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What we left behind in Greece. Photo by Catharine Norton

What we left behind in Greece. Photo by Catharine Norton

After an idyllic three-week sojourn in the Greek islands (which I’ll write about soon in subsequent posts), my wife, Catharine, and I experienced  “one of those days” where virtually everything went wrong trying to get home to Tucson.

It was like having a karmic payoff for everything that had gone right in Greece, where we got tanned, rested, and ready (we thought) for the slew of appointments and other challenges that we knew awaited us over the coming weeks.

I don’t want to suggest in any way that our bad day compared to the serious disruptions that many travelers have suffered from weather-related delays and cancellations — including, no doubt, some on our own Newark to Dallas flight who were trying to make connections to a plethora of onward destinations.

More than any single thing, this day was a compilation of many different things, big and small — and none, so far as we know, life-threatening. This was more in the realm of “What could possibly happen next?” and eventually caused Catharine to start laughing almost uncontrollably at one point.

So here were the “highlights” of our crazy day as we battled thunderstorms and mysterious forces in the air, on the tarmac, in airports, in airport shuttles, and in a pair of airport hotels where almost nothing seemed to go right.

No Shower for Us

Our post-Greek odd-yssey actually began the previous evening at the Ramada Plaza Newark Airport hotel, after we’d flown in from Athens and were jetlagged and exhausted after the 10-hour flight — too tired (and too late) to look for a room elsewhere, when we were greeted at the reception desk with the news that Legionella bacteria had been found in the hotel’s water system.

That’s Legionella bacteria as in the stuff that causes Legionnaires’ Disease, a type of pneumonia that can be fatal if left untreated. Anyone over age 50 and other potentially vulnerable guests, we were warned, shouldn’t take a shower, because the bacteria is spread through breathing in mists.

Baths were said to be OK as long as we filled the tub slowly and didn’t stay in the bathroom while the water was running.  Not being fans of hotel bathtubs or fatal diseases, we took the easiest, safest route — forgoing ablutions and drinking bottled water, which the hotel thoughtfully sold in the lobby for $3.69 a pop.

And we made sure to note the symptoms of Legionnaires’ Disease for possible future reference.

The Crazy Day Begins

Mostly unwashed and with just a few hours’ sleep, we headed to Newark Airport at 5 a.m. to check into our early-morning American Airlines flight to Dallas. Everything went deceptively smoothly until we got to airport security, when we discovered that Catharine had not been granted TSA Precheck status, which normally comes with her Global Entry pass.

As I sailed through the Precheck line, I noticed that the regular security line Catharine was shunted into seemed to snake halfway to downtown Newark. A half hour later and some anxious moments on my part, she emerged from TSA purgatory with tales well known to anyone who has fought the security wars, so no further details needed.

We had just time enough to grab two cups of coffee, two rolls and a big bottle of water before boarding.

As I hoisted our backpack into the overhead bin, the unopened bottle of water fell out of its pocket and clobbered Catharine, who was seated on the aisle, squarely on the head. At the time, as Catharine yelped in pain and other passengers tossed me dirty looks, I thought that would be the low point of the day.

But things had only begun.

The flight (which was full) seemed to go smoothly enough until we were nearing Dallas, when the captain came on the intercom and announced that thunderstorms had closed the airport there and that we were being diverted to Shreveport, Louisiana, because we didn’t have enough fuel to keep circling indefinitely.

A collective sigh went up from the passenger section, as we knew most of our onward connections were shot. And though a flight attendant optimistically noted that no flights could leave Dallas, either — holding out hope that we might still make our connections — that was quickly dashed when the captain came on the air again to announce that we would now be headed to Memphis, Tennessee.

Shreveport, it turned out, was chock full of other planes that couldn’t get to Dallas. One passenger quipped, “Next stop — Philadelphia!”

How Not to Spend a Relaxing Day in Memphis

While we enjoyed our visit to Memphis a few years ago, this one was less pleasant.

When the captain announced we would be there for several hours, the crew decided to let the passengers off to go into the airport. We were told to take all all baggage and other belongings with us, so of course that was slow going as the overhead bins emptied one row at a time.

After about half the passengers had deplaned — but not quite back to our row yet — a flight attendant breathlessly announced, “Stop getting off — we’ve been cleared to go to Dallas!”

Were the missing passengers on their way to Graceland?

Were the missing passengers on their way to Graceland?

This was greeted with a collective cheer from those of us still aboard, but it was to be short-lived.

The already deplaned passengers had apparently scattered far and wide in the Memphis airport. No doubt many were enjoying a fine lunch of Memphis barbecue or perhaps a stiff libation. Some may have been halfway to Graceland.

