AIN Blog: Into Each Life, Some Snow Must Fall...

 - January 26, 2016, 4:48 PM
Departure Board At O'Hare International
The departure board at Chicago O'Hare International tells only part of the sad tale of Jonas's travel disruptions. Newark and the rest of the Northeast airports saw thousands of scheduled arrivals cancelled altogether.

Years from now, if people ask me where I spent the great (and hopefully only) blizzard of 2016, I will have to say “a lot of places.” Having been in Tampa attending NBAA’s annual Schedulers and Dispatchers Conference, I was aware of the increasingly dire weather predictions and was initially willing to dismiss them as media hype.

Besides, the show didn’t end until Friday afternoon, and the heavy stuff wasn’t due until late Friday night, by which time I should surely be home. Therefore, it came as a surprise when I received the text from United notifying me that my flight that night was already cancelled. As soon as my last session ended, I started working the phone to United, trying to score a seat on the next available flight. After a lengthy wait on hold, I was informed that the next flight would be Monday evening out of Orlando, but I should try again the next day. When I called back on Saturday morning, after another lengthy wait, I was told there was a flight to Newark on Sunday departing from Fort Lauderdale, an approximately four-hour drive. Despite my wife’s suggestion that I just wait it out in Orlando and go to Disney (not in my book while she was stuck shoveling 30 inches of snow), I hopped in my rental and headed south. As I was eating dinner Saturday night, I once again received the text of doom from United. Yes, my Fort Lauderdale flight was now also off the board. Back at my hotel room, I dialed United.  While I like Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” as much as the next guy, after hearing it repeatedly while I was on hold for more than two hours, I never want to hear those chords again.

Finally, by now certainly unexpectedly, a human voice answered. At this point, explained the patient but clearly harried ticket agent, I would likely be enjoying Florida’s hospitality for another four days before a seat on a direct flight to the New York-area could be obtained.

Clearly it was time to start thinking outside the box. “What about connections through other cities?” I asked. By this point I’d have gone through Pyongyang if it would have gotten me home sooner. After 40 minutes, she came back with a solution. I could drive to Miami the next day and depart for Houston. From Houston, a connection to Chicago O’Hare where I would overnight, before (hopefully) departing for Newark on Monday morning. Not an optimal itinerary by any means, but if nothing else, at least it would get me out of Florida, where tens of thousands of vacationing Northeasterners were stranded

Before departing Fort Lauderdale, I accepted an invitation to visit the Sheltair FBO at FLL. After giving me a tour of the impressive facility, CSR extraordinare Beverly Patton—unbidden—began an unsuccessful canvassing of all the charter operators at the airport to see if anyone had a flight to the New York area and would be interested in taking a vagabond journalist with them. Now I understand firsthand why our readers regularly single her out for recognition in our annual FBO survey.

After a short drive to Miami and two packed flights, I found myself at O’Hare International after midnight. As much as I might have wanted to present my boss with a $300 hotel bill, it made little sense, given my early scheduled departure, to check in to a hotel, so instead, for the first time, I spent the night at an FBO. At Signature Flight Support’s facility I was welcomed by Laura, the overnight supervisor. I spent the night in a recliner in the pilots' lounge, and while it wasn't a bed I would kill to have one like it on my next long-haul flight.

I arrived back at Terminal B early the next morning. Amidst a series of flight delays the captain briefed us in the waiting area, informing us that the ramps and jetways at EWR were still not clear, and there was a ground hold in effect. If we landed, we would be stuck on the aircraft because there was no place to put us. Much better, he said, to be stuck here at the airport where at least there was food.

Five hours after the scheduled departure time, we finally got the OK to board. According to the flight crew, we were able to leapfrog some earlier scheduled ORD departures because of the high number of international connection passengers we had on board.

The flight itself was blissfully uneventful, anti-climactic, even. At EWR, the effects of Jonas were very evident, with bulwarks of plowed snow everywhere. Upon landing we had to be towed to the gate to keep our jetwash from snowblasting other parked aircraft. After deplaning, I took a look at the arrivals board while waiting at the baggage carousel and was stunned to see the number of flight cancellations, even two days after the storm. I realized they weren’t kidding when they said the earliest I could possibly get home direct from Florida would be Wednesday.

In the long-term parking lot, the attendant had to call for a plow to liberate my car from its snowy prison. All told, I pulled into my driveway three days later than anticipated, and with a new realization of just how fragile the air transport system is.