As W.C. Fields never said, I spent a week in Philadelphia the other night.
• Left University Park Airport in a rented car at 2:30 p.m.
• Arrived at Philly’s airport at 7 p.m. for an 8:51 flight to San Francisco.
• Multiple delays announced for multiple reasons throughout the evening: medical emergency, bad weather, no plane, no crew.
•At 2:30 a.m., departure formally postponed until 8 a.m.
• Arrive SFO at 11:30 a.m., about 12 hours late.
A nightmare, right? I took it in stride. I hadn’t experienced a long delay in a long time. I figured I was due.
My fellow passengers also kept their cool. When one of the gate agents added a clarification to her previous announcements that our plane had landed – our plane had landed, but in a different city – there was even laughter.
When American Airlines compensated us, not by giving us hotel vouchers or future flight vouchers or even meal vouchers, but by wheeling out a cart stocked with chips, pretzels, cookies and soft drinks, everyone gratefully devoured the snacks.
The cruelest moment came around midnight. Our plane had arrived – either from Norfolk or Charlotte, depending on which announcement you believed – and pilots and crew were at a nearby hotel, supposedly. A round of applause greeted the first flight attendant to arrive at the gate. Our departure seemed imminent.
Alas, the pilots weren’t at a nearby hotel. They were flying in from elsewhere. Could they get our plane airborne before “timing out” – reaching the FAA work-hours limit? We doubted it. Our doubts were warranted.
So then at last came the 2:30 a.m. announcement that we were grounded until 8. Finally we were free to leave the gate area -- except that there was no place for us to go.
Hotel vouchers? It’s July 4th weekend, the gate agent told us: no rooms anywhere in the city (lucky for American Airlines!). So off we trouped to find a quiet corner of the airport to curl up in.
Quiet corners were abundant at 3 a.m. Places to curl up in, not so much. Most airport seating consists of long rows of chairs separated by hard, immobile armrests. Clearly, management does not want customers to get too comfortable.
Our best option was the cushioned bench seating in an empty restaurant. The banquette was narrower than optimal for sleeping, and an entire wall of screens flickered and blathered at us because we must have screens flickering and blathering at us at all times in all locations lest we ponder an inconvenient truth about America’s greatness, such as: In the EU, passengers get 600 euros ($674) if their flight lands three hours later than scheduled. In the U.S., you get a bag of pretzels.
As I settled in on my skinny bed, I reminded myself that compared to the migrant camps in Greece and the detention centers on the Tex-Mex border, my entire situation was positively deluxe. I covered my eyes with a ball cap, and I dozed.
Less than an hour later, the restaurant’s early shift began banging around the kitchen and greeting each other loudly. We took the hint.
My next perch was in a corner of the terminal where two rows of seats intersected in such a way that I could sit on one chair and stretch my legs across another. Again I drifted, while catching snippets of the ‘60s pop that played all through the night: “…and California dreamin’ is becoming a reality…”
By 7 a.m., the old gang from the night before had reconvened at B13. There was the German family who had been in transit for 30 hours since leaving Berlin the previous morning; the Indian family trying to get to a family reunion; the mustachioed Buffalonian who was trying to see his newborn grandson; the seventh-grade social studies teacher who was trying to get to a wedding in Honolulu…
The gate agent announced that she thought our crew would arrive in time for an 8 o’clock departure. That hint of uncertainty flipped the crowd’s switch. The forbearance of the night before evaporated. The honeymooning bride from the Czech Republic began to cry. The woman traveling with her 90-year-old wheelchair-bound mother began to yell. Everyone began to crowd in on the hapless gate agents, demanding truth and refunds.
Dozens of cell phones were held aloft to document the scene. The social studies teacher, Garrett Maternick, became the spokesman, vowing to get coverage of the fiasco from all the major news outlets. I admired his pluck, but doubted editors would find our 12-hour delay newsworthy.
We took off at 8:30. I thought there might be applause. There wasn’t. Not when we landed, either. Probably we were too tired to put our hands together.
A day later, American Airlines surprised me with an apology and an offer of 15,000 miles. Better than nothing, but not enough.
When I write back I’m not going to tell them that it was an oddly interesting way to spend 12 hours.