Mornings can dawn with such deceptive simplicity. Get up, fix a cup of coffee, spend some time in the Word; plan out a nice, orderly day. February 16th was no different. After an especially challenging few weeks, I had this one day to regroup and say my goodbyes before heading home to China in the morning. One last gluten free Reuben with my friend and her family at the deli before our goodbye, a final weighing of my baggage and reshuffling of the contents so everything was secure; I even had time for a nap! Yup, everything was going according to plan. Ha, famous last words.
It began with an ominous “Ding!” on my phone, signaling the arrival of an email from my airline. The second leg of my journey the next day had been cancelled, due to winter weather in Charlotte. I immediately called US Airways, and made the first of many changes to my nice, easy, original twenty-eight hour hop to Guangzhou. Because the weather affected so many airports, my only chance was to drive 2 ½ hours to Raleigh, take a plane to Philadelphia that night, spend the night in the airport, and fly to Chicago in the a.m., in time to catch my late morning flight to Tokyo. Suddenly, I had less than half an hour to shower, zip up my bags, say my goodbyes, and jump in the car.
Barely arriving in time to the check-in counter, I was greeted by the first unpleasant surprise when they steadfastly refused to honor their online baggage fees, and insisted on overcharging for my luggage (including full price for the medical missions bag, which should have been free). Protests were ignored, except to say I could call their corporate office (which we all knew I didn’t have time for if I was going to catch my plane). Fine, I paid the fees, but told them I would be sending an email later. It was to become an epic email.
Rushing through security and past the concourses, I arrived at my gate just as boarding began. Whew! Little did I know that we would spend nearly three hours on the tarmac, as the weather worsened, having our plane repeatedly de-iced, and waiting for the runways to be declared safe. After rushing about for the last few hours, I relished the chance to relax in my chair, open my book…and listen to the man behind me mutter angrily into his phone in Arabic. All I could understand were his repeated, vehement “Allah,” and “US Airways.” Man, I wished I understood Arabic.
Finally, the pilot announced that the runway was safe, and we’d been cleared for take-off. My relief at this development lasted about eight minutes after we were wheels in the air. From my seat above the wings, I heard the engines begin to make horrible sounds, unnatural wails and screeches that plane engines had no business making. As the plane began to buck, my sinking feeling deepened. The intercom switched on, as our pilot addressed the plane. In all my years of flying, I’d never actually heard a pilot’s voice crack during an announcement (and I can’t say I ever want to hear it again). “Uhh, ladies and gentlemen…we regret to inform you that BOTH of our engine’s de-icing mechanisms have failed, and our engines are freezing. We are, uh, immediately going to turn the plane around and, uh, try to land in Raleigh.”
Wait a minute…TRY? As Yoda wisely said, “There is no try. There is either do, or not do.” I voted for “do” here.
Gradually, the plane began to curve back in the direction it had come, bucking all the way. I braced myself firmly against the seat in front of me, and began praying hard, all while trying not to vomit (it was really rough). Women were crying. Men were pale and sweating. In the midst of my prayers, I felt a stab of remorse, because I could hear the man behind me, and he clearly also wanted to live. Shame on me for misjudging him. I prayed harder.
Agonizing minutes later, our wheels touches down…and began skidding. Brake…skid…brake…skid…obviously the runway had iced over again since we’d left. My prayer deteriorated to, “Father, please make it stop, please make it stop, please make it stop…” At last, it did. The woman beside me said, “Let me OFF this plane!” Another burst into tears. Our valiant pilot’s shaky voice again came over the intercom, “Ladies and gentlemen, we regret to inform you that tonight’s flight has been cancelled. Please deplane in an orderly manner.”
No kidding! Who in their right mind would want to stay on the plane at that point? We “deplaned” with a right good will, and queued up to the desk; more than a hundred people and only two agents working on rebooking. I was far back in line. Inching forward, I finally reached the front of the line with only three people left behind me. When my agent saw my route, she said, “I’m sorry, this is too complicated. You’ll have to call the airline and work it out.”
“Ma’am, my cell phone doesn’t work here. I can’t call the airline.”
“Well then, go home, call them, and try again tomorrow.”
“Ma’am,” I glanced at her nametag, “Nadira, I am trying to get home, to China. My family here is a 2 ½ hour drive away, and the roads are too icy to travel. This is your airline’s problem, please fix it.”
Half an hour later, she waved me over with a smile, and said that her contact in the back had found a way, and that I was booked to fly to D.C. the next afternoon, spend the night in Dallas, and head to Tokyo the following morning. It was a much longer route than I’d had originally, but I was so happy to have something booked that I hugged her on the spot.
“Could I please have a hotel voucher, since I’ll have to be in your airport overnight due to your plane’s malfunction?”
“I’m sorry, we’re out of those.”
“You’re out of them? How can that be?”
“We only had 200, and gave them out almost immediately.”
“Ok…then what am I supposed to do?”
“First of all, we’re going to need to escort you out of the secured area.” Right, because it was after twelve, and I was all set for some serious mischief after what I’d been through that night. “There’s a Starbucks open 24/7, and I can show you several benches where you could sleep.”
As Robert (my armed escort) and I walked towards the unsecured area, I queried, “So, Robert, was it just my imagination, or was the pilot actually afraid just now?”
“Well…yes…he was. Pilots don’t like it when their engines fail.” I’d say that was the sign of a sensible pilot!
Nodding, “I thought so. He was trying to put on a brave front, but a cracking voice is never a good sign.” We continued chatting amiably until he had showed me both the Starbucks and my very own bench. Yippee! At least he brought a pillow and blanket, and I had my cart for my carry-on and backpack. One night into my journey, and I’d already been reduced to the status of bag lady. This was not an auspicious beginning.
Placing my Starbucks decaf in my cart’s basket, I rolled over to my bench and began working on how to protect my belongings while I slept. The backpack and purse I placed between myself and the wall, and looped my arm through the straps. My carry-on was trickier. What was I to do with that? After thinking a minute, I took off my belt, threaded it through the handle, and strapped it around my leg. Done, my own version of airport security. Comfy cozy, now I could settle down to sweet sleep. And listening to the cleaning crew laughing and calling to each other in Spanish (How did they get here, anyway? The roads are all iced!). It was a long night.
To be continued…