June 28, 2005

Tarmac torture

Having spent a lovely if utterly exhausting (and ridiculously hot) five days in Chicago attending the annual conference of the American Library Association, my colleague and friend Cecilia and I made our way out to O'Hare yesterday afternoon for our return journey to Minneapolis -- an odyssey all by itself, 45 minutes on the CTA Blue Line with luggage. Having arrived at O'Hare, checked in for our flight, and passed through security without incident, we had some food and cold beverages while we awaited our flight, set to depart at 8 PM. All was well, and we expected to be home to the Twin Cities by 9:30.

It wasn't long before the gate agent announced that the flight was delayed because of "aircraft availability." Fortunately, this was supposedly only to delay our departure until 8:30. We assumed this had something to do with the previous flight out of our gate, to Washington DC, which was supposed to depart at 5 but didn't actually leave until 8.

We finally boarded the plane around 8:45, and began taxiing toward the runway. We had been taxiing for what seemed like forever (prompting the nice man sitting next to me to suggest that perhaps we were just going to drive the plane to Minneapolis rather than flying) when the pilot made an announcement: severe thunderstorms in Minneapolis had forced MSP to close: no one was taking off, and no one was landing. We were lucky we hadn't already taken off, or else we would likely have been diverted.

The bad news: we were going to sit in the airplane waiting to take off until MSP reopened -- air traffic control estimated it would be at least an hour. On top of that, the engine had to be shut down in order to conserve fuel, which meant no air conditioning on our jam-packed 737. This on a day where the high in Chicago had been 95 degrees -- and at 9 PM at O'Hare, it was still 85 and sticky.

After a few minutes of this and a near-revolt by the passengers, the flight attendants were finally convinced to serve ice water (although they were sympathetic, and suffering as much as we were, they were concerned about running out of ice and water). This helped a little, but as the minutes crept by, the plane got hotter and hotter. Finally, one of the flight attendants went to speak to the crew, who announced a few minutes later that they could run one engine to supply a little environmental relief. Everyone on the plane cheered.

It wasn't exactly cool after that, but at least it was tolerable. Around 10 PM, the pilot announced that he had some good news and some bad news: the good news was that MSP had reopened and we would probably be cleared for takeoff within about 15 minutes. The bad news: our flight was to be completely rerouted in order to avoid the bad weather. We were going to fly to the border of South Dakota and then turn around so we could approach MSP from the west rather than the east. At first the pilot said we were flying to the "western border of South Dakota," which predictably got a reaction of protest and horror from the passengers. But he quickly corrected himself -- it was really the eastern border of SD. Nevertheless, the reroute meant that our flight time would be increased by about half an hour.

Finally, just before 10:30, we were cleared for takeoff. Considering the massive thunderstorms nearby, the flight was remarkably smooth -- good for me, since I hate and fear flying (although I know how safe it is). We were at the gate just after midnight. MSP was a mess, with planes lined up for takeoff, full of people who were going to be arriving at their destinations sometime in the middle of the night, and thousands of people and bags milling around the baggage claim. John sat an eternity (or so it seemed to me) in traffic waiting to pick me up, and I finally made it home around 1 AM.

The whole experience seemed like a horrible ordeal to me, as well as to many of my fellow passengers. The funny thing is, that although the climate control situation was suboptimal to say the least, we were really only on the plane for a total of about three and a half hours -- not such a long time in the grand scheme of things (just ask my in-laws, who had the grave misfortune of sitting in the middle section of a DC-10 on a transatlantic flight yesterday). But your mental preparedness has a lot to do with your perception of such events, and we expected a quick, trivial, up-and-down flight from Chicago to Minneapolis. What we got was, well, not that.

Cecilia and I thought we were being so smart and frugal by deciding to fly home Monday night instead of Tuesday morning. We saved ourselves one night of hotel expenses after all, even if we did have to skip out of the conference a little too early to hear David Sedaris read late Monday afternoon. In this particular case, we outsmarted ourselves. But we're home now, the conference was good, and all is well.

Posted by at June 28, 2005 2:32 PM