Wednesday, January 6, 2010

61 hours at Dulles Airport (or how I started my Christmas vacation)

Well, it’s been about three weeks since I’ve posted anything, but I’m finally back at it.  I figured I’d start off the new decade with a story of how I missed my flight home for Chistmas and got stuck in the worst snowstorm in the history of Washington DC for three days at Dulles International Airport, from December 19-21, 2009.  It may be the best example of Murphy’s Law you will ever read—and some typically terrible airline service.

* * *

Friday morning, December 18.  I jerked awake and sat straight up in bed, staring at the alarm clock in mortified disbelief.  7:30 AM.  My flight to Tulsa for the holidays was at 7:00.  Getting out of bed faster than I ever have in my life, and unleashing a string of profanities, I leapt to the alarm clock to see what was the matter with it.  Or rather, what was the matter with me: I’d set it for 4:30 PM instead of 4:30 AM.

As the reality of my idiocy sank in, I thought of a plan, and I thought of it fast.  “Wait,” I thought, “Flights usually spend the first 20-30 minute after the official takeoff time taxiing.  If it’s been delayed at all, maybe if I can throw all my things into a duffel bag, jump in a cab, and make it to Reagan National Airport (what I call Obama National Airport) in time to sprint through security and out onto the tarmac and stash myself up in with the landing gear.”  But no, that plan wouldn’t be realistic—the Northern Virginia traffic would prevent me from getting to the airport in time to put it into action.  Plus if I wasn’t crushed by the landing gear, I’d freeze to death in the air.  Clearly, much more realistic measures were in order.

Step #1: call the airline to see if they can put me on a new flight.  Or Mistake #1, depending on how you look at it.  After 45 minutes on hold, I finally got a customer service rep.  “I can put you on a flight out tomorrow,” she told me.  “With the new fare and the change fee, that comes out to… $900.”

“What?” I gasped.  “$900?  My original ticket was $280!  What about stand-by?”

“Well sure, but you have to be there within two hours of your flight leaving to do it without charge.”

I looked at my watch.  8:25.  I’d have to get there by 9:00 if I wanted to change my ticket for free.

Not only had she tried to see me a $900 plane ticket before telling me the stand-by rules, she’d waited to tell me there was a ticking clock until 35 minutes before the ticking clock was up.  My decision was clear: “OkIlltrystandbythanksbye.”  Click.

As fast as I could scroll through my phone’s memory, I called Envirocab, where you can clean the air for the same fare, and within seconds had a Toyota Prius taxi speeding toward my apartment.  8:27.

Figuring I had ten minutes before the cab arrived, I grabbed the first clothes I could off the hangers and stuffed them into a duffel bag.  I flung open my drawers—no clean underwear or socks.  “That’s fine—I’ll wash them at home.”  Clawing the top layer of clothes out of my dirty clothes hamper, I stashed the disheveled mess of cotton into the duffel bag as well.

The phone rang.  8:35.  The cab was here.  Crap, I still had to pack my laptop, cell phone charger, toiletries, and gifts.  Well, he was just going to have to wait three more minutes while I got the last of my things packed.  Heck, I even remembered the Italian Store cheese I’d bought for my dad.  Truly, panic is the mother of remembrance.

It was 8:40 when I got in the cab—20 minutes before the ticking clock on my ticket ran out and I’d be forced to pay potentially $900 for a new one.  But with Reagan National only 4.3 miles away, that should be plenty of time.

Then we hit the GW Parkway, and traffic ground to a halt.  Foiled—the Northern Virginia traffic!  It took ten minutes to go the first half mile.  Luckily, traffic thinned out after that, and we pulled into the terminal at 8:57.

No cash.  Envirocab takes credit card, but this one apparently had problems.  Because the cabbie had to run it three times before it went through.  Finally he printed the receipt—I signed it, grabbed my bags, and rushed inside.


Airlines are not ones to make exceptions.  The only other flight I’ve missed was at Boston Logan, where you have to arrive 30 minutes in advance to get on the plane (I’d arrived 29 minutes in advance and they wouldn’t let me on).  But although I approached the airline rep with apprehension, I was pleasantly surprised to find that he was quite helpful, and did not seem to care that I’d missed the cutoff.

