They call it Camp O’Hare

by Susan Kraus (2007)

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I waved cheerfully at my husband as he pulled away from the curb at the airport. I was early. I’d been assured by the efficient robot voice at the airline info line before leaving home that my flight was “On Time.” I had my passport and e-ticket in a handy-dandy pouch around my neck.  I was flying to Germany, via Chicago. An adventure!

The first indication that trouble was brewing was the line on the big black board next to my flight number… “Cancelled” it read. Not “Delay.” Not “On Time” as I’d been told an hour before.

I was directed to a special line, a particularly slow-moving line, for “re-ticketing.” When I got to the front, about the same time my original flight would have been hitting 15,000 ft., I was told to be optimistic. The agent would put me on the next flight to Chicago. I might not make my connection, but there were later flights to Frankfort. He smiled reassuringly. No, he could not issue me a ticket for the connection. That would be another line in Chicago. But, and he smiled again, “This will get you moving in the right direction.”

I went through security, patiently displaying my plastic-bagged, micro-sized personal hygiene items, and removing my Easy Spirits. Then I sat to wait. And wait. And then wait. After three, “There will be an additional delay” sequences, the truth came out. There was no flight to Chicago. “Cancelled.” There never was a flight to Chicago. It was still in Reno. Or Vegas. Just not anywhere near Missouri or Kansas. It was back to “re-ticketing.”

 “How about we put you through Dulles?” the same smiling agent offered. “You can connect up with a later Lufthansa there.”
“But I’m not flying Lufthansa.” I said.
“They code-share,” he said, using that calm, reassuring voice kindergarten teachers have for 5 year olds that look ready to unravel.
“Sure,” I said, “Whatever works. Can you ticket me through from here?”
“No,” he said. He sounded disappointed, like he really wished he could ticket me, that if he had the authority, he’d make an exception, just for me. But, sadly…

I went back through security, not as long a line this time (the faint-hearted had given up and gone home), to my new gate, clutching my new boarding pass. I was going to Washington, D.C., not Chicago, where I was connecting, maybe, to Germany. This time the wait was mercifully brief.  They didn’t lead us on. It was the “C” word again. Cancelled.

At re-ticketing, it was still the same guy. “You have a long shift,” I said. He nodded.
He looked disappointed to see me again, like he’d really hoped I’d flown away. But, at the same time, maybe happy to see me again. I was a familiar face. And I didn’t yell.

“There’s a late flight, last one, to Chicago, but it’s delayed for now,” he said. “But then, the last flight to Frankfort is also delayed. With some luck, you could make it.”
“When does the Chicago flight leave?” I asked.
“When it gets here, “ he said. “Fast turnaround.”
“If I start over tomorrow?” I asked, imagining a motel room with fluffy pillows and a hot bath. It had been 9 hours so far. All the stores were gated up, the food vendors gone.
“Well, you’d be flying stand-by and there are a lot of folks in the same spot,” he said.
I weighed my options.
“It’s a crap-shoot,” I said. “Let’s go for broke.”
“That’s the spirit,” he said.

About that time, a cry went up. Hard to imagine, but it was literally people calling out… “The Chicago flight is landing… the plane…the plane.” I grabbed my e-ticket and ran.

If the plane had actually left the airport, I might have made a connection. (No, not really, but it was a fun thought.) But it didn’t. It left the terminal. Then it sat on the tarmac for an hour. Chicago didn’t want more planes. We had to wait.

When we arrived in Chicago, all the counters were closed except one for emergency assistance. I got in the line. When I got the front, I asked when the next flights for Germany left.
“Tomorrow afternoon and evening,” the lady said.
“Can I get a ticket?” I asked.
“Tomorrow,” she said. 
“Can you help me get a hotel room?”
“No,” she said. “But here is a coupon. Call the “800 Number” and they will set one up.”
Relieved, I thanked her and exited.
I got out my cell.
I called the “800 Number.”
It was a national agency that connected travelers and hotels.
“Which city are you needing?” a voice asked.
“Chicago,” I said.
There was a sound like a snort. “Ha!” she said. “No rooms there since 6 p.m.”
“But the Help desk said that you would…”
“I can’t help what they said. They know it’s full. Nada. Not just airport, either. The city is locked.”

I stared at my cell phone.
It was midnight. I was stranded. And it was 15-16 hours to the next possibility of a flight.

I realized I hadn’t eaten anything. To eat you have to leave your line.  I looked for food, any food. No luck. Now, when my flight was delayed last year in Santiago, Chile, until 4 a.m., the bar and the small restaurant by the gate remained open until the plane left. They apologized profusely for the delay. They fed us sandwiches and big slabs of cake. And beer.
No apologies in Chicago. No cake either.

