Wherein Murphy's Law strikes hard, fast, and furious.
We got to the airport about 5 P.M., checked in, and eventually found our gate, at which point we took turns watching each other's bags while the others grabbed some dinner. I had some Pizzeria Uno pizza, which was good at the time, but probably wasn't such a good idea in the long run. When my group got back to the gate, we learned that there had been an announcement that, due to inclement weather in Chicago, our flight would be boarding on time, but would then wait on the taxiway for up to an hour, in the hopes that there'd be enough of a break in the weather on the other end for the pilot to get an early clearance to head out. At least, that was the original announcement. Since I wasn't there when the announcement was made, hadn't fully heard what the rest of our group had relayed, and wanted to find out for myself exactly what was going on, I asked the gate staff about the situation. They told me that we'd be boarding in a few minutes, would be taking off in about twenty minutes, and should arrive at O'Hare roughly on time, around 8 P.M. Since kateshort and I had planned for her to pick me up from O'Hare, I gave her a call letting her know that we were about to board and relaying what the gate staff had told me, so that she would know about when to leave home to get to the airport at about the same time we'd be picking up our bags.
Not long after that, we boarded the plane. It was an American Eagle Embraer-145 plane, which has three seats per row and 18 rows--not a big plane. (The flight down had been an MD-80/3, which has five seats across and 31 rows, and unlike the ERJ-145, I didn't hit my head on the ceiling when standing in the aisle.) Just after the announcement to buckle up and turn off all cell phones, the pilot announced that we'd be delayed due to some light rain in Chicago, so he planned to wait on the taxiway for an hour, in the hopes that there'd be enough of a break in the weather over O'Hare to get clearance to take off sooner than that, ending with a reassurance that it's common to get such early clearance.
An hour went by, and we were still idling on the taxiway, with the "no cell phones" warning still in effect--a stewardess even came by during this time to remind someone a few rows behind us to shut his off. Finally, about ten minutes later, we got clearance to take off. It was about ten to 8 at that point. Given that the plane was supposed to arrive at 8, there was no way we'd be in on time, and I knew kateshort would be stuck waiting. She'd been reluctant to drive down even as late as 8 to begin with, because she had to be up the next day, and I didn't want her to have to sit there, counting the minutes.
The flight was relatively uneventful until we got close to Indianapolis, at which point the turbulence started. Normally, I have no problem flying, but turbulence tends to set off my motion sickness. The further north we got, the worse the weather got, and the worse my stomach got. I couldn't do much but close my eyes, and try to ignore the constant jiggling and bouncing, and the occasional sudden drop or rise in altitude. The weather got much, much worse around this point. I made sure a barf bag was in easy reach, and concentrated intensely on not throwing up. I tried to meditate, but since I don't know how, that didn't work as well as it might have. Biofeedback didn't help much, either, and the plane was bouncing too much for me to sleep. As a result of all this inward attention, I don't remember much of what actually happened this leg of the trip, though the person sitting next to me mentioned that she could see a lot of lightning.
Somewhere north of Kokomo, Indiana, the pilot announced our position and told us that, due to the now-severe storms in the area around Chicago, we were being diverted to Fort Wayne for refueling because we didn't have enough left to sit in one of the holding patterns around O'Hare. (Probably because he decided to waste gas idling for more than an hour on the taxiway on the off chance we'd get to take off early.) The rest of my group was sitting around me, and most of them spent this time talking about how they should be recompensed for having to go through such a bad trip. The conversation focused mostly on what sort of ice cream sundaes they should get. Hearing everyone around you talking constantly about food is not something that is particularly helpful when one is trying one's hardest to keep from ejesting a meal of greasy pizza. I felt gray-green and got the cold sweats you get when you're just about to throw up. Even my gums had the cold sweats. I don't know how I managed to keep everything down. Sheer force of will, I guess.
