Sleepless in Philadelphia


Sleepless in Philadelphia

At the tail end of May I made my fifth visit to my mutually adopted family and friends in Indianapolis and it proved to be one of the best yet. After last year’s brief trip where I was only in town for a couple of days it was good to be back for a full week to soak up everything that’s great about race week in Indy.

I should have been there for a day longer, too, but the President visited Philadelphia right when my connecting flight to Indianapolis was due to take off, so they told us to get off the plane as we would be held up for an hour. This was disappointing, as the flight from Glasgow to Philly had been a breeze and I’d made it through security so fast that I could actually have made an earlier flight to Indy. There was certainly space on that plane, but the staff told me I couldn’t get on it because I had to fly with my luggage. It would later transpire that this was a rule with a considerable amount of bend in it.

I whiled away the hour’s delay nursing another expensive beer in a bar I’d been in before the non-flight that was right by the gate. When the time came I boarded the plane again along with everyone else, where we sat for a bit, then eventually pushed back just over an hour behind schedule.

Delays breed delays at airports, so I wasn’t going to count my chickens until we were in the air and that was just as well, because we returned to an entirely different gate two and a half hours later. The pilot said we needed to refuel and that we should take all our belongings with us – something he hadn’t said the first time we had to get off and the seasoned traveller in me knew right away that that was pilot speak for “we’ve been cancelled.”

Sure enough, the departure board beside the gate was ablaze with cancelled flights and the airport was bustling with frustrated looking passengers. I remembered from the delay of my flight home from my second trip to Indy that I should get to the customer service line as fast as I could. Any procrastination now would reduce my chances of getting an alternative flight.

I turned back towards the gate to look for a US Airways representative whom I could ask for directions just as a big guy wearing an AC/DC tee shirt passed me. I saw a rep’ right away, asked her where to go and briskly walked to where she said the customer service desk was, but when I got there the line was already snaking up and down the end of terminal B.

When I saw that the guy with the AC/DC tee shirt was about 20 people ahead of me I began to understand the magnitude of the situation. This was one of five terminals at Philadelphia airport and there had to be over 150 people ahead of me in the line. By the time I’d moved 10 yards the line behind me was 50 yards longer. In the very corner of my mind I began to consider that I might end up being stuck in the airport all night, but I quickly snapped out of it and chatted to the folks around me to pass the time.

One of them was a young guy called Tyler. He was 24 and travelling back from a wedding with little more than a suit in his bag. He was pretty cool and had a good sense of humour, so we whiled away our time in the line sharing stories and making observations on how other travellers were dealing with the situation.

It was almost three hours before I got to the desk and I’d noted that “Sun burn girl”, who had been on my flight but was ahead of me in the line, had been handed a pink slip along with most of the other people who had spoken to the frazzled looking customer service team. When I went up they said that I wouldn’t fly to Indianapolis until the following afternoon and gave me a white slip that “guaranteed me a hotel because I was an international traveller.”

Eager to get some rest I wished Tyler luck and strode off toward the exit, but before I went past the point of no return I spoke with some ladies at an airport customer service desk to ask them how far away the hotel was and what kind of thing I might find in the area. I wasn’t exactly going to head out into the night, as it was 10pm already, but I figured if there was at least something to do then I could plan to get up early and see a bit of Philadelphia before my afternoon flight.

The ladies weren’t very helpful, but they did say the train ran from the airport into the city centre so I could always come early and check in before spending a few hours in Philadelphia then come back for my flight. As I turned to leave them I spotted Tyler again, who had not been offered a hotel because they’d allocated him an alternative flight that left at 4am, so he was just going to stay in the airport.

Feeling bad for my line buddy I suggested we could go and have dinner together before I went to my hotel. I later wondered if delaying getting to the hotel was a tactical error, but ultimately I don’t think the half hour we took to eat our burgers before I left made any difference. When the time came to say goodbye to Tyler again I shook his hand and left him by one of Philadelphia airport’s apparently famous rocking chairs where he was going to try and catch some sleep.

When I got to the exit I paused for a few moments. I knew once I was on the other side of security the facilities on offer would be meagre. It had been around twenty hours since I’d left Glasgow and the thought of sleeping in a hotel room persuaded me cross the threshold and a few minutes later I was standing in the warm night air waiting for the shuttle bus.

After fifteen minutes or so the bus turned up, but as I went to board it the driver asked “Are you going to the car park?” I told him I had a slip for the Clarion hotel and that’s where I wanted to go. “I’m not taking anyone to the hotel.” He said bluntly, “It’s been full for over an hour so I’m only taking people to the car park.”

At that moment I knew I’d be sleeping rough in the airport.

Earlier in the year I’d read a post on Reddit about Going ugly early if you suspected you’d be stuck in an airport. This had actually come to mind when I was standing in the line with Tyler several hours before, but at that point I was in denial about the situation. As I stood in another customer services line I was cursing myself for not heeding that advice. Now I was on the wrong side of security and realising that my decision to pass through it had robbed me of any chance of a comfortable night came as a bit of a dent to my morale.