I started looking for someplace to lie down that didn’t have metal seat-dividers every 14 inches.
I saw some cleaning people.
“Do you know of any places in the airport where they don’t have seat dividers every 14 inches?” I asked.
They took my question seriously, mulled it over.
“Some gates, but not sure which,” one fellow said. “You gotta look.”
A very handsome black man joined the group. He had an accent. Jamaican, I thought.
“They be setting up camp over in Section K,” he said. “But you need hurry if you want to make camp.”
I didn’t get it. “What?” I asked.
“Camp. Section K. Now.” He pointed off down to the right. “ Just follow along.”

Then I realized that there was a straggly line of people dragging their luggage, glassy-eyed with exhaustion, like refugees.  I took my place.

We walked for a long time. But then we came around a corner… and there it was.
Men in overalls were taking metal-and-canvas cots off big trolleys and setting them down in rows. A woman handed out itty-bitty airline pillows, one-per-person. Another woman handed out itty-bitty blankets. It was all very quiet, very organized. Rows and rows of cots.
This wasn’t emergency preparedness.
This wasn’t a hurricane or a tornado.
This was routine.
Camp O’Hare.

I crawled under my itty-bitty blanket and put my itty-bitty pillow under my neck. And that’s all I remember until the noise at 4:30 a.m.
“Time to get up. Collecting the cots. Rise and shine.”
No sleeping in at Camp O’Hare.

By 5 a.m. I was in line again. Lots of people were. There were 10 or more check-in counters. Only three had people working. It became the kind of line where people watched each other’s luggage so we could take bathroom breaks. We jiggled crying babies. We loaned our cell phones to the ones whose batteries had died. We shared life stories.
I stopped feeling sorry for myself. Bill from Des Moines was missing his brother’s funeral. Alice with a 7 month old was out of formula.  Norm was trying to make it home before his wife went into labor. She was full-term. “Ready to pop,” he said.

When I got to the counter, I handed over my e-tickets.
“When is the next flight to Frankfort?” I asked.
“3 p.m.”  Eight more hours, I thought.
“What’s the chance of a window seat?” I asked, naïve to the end.
“We can’t even give you a ticket,” she said, looking over the tops of her glasses. “Stand-by only. First confirmed seat would be in three days.”
My head jerked up. “What do you mean?”
“There are no confirmed seats available for three days. Just what I said.”
“You can’t do this,’ I said. I was referring to the ticket or lack of one. But I was also referring to the larger picture. “You can’t take my money, promise to get me to Germany, then leave me stranded.”
“There are no seats available. We are overbooked. Stand-by is it.” She looked past me at the line. “So, you want a stand-by?”

This is getting tedious, even to read, so let me summarize.
“Try Lufthansa,” I was told. So I did.
More lines. No seats. Only stand-by.
I had to choose where to risk ‘stand-by’ since both airlines left about the same time from different terminals.
I decided to do it by the numbers.
“How overbooked is this flight?” I asked. (To even ask this question meant standing in more lines, of course.) 
Lufthansa was by 70. Home team by 12. No brainer.
I headed for the gate. More lines, more security, where they diligently inspected my quart-sized baggie of personal hygiene products. Which weren’t helping much because I was really starting to smell.

I got on. So many delays and late flights meant confirmed people were stranded in Denver, Detroit, Dallas. It was a pleasant and uneventful flight, which is always the very best kind to have. Filling out the missing luggage forms in Frankfort at 6 a.m., I saw my blue suitcase come bouncing down the carousel. It had, tagged for Frankfurt, made it onto the same plane.  
Serendipity at last.

Tonight (9-17-07) on the news there was a report about record profits for airlines (at least since 9-11). The reports attribute the profits to how they are packing planes (over-booking is now the norm) while eliminating service. Delays, cancelled flights and late arrivals are at an all-time high. Lines are out the terminals. People arriving at airports two hours prior to flights are still missing them due to check-in and security lines that make Disneyworld at Christmas break look light.

Tell me something I don’t know.

 

A Boomer-Girl’s Must-Pack List for Carry-On Luggage
Carry-pack of baby-wipes (not for a baby, for your armpits and reachable body parts when you can’t shower for 2 days.) Maybe a packet of that dry shampoo stuff they use in hospitals.
Toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant (mini-sized in that quart-size baggie).  
2 changes of undies.
Extra shirt & pants. If travel is work-related, then a work outfit that can be worn over & over.
Empty water bottle to fill from water fountains. (The vendors close…you can’t even buy water.)
Food (Granola bars, crackers, apples, a brie-on-ciabatta-with-pesto)
Inflatable pillow (your neck will thank you.)
Paperbacks you can discard as you finish…. because you may need a few.
Cell phone charger along with cell phone (outlets behind counters.)
Phone numbers of all airlines (because it can be faster to call than wait in line)
Phone numbers of all your friends and family (for sympathy.)

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"I think we often know things in our gut way before the synapses connect in the head."