They slowly trickled back in, baggage in hand, for the next hour and a half. Meanwhile, the rest of us dined on little packs of cookies doled out by flight attendants that were the only available food left on board. The crew also took the opportunity to pass out applications for AA credit cards, a bold move under the circumstances.

Once everyone was finally back on board, we waited in a long line of planes to take off and were treated to the safety demonstration for the second time that day — as mandated by the FAA, we were told.

But never mind! Seat belts securely fastened, we soon heard the captain announce that the Dallas airport had closed anew and, once again, we should all deplane. He sounded dejected, always a  bad sign.

Collective groan. Some of the natives were by now growing increasingly restless. One man in our row proclaimed loudly that he would never fly American again, a threat that no doubt had the crew quaking in their boots.

It was now mid-afternoon. Once in the terminal, we were able to shovel down most of our barbecue sandwiches (after waiting in a long line for takeout service) before an announcement came that if we all hurried back, we could now fly off to Dallas.

Some of us hurried, others took their time. So it goes (but painfully slowly…).

On to Dallas!

We did eventually take off, after waiting for a dozen or so other planes before us and sitting through yet a third safety demonstration, as the flight attendants gamely staved off boredom. And we did manage to land in Dallas, to the sound of somewhat half-hearted clapping.

But even half-hearted joy can be fleeting when it comes to air travel these days.

Shortly after the crew ebulliently welcomed us to Dallas, the captain came on the intercom again: this time to announce that the jetway couldn’t connect to the plane for some reason, and maintenance would have to be called. Everyone was told to sit down again and fasten our seat belts.

Welcome to Dallas! Photo from visitdallas.com

Welcome to Dallas! Photo from visitdallas.com

This is when Catharine couldn’t help but laugh, further annoying the man in our row who by now was threatening to sue American Airlines, demanding hefty compensation. (Good luck with that, pal!)

While we waited two good things did happen: I had a message on my phone from American that they had re-booked us onto a flight to Tucson the next morning, and I was also able to make a reservation for one of the nearby airport hotels, which were filling up fast with stranded passengers. Things were looking up!

We Finally Make It Into the Dallas Airport

The jetway finally connected, we all got off the plane in Dallas, with the final warning from the crew to “Be careful of the gap when you step off!”

Deftly stepping over the gap, we headed for the baggage claim, figuring that since we had been re-booked for the next day, our bags would be unloaded there.

After waiting several minutes along with most of the other passengers, an announcement came that luggage from our AA flight would be arriving at a different carousel, so we traipsed down en masse to that one.

Twenty minutes later, we were told to go to another carousel. And, of course, the luggage eventually emerged at the very first carousel, without explanation.

At this point, need I even say that our bags were the only ones not among them?

“They’ll be kept in the airport overnight and be put on your flight tomorrow,” an AA rep assured us. I didn’t really believe her, but she had obviously had a long day, too, so we left it at that.

Our Dallas Hotel Adventure

We then proceeded with our hand baggage outside the terminal to the pickup place for hotel shuttles and, after phoning Clarion Inns and Suites to alert them we were there, waited an hour for one to arrive.

By now it was dark and difficult to make out whether the shuttle was actually headed to the Clarion, probably because it served a half-dozen airport hotels and there was a jumble of signage on the side of the van.

When I asked the nearly toothless driver if this was the right shuttle, he helpfully pointed out that the “ride is free, but I need tips.” I took that as a yes.

The van was old and tattered and the driver jammed in more passengers than there were seats, so we made do by being scrunched together. If ever there were a need for seat belts, it was now, but no one could fasten theirs (if they even existed), so we trusted in a higher power and survived, more or less.

An elderly couple got off first, at one of the other hotels, and both proceeded to bump their heads hard while exiting the van.

Naturally, when it came time to drop us off at the Clarion, I hit my head, too — undoubtedly karmic payoff for the earlier water bottle incident.

Since I indeed considered ourselves lucky for landing any hotel room at all that night, I really shouldn’t complain to the fine folks at Choice Hotels that our $120-a-night room contained no shampoo or even a bar of soap — especially since, upon request, the guy at the reception desk disappeared into a storage closet and fixed us up with a whole new bar of soap and two partially used containers of shampoo, which we shamelessly grabbed.

He even threw in a couple of flimsy toothbrushes and a little thingee of toothpaste, which all came in handy since our kit bags were back at the airport in our checked luggage. (Never again!)

Now all that was needed was a shower and a nice stiff drink and a burger at the hotel’s bar and grill, which was oddly secluded in a kind of Siberia down several hallways, marked by a procession of arrows.

It was brightly lit with no wait staff in sight except for the bartender, who was being run ragged by other air travelers stranded just like us, all drinking heavily and all with their own war stories and tales of woe from the day’s travels and travails.