The line I stood in was filled with tired and emotional people from all walks of life. Some were cursing the customer service people, some were getting hysterical that they couldn’t get their luggage back, and practically everybody looked defeated.

An old German couple ahead of me were weeping because they just couldn’t understand what was unfolding. From what I heard they had no money to pay for a hotel and they seemed to think they’d be on the hook for alternative international connections, too. Seeing their frustration and anxiety I just ached for them and I wished I could remember more of the German I’d learned at college so that I might be of some help in explaining the situation to them.

The customer service people were doing a good job with very little to work with. They had a crisis on their hands and the percentage of people who were going to walk away from that desk happy was going to be extremely low. I heard one lady say to a colleague that she had technically finished at 10pm, but she didn’t want to leave until the line was smaller.

It was now after 11pm and I knew that I was screwed, but I figured I’d at least talk to them to tick all the boxes. When I spoke to a really nice guy he did what he could, which amounted to making a call to the Clarion hotel to confirm what the shuttle driver had said and then handing me a pink slip with a number on that I could call to be allocated a hotel. The man told I’d have to pay for the hotel, but I was to keep every receipt and I’d be able to claim it all back. Yeah, right!

Having seen the pink slips being given out for the hours I’d spent in the original customer services line, I knew there was little point in calling the number on it. I did anyway, just to tick another box, and wasn’t the least bit surprised when I was told there had been some sort of crisis and there were no hotels in the Philadelphia area.

With that I wandered upstairs and took the bridge over to the Airport Marriott hotel. I didn’t think they’d have any rooms either, but felt I should at least explore the option. The guy at the reception desk was very upbeat for someone who knew even before I asked that they had no rooms.

Disappointed but not yet defeated, I took to wandering around the airport check-in areas before making an attempt at getting through security. My stuff was on the conveyor belt for the x-ray machine and I was standing in the TSA scanner when I was challenged for my ID. Feigning that whole “Oh yeah, my mistake!” thing to pander to their power over me I went to my bag and produced my passport.

The guy told me he didn’t want to see that – he wanted to see my airport employee identification, which was when I confessed to being a passenger and not an employee. The guy said he couldn’t let passengers through until 4.30am, but said if I went to Terminal A they started earlier and I’d be able to get through at 3.30am if I was lucky. Great.

After putting all my things back on my person, I wandered all the way back to the top floor of lounge at the Airport Marriott. I’d seen a few other people sitting there who clearly weren’t staying at the hotel and when I returned I was happy to see that there were still plenty of seats available. I took one and sat for a while, but couldn’t get comfy at all and noticed a large pouffe thing that I thought might be a better option.

Testing it out I found that I could lie down on it in the foetal position and figured it was as good as I was going get. I pulled my sleep mask out of my bag and my ear plugs out of my earphone pouch, hugged my bag for safe keeping and attempted to get some sleep. I initially drifted off so fast that I thought I was falling and woke myself up with a start, but soon after I was sound asleep.

Well, I was for about 20 minutes before a hotel security guard shook me awake and told me that although folks were welcome to sit in the lounge they weren’t allowed to sleep. He had a case of bottled water and told me to take one to keep myself hydrated. I was crestfallen; after finding probably the best place to sleep outside of any of the rooms that weren’t on offer, some gutless manager had sent the security guard to do his dirty work and wake people up.

Rubbing the sleep from my eyes and stowing my sleep mask I sat up and looked around to see the old German couple from earlier had taken up a pair of seats nearby. The woman was exhausted and was asleep while the man was not. The security guard told the man that she could not sleep there and the language barrier made the conversation unbearable. I felt just as sorry for them as I had back in the customer services line, but didn’t have the emotional strength to sit there and listen as they tried to understand the cruel circumstances.

Also, I knew if I stayed there was no way I would be able to keep my eyes open and I’d end up in a running battle with the security guard who was just doing as he was told. Grabbing my things I left the Airport Marriott lounge for the last time, intent on finding somewhere – anywhere –  that I could curl up and sleep.

This wasn’t a great situation, but I figured I’d done Tough Mudder twice and put myself through a bunch of uncomfortable cycling challenges. Roughing it for a night in an airport should be a piece of cake. I had my sleep mask and I had my ear plugs, so all I really needed was something that wouldn’t be too torturous to lie on for a few hours and exhaustion would take care of getting me to sleep once I found a spot.

However, my search was fruitless. There were rows of chairs in plentiful supply, but they had built-in armrests that were impossible to fit under, which is why people were sleeping awkwardly on the floor beside them in the areas that had carpet. Deliberately putting arm rests on the chairs just seems mean to me. Nobody, except for a homeless person maybe, would want to sleep in an airport overnight. So if you’re desperate or stuck enough to have to do it, it just seems harsh to be denied the use of the comfiest pieces of furniture on offer.

In the search for alternatives to the chairs I really did look everywhere in Terminal B – even in the toilets. In the end I tried to get some sleep on a black stone bench to the left of the check-in desk area, but I woke less than an hour later feeling cold to my core. Back I went to pacing endlessly around the terminal just to put some warmth back into me.

