The Breakdown of Society at DTW

Some time ago while traveling to the East Coast for business, I experienced some brutal winter weather that had me “living” for  nearly three days at the airport in Detroit. While not the best travel experience, it was better than to be expected, and still provides both some humor and introspect for me today.

As with most travel days, my morning started with watching a few minutes of the local news, which was all abuzz about the Polar Vortex making its way down from Canada into the upper Midwest. Hundreds of flights canceled or delayed, and people stranded across multiple states. Of course I did the logical thing and checked with my airline to see whether my flight was affected, and much to my delight, it was showing on-time, so off I went to the airport! Looking back, I probably should have canceled my trip, but had I done so, I wouldn’t have this story to share with you now!

Making the final approach into Detroit, things were a little bumpy, thanks to the swirling blizzard-force winds, but I was still optimistic that my connection would be made, since we were arriving a little ahead of the scheduled time. As we taxied to the gate, I began to feel less optimistic as the magnitude of this storm started to become more apparent. It was a complete white-out, with dozens of planes waiting on the tarmac for their gates to open up. As it turned out, it wasn’t a gate that we were were waiting for, but rather the tug drivers to pull the planes in, as the storm had left the airport critically short of staff.

Of course, the connecting flight to Manchester, NH was delayed but still expected to go out. With much relief, the flight finally began boarding and we all got settled in just in time for the captain to notify us that the crew had timed out due to the delay, and it would be necessary to find a replacement crew. Since Detroit was pretty much all but shut down due to the storm, so began my first night sleeping in the airport.

I found a quiet spot still within the flow of people, with safety in mind, collected my belongings, and tried to catch a little sleep. With one eye open. The entire time.  With 9000+ other stranded travelers. Up and at ’em at an unreasonably early hour in an attempt to rebook on another flight found me meeting up with the same group of fellow travelers from the night before, all of whom were in pretty good spirits considering the situation. Not surprising really, since we had come from Portland, which is known for being pretty laid back.

Together, this band of travelers and I journeyed together through at least a half-dozen gate changes and countless delays, still in good spirits for the first few hours until it became apparent that we were going to spend another night in Detroit. Then things started to turn toward the dark side. My fellow travelers turned passive-aggressive, and began a string of conspiracy theories as to why so many planes were still grounded. Surely, the airport is to blame because they want to keep us trapped here and spending exorbitant amounts of money on food and drink! Well, maybe the airline is to blame…after all, they’re in cahoots with the airport! Oh no…I heard that the planes couldn’t fly because it was so cold! Oh that’s not the reason they can’t fly – they can’t fly because the airport ran out of aviation fuel! And so on…

At this point, I had missed the client meetings I was traveling for, and decided to change my flight and just go home. During the four plus hours in line waiting to change my flight, I tried to be as productive as possible and joined a couple of conference calls, one of which had a fellow consultant HOWLING at the travel misfortunes I was sharing with the team. I was a little annoyed at first, but then had a good laugh as I thought about how things could be worse.

I was after all, in the McNamara Terminal, which as far as airports go, isn’t a bad place to be if you have to spend some time, since they have quite a number of restaurants and shops to pass the time. After covering virtually every square foot of the airport, either on foot or on the “plane train” it was once again time to find a sleeping spot, as my flight home wasn’t until the following morning.

Any thoughts of sleep were quickly dashed  when the fire alarms began going off every 15-20 minutes over the next several hours. After the first few alarms, people began ignoring them altogether, me included. Word in the terminal was that a water line had burst, which in turn tripped the fire alarm. I don’t know if that’s really what was going on, but I’m happy to say that there was no fire, and everyone remained safe. Finally…back to sleeping. With one eye open. And this time with a blanket and pillow, thanks to the Delta agents doing their best to take care of us.

The beginning of Day Three, and much to my delight, my flight home departed on time and I was finally able to leave my extended stay in Detroit behind me. Arriving home in Portland filled me such joy and relief. Until my bag didn’t arrive. But then I had extremely helpful assistance from the Delta agent in baggage claim, who was able to determine that my bag had made the journey to my original destination, but would be delivered to home within the next 48 hours, which it was, so all was good.

However, while I’m working with the agent in baggage claim, there’s a woman spiraling out of control behind me because she lost her Fit Bit on the plane. Maybe in the lavatory. How does anyone even do that…? Why would you take your Fit Bit off in the lavatory…?

Her spiral continues while the line for lost baggage claims grows, first with yelling at the child traveling with her, then at her poor husband on the phone, and finally just out in the open to anyone that might be within earshot of that ear piercingly shrill voice. Thankfully, a manager escorted the woman to his office to figure out how to find the lost Fit Bit. Thankfully.

Here’s what I learned from this particular travel adventure:

  • Try to find the positive in an unpleasant situation – things could always be worse
  • If left to their own devices and imaginations, people can come up with some pretty humorous conspiracy theories about what’s REALLY going on
  • Don’t be THAT person who loses their mind in the middle of a crowd
  • As Dorothy said, “there’s no place like home”



What…? Not me!

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