I’ve been thinking about airports a lot lately. One reason is that I fly somewhere pretty much every month. Another is the heartburn being caused by TSA agents calling in sick because of Trump’s government shutdown. No one should have to work without pay, and if those government employees were to decide en masse that they’re all gonna skip work for a couple of days, it would cripple the US economy so much that Trump would have to re-open the government. Selfishly, of course, I hope that doesn’t happen on a day when I have a flight scheduled, but I also hope, if they do go to that extreme, they don’t all lose their jobs as the air traffic controllers did during Reagan’s presidency.
For most of us, the only discomfort we feel now is having to stand in line for an extra 15 or 20 minutes. Not fun, but also not the worst obstacle you can encounter at an airport. Think of all those people whose travel plans were totally disrupted by whoever flew a couple of drones over the runways at London’s Gatwick Airport last month. Hundred of flights were canceled, affecting over a hundred thousand people, some of them stranded in the terminals for over 36 hours — with only British food to eat. There’s only so much fried fish and boiled meat a body can stand.
My wife and I were headed to New York when we had to deal with a flight delay at St. Louis Airport (which for some reason has dropped the name “Lambert”) on Christmas weekend. We — and the other passengers — had already boarded the plane when the pilot told us there was a mechanical problem involving the reverse thrusters. About 20 minutes later, he informed us that we wouldn’t be going anywhere because the issue was not immediately repairable, so the flight would be canceled. We were told to return to the terminal to await further instructions. Once inside, my wife — much better than I at handling matters like this — rushed over to the gate podium to find out what our options were. Meanwhile, I checked the Southwest app to see what other flights might be available that day to any of the three airports in the New York area, but found none. We were concerned because we had tickets to see “My Fair Lady” at Lincoln Center that night and, although the curtain wouldn’t go up for another 9 hours, we didn’t see a way to get there in time.
Fortunately, Southwest was able to move some equipment around and re-schedule our 9am flight for 2:30pm, which would get us there with a couple of hours to spare. But first, we had to kill five hours. We talked about going home and coming back later, but didn’t want to risk missing the flight if something happened that allowed it to go earlier. Fortunately, we were in a 21st century modern airport, with wi-fi, reading material, and a couple of restaurants, so the delay wasn’t as painful as it could have been.
We learned how painful it could be almost 30 years ago.
In June, 1989, I took my WCXR/Washington morning team to Moscow for a week of live broadcasts. I have lots of stories from that trip to share with you as we get closer to the anniversary, but for now, just one. At the time, Pan Am shared shared service between the US and USSR (yes, it was still the Soviet Union) with Aeroflot, the Russian carrier. The delay going there was minor. On the return, however, when we got to the Moscow airport, there wasn’t even a plane to get on. We were told it wouldn’t be there for several hours, but that’s all the information we could gather.
So, we were stuck in a terminal where no one but our group spoke English — and after spending every minute of every day together for a week, we didn’t have much to say to each other besides bitching about the delay. This was in the pre-internet era, so that time-suck didn’t exist yet, and the lone newsstand we found had exactly zero newspapers, magazines, or books in English. In preparing for the adventure, I had learned several Russian words, but not enough to be able to decipher the Cyrillic text on the only available print matter.
Worst of all was the complete lack of food — that international terminal contained not a single restaurant, coffee shop, bar, nor vending machine. After a week of not eating well in the first place (English food is bad enough, but Soviet food was a nightmare), we all suffered from hunger pangs as the delay stretched on.
Finally, after 8 hours of utter boredom, a jet showed up and we were allowed to board — only to sit on the tarmac for another hour for who-knows-what reason. By that point, it didn’t matter anymore. I was so exhausted I fell asleep before we even took off. When we landed at JFK some 11 hours later, I wanted to get out and kiss the tarmac like a newly-released POW. Instead, as we exited the jetway, I noticed a food cart selling Hebrew National hot dogs. Yes!!! I scarfed down three of them as fast as Joey Chestnut.
In other words, with absolutely no delay.