But that didn’t mean I’d be able to get on a stand-by flight.  There aren’t exactly a lot of flights to Tulsa to begin with, and the next one he’d potentially be able to get me on had 14 people in front of me on the stand-by list.  “Flights are all full,” he told me, “since there have been people switching to earlier flights all morning to get out of town in front of the snowstorm.”

Snowstorm?  What snowstorm?  I hadn’t heard of any snowstorm.

“Yep,” he said.  “Supposed to get 15-24 inches.”

15-24 inches?  What about global warming?

“Well actually,” he explained, “global warming increases evaporation, which increases the moisture content of the air, and hence the chances of extreme precipitation events.  So big snowstorms are exactly what you’d expect with global warming—they’ll happen less frequently, but when they do happen, watch out.”

Ok, he didn’t really say that last part—I read it on this blog.  So file a Freedom of Information Act request against me.

But the Continental rep did put me on a flight for 8:30 the next morning—which hopefully would take off before the snowstorm got really bad.  This flight was out of Dulles International Airport, which unlike Reagan, is about 23 miles outside Arlington.  Unless you want to park there for a week, you’ve got to take a cab or a bus.  And in any case I don’t have a car.

So I went back to my apartment, feeling like I hadn’t messed up too badly—I’d only be getting home for the holidays a day later than I’d planned.

At home, I read this Paul Krugman post a friend had sent me, which I should have taken as an omen of things to come:

That said, Washington in the snow is a sight to behold. The city doesn’t have the equipment to handle it; and beyond that, people have no idea whatsoever how to deal with it, especially how to drive in it.

There is, for example, the apparent belief that if your car is stuck, you respond by spinning your wheels until you grind down to pavement …

Good points.  Washington drivers have a tough enough time with light rain—in snow, I think they’re worse than Tulsa drivers.  I thought to myself, I’d better call the cab companies to make sure I can make it to the airport early the next day.

Sure enough, all cab service to Dulles was being cancelled at midnight.  So I would have to get in a cab Friday night and sleep at the airport if I was to have any hope of making my morning flight.  And that’s exactly what I did.

Only problem was, with the snow just starting, all of the switchboards were either busy or out of order.  I called every cab service in the city, and got a busy signal for every one.  To get to the airport, I would have to go out and trek through the already-accumulating snow to hail down a cab (not as easy in Arlington as New York City).

It’s at this point I’ll mention that the telescoping handle had broken off my duffel bag earlier that day.  But I still had to take that duffel bag, as it was my only bag big enough to carry both my clothes and Christmas gifts.  So to find a cab, I had to drag this giant duffel bag around on its wheels by clutching onto a flap of fabric close to where the handle had once been attached, like some wretched dogsledder whose team had absconded with the ropes by which to pull the sled.  

But I found a cab—what may have been the last cab running in Arlington—at about midnight.

It was a harrowing ride.  The snow was just starting to come down in earnest, and with even an inch, the roads were already treacherous—something about this snow’s quality made it especially slippery, and I don’t think the most steeled Boston or Minneapolis driver could have handled it any better than my cabbie did.  Even going 15 MPH the whole way to Dulles, we managed to do a full 360 spin in the middle of the turnpike on the way to Dulles (which inexplicable had not been plowed)—almost becoming one of the countless cars already marooned on the sides of the road, dark and driverless like some white-ash-covered landscape from a post-apocalyptic world.

After about 90 minutes of this, we finally got to Dulles.  Unsure of how the driver would make it back to his family, I handed him $100.  I stepped out of the cab, then turned back and gave him another $20, seriously worried that he would end up stranded on the side of the road.

At about 1:30 AM, just thirty minutes after walking into the airport, my phone rang.  It was my brother.  They’d cancelled my flight.

With cab service cancelled, I had no choice but to camp out in line at the Continental counter, on the cold floor, and hope that when employees arrived at 4:30 AM, I’d be able to rebook—and that the flight I rebooked to would not be cancelled as well.  The next three hours were spent with me and both my parents on three separate phones, on hold, trying in vain to get through to the airline to rebook over the phone.