As the early morning travelers began to queue at the check-in desks, I looked wistfully at them knowing it would be another 12 hours before I was even standing in line to board. Looking up at the departure board to see where people were flying to at this hour, I noticed there was a flight to Indianapolis at 09:30 and began to wonder if it would be possible to get on standby for it.

Approaching a lady who was busy but not attending to anyone, I expected to be brushed off with another helping of east coast abruptness. To my surprise the lady told me that I probably would be able to get on standby for an earlier flight and told me to cut in front of the nearest check-in line to be dealt with. I told her that that would be rude because I hadn’t waited in line and she said “Well I work here and I’m telling you to cut in front of them!”

I took her advice, wandered over and apologised to the people next in line (who didn’t seem that bothered) and stepped forward to speak to the lady working the check-in desk when she was free. I told her my plight and she began rapidly tapping away on her keyboard, scanning the information that came back and repeating the process.

After a couple of minutes she said “Hmmm… how fast can you run?”

“That’s a loaded question!” I replied, “It depends if I’m being chased or not. What do you have in mind?”

“Well, this is Terminal B and if you can make it to Terminal F and through security in around 25 minutes then we can get you on the next flight to Washington DC and from there we’ll fly you to Indianapolis about 30 minutes later, so you might have to run when you get there too. Do you think you can make it?”

“I’ll give it a try!” I said and she nodded and quickly printed out a couple of boarding passes before stapling them together.

“Okay, this’ll get you into Indianapolis before the flight from here even takes off. Here you are – now GO!” She said, handing me my tickets. I thanked her profusely, turned, headed for the exit and ran as fast as my legs would carry me. I was exhausted, no question, but the sudden turn of events had made my spirits soar and I had every intention of sealing the deal.

As I sprinted through Terminals C, D and E the scale of the crisis from the day before became fully apparent. So many people were sleeping rough all over the airport it was like a homeless ghetto in places. No wonder I couldn’t get a hotel – many of the people I was now rushing by had probably gone through the same emotional ride as I had on Monday evening. None of them had found any better a place to sleep than I had, with people crammed into window ledges and up against vending machines.

Yet they were still sleeping as best they could and here was I – one of those idiots that runs through airports as others in absence of the full story look upon in presumption that their haste has been self inflicted.

Rushing down the stairs at Terminal F I could see that the security line was a good 15 minutes long, but, rather than trying to argue my way to the front, I knew I still had a good 20 minutes before boarding time so I got in line and waited my turn. Security was a breeze although I did get stopped for a pat down after the TSA guy said the body scanner had picked up something. He asked if I had anything under my armpits.

“Yes sir,” I said, “sweat – I’ve just run from Terminal B after sleeping rough in the airport!”

To his credit the guy smiled as he patted me down and said “Yeah, I reckon that’s what it picked up – on you go.”

After I’d put my stuff back in place I made my way to the departure lounge and found my gate was the very first one on the left. People were sitting around reading and yawning and I could see there was no urgency at all. I’d clearly made it with time to spare, so I went to the rest room and then bought a chilled coffee drink from the shop by the gate.

Taking a seat and sipping my drink I could feel the fog of tiredness return now that the adrenaline of the rush to the gate was wearing off. I figured I’d try to sleep on the plane, knowing I probably wouldn’t.

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I spied a familiar face that had noticed me at exactly the same time. Tyler smiled back at me through the exhausted face of a man whose near 20 year age advantage wasn’t making him look any more lively at this hour. I moved to join him and we talked about the fact we’d already said goodbye twice, yet here we were again.

“If you ended up on this flight it was hardly worth you going to the hotel.” Tyler said, only to shake his head in disbelief when I told him there had been no hotel. He’d slept pretty much where I’d left him while I endured a night on the other side of security a couple of hundred yards away.

We weren’t sitting anywhere near each other on the plane, so when we were called to board we agreed we’d say a further and probably final goodbye when we both got to DC. I sat near the front beside a start-up nerd who spent the entire flight on his laptop and only really spoke to me when the guy in front of him reclined and he didn’t have much space to use it.

“Can you believe these seats were a premium upgrade?” He said.

“I can, but I was just allocated the seat – I didn’t pay any extra for it.” I told him. That didn’t appear to be too well received.

The flight to DC was uneventful and a bus took us from the plane to the terminal building. Tyler had ended up ahead and waited for me to catch up with him once we were off the buses. We wished each other well once more and shook hands in agreement that unless something ridiculously unlikely happened, this would most probably be the very last time we did so.

The morning sunshine in DC
The morning sunshine in Washington DC

After another short bus ride to a different terminal I strode to the far end where my gate was and found that I was sitting by a south facing window looking out upon the DC skyline with the morning sun rising up. Basking in the warmth felt glorious after that cold night in Philly.

Up until I was on the plane and in the air I fully expected some kind of mistake to have been made and to be told that I’d have to wait, but there was no such drama. As the plane soared above DC I peered out over the city hoping to recognise some landmarks, but with the banking and the lack of familiarity I wasn’t sure what I was looking at.

My seat buddy was a nice lady who was flying to