still might make my connecting flight, as long as this refuel goes as quickly as they say.
  • An hour and forty minutes after landing in Madison, WI they let us off the plane. The maintenance guy called to come in and figure out what’s wrong with the refueling is forty-five minutes away.
  • Madison, WI runs out of food. Plenty of alcohol at the bar, however, though I stay in the line at the gate, hoping to speak with a gate agent about rescheduling.
  • Finally figure out that United has one gate agent on staff in this part of the airport in Madison on a Sunday night. She flees the scene to help board another flight (headed, rather insultingly, to Chicago), leaving us with the news that even if she was available, she isn’t authorized to reschedule any flights. That’s her supervisor’s job.
  • Supervisor possibly dead.
  • At the very least we never see this mythical creature.
  • Trade rumors with fellow passengers about what’s going on with our plane for the next two hours. These run about as accurately as a game of telephone. In the process, accidentally become friends with people who’s names I will never know:
    • The Australian/American couple trying to get back home to London.
    • A young father certain to miss his daughter’s 5th birthday.
    • A girl who had only two days to go and see her friend.
    • A man married to a pastor’s daughter, shaking his head because he should have stayed home rather than go on this suddenly pointless overnight vacation to Kansas City.
    • A guy on hold with United for over an hour, with enough leftover concentration to laugh at my dry remarks about top-ten customer service strategies — like leaving until the line of irritated passengers disperses.
    • The partially blind man (he has a white cane and something wrong with his eyes, but meets my gaze when we exchange unpleasantries about flying in general and United in specific) who uses the Americans with Disabilities Act as a bludgeon. He raises his voice when he says “fair access,” but the lone gate agent just picks up speed on her way to the other flight when he yells the acronym at her back.
  • Forty minutes after our pilot tells us the fueling issue has been resolved and we’re good to go, I start the rumor that the reason we haven’t boarded yet is because we don’t have a gate agent to let us on (with the caveat that I’m only guessing).
  • Caveat does not make it into the rumor mill. Fortunately, no harm no foul: turns out I’m right. Four hours after landing in the capital of Wisconsin, someone finds a gate agent from downstairs and a computer printout of all our names to check everybody in. (By airline logic: because we do not belong in Madison, we do not exist in Madison. None of the computers here will do anything for us.)
  • Finally taxiing away from the airport for the twenty-nine minute flight to Chicago.
  • Some twenty-nine minutes after that, spend two and a half hours in the Chicago O’Hare customer service line with hundreds of other victims of weather and/or mechanical issues. Psychologically prepping myself to argue that our problem was ultimately mechanical and they therefore need to comp both the flight and the overnight stay.
  • Find out before I even get within gate-distance of customer service (the line started out two gates long) that our flight failure has already been classified as mechanical. Both relieved and disappointed at being robbed of the chance to vent my spleen.
  • During the two+ hours spent winding back and forth in front of customer service — while exchanging news with passengers I recognize from my flight as we pass on each loop — find out that:
    • The young father will make it back to Savannah just after nap-time tomorrow, in time for his daughter’s birthday after all.
    • The Londoners are stuck in Chicago until next evening.
    • The guy on the phone has beaten United Airlines down from a 6:00 pm flight next day to the 8:00 am one. He’s in line for hotel accommodations and looks enormously pleased with himself. We are legitimately happy for him, partly because it gives us hope, partly because we’re all friends now.
    • See the disabled man on a courtesy transport, grinning as he zips by customer service with his cane in his lap.
    • Meet another couple from my flight and talk for awhile — they remind me of grandparents. Not mine specifically, but enough to make me feel like I’m almost with family. We talk river rock, of all things.
    • End up at the customer service desk next to the married man, who waits around until my flight’s been re-booked and I have a hotel for the night. “I have a wife and a sister,” he says. “I just wanted to make sure.”
  • Get to the hotel a little before 1:00 am. Request a 4:15 am wake-up call. My ticket for the 7:35 am flight tomorrow is on standby and the gal at customer service — a very nice lady who does her best for me and feels bad when she can’t do better — suggested I get to the airport by 5:00 am.
    • (Still worth it for the shower and the three hour nap. I once spent the night at the Las Vegas airport where every single one of their chairs has armrests, which cuts off any possibilities of using them as a makeshift bed. Never again.)
  • Turns out I’m #2 on the standby list. I spend two and a half hours watching the sunrise come a soft, sweet purple across the tarmac, sweating out the wait and praying that no one will check in at the last minute.
  • Bonus discovery: on small airplanes, United charges for the second carry-on bag if you already have a personal item. Shove that bad boy into my tote like a boss, still hoping something terrible has happened to anyone else planning to check in for the flight.
  • Five minutes before the gate agent can start assigning spare seats to the ten or so standbys hoping they make the cut, I receive a text from United reminding me to check in for my return flight tomorrow morning.
  • Will find the timing funny at 7:15, when I’m sitting on the plane and thanking God I made it.
  • Having thanked God for deliverance, naturally spend the next hour and a half sitting in the plane without it moving so much as off the jet bridge. There’s a discrepancy in the maintenance paperwork so we have to wait for maintenance to send a spare guy to sign off on the plane.
  • Maintenance takes two minutes to sign off.
  • 10:37 am Eastern time zone we hit the tarmac at our destination. Only twenty and a half hours until boarding begins for my flight back to Bozeman.

There’s a good chance this is confusing at parts, but I’m operating on three hours of sleep and don’t feel like putting off this update for a more coherent time. Questions will earn you answers, so feel free to ask if something doesn’t make sense.

Ugh, I should’ve gone to bed two hours ago.