The weather delay blues

Ahh… travel. It can be such a magnificent, wonderful thing. Exploring other cultures, visiting beautiful destinations, and sampling local cuisines are all magically sublime experiences. But when things don’t quite go as planned, it can be an extremely frustrating affair. One that makes us wonder why we ever left home in the first place.

I received a sobering reminder of this little fact just this past week while preparing to head out of the country on yet another travel adventure. My destination was suppose to be San Pedro de Atacama, a quaint little village located in a mountainous desert region of northern Chile. Little did I know however, that I would spend all day in airports and on airplanes, just to eventually arrive back where I began the day. What could possibly have kept me from reaching my destination you ask? Why the very lovely Mother Nature of course!

My travel day began innocuously enough. I boarded a plane bound for Dallas, Texas from my hometown of Austin. The weather was a bit overcast, but didn’t appear particularly threatening. After all, Austin is in the middle of a bad drought, and we haven’t had any significant rainfall in weeks. That pattern held up, and soon I was on a short, 35-minute flight to the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. The flight is so short in fact, that the airline doesn’t even bother to roll out the drink cart.

After arriving safely at DFW, I quickly scanned the departures board and found the gate for my flight to Miami, where I would eventually catch an over-nighter to Santiago. With two hours to spare, I casually strolled over to the gate, grabbing some lunch en route, and settled in to get some work done while I waited the start of the next leg of my journey. Those couple of hours passed rather quickly, and before I knew it, I was walking down the jetway to board the plane. It was only then that the forces of nature began to conspire against me, plotting to send me spiraling down into a ring of Hell that even Dante hadn’t imagined.

As I approached the entrance to the plane, I could hear the sounds of the wind howling on the other side of the thin walls of the jetway. Worse yet, it was gusting to such a degree that the entire structure was swaying back in fourth, causing some of the passengers to scramble for a handhold. Outside, the clouds had turned an ominous shade of black, and by the time I reached my seat at the rear of the plane, the rain was falling in sheets and lighting crackled across the sky in intricate spiderweb patterns.

It soon became abundantly clear that we weren’t going anywhere for awhile, but knowing that I had a three-hour window to catch my international flight in Miami, I didn’t panic in the least. Instead, I nestled into my seat, pulled out my laptop, and tried to take advantage of the time to be a bit productive. Two hours later, I was still being productive and we still hadn’t gone anywhere.

It was about this time that frustration began to set in. Circumstances beyond my control were keeping me grounded in Dallas, and that window for catching my next flight was rapidly closing. I kept telling myself that if we got in the air soon, perhaps we could make up some time, and I could still catch that flight. I knew that if I didn’t make it, it meant spending the night, not to mention the entire next day, in Miami, just to catch another over night flight to Chile. Considering my time in South America wasn’t going to be that long to begin with, that didn’t sound like a very appealing proposition.

Another hour passed and we continued to sit on the ground. All hopes of reaching Miami in time were dashed, and my frustration had turned into a feeling of helplessness. I had just spent the last three hours on a very warm, very crowded, plane that hadn’t moved an inch. On top of that, a foul odor had begun to waft its way out of the bathroom, which was located just two rows of seats behind me. It was as if the stench had somehow become sentient, and decided to come out to join the rest of us. Fortunately, the flight attendants had passed out water and granola bars in a vane attempt to make everything better. It didn’t really help the situation much however.

It was about this time that they decided to open the door to the plane and allow us to stretch our legs if we were so inclined. I took the opportunity to stroll out to the concourse and make a few phone calls, one of which was to my contact handling the trip to Chile. After a brief conversation about the situation, we agreed to call off the trip and reschedule it for another time. This decision immediately brought my level of frustration down. I would no longer have to deal with a stay in Miami, and it meant that I could go home to my own bed, provided the airline was feeling cooperative. A wonderful sense of relief and calm came over me. The feeling wouldn’t last.

As I got in line to talk to the gate agent about my options, I took the opportunity to glance around the airport. With the weather still preventing flights in or out, the place was jam packed with people, all sharing the same emotions that I was. We all simply wanted to get to our destinations, and we wanted to know that somehow everything was going to be all right. By now 6 PM, and flights weren’t really moving all that much, but the skies had cleared, the rain had moved off, and there was a faint glimmer of hope in the air.

As I stood in line waiting, and waiting, and then waiting some more, I kept my fingers crossed that I could get a flight back to Austin that night. If not, I told myself, I could always rent a car and drive home. After all, it’s only about a three hour drive, and it was still relatively early in the evening. Later, as the night dragged on, I would come to wish that I had rented a car, as it would have meant that I would have gotten home at a much earlier hour.

The line moved incredibly slow. For some reason, there was only one person at the counter trying to help a very long line of customers. Other employees came and went on a regular basis, occasionally stopping long enough to hop on a second computer terminal, punch away at the keyboard for awhile, mutter a few things under their breath, and then slink off into the sea of humanity that surrounded us, never to be seen again. It was disheartening to stand there with the line not moving, sometimes for as much as 15 to 20 minutes, while the lone gate agent assisted a single person.

Now, I don’t want to say specifically which airline it was that I was dealing with, suffice as to say that it is an American airline, if you get my not so subtle drift. Obviously, not being the CEO of a major airlines, I don’t want to tell them how to run their business, but it seems that a little customer service would have gone a long way that day. For instance, breaking out the food and drink cart after the first, or even the second hour, stuck on the tarmac would have been good. Perhaps having a few more qualified staff to help work though the long lines would have been a wise choice as well.