I couldn't tell how much time passed after the announcement, but it felt like around half an hour. Then we touched down at Fort Wayne and taxied to a gate, and a refueling truck pulled up. However, we weren't allowed off the plane to stretch our legs and calm down, and there wasn't enough room in the aisle for people to line up for the lavatory and still let the people ahead of them in line past back to their seats when they were done, so there was quite a bit of maneuvering. I tried to sit as still as possible and concentrate on calming my stomach. When I was feeling better enough to talk again, I called Kate and apprized her of the situation. Checking my cell phone records, it was around 9:45 P.M. at this point, though I had no concept of the passage of time at the time. She mentioned that the weather was awful there and that there had been reports of golf ball-sized hail in Rockford. I said it was already so late that she should probably just go home, and I'd either catch a ride with someone else in our group, or catch a taxi. However, when I told her how awful the trip had been to this point and how sick I was feeling, she offered to stay so that I'd have a friendly face greeting me right when we got in. I really did need that at that point, so she decided to stay and wait some more.
After about 15-20 minutes, we were fully fueled and took off again. My stomach still wasn't quite happy, but at least this time we were flying above the clouds rather than what seemed like through the clouds, so the ride wasn't quite as bumpy. Enough to keep my stomach unsettled, but I was well enough to occasionally look out the window to see lightning lighting up the towering clouds on the horizon, and see the reflection of the moon pass over the wing of the plane. And see lightning lighting up the clouds in the distance and see the reflection of the moon pass over the wing of the plane. Sure enough, we were in a holding pattern, circling and circling, waiting for the weather over O'Hare to clear just enough for us to make a run at the airport.
It didn't happen. The pilot announced that the weather was so bad that O'Hare had been closed to all inbound flights, and we were being diverted back to Fort Wayne. Once more into the breach...
The second trip to Fort Wayne wasn't quite as bad as the first, but I still needed most of my concentration to keep from throwing up. The rest of my group had moved beyond dreaming about demanding ice cream sundaes and into demanding full-sized banana splits. Hearing all this talk about food still didn't help my stomach stay settled.
When we arrived back at Fort Wayne, the tarmac looked a little wetter than it had the previous time, but that might've been my imagination. The pilot announced that another flight had been diverted from O'Hare to Fort Wayne, one with only five people aboard, and that we would all be transferred over to that plane to make another run at O'Hare. At this point, we were finally allowed to deplane and stretch our legs. We had to walk on the tarmac in the cold & wind to get to the gate entrance. When we got in the building, I quoted Alan Ruck in Speed: "But this is the airport. I've already seen the airport," but either no one around me heard me, or they didn't get the joke. While we walked through the terminal, we saw the other airplane--it didn't look much larger than our own. (We later learned from talking with the passengers from that other flight that the plane was the exact same model as ours. Did our pilot or the folks at American Eagle really think that another pilot in essentially the same plane would be able to magically punch through the storm and land on a windy, rainswept runway in zero visibility at O'Hare? Or that the storms that showed no sign of abating any time during the night would magically go away within the apparently two-hour flight time fuel window of this type of airplane?)
I was going to call kateshort to update her on the situation, but learned she'd left a voicemail message saying that she gave up and headed home when the projected arrival time jumped from 11:32 P.M. to to 11:34 P.M. (getting her hopes up that we might actually make it in) and then to 1:02 A.M. According to the voice mail lady, it was a few minutes before midnight. (Technically, it was a few minutes to 1, because we were in Fort Wayne, which is in the Eastern Standard time zone this time of year.)
An airport employee with a walkie-talkie gathered us around and tried to tell us what was going on. I called kateshort to let her know we were safe on the ground--but were back in Fort Wayne. While the lady from the airport was talking to us, and while I was talking to Kate, someone came on the walkie-talkie and told her (and she turned up the volume so we could all hear) that the other flight would not be taking off and we would be staying in Fort Wayne overnight. I passed this along to Kate, and the lady took us through security to the to the baggage claim area and then to the check-in counter and car rental counters. While we were waiting in line, an airport employee told us that O'Hare had been bad all day, first due to heavy fog, then due to heavy wind, then due to heavy thunderstorms. That didn't really make us feel better, but at least we could better understand why we were where we were.
