COULD THE BEST part of flying these days be what happens on the ground? And I don’t mean the overpriced consumer lures in airport corridors. I mean the random acts of kindness and the distractions some airports offer, presumably in an effort to be more than humdrum waiting rooms.
“Flight Canceled” were the telling words at the departure gate. No reason given. The ultimate Darwinian experience—on your own negotiating a return trip you thought was solid until minutes before. Frustrated passengers raced up to desk agents. I joined them, panic-stricken, my first time in years of solo air travel being stranded in a city far from home.
Not that far, actually. Pittsburgh (PIT) is barely an hour from Washington’s DCA, though, on this late November night, it might as well have been the moon. Friends had dropped me at the city’s international airport (served by no public transportation) where I was assured of no delay. But the posted departure time kept changing. The unexpected force of a November storm had slammed airports farther east, making it difficult for “our equipment”—that quaint euphemism for cramped jet-propelled tubular conveyances—to show up as scheduled.
It was tempting to wander the airport for amusement. The Pittsburgh airport offered a most curious item: a machine in the middle of a main passageway that claims to give a passerby a picture of his/her individual skeleton! It didn’t seem to be working when I passed by a few times but the thing is probably meant to acknowledge the city’s reputation for advanced technology research of many kinds. The Minneapolis airport has a whole bunch of free time-wasters (such as a children’s game and gym area) and a guide on how to do a complete walking circuit around the whole place. A couple of the southern airports have those charming white rocking chairs dotted along the corridors. And Washington’s National Airport has the Gallery Walk, with changing art installations, and the mosaic floor medallions in the main concourse, engaging to study while walking over/wheeling over them.
But I wasn’t looking for distraction at this hour. There was immediate business to attend to. Rebook, of course. Then? The airport hotel was full, someone said. Outlying hostelries had busy signals or long waits for callers inquiring about rooms. “Sometimes they say they have a room just to get you off the phone. Or they say they have a room and, on arrival, they have none left,” a seasoned traveler lamented.
Would “equipment” for my new flight be in place by 6:30 the next morning? The busy gate attendant took time out to check. “They are bringing it in later tonight,” she said. Always the mysterious “they” and a promise you hope to believe.
Since weather rather than mechanical matters was the problem, the airline wasn’t responsible for our well-being. A coupon might help with expenses, she volunteered. (Only about $20 worth, I was to learn.) Sleep on the airport floor or join the lottery? Pittsburgh’s population is only around 300,000. How many hostelries can there be in the ‘burbs, I wondered.
The man next to me was busy rearranging his life with a list of local hotels open on his laptop. “Could you tell me where you found a room?” I asked in my most supplicating voice. Without looking up, he gave me a number. I called, got lucky and then, imagining long lines of other stranded passengers waiting outside for taxis, pressed on: “Could we could share a ride?” This was “Kevin” from Alexandria, Virginia, a software specialist in logistics. No wonder he knew his way around.
Thirty minutes and some 20 miles later, a cheerful hotel clerk handed over our keys. A few hours of feigned sleep and I joined Kevin at 5am in the lobby for another taxi ride. Which he paid for over my protests.
Security took forever. Being of the “certain age” not usually required to remove footwear, I started walking blithely through the metal detector. I was stopped at once by a stern-faced blue-uniformed TSA attendant. “Not so fast. You have steel in your shoes,” she informed me. That was news to me. The X-ray machine had found a cobbler’s gift of firmer ground support in my newly reconstructed boots. Bending down to unzip the offending pair, I offered my age anyway—just one woman to another. She must have been impressed that I could get around without pacemaker or cane, etc., and so gave me a smiling “congratulations.” She was a good-looking gal of middle age herself, so when she complimented me I thought a friendly gesture was in order. “You, too,” I said, patting her on the shoulder in conspiratorial fashion.
Another spontaneous encounter to brighten the day.
Waiting to board, I overheard two women talking about their time back at the hotel. Sold out, the clerk told them when they reached the front of the line. A stranger turned around and offered them free of charge the extra room in the suite he had been assigned. The women were “corporate relocation specialists” who had been attending the same conference: “Competitors, not really friends,” one told me, laughing. They spent the night together in the same bed and never saw their Good Samaritan again. He had slept in for a later flight.
If faith in humanity isn’t your thing, consider investing in the airport hotel/motel industry. Profits are assured, airline behavior being about as unpredictable as the humans they purport to serve.