Eventually I did reach the counter, and the woman at the terminal was very nice and helpful. Without much of an effort at all, she was able to rebook me on a flight back to Austin, and after just a few minutes, and several thousand clicks of her keyboard, she printed me a boarding pass for an 8:15 flight that had already been delayed until 9:00 PM. I thanked her profusely and happy to be heading home, I went off in search of my gate, which was listed as B24 on the video monitors. Just a half-dozen gates away from where I currently stood. After gathering up a drink and some snacks, I was soon settled in once again, and busily typing away on my computer.

After about another 45 minutes or so, I thought it might be a good idea to check the departures board once again just to make sure I was still at the right gate. After all, the airport was a mess, and gate changes are not uncommon in these situations. Gathering my things I wandered over to a nearby monitor and found that my plane had been moved to Gate C10, which wasn’t just a short distance away at all, but actually in an entirely different terminal. It was 8 PM however and I still had plenty of time. With that in mind, I didn’t panic, I simply set off to find the tram that would carry me to the C concourse, where I could resume waiting for a lift home.

Ten minutes later I was exiting the train and wandering down a flight of steps in the new terminal, when I happened to glance at yet another monitor listing the gates of departure. I had just stepped off the escalator, and my eyes locked on the listing for my flight to Austin. The gate read D21. Yep, in the time it had taken me to ride the train over to Terminal C, they had moved my jet to another gate once again, and it was in yet another building.

Promptly turning around, I marched right back up the stairs, waited for the next tram, and zipped on over to Terminal D. At this point, I was really getting the tour of DFW, and wondered if perhaps I would be visiting yet another terminal before the night was through. After all, there were still two other buildings I hadn’t been to yet.

As I exited the train once again, and wandered down the stairs toward Gate D21, I heard a voice come over the loud speaker, and I swear on my life, it was announcing yet another gate change for my flight. This time it was only moved a few spots down however, finally settling in at Gate D29. With a heavy sigh, I wandered over to this final spot, only to see that the flight time had been adjusted from 9:00 PM to 9:35. That seemed about par for the course for the day.

It was about 10:15 when we finally began boarding the plane. While we stood in line some of the passengers began to share war stories about how bad their day was. The conversations went back and fourth in an odd game of one-upmanship, with each tale of woe sounding worse than the last. I shut a lot of them up by simply saying “I’m suppose to be on a flight to South America right now.”

Eventually we all shuffled onto the plane and found our seats, settling in once again. There were murmurs of appreciation for what should be a short flight back to Austin, but some of us held our breath and took a wait-and-see attitude. That same feeling began to pervade over the others as we once again sat at the gate waiting to get underway. Hours had passed, yet here we were, back on another plane, and still not going anywhere.

Eventually we did push back however, and the engines revved up as we taxied over to take our place in line. There was a steady stream of planes on their way out by now, and you could see the red taillights disappearing in all directions. The night sky was clear and stars had popped out over head, and it felt like perhaps, at long last, I was going to get to go somewhere, even if it was just back to where I had started the day.

But then a funny thing happened. The engines idled down and we continued to sit. Why weren’t we taking off? What ill wind had blown in at this late hour to snuff out my flame of hope? After a few more minutes passed, the captain came on the speaker and presented us with yet more wonderful news. A line of thunderstorms had developed between Dallas and Austin, and they had decided that we would need to fly around those storms if we hoped to safely reach our final destination. Unfortunately however, they hadn’t planned for this contingency, so the plane didn’t have enough fuel in its tanks to cover the extra distance. Groans of despair rose up from the cabin as we turned around to return to the gate to take on more fuel. I wondered if I should be thankful that the airline was aware enough to know that we needed more gas for this extended flight, or worried that they hadn’t left much room for error in the first place.

Back at the gate, the pilot stepped off the plane to fill out some paperwork and get the details on the new flight path. Meanwhile, the ground crew went to work adding more fuel to the jet, while we continued to wait. It was now after 11 PM, and I had sat on planes that didn’t go anywhere for over five hours that day. I love to travel, but at that point I wasn’t sure I’d ever want to see the inside of a plane again.

Eventually, we did get gassed up, and the pilot returned to the cockpit, where he informed us that we were now, at long last, ready to get underway. But this American airline had yet one more cruel joke to play on the passengers. After filling the tank with fuel, it seemed that all of the ground crew scurried off to attend to other duties, and there was no one around to push us back from the gate. We sat waiting for another twenty minutes, before someone returned to finally get us underway. It was 11:45 PM by the time we took flight, 12 hours after I first boarded the plane in Austin. During that time, I had managed to travel roughly 200 miles, and was now on my way back home. Thoughts of fun and adventure in the Atacama Desert of Chile were the furthest thing from my mind. By that time, I was simply ready for my own bed.

The flight back to Austin was, fortunately, uneventful. It was, however, longer than normal thanks to those untimely storms hanging over central Texas. Eventually we did reach our destination though, and at about 1 AM, I was in my car and ready for the 40 minute drive home from the airport. As I drove, I reflected on what had become a very long day, and for all the wrong reason. I was suppose to be on a flight to South America, but instead i was on my way home. It had turned out to be one of the most frustrating days of travel I had ever had to endure, and a sobering reminder of how helpless you can feel when things are completely out of your control.

Any frequent traveler can probably sympathize with this tale to some degree. We’ve all been stranded somewhere due to mechanical issues or bad weather, and it never gets any less frustrating. But these challenging days of travel are far outweighed by the ones that go just right, delivering us the experiences that we love so much. While the weather delays can be tough to endure, they are soon a distant memory when you’ve arrived at your destination, and you’re reminded of all the things that make travel worthwhile. It isn’t always easy to see that when an untimely thunderstorm leaves you stranded in an airport somewhere, but those moments are fleeting, while the joy of a fantastic trip will last a lifetime.

[Photo credits: Postdif, Bidgee and Fir0002 via WikiMedia]