What turned out to be a minor problem at a radar facility located in a Chicago suburb closed down both O’Hare and Midway Airports for a few hours yesterday. A “ground stop” is what they called it. No flights going in or out for several hours (incoming flights were diverted to other cities). At one of the biggest, busiest airports on the planet, a few hours of that sort of thing causes a hell of a traffic snarl, not only there but around the country.
Anyway, that all started around noon. As it happened, I had landed at O’Hare at around 11:30 am for a layover, expecting to get on a connecting flight home to Minnesota about 90 minutes later. That flight was cancelled, of course, and I was unable to get on another until about 10 pm. (I was lucky. Some folks ended up staying overnight at the airport.)
Especially once flights started coming in with people who all needed new connecting flights, O’Hare was a crowded, teeming mass of tired and inconvenienced people throughout the afternoon and evening hours. You can see a photo I took with my phone around suppertime up there on the right.
And I want to tell you: man, was I impressed with how everyone handled it. I can say that throughout the 11 long and taxing hours I was at O’Hare, I saw only one airline employee snap at a customer and, on another occasion, only one customer get cranky with an airline employee. But that was it. I was among literally thousands of people crammed into that space for those long hours, none of them particularly wanting to be there like that. But with the two small exceptions I mentioned, everyone was kind, respectful, and, more often than not, cheerful.
I saw people offering seats to one another when there were absolutely no free seats to be found in that terminal. I saw people sharing cell phones with those around them whose own phones had dead batteries. I saw people who were standing in very long customer services lines, waiting to reschedule cancelled flights, chatting and sharing food and passing around airline phone numbers to each other so others could call from cell phones rather than stand in line. I overheard two middle aged women, who I’m almost sure did not know each other, joking that maybe they could make a stop at a bar together, have a few drinks, and then find someplace in the airport to get tattoos together. I saw one woman pass another woman going in the opposite direction and shout out, “Hey, I love your hair!” (which clearly delighted the recipient of the comment). I heard a crowd of people gathered in one of the airport bars loudly cheering a basketball game together.
Around 9 pm, I saw one guy approach a gate from which a plane had just left, realizing he had missed his flight because – and I know this because he began to get irate and let everyone in the area know why he had missed it – because he’d been misinformed about the departure time from one of the airline agents. Just as he was really getting going with some loud expletives, a stranger came up to him with a smile and began commiserating and looking over the now-useless boarding ticket. I swear, after a minute, the stranger’s hand was on the guy’s shoulder, and a few minutes later they were laughing together. A few minutes after that – again, I swear this is true – I watched the guy who’d missed his flight walk away from there talking to his wife with a smile on his face.
Oh, and here’s one of my favorites: I saw a crowd of people waiting in a very, very long airline customer service line sing “Happy Birthday” to one of the people in line with them.
For what it’s worth, I’m also happy to mention that I was flying United Airlines this time, and their employees were — both at the airport and on phone as I tried to make new arrangements to get home — nothing but patient, cheerful, helpful, and quick to try to get things back on track. In the midst of what must have been an onslaught of customers wanting new flight arrangements, I was able to talk to a human being within three minutes of dialing their customer service number and had a new flight scheduled within another five minutes.
And so, humanity, or the portion of it who found themselves stuck with me at O’Hare yesterday, here’s to you. I was impressed yesterday. You did good!