Ironically, I learned this lesson during travel to a Midwest congregation that wanted to meet and interview me.
It was one of those all-day flying affairs. I was up and out the door in the wee hours of the morning to make the 1-hour drive into the small city where I’d catch a pre-dawn flight to San Francisco. After a two-hour layover I took another flight to Chicago-O’Hare, where I’d connect with a commuter flight to Midwest City, where a member of the church would be waiting to pick me up and drive me to the small Midwest town about an hour away. I’d be having dinner with my hosts before sunset. That was the plan.
There were no incidents until we descended into Chicago’s O’Hare airport, which is becoming my own experiential version of the Bermuda Triangle. Our descent took us through a huge thunderhead cloud, where we were knocked around a little bit by wind and rain. The ride wasn’t too rough, however, and the landing went smoothly. As we taxied down the runway, the pilot informed us that the storm had caused enough havoc to suspend all planing and de-planing operations at the airport and that we’d have to wait a few minutes to find a new gate where we could deplane.
The few minutes became 30, then became an hour, as we taxied around and around the tarmac with so many other planes and passengers, now trapped by the threat of another approaching major storm system.
We spent 2-1/2 hours stuck on the tarmac, and when we finally deplaned, we walked up the ramp and became part of the general chaos that had overtaken O’Hare. The arrival/departure boards were blinking cancellations and re-schedules for numerous flights. Frustrated, angry and overwhelmed people began forming long lines that snaked about 50 to 75 yards, as customer service desks suddenly found themselves about as overmatched as a group of kindergartners taking a high school chemistry final. Most of us figured we’d missed our connecting flights; what we hadn’t yet realized was that the airline had lost the ability to re-establish some sort of schedule that would allow people to continue their journeys. I looked on the big board to see that the next flight out to Midwest City had been moved back from 6:51 pm to a little after 8 pm. I communicated with the guy waiting for me at the Midwest City airport. He would wait. As the clock moved closer to 8, I saw the red cancellation notice pop up next to this flight. Great. Well, when was the next flight? I called the airline’s customer service line (rather than join the serpentine line of frustration immediately behind me) and was told that I’d get the last seat on the plane scheduled to depart at 10 pm. Sheesh. I called my ride over at Midwest City and could tell he was getting a little exasperated as well, but he would wait. I found a place to sit near the gate, surrounded by other frustrated travelers who shared their feelings of stuck-ness in mostly good-natured banter. The guy on my right was a frequent flyer as part of his job with a multi-national corporation. He’d been stuck at O’Hare quite a few times. He was the one who told me about the bus that ran from O’Hare to Midwest City. “Hmmm,” I thought, “interesting option, but I hope I don’t have to take it.” After all, this was a major airline servicing one of this country’s major airports. They’d get things settled down and get us out of here. I kept a watch on the departure board, continually looking to see that we were still on-schedule for the 10pm departure. At 9:45 the status box next to the flight number blinked. Delayed. Then came an announcement that the 10pm flight had been bumped back to 12:04; it had been bumped just like the other flights before it, flights that had stayed on the board until about 30 minutes prior to their scheduled departure, flights that were then suddenly announced as cancelled.
I sat there for a little bit, then checked my watch. 10:05. I turned to my new friend and asked when he thought the last bus to Midwest City might leave. He thought it ran every half-hour or three-quarter hour and that the last one left between 10 and 11. I looked once more at the board and at all the flickering lights that informed me this major airline had lost about all its ability to manage its business at this major airport. Then I got my bag and took the elevator down to the bus station area of the airport. My new friend joined me and we indeed caught the last bus of the evening out of Chicago-O’Hare. Instead of sitting on a hard, plastic seat near the gate, not knowing whether the last flight would actually come in, not knowing whether or not I’d be sleeping a fitful sleep in the terminal , I was sitting in a plush, comfortable seat in a tour bus headed for Midwest City. I got there about the time the plane had been scheduled to leave O’Hare–if in fact it ever came or left.
I tell you, it felt good to make that call, to abandon all the frustration at the airport, to abandon all dependence on this airline and this airport to seek out and take another way to my destination. I had found this other path, through the help of another, and taking it was an empowering experience.
As I write this I am still awaiting word on the outcome of the interview in the little town about an hour away from Midwest City. I thought it went very well and that there seemed to be a good match between us. But I also thought that about the interview with the South Plains people a while back. My current situation is not too dissimilar from the situation at the airport, looking at the large board with diminishing hope, rising frustration and growing awareness that the system is broken in such a way that you can no longer depend on it to help you get to your destination. Maybe it’s time to start looking for a bus.