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Opinion: Plane travel can be a nightmare. Here’s my story

by Peter Weinberger | pweinberger@claremont-courier.com

I’ve spent a lot of time on planes over the years but had not flown since before the pandemic. Two weeks ago I was heading across the country to Stone Harbor, New Jersey for a family reunion, and read about the tough issues travelers faced at airports and in the air. Nothing, however, prepared me for what I encountered on my trip back home to Claremont.

Driving to the Philadelphia airport was a breeze. I arrived early for my flight. Everything seemed great as I boarded the plane to Charlotte, North Carolina, where I would make a connection to Ontario. As we taxied out to the runway, I was startled by what I later would call “the voice of doom.” It was an American Airlines pilot and captain saying we were delayed for 30 minutes because of weather in Charlotte.

Okay, I thought, this could be a lot worse. I still had three hours between flights. After 30 minutes, the captain was on the loudspeaker again saying we were delayed another hour. I had already spent more than 90 minutes on the plane, what’s another hour?

Right on time the voice of doom was on the loudspeaker again, stating we were going back to the gate. The pilot said the good news was our flight wasn’t canceled, we just didn’t know when we would leave. As we arrived at the gate, about 25 to 30 people wanted off to fend for themselves. I decided to stay since there were no other options.

By this time, we had spent over three hours on the plane and the kids behind me were melting down. As two young brothers tried to settle their screaming two-year-old sister, the back of my seat was continually battered as they kicked and played with her. These efforts didn’t help, so I got up from my seat and went to a vacant spot left from a departing passenger. It didn’t take long for a stressed flight attendant to tell me I couldn’t do that. “Where is your seat, sir?” I pointed to my seat in front of two kids now standing on their seats. She rolled her eyes and walked away.

We were still on the plane after almost four hours when the pilot finally announced it was time to leave for Charlotte.

Not so fast

The flight to Charlotte was only about 90 minutes and we made great time getting to the terminal. In fact, we literally landed right as my connection was set to take off. Given so many flights were cancelled, could it be I would make my flight to Ontario? Surely American would wait for people with tight connections.

The Charlotte airport was seriously packed with people, some waiting in huge lines to rebook, others sleeping on the floor or in chairs, standing (yes standing) while eating dinner, or rushing to make a flight. Hundreds of flights had been cancelled because of thunderstorms and I was right in the middle of it all.

I rushed over to my connecting flight and watched the plane pull out of the gate. I needed to find another flight home in the middle of travel Armageddon.

It was 10 p.m. and all the agents were swamped. Then I received an email through the American Airlines app asking, “Need to reschedule your flight?” Before I knew it, I was reviewing flight options to get home, all of them scheduled for the next day. I quickly booked my return and was all set. Except, where was I going to sleep?

Given the crowds, it was impossible to sleep at the airport, so I called 21 hotels nearby that were all booked. While I was calling, the small toiletry bag I left on top of my suitcase was stolen from right behind my back! There was nothing in there other than meds, but at 65 years young, that’s no small thing. I decided to get something to eat, finding only a cinnamon roll for dinner.

The airport was running out of food.

Given I lived in Charlotte for 14 years, I expanded my hotel search and was able to find an inexpensive hotel operated by Wyndham toward the center of town. At least I would get a small amount of sleep.

Or maybe not. Entering the hotel, I noticed three male/female couples standing in the lobby. Everyone was very friendly! But the staffer on duty didn’t look very happy: apparently the women were sex workers. Needless to say, when it was my turn everyone heard me say I was exhausted and needed sleep. Luckily the room was clean, even though the furniture had seen better days.

Day two

Thinking the worst was behind me, I played it safe and showed up over two hours early for my flight. I instantly got deja vu when walking into the Charlotte terminal, as the crush of people from last night were now waiting in various lines to board outgoing planes. Lucky for me I could go to a kiosk for my boarding passes. Except red text kept showing up on the screen stating, “see agent.”

I found an agent and she started fiddling around but was unable to print anything. My connecting flight wasn’t even showing up! Extreme anxiety kicked in as I wondered if I even had a ticket. Ever focused on customer service, the agent told me to wait in the massive line for another agent. Almost 90 minutes later, I was finally facing a person who could help me. I hoped.

The next agent could easily see my frustration and was gracious enough to explain I was on a newly-scheduled flight because of the bad weather last night. But I finally had boarding passes! After waiting in a clogged TSA line, I sprinted to the gate literally arriving as my number was called. Out of breath and dripping from sweat, I boarded a plane home.

Thankful to land in Ontario, it was time to get my checked bag and make a quick exit. I had spent 31 hours making my way from Philadelphia to Ontario, a trip I will never forget. Should I be surprised if my luggage never made it to baggage claim?

I was not surprised. It was still in Charlotte.

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