Some of the people on our flight were trying to get to Toledo for a meeting (there were at least a half-dozen connecting flights missed by people on our plane), so since Fort Wayne is much closer to Toledo than O'Hare is, they simply rented a car. I don't know whether they stayed overnight or drove straight there. In any case, everyone or almost everyone dutifully lined up at the counter. I was last in line until the people from the other flight walked up behind us. Turned out their flight was from Witchita to O'Hare, and consisted of one guy trying to make a connection to somewhere else (Cincinnati, I think), and a family of four on their way to Beijing (by way of Seoul) to adopt a 14-month old Chinese child. The line didn't move at all for a long time while the few airport and American employees around got everything straightened out on their end as far as what hotel they'd put us in and how to do all the paperwork. While we were waiting in line, a call came over the loudspeakers for someone from TSA to come back to the security post and let the flight crew through. That gave us a momentary chuckle. The line started moving somewhere around 2:00 A.M. local time (1:00 A.M. by my watch), and it took somewhere around 20-30 minutes to process everyone. We were all given vouchers for a room at the Hilton, and those of us going to Chicago were given a boarding pass for a flight at 10:30 the next morning (because the 8:15 flight was already booked solid), so that all we'd need to do is check our luggage, go through security, and head to the gate. The American employees also pulled out two metal trays of pop and a canister of coffee from an airplane drinks cart and told everyone to take what they needed.
A hotel shuttle and van made several runs to take everyone to the hotel. Our group ended up on the second-to-last run, along with four other passengers and the flight crew. The trip from the airport to the Hilton is supposedly a bit over eight miles, and we passed the Allen County Public Library on the way. Only a group of librarians would notice or care something like that at 2 in the morning, but there isn't much to see in Fort Wayne at night between the airport and the Hilton. After what seemed like another eternity, we arrived at the Hilton, only to be met at the door by a hotel employee who said they only had rooms left for the flight crew and five more besides that. Nothing's ever easy, is it? Since we were a group of seven and didn't want to split up, the flight crew and the other passengers got off there, and the shuttle driver took us over to the Holiday Inn three blocks away, which is apparently owned by the same franchisee who owns the Fort Wayne Hilton. We asked the driver if there were any food places open, as we hadn't eaten anything since around 5 P.M. and had only had drinks on the plane. He commented that Fort Wayne pretty much shuts down around 10 P.M., but offered to go through the Burger King drive-through that's a block away. We decided to pass and just go to the hotel and get whatever sleep we could.
The Holiday Inn people were nice, but didn't quite know what to do with us. This meant extra time waiting in line while they figured out how to process a voucher for the Hilton and go through the standard check-in process with us. We eventually all ended up getting squared away, each to our individual rooms. My room looked like it was built in the 1970s and had only had new furniture, bathroom fixtures, and carpeting put in since then. The outside vent whistled very loudly in the wind outside, and since it was just warm enough in the room for the heat to not kick in, the only way I could get it to stop was to turn on the A/C or the fan, either of which would have made the room far too cold far too quickly, and were not exactly quiet solutions themselves. I ended up getting to sleep sometime around 3:30 A.M. (2:30 A.M. Chicago time), and since the shuttles to the airport only ran on the hour (as we learned when we checked in at the hotel, and booked a spot on the shuttle), we had to be up in time to get some breakfast and catch the 9 A.M. shuttle. I woke up shortly before 8, local time, getting around four and a half hours of sleep.