Some were much worse off than us: honeymoons delayed, business travelers facing long waits at airports and multiple flights the next day, etc. “You should have heard about our day,” we wanted to say, but thought better of it.

We finally flagged down the bartender and ordered two martinis, which we figured would do the job because they’re 100 percent alcohol.

When they arrived at our table, he sheepishly announced that he hoped they were good because he’d never made martinis before.

While they really didn’t taste much like actual martinis, they did the job.

And the next day, we flew off to Tucson, with a surprisingly good night’s sleep behind us, an on-time arrival, and — miraculously — our luggage waiting for us at the end.

October 9, 2018: a day like any other day — except that we had entered…the Travel Twilight Zone.

Readers: Please feel free to share your own Travel Twilight Zone experiences!

 

10 Responses to A Truly Crazy Travel Day

  • I’m glad you both made it home safely—great fun reading about someone else’s harmless misfortune.

  • My craziest travel day was long ago, and also caused by weather. I had agreed to give a talk at a conference in Orlando in early March–great time to get out of Ithaca, NY! At that time there was a flight that went from Ithaca to Utica to LaGuardia (where I would make my connection). In the winter we learn to get on the first flight out of Ithaca because the airlines need the planes later in the day so they will get the plane off even under difficult conditions. On this day a snow storm was moving in from the south, but we did take off. The pilot announced that we were approaching landing in Utica. . .but we didn’t land. He then announced that Utica was closed by the storm, so we would land in Hartford. We never got near Hartford. He announced that all northeastern airports were closed, including LaGuardia, so we were going to Burlington Vt, the only one still open (because it was still north of the storm). We landed in Burlington. And here’s where luck was with me. My seatmate was a guy from the National Weather Service. He went to the weather people in Burlington & looked at their radar & info, and came back to tell me that we needed to leave in the next 45 minutes or we’d be stuck for 18 hours. The flight leaving next was going to Detroit. So we went to Detroit. From there, routed to Atlanta, and Atlanta to Orlando, arriving 4 hours later than expected. (I also had “fun” getting back from that trip, but it involved only an unexpected overnight stay at the Syracuse airport.)
    There is a coda. A couple of weeks later I ran into another person from Ithaca who had been on the flight. He had waited in Burlington, had been put on a bus to NYC for a harrowing 9 hour drive to NYC. He said that friends of his simply rented a car in Burlington & drove back to Ithaca, which he should have done.

    I’ve had other “adventures” too, like the time I was snowbound for 3 days in the great NE blizzard of Feb 1978, but that didn’t involve a plane except the flight to Boston, which, alas, got me there to be trapped. Moral: if the weather is bad, stay home!

  • Clark, clearly one can’t make this stuff up, even a good writer like you. Glad it all turned out in the end. I confess that I missed a lot of crazy days like yours during my heyday of travel. Most of my trips were to Asia. I did connections through Tokyo and Bangkok. I was able to fly in and out of Dulles, avoiding domestic connections and bad weather. In twenty five years, I don’t remember ever having to spend a night in a hotel because of a delay. Ditto delayed baggage. Those days are over, and I am now starting to enjoy some of the headaches comes along with air travel in the U.S.

    • That’s pretty amazing — no extra nights in hotels, no delayed baggage. Reflects well on Asian airports and airlines. We flew Singapore Airlines round-trip to Japan last spring and the entire experience was as good as you could possibly expect for trans-Pacific travel. Our travel on Emirates to Athens and back was also fine. You certainly can’t blame American Airlines for weather delays, but customer service left a bit to be desired.

  • It sounds like your wife didn’t have her known traveler number entered in the reservation. You can do that on the airline’s kiosk and then reprint the boarding pass if this happens again.

    it’s worth doing that versus waiting in the god awful line she had in Newark.

    • Thanks for writing, Kay Lynn. Her number should have been entered in the reservation, since I always do that. But maybe I slipped up this time. We tried to get it fixed with an agent, but that didn’t work. The agent said sometimes the TSA takes away the Precheck arbitrarily, but that doesn’t jibe with what the TSA website says for Global Entry members. So it’s a mystery, but we’ll definitely be more careful in checking our boarding passes from now on before we get to security. (I blame the lack of coffee at 5:30 a.m. for that.) Anything, as you say, to avoid that god awful line in Newark.

  • I’m with Catharine. The only way I survive airline travel is to laugh – a lot and keep my expectations low – except when it comes to safety. While I really did feel for you and your misadventures, your telling about this trip had me laughing out loud. You are indeed a good writer. We are in AZ this winter. Maybe we can get together. Enjoy your blog. Best. jlo

    • Thanks, Janet — hope to see you soon! As for laughing while flying these days, I find it much easier to do in retrospect than at the time, but appreciate those who can. Sometimes it’s the only defense against total despair.

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