Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Stormy Weather

I guess I've tried to block it from memory, but it looks as if it's time to write about Friday's flight to Rochester.

We transferred planes in Chicago, and arrived late because of some severe thunderstorms that moved through the area in late afternoon. The airport showed all the signs of one where flights were delayed and/or being canceled. People were sitting on the floor, there were long lines to get into restaurants, gate changes were being announced regularly. OK, that's normal for Chicago, but for any other airport it would indicate problems.

Our flight was pushed back only half an hour, which seemed ambitious timing from what we could tell inside the terminal. And that wasn't just my opinion. The woman making the boarding announcements came on to tell us that we would get a "more realistic" estimate of when we could board once the plane we were taking had actually landed and emptied its other passengers.

As it was, it was only another 15 minutes or so when we began a very fast boarding. I don't think I have ever seen an airline push people onto its plane so fast before. Which is what made it so strange that, once we were all seated, everything just came to a standstill. Strange, that is, until some other passengers started wandering into the plane about 10 minutes later.

These people had been on the earlier flight to Rochester. Apparently they had pulled from the gate and ended up sitting on the tarmac several hours during the thunderstorms only to be told after this wait that the crew had "timed out". They had worked the maximum hours allowed and were required to return the plane to the gate. At which point, the flight was canceled.

So now these people were being rushed from one terminal to another and onto our later flight. They were told there was no room in the overhead bins, and they needed to "gate check" any carry-ons. And then they were told to just take any seat they could find. As it was, we overhead the ground crew tell the flight attendants that about 14 of the earlier passengers still had not made this last flight of the day to Rochester.

They may be considered the lucky ones.

As we finally taxied from the gate, our pilot came on the intercom to tell us that the control tower couldn't really tell him where he stood in the queue to take off. Apparently, we were all involved in some sort of Guinness record-setting effort to see who could make the longest conga line using jumbo jets. "I can count at least 38 or 39," he said, "which means we're no better than 40th to take off. So that means at least an hour here on the ground."

He was considerate enough to share his personal observation with us: "It's the worst that I've ever seen."

"We'll never get out of here," moaned a woman across the aisle from me. Even more ominously, LK pointed out her window and asked, "Can you see the lightning?" She was pretty sure the storm was moving in our direction.

After a while of sitting still, the flight attendant came on with a message. He was going to distribute water - OK, his words were that he was going to "do a water service" - but he had a big caution to add. "Since we are still on an active taxiway, you won't be able to use the lavatories. So you may want to think about whether you really want the water." Most of us over 50 skipped it.

Unable to turn on electronic devices, the majority of us who have embraced Kindles and laptops found ourselves strapped to a tiny seat with nothing to do except re-read Sky Mall for the third time. Unless, that is, you count watching the thunderstorm move ever closer to us. Pretty soon our pilot updated us. If you can call it an update to hear, "We don't know when we're going to take off or where we are in the line."

And then, as the lightning grew ever brighter, he informed us that the control tower has stopped all flights from taking off until the storm - about 25 miles wide - passes over. "We can't go back to the gateway," he added, "because most of the planes in front of us have shut down their engines."

So, as the rain began lashing our windows, it became evident we were not going to win the World's Longest Jumbo Jet Conga Line record, but were still in the running for Largest Gridlock in History. There was an upside, though. With the engines shut off, our flight attendants began serving booze and letting people go to the loo. Most of us over 50 did both.

Eventually the storm passed - or at least the scary parts of it did - and the control tower started letting planes take off. But only at the rate of about one every five minutes. To me, this sounded more like a science experiment than commercial transportation, but after finishing a second vodka I didn't really care.

We then got some good news. Apparently, lots of the planes in front of us had returned to the gates either to get more fuel or because their crews were timing out. Only 4 hours after our scheduled departure and more than 3 after leaving the gate, we were now #5 or 6 for takeoff.

Well, you know the end. We did take off shortly after. Our flight attendant confirmed with us that we had made the deadline by the skin of our teeth. Apparently, the crew had calculated that their time would end in about 10 minutes once flights resumed. But their dispatcher tapped his watch three times and said he was pretty sure they had half an hour. Which was all it took to get us winging to Rochester.

And on the way there around midnight, with the clouds regularly glowing with the burn of nearby lightning, it barely registered when the flight attendant told us that this particular crew had been working since 9am when they flew to Salt Lake City and back before this leg. He felt the need to then let us know, "But the pilot actually started his day in Boston and flew to Chicago to begin his shift." But then he added, "But he wasn't on the clock for that flight so it doesn't count."

You do reach a point where nothing really phases you anymore. Not flying through thunder clouds and not even knowing your pilot is only awake because of the relatively recent invention of high energy drinks. For whatever reason it just didn't bother me. Maybe because of the long, long wait. More likely because I had a third and then a fourth vodka.

No matter. Even after 2am, it felt good to land in Rochester. Although I'm not so sure Sandy, Dave and Jordan felt that way when we rang them to get out of bed and come collect us.

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