On Friday, I participated in one of the classic set pieces of human experience, the Cancelled-Flight-Where-Airline-Puts-You-Up-In-Some-Random-Airport-Hotel routine.
Here’s some timeline leading up to the calamity:
Thurs, 14:00: My travels begin. Wife, son and I set out in the car from Berlin to Prague.
Technically, this is the wrong direction. The explanation is that my wife and son are spending the next two weeks in Italy, at this terrible-sounding Czech redneck enclave there called Bibione. My wife acknowledges that it’s a terrible place, but she because she’s a good sport and her sister is super into it and so it’s a family bonding thing. I’ve announced from the beginning that I’m never going to this place, so I have two weeks or so on my own at the end of every summer. Now, it’s impossible to drive long distances alone with a two year-old, so I’m accompanying them as far as Prague, where the sister can jump in and replace me.
21:30: In Prague, eating dinner at our favorite neighborhood restaurant.
22:45: Driving to drop me off at a metro stop. Instead, we happen to drive by Trafika bar (the bar next to my old studio, described in the Statler and Waldorf post) and I spot my friends inside having an ‘after work’ drink. Quick change of plans!
23:45: Arrive liquored up at Prague bus station, get aboard overnight bus to Frankfurt. Sleep 5 hours despite crushing lack of leg room. (The rationale behind going to Frankfurt is that my buddy works for the airlines and can get me cheap flights out of there).
Friday, 9:00: Wake up at Frankfurt Airport, the blandest destination in one of Europe’s blandest cities. Kill five hours reading Patti Smith memoir Just Kids.
14:00: Get onboard flight to SF.
15:00: Still sitting on runway, waiting for ‘mechanical problem’ to be resolved…
16:00: Still sitting on runway. Curious message comes over the intercom: ‘Flight attendants, prepare for cross-check and arrival’. Arrival? This is weird. We haven’t left yet. Why are they preparing to arrive? And why is the message intoned with dejection? Uh oh…
16:05: Flight cancellation announced. Shock and outrage ensue.
Now, whenever people would tell me about a flight cancellation experience, I’d always imagined that one moment you’re at the airport, and the next you’re magically transported to your hotel room with minimal fuss. I had never thought about the logistics involved in getting 300 people off a plane and transferred to a hotel in the event of a flight cancellation before:
16:06: Everyone herded off plane. General atmosphere of stunned bewilderment: ‘Wait, you mean we’re not getting our luggage back? I have medication in there!’
16:20: 300 people standing in the boarding area, waiting for one lone United representative who is supposedly going to escort us to our hotel. When this person materializes, she turns out to be the tiniest human specimen that United could possibly have roused for the occasion. She’s immediately engulfed by the crowd, such that only the 15 people closest to her can either see her or hear what she’s saying.
16:40: The Tiny Sprite leads us to one end of the terminal where we are supposed to be able to exit. But, security refuses to allow us to exit here, so the entire group has to execute a reverse of direction and go to the opposite end of the terminal. At this point, the guy next to me calls out ‘It’s OK: the people who fell down on the way… we’ve picked them back up now!’
16:41-17:15: The Tiny Sprite herds one hundred people at a time onto the monorail to the another terminal, then across the street to a bus stop where the hotel shuttle bus ferries us to an airport hotel. I assume that 10-15% of the herd perished during this migration, but still the overall survival rate was pretty good.
During this part of the ordeal, the usual social archetypes emerged as always appear in large group dynamics:
The Insatiable Questioner: This is always a woman in her 50s with frizzy hair. Any time any authority figure appears (airline representative, bus driver, hotel clerk), the IQ begins asking a stream of questions that NEVER STOP but just morph into different topical areas of concern. The IQ needs to have it explained to her that a United Airlines representative cannot help her change her San Francisco hotel booking because the airlines rep is an airlines rep and not a travel agent. The IQ means well and will share her acquired knowledge with the rest of the herd, but is ultimately riddled with too much misinformation to be a reliable source.
There were points when I considered the possibility that if the airplane wasn’t properly fixed by the time we got back onboard, at least the world would be rid of the Insatiable Questioner after the ensuing crash.
The Jovial Jokester: A white guy in his 60s or 70s wearing either a straw hat, a cowboy hat or a Stetson hat. The JJ makes good-natured, non-edgy jokes to put others at ease and quickly acquires a small band of acolytes. I usually start out being annoyed the the JJ but eventually come around to the fact that he’s at least trying to engage the situation in a constructive way. Plus, his sunny demeanor helps quell the anxieties of…
The Quiet Panickers: These are the people who are terrified that everything’s going wrong but don’t even have the confidence to articulate their worries in any purposeful way. The QPs look around wide-eyedly, and if you make eye contact with them, they’ll say something like, ‘I think we were supposed to get off at the last terminal!’ or ‘I don’t know how we’re going to find the bus!’ You learn to stop making eye contact with these people.
The Stoic Mummies: This describes most of the people in the group, myself included. The SMs have moments of alert helpfulness but generally are trying to numb themselves and not get infected by the panic of others.
Jack Shephard Wanna-Bes: A few people who are actively trying to play heroic roles, running around and making loud, brave announcements. Screw these people.
The Legitimate Sharpie: Then there’s the one person who actually is really unaccountably good at figuring things out. Your goal is to find the LS and stick with them.
Example: on the monorail, there was extreme confusion because the Sprite had instructed us to get off at Terminal E but had pronounced ‘E’ the German way, where it sounds like ‘A’. It was the LS who figured this out and quelled a potential mass panic.
The Angry Guy: Less said about him, the better.
In the end, it took about two hours to get from the airplane seat to my hotel room, which isn’t too bad. I have to admit that once we were all installed in the hotel, a fun conviviality did emerge, just because everyone (a) is bored, (b) is at the hotel bar, and (c) has a good conversational ice-breaker. It was like an episode of Lost, only if Lost took place at a Frankfurt hotel instead of on an exotic island. Or: like an incredibly upscale version of the New Orleans Superdome during Katrina, except minus the Marty Bahamonde ‘just took a crap with 38,000 of my closest friends’ aspect. (Note: I do actually feel bad about comparing my benign experience to the horrors of the Superdome… but it was what the experience reminded everyone of.) For my part, I struck up a conversation with two San Franciscans, Houri and Will, at the bar. Later, we ate dinner with a fun couple from Discovery Bay who had managed to get installed in a conference room and had taken funny photos of the woman lounging out sexily on the conference table. So, those were my Single Serving Friends for the evening.
Other small upsides of the experience: (1) excellent buffet breakfast at the hotel, featuring the largest tub of bacon I’ve ever seen in my life. (2) Compellingly weird experience of getting on the same plane a day later, in the same seat, with everyone around you wearing the same clothes. (3) Fraternal airplane atmosphere, as people had gotten to know each other by this point. When you walked through the aisle to get to the bathroom, it was like ‘Oh hey, what’s up?’ … ‘Did you ever find your sweater?’… ‘Have fun at Burning Man!’ etc etc.
Major downside outweighing all above upsides: missing Friday night in San Francisco. Plus, the fact that when I finally arrived on Saturday evening, I’d been traveling for 60 hours.