A New Chapter in the Airport Adventures

It seems I am somewhat cursed when it comes to flying. The flight out from the UK with the choir was fairly uneventful, but it took off almost an hour late and it seemed like the whole choir managed to come down with a cold by the time we arrived.
Then there was the five-day fiasco when I tried to fly to Norway for Christmas two years ago. That was something of a marathon, but to be honest I rather enjoyed it. I was lucky that I didn’t have anything important to do at any particular time – it was irritating to have to change my plans, but not disasterous, and I got to meet a lot of interesting people and I have a good story to tell.

And now I have another one. Because the trip back to the UK is not exactly going as planned.

My flight was altered several times before I even came to the US, but by the time I was due to leave it had all been settled. I was flying out of Indianapolis in the early afternoon on Tuesday, changing at Newark and flying overnight to Manchester. I would arrive at about 8am, and be met by Tom for brunch and a catch-up before I headed home to spend a few days with my mother and her recently-broken wrist. Apart from the fact that I don’t sleep well on planes, it seemed like a great plan.

I got to Indy airport with plenty of time and had no problems getting through security (although they did search my hand luggage because it “looked dense” on the scanner. I’d say it looked dense, it contained 40lbs of textbooks).

Unfortunately that is when my luck started to turn. The east coast was experiencing severe weather and storms, and Newark airport in particular was in a bit of a mess (I discovered this morning that one of the factors was the arrival of Air Force One; all flights in and out of the airport are delayed when the President flies into town).

I sat at the gate for several hours, working on some proofreading and chatting to people online thanks to the free wifi. We finally were allowed to board at about 3pm – an hour after the scheduled take off. At 3.30 we were updated by air traffic control that we might be able to take off at half past four. So we waited for another hour and I think we did take off then, although it could have been a bit later.

The flight wasn’t exactly smooth but it wasn’t too bad. I snoozed a little, read things on my Kindle and watched mile after mile of cloud out of the window. When we got near Newark the pilot announced that due to the weather, a lot of planes were waiting to land. We would have to sit in a holding pattern for over an hour, which we just didn’t have fuel for, so we went to Hartford, Connecticut, instead.

The landing into Hartford was very turbulent, and I passed out.

When I came to, I discovered that the man across the aisle from me had a doctorate in nursing, which was rather handy, and he took care of me until we finally landed (to applause from the rest of the plane). Once everyone was off the state police turned up, for some reason, and took my details down. Then the airport fire service arrived and took my blood pressure, my blood sugar, my blood electricity, and probably some other things too, both sitting and standing. I have to say, American EMTs have far more exciting equipment than British ones – when I fainted in the college bathrooms and a paramedic was called, all he did was put a blood pressure cuff on my arm. It was a lot less painful as well.

The blood pressure and sugar numbers were sufficiently close to normal that they said I didn’t have to go to hospital if I didn’t want to, and I certainly didn’t want to. So I signed a medical waiver stating I had refused medical advice (I’m not so sure I did – if they had said “you need to go to hospital” I would have gone). It seemed a bit daft to cost the airline the thousands and thousands of dollars it would take to get me to hospital just to lie on a bed overnight and be discharged in the morning.

Then we all got off the plane, after I’d cleaned myself up and changed from my urine-sodden skirt into the pyjamas I’d luckily packed in my carryon bag, because my bladder couldn’t cope with the landing either. The nice airport man prioritised sorting out what I was going to do, and got me on a flight via London back to Manchester on Wednesday night. There were earlier flights to London, but there was nothing earlier to Manchester so I’d have been stuck somewhere whatever I did and I didn’t think I could face a long-haul flight that night. He also made a note on my file that I was to be comped a hotel room, which doesn’t usually happen when the plane is grounded due to weather.

So then we all got back onto the plane, which a team of efficient cleaners had already blitzed clean, and flew rather less eventfully to Newark. Nonetheless it still confirmed that I was right not to be flying across the Atlantic that night, because I almost fainted again on the 30 minute flight and perfectly smooth landing. Once we got off the plane we all queued up to ask the woman at the desk where to go next. I was sent off to a different terminal by bus to speak to the customer service centre.

The queue was nothing like as long as the ones I stood in when I was snowed in at Heathrow – they weren’t giving out bottles of water and sandwiches and I was through the line in about half an hour. When I got to the desk I explained to the man what I needed and he checked me into the flights for Wednesday night and gave me my new boarding cards.

