13 May 2012

Journey from Hell

In 1914 Ernest Shackelton led a team of explores to Antarctica on the Endurance. The ship became stuck in the ice and eventually sunk. They endured a winter, first on the boat and then in cabins made form the upturned row boats. Shackleton then left them at Elephant Island and rowed/sailed one of the rows boats across the southern Ocean to South Georgia which he then crossed before going back to collect his men. It was the pinnacle of heroic endeavour and after yesterdays travel from Leeds to Salt Lake City, I feel I can fully empathise with him.

It all started well, a taxi to the airport with an excellent sailor with mafia connections. Then a simple hop to Amsterdam before getting my plane for the long journey west.  The initial part of the flight was fine right up until the last hour. A very loud bang and a flash, silenced the whole plane, while people looked around shocked and scared, checking-out that we were still flying, as opposed to plummeting ground ward and then just looked nervous. A few minutes later the captain announced that we have been struck by lightning, but everything seems to be ok (yes he did say “seems to be…”).

Ten minutes later he announces that Chicago was closed due to the storm and we are headed to Milwaukee. Hmm not looking good for my connection to Salt Lake. He also promises that we will refuel and then finish the final hop to Chicago once the storm had cleared. We land, it was a bit bumpy but no big deal. The stewardess sitting across from me assured me that this was normal and nothing to do with lightening strike. I am more sceptical since we didn’t even circle Chicago before giving up and ditching.

Once on the ground we sit there for 4 hours. We refuelled but then the captain announced that because of the lightning strike, mandatory checks on the plane were required and we weren’t going anywhere for a while and when we did it was by bus . Like Shackelton, we abandoned our primer vessel and headed off into the storm, like the crew of the Endurance we must now continue overland or perish.

Milwaukee is an international airport – Wikipedia says so and it has three immigration desks. Wikipedia suggests that the only international flight is once a week to Canada. So you can imagine that immigration at Milwaukee is not geared up for a 747 full of Europeans. It toke over an hour to get through and I am near the front. Then a two hour bus ride to Chicago before we were dropped outside the baggage claim with no real hints about what to do next. Chicago airport rapidly became my Elephant Island, with thousands of refugees of the storm, standing around, chattering loadly and shuffling awkwardly in long queues,  like penguins on the ice shelf.   

So I go to Delta and they say that they have booked me on a US Airways flight to SLC which leaves at 9.05 – in an hour in another terminal. I go to US airways and the check in shuts at 8pm and a sign tells me – for later flights use United check in which is in another terminal. I get there and the full magnitude of the impact of the days storm becomes apparent. It is a total war zone. Huge queues zig zag around the check in hall. Sleepy children are crying, women are crying, men are crying, most people are just standing zombified in long long queues, in the helpless knowledge that they are going to miss the flights that they are rebooked on because the checkin is taking so long.

By flashing various cards, I get into a shorter queue but it still takes me an hour to get to the desk, by which time the flight has left and I am stuck. Now I am just trying for damage limitation and a bed for the night.  I need to “over winter” another night on the ice shelf of Chicago and the woman from United says its not her problem since I am booked on a US Airways flight and doesn’t have any suggestions as to what I should do next . Once more into the unknown.

So I head back to the Delta terminal and all the desks are closed. I manage to grab a women in a delta uniform who is on her way home. After a bit of charm and a lot of looking pathetic and beaten, she agrees to help me and opens up the office. She then books me on to a flight in the morning (and upgrades me to first – thank you) and finds me a hotel room. She was an angel in a Delta Uniform.

The zoo that is the scrum for the shuttle buses is no big deal after the horror show of the United check in hall and after finding my bus and then waiting another 30 mins to check in, its 10.30 (4.30 am UK time) and I am safe for the time being, like the crew of the Endurance on Elephant Island I can take stock and plan the next stage of my journey.

Next morning I am up at 5.30 for a shuttle at 6 and a final check in for my flight to Salt Lake. I feel a bit like Ernest as he left for South Georgia although my first class seat (courtesy of an upgrade  is a little more comfortable than his boat filled with rocks.