by JIM KNIPFEL
July 19, 2009
The Art of Being a Liability
In theory, a flight from LaGuardia to Green Bay’s Austin Straubel airport should take about five hours. It’s roughly two and a half hours from LaGuardia to O’Hare, and another hour from O’Hare to Green Bay. Toss in a reasonable hour and a half in O’Hare for the transfer, and there you go. O’Hare may have a better, more logical design than a lot of airports, but when the place is the size of Delaware, trying to make a connection between two gates on opposite ends of the complex can take a little doing.
Still, five hours give or take. Which is why it’s so mind-boggling that my recent flight out to Green Bay took eighteen hours. Stories of bad and delayed flights are a dime a dozen of course—we all have a few. But my recent flight back to New York threw me an unexpected curveball that had nothing to do with the weather, mechanical problems, terrorists or geese.
When it came time to return to Brooklyn, I took a few steps to insure that the flight back would go a little better than the flight out.
Before leaving my parents’ house, we checked the weather in Green Bay, Chicago, and New York. It all seemed clear, so that was one thing we didn’t need to worry about.
Cane in hand at the American Airlines check-in counter, I asked the man who was printing out my boarding passes if he might make a note requesting that I get a little assistance in O’Hare to help me find the gate of my connecting flight to LaGuardia. This too was no problem. I’d done it before. The assistance in question is usually just some kid in his twenties who could lead me safely through the maze and sit me down in the waiting area.
I also made sure that I had at least an hour and a half between flights in O’Hare, just to take any minor, inevitable delays into account.
Everything was going fine.
Then, with ten minutes before my flight started boarding, a freak thunderstorm broke out directly above O’Hare, prompting a ground stop—no planes can take off or land until it’s lifted.
“This is how it always begins,” I muttered. I started to get a little antsy. Not too antsy, though—all those flights at O’Hare would be delayed as long as my Green Bay flight was, so things would probably work out. That’s what the lady next to me said, anyway.
Half an hour later, the ground stop was lifted, and we took off. Things were fine again. We were moving. My flight to New York left at 4:15, and the pilot was promising we’d be in Chicago around 3:30. No sweat.
Then another storm broke out, so we started circling just north of Milwaukee as we waited for it to pass.
We circled there for quite awhile, and by the time we finally landed it was 4:15 on the nose. There was still a chance, I figured, depending on how long the New York flight had been delayed and how far away the gate was.
As the pilot taxied the plane in, however, he discovered that there was another plane in his spot. At this point, did the pilot wait patiently for the other plane to be moved out of his spot? No. Instead, he started driving around the airport, looking for an empty parking space.
“Oh Jesus Christ,” I mumbled when what he was doing became apparent.
After driving around for another twenty minutes, he finally returned to his original spot to find it empty.
At last, I thought. Maybe I could still make this. I reluctantly prepared myself to sprint.
But when the door was opened and I tried to leave the plane, the stewardess grabbed my arm.
“You have to wait,” she said.
“What?” I said, as the other passengers began shoving past me and exiting the plane.
“You requested assistance, right?”
“Then you have to wait for the wheelchair.”
“But . . . I don’t need a wheelchair. I can walk fine—I just can’t see.”
“I’m sorry—could you take a seat right there?” She nudged me to the first row.
“Can’t I go, you know, meet it somewhere? I’m trying to make a connection.”
“They have to bring it here. You requested assistance, and so if we let you go off on your own and something happens to you, we’ll be liable.”
“But nothing will happen. I’ll move slow.”
“The wheelchair will be here shortly. There’ve been a lot of requests for assistance today, so they have to go find one.” She disappeared and the rest of the passengers got off the plane, leaving me alone in the first row.
I sat hunched over in the seat, cursing furiously to myself, leg bouncing, for the next five minutes until the goddamn wheelchair arrived just outside the plane.
Unfortunately, when I stepped outside I was informed that while the wheelchair was there, there was no one there to push it. How the chair arrived without someone to push it I don’t know and no one was telling me.
“Look,” I offered, “the wheelchair’s here, so you’ve done your part. How ‘bout I just push it myself?”
“We can’t let you do that. Please sit down.”
“Please, sir—just take a seat.”
“Oh, Jesus Christ.”
The pilot kindly offered to push me inside the terminal, where I could then wait for someone to push me to my connecting flight (assuming it hadn’t left already, which was something else nobody seemed to know).
Sure enough, he got me inside the terminal and vanished.
As instructed, I waited a few minutes. Then a few minutes more. Deciding that it was simple insanity, that I could find my own damn connecting flight by my own damn self, I stood, resisted the urge to scream “Mein Führer! I can walk!” and began tapping away. I had no idea what direction I was heading, and didn’t care—so long as I was headed someplace.
“Sir!” a frantic voice cried from behind me before I was four steps away, “Sir! Where are you going?”
I stopped and turned. A pale, fey little man with a lisp flounced over to me. “I’m trying to make a connection.”
“But you must get back in the chair and wait—if you wander off and something happens to you after you requested assistance, I could be held liable.”
I sighed and returned to the chair, wondering if they all had to memorize that speech.
“It’s unbelievable,” the fey man said. I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or to himself. “I’ve called these people five times already.” He clucked his tongue. “What a horrible day.”
Now I was antsy and pissed, and I’d given up all hope. That was fine. There would be another flight at some point. Maybe not that day and maybe not the next, but sometime.
Eventually a young man wearing a vest and carrying a walkie-talkie sauntered over.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
He pulled a small notebook from his pocket and flipped through a few pages. “Okay then, you’re the one I’m looking for.” He snapped a plastic belt around my chest, stepped behind the chair and started pushing. I rode along wondering if he had any idea where he was supposed to be pushing me, or if I was going to find myself abandoned in the middle of a runway.
He soon picked up speed, plowing through heavy crowds and running over pieces of luggage, nearly spilling me from the chair as he took wild corners. Apparently letting me walk alone with a cane the way I do every fucking day opened them up to all sorts of expensive legal action, but letting an airport employee kill me and several innocent bystanders with a wheelchair was no big whoop.
I guess it was a moot point. Unless he was going in circles to confound me, it soon became obvious that I never would’ve been able to make the trip alone with the cane in anything under four hours.
On and on we rolled, until he slammed to a stop by gate H17.
“Really,” I said, gasping for breath as I tried in vain to unbuckle the belt across my chest. “Flight 387 to LaGuardia?”
“And it hasn’t left yet?”
“What time were you supposed to leave?”
“Well, you’ll make it—looks like they’ve pushed you back another four hours.”
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