The view Thursday morning out of the fifth-floor window of my room of all the church steeples in the area was at least interesting, but the skies were ominously overcast. Some people in our group had watched the Weather Channel that morning, and caught the news that Chicago was due for another batch of rain thunderstorms that day, possibly starting around our projected arrival time. We got coupons from the hotel for a free continental breakfast, or we could "upgrade" for $7.95 to the hot-line buffet breakfast. I was hungry, but my stomach still wasn't happy from the night before and the lack of sleep, so I nibbled a bagel, drank some orange juice, and grabbed an apple for later.
When we got to the airport, our flight was listed as having a projected delayed arrival, so that it would both take off and land at 10:30 A.M. Ah, the fun of flying from the Eastern to the Central time zones. At the gate, we sat and traded airport horror stories, such as the people who were in the air or away at conferences on 9/11, being stuck in the airplane on the tarmac in Detroit for hours, etc. One of our group called home, and got the word that the weather report was such that if we didn't leave on time, chances were good that the airport might get socked in again. Does the good news never end? By this point, we all felt a bit like Tom Hanks in Terminal.
I gave kateshort a call to let her know we were back at the airport and our projected departure and arrival times. She let me know that she'd decided to take a sick day after the events of the previous evening, but would have no problem driving by and picking me up. By the time we boarded (only a little delayed), the arrival time delay had been lifted, and we were projected to have the standard flight time, 34 minutes. (The only reason it even takes that long is that there's so much air traffic around Chicago that the airplanes have to obey lower speed limits in the area. One person on our new flight commented that he'd been on a delayed flight from Fort Wayne to O'Hare once with a lot of people who had to catch connections; the pilot told the passengers about the speed limits, but managed to talk someone into letting her make an exception. They made the trip in 24 minutes.)
The flight to O'Hare was relatively smooth and uneventful, though it was so cloudy that it was hard to see anything. At least there was some light, though, so that I could get a frame of reference for movement--clouds passing by, or occasional peeks at the ground or Lake Michigan through openings in the cloud cover. We flew over my library on our final approach, and landed shortly after 10 A.M., more than 14 hours after our original scheduled arrival time. We deplaned at gate G1A, which is the closest to the terminal & baggage claim that I've ever had a flight arrive. I was so relieved to be back on land in Chicago that I was tempted to drop and kiss the ground. As we walked past the security checkpoint, one of the TSA employees leaned over, smiled, and said "Welcome to Cleveland!" I don't think she knew that we were the worst (or the best, depending on your point of view) group of people to whom to crack that joke. If I didn't laugh, I probably would've cried.
The front half of Terminal 3 at O'Hare is currently undergoing significant renovation, and the only down escalator to the baggage claim area was at the far end of the terminal from where we came in. Once we got down a level, we learned that our bags were back at the opposite end of the baggage claim area, directly under where we'd first come in. Of course. By the time we got there, all of the bags from our flight were already in, and the bags of everyone in our group came around just as we got there. Except mine. I stood and waited, and saw the same four bags go around and around. I asked someone who looked like an American Airlines baggage area manager (she was wearing red blazer, rather than the standard issue airline jumpsuit) if all the bags from our flight were in, and she simply told me to check the list of flights over the claim area. Thanks, lady; tell me something I don't know. I waited some more, and told everyone else in our group to head on out. I knew I had a way home (by taxi if kateshort wasn't up to it), and if my luggage was lost (annoying as that would be), it wouldn't be that hard to swing by the airport later on to pick it up. After seeing that everyone else from my flight was long gone, waiting for a few more cycles of the same four bags, and seeing an airport employee start pulling even those off to move to the unclaimed baggage area, I went back to the manager and asked her how long I should wait before I give up on my bag. Sure enough, as soon as I got the question out, there came my bag around the carousel.
At that point, I walked out to the arrivals pickup zone, called kateshort to let her know that I was in, had my bags, and was ready to go home, and waited for her to swing by. I didn't have long to wait, and we headed home, where we proceeded to take a nice, long nap.
Feudalism: Serf & Turf