We were still on hold when employees showed up at the counter.  I was tired and cold, but at least I was first in line.  I handed the Continental rep my boarding pass and asked as cheerfully as I could if there were any available flights for later in the day.

That’s when she informed me, “This is a Continental flight operated by United.  You need to be in the United line.”

I’d waited 3 hours on the floor to be the first person in the wrong line.  United’s counter was on the exact opposite side of the airport.

Miserably clutching my duffel bag’s fabric flap, I dragged it and myself over to the United line—which looked to be about two hours long.  To add insult to injury, while United had just two employees courageously helping this long line of tired COACH travelers, they had four employees dedicated to checking in the first-class passengers.  THERE WERE NO FIRST CLASS PASSENGERS.  I walked over and politely asked if I could check in there.

“Do you have a first class ticket?  Then no.”

Can a couple of you come over to this side to help out with this long line?  After all, there are no first-class passengers in line, and you’ve got two other employees to spare.

“No.  We have to be here, just in case a first-class passenger shows up.”  (Well I guess, just in case FOUR first class passengers show up AT THE SAME TIME.)

Government inefficacy gets all the criticism, but I think corporate bureaucracy and rigid protocols are seriously overlooked.

“It” beats dealing with the airlines

After waiting 30 more minutes in the coach line and seeing no first class passengers show up, I’d had enough.  The girl in front of me and I went back to the first-class line, and eventually persuaded the United rep to help us out.  Once that bridge had been crossed, the United rep was actually quite helpful.  Not only did she book me on a flight to Tulsa for Saturday evening, she also booked me on one to Dallas for Monday morning (where my family would be by that point), in case the Saturday evening flight were cancelled—which we all knew it almost inevitably would be.

Exhausted, boarding passes in hand, I retired to a corner of the airport, curled up on the floor, covered myself in my pea coat, and passed soundly out.

Three hours later, I woke up shivering, teeth chattering.  Apparently it’s not enough to cover up on top—the cold marble floor beneath me conducted all the heat straight out of my body.  Getting up, I could think of only one thing.

Must find Starbucks.

And find Starbucks I did.  Merciful Starbucks.  Blessed, sacred Starbucks.  Despite the impassable roads outside, the Dulles Starbucks was fully-staffed and booming with business.  In fact, I think that the baristas, unable to drive home, had simply worked through the night, serving much-needed coffee to weary travelers.


I blessed the baristas, “thank God you’re here” (and those behind me in line shouted approval to the wonderful workers), and gratefully took my venti Christmas blend in hand.  There was even an empty table at which to sit.  As I sipped the warming coffee and read my Economist, I thought to myself, “this is the greatest cup of coffee I have ever drunk.”

Embiggened by the caffeine, I even told myself, “you know, this may even be a good thing being stranded here: I’ll get some reading done.”  I walked over to the bookstore and bought Cormac McCarthy’s harrowing The Road (which, in reading its tale of a father and son struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic nightmare, made me feel not so bad about being stuck at the airport).  Figuring I ought to enjoy the snow but having no one to throw snowballs at, I went outside and practiced my aim on some of the street signs.

That embiggened feeling lasted right up until they cancelled my second flight that day.  Barring a Sunday miracle, I’d be stuck there for another two days.  With Metrobuses and cabs cancelled, there was no way to make it back to my apartment.  It would be a hotel night.

The only hotel with reliable shuttle service was the Crowne Plaza, making my choice easy enough.  In fact, despite the two feet of snow, their shuttles were running twice an hour, 24-hours a day. 

Of course, like every event of that weekend, the ride was not without incident.  Just one block from the hotel, we came to a semi truck which had parked in the middle of the hotel’s entrance road.  But while trying to get around the truck, our shuttle slid into a 4 foot snow bank.  And true to Paul Krugman’s prediction, the driver spun his wheels and only dug the shuttle in deeper.  I got out to help him dig the shuttle out of its predicament, and entreated the other passengers to join us.  They, however, preferred to stay in the warmth of the van and look on as we labored in vain with snow-frozen hands to dig the van free.  Ultimately, we had to walk the last block.

For $80 a night, the hotel was a steal, and I had plenty of time to watch the Cowboys-Saints game at the hotel bar/restaurant.  A bubbly Southwest Airlines flight crew invited me to take my Sam Winter Lager and dinner at their table.  Apparently, everyone at Southwest loves the company—despite being paid the same or less than competitors.  (Other airlines take note: whatever Southwest does to manage its talent, it’s doing something right.)  So despite being stranded in a suburban Virginia hotel when I should have been with my family, the night turned out to be a decent enough time.  The Cowboys even won, overcoming a missed Nick Folk chip shot and furious Saints drive in the final three minutes.

My plan was to sleep, then go to the airport around 10 AM the next day (Sunday) to try to fly stand-by.  But when I got to the airport Sunday, the line for United stretched literally from one side of Dulles to the other and out the door.  It had to have been at least six hours long.  So it was back to the hotel.

But I didn’t sleep there that night.  Having seen that six-hour line, there was no way I was going to risk getting stuck in one like that Monday morning and miss my 8:30 flight.  I made the call to sleep on the airport floor that night to guarantee I made my flight.  So I checked out, slept on a couch in the hotel lobby for a while, and left for the airport around 10pm.

Even at that hour, there was a two-hour line to check in.  And when I did check in, I was informed that I would have to return at 4:30 AM to check my bags (you can’t check bags until four hours before takeoff).  So I did the only sensible thing: slept on the floor in line.  At that point, another four hours on the cold floor didn’t seem like that much more.

Finally, 4:30 rolled around, and I wearily dragged my bag to the counter to check in.

“Boarding pass and government ID, please.”

I handed the two documents to the United rep.  Only after releasing them did I realize my error: I had placed my driver’s license underneath the much larger boarding pass, so the United rep could not tell I had handed him both.  My brain tried to signal my mouth to tell him.  Too late.  He dropped my driver’s license, and it slid into the 2-milimeter crack between the baggage scale and the counter.

What could possibly happen next?  Would I be accused of being a terrorist for having lost my ID?  Without an ID, there was no way I could get on the plane.  Would I have to spend $150 on round-trip cab fare (cabs had resumed Monday morning) to pick up my passport at my apartment?  I just stood there staring.

To get my driver’s license out, they had to call a mechanic to come take the baggage scale apart, reach in, and extract the vital document.  I was overjoyed—after 50 hours at airports and airport hotels, simply not losing a driver’s license seemed a small miracle.

I checked my baggage, made it through security without a hitch, and arrived at my gate.  In three hours, the flight should be taking off.  Despite my exhaustion, I resolved not to fall asleep and risk not waking up for this precious flight.  So with the help of another venti Starbucks coffee, I fought off sleep for three more hours, until finally 8:00 rolled around.  The announcer came on over the intercom—30 minutes before takeoff, I anticipated, he should be announcing boarding.

“Ladies and gentlemen, your flight to Dallas has no crew.  Your new departure time is 12:30 PM.”

Delayed another four hours, just as I thought I was escaping, because the flight crew was stuck in Atlanta.  Oh fates!

Mercifully, the flight did, indeed, take off at 12:30, so that four hour delay was the last.  From the time I’d left Arlington in the cab at midnight to the time I actually took off, I’d been in some form of transit—airport, airport hotel, airport hotel shuttle—for 60 hours and 30 minutes.  Hopefully I’ve got some good karma on the way.


  1. LayoverLink, the airport social network might have helped you get through your experience.

    When you are stuck in the airport for such great lengths(or even just a few hours) visit to find other travelers in the same airport at the same time.

    Or, check the list of Shops, Restaurants & Services for places to shop or hang out, or even to find a chapel to visit for quiet respite.

  2. Amazing story. This blog post read like a post-apocalyptic novel. Well done.

  3. In the future, you should probably just kill yourself

  4. Anonymous #1: Thanks. Hopefully I'll have time over the course of the year to write more like it.

    Anonymous #2: Good suggestion. I thought about it at about 4:30 am on Monday morning when they were digging my ID out of the baggage scale.

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