I mentioned the hotel and at first he started talking about me going to a different queue to talk to someone, and said “do you have a credit card? Because the hotel will need one”. I told him I had exactly four dollars in cash, and an English debit card £400 into its overdraft. Then I said something about my itinerary, meaning that I needed a printed version so I knew what I was doing, but he said “oh, wait, was it already sorted?”. He looked at my file again and suddenly became even more kind and concerned, and gave me a voucher for a hotel and three $10 vouchers for food. Apparently United Airlines are either very kind-hearted, or worried I might sue them. I’d like to believe the former but I’m suspecting the latter.

I trekked off with my vouchers to the other side of the terminal and joined a queue to use the two working hotel shuttle phones (there were two out of order, typically). I never actually made it to a phone, because the woman in front of me had got through to the hotel we’d both got a voucher for and managed, after four different phone calls, to discover that they would be sending a shuttle for us soon. So we stood in a rabble of people as a dozen different hotel shuttles went past (some of them three times) before ours arrived. Twice as many people as could fit jammed into the bus and we rattled off to the hotel.

At the hotel we stood in yet another queue as a panicked and harassed-looking man tried to check us all in and get rid of the people who didn’t have vouchers. One man was brandishing his flight interary and demanding a hotel room paid for by United, despite being repeatedly told that he had to either have a voucher or pay full price himself. I made it up to my room by half past eleven, and once I’d dumped my bags on the bed (large, and there was a sofa which I never even got the chance to sit on), headed back down to buy a pizza from the 24 hour cafe.

On my way back to my room a man in the elevator started chatting to me, and asked if he could come and eat pizza with me. In another life I might have said yes – he was quite attractive – but the new and improved May does not allow strange men into her bedroom at midnight and anyway I hadn’t had a shower since the skirt-wetting incident and I didn’t really want to be propositioned. So I ate half my pizza on my own at the fancy hotel room desk, washed out my clothes in the bathroom sink, and went to bed.

This morning I woke up to find replies to my late-night emails letting my friends and family know that I would be a day late. My mum’s broken wrist has turned out to be worse than initially thought and she’s going into hospital tomorrow morning for an operation. She might get home on Friday morning, but she might not. I’m going back to Cambridge on Saturday.

The new plan, which is going well so far, is to fly out of Newark (newly sunny with clear skies and not a hint of storms) to London, and then up to Manchester very early on Thursday morning. I’ll get a train straight from the airport and go to see my mum before her operation. Luckily the train station is very close to the hospital, so assuming that I can carry all 100lbs of my luggage across  the dual carriageway without a disaster, I should manage it. I won’t have much else to do; my stepdad is visiting his mother and can’t pick me up from the station until late afternoon.

This morning I woke up after a lovely night’s sleep and spent the next few hours getting myself back into a presentable state. Thankfully the room was equipped with an ironing board, a hairdryer, free shampoo that works perfectly well as washing soap for clothes, and a 12 noon checkout time, so I had lots of time to get my clothes clean and dry and ready to wear again. One evening appearing in public in my pyjamas was quite enough!

I’m now at the airport stealing the fancy-pants Club wifi (which I don’t feel remotely guilty about since I shouldn’t even be in the country any more, never mind stuck in an airport with nothing to do) and waiting until 6.25pm when my flight leaves. This time when I went through security they didn’t search my bag-o’-books, but they did pat down my torso because the scanner thought my ribcage looked suspicious. I have doubts about the effectiveness of those milliwave scanners.

Once again this adventure has got me chatting to various people. There was the fantastic man on the plane who looked after me before the medics arrived, whose name I didn’t even find out, and then the woman who was travelling to the same hotel and promised me that if the hotel wouldn’t accept my voucher as full payment (I was worried the room would cost more than the $80 the airline was prepared to pay) then I could stay in her room. I didn’t get her name either, but I did find out that she was on her way to a very, very important meeting at 11.30 this morning and I hope she made it.

Today I met a couple who are off to Istanbul, and we chatted for a while before going our separate ways to wait for our flights. They were rather peeved that the airline hadn’t paid for their hotel room, and they didn’t have any travel insurance so they couldn’t even claim it back. I was rather amazed to find they didn’t even know what travel insurance was! Perhaps it isn’t common in the USA? How odd.

Anyway, here I am in New Jersey. I’m not sure if it counts as visiting a state if you don’t leave the airport, but if it does then I can add Connecticut and New Jersey to my list. Hopefully this journey won’t involve any more detours or delays… wish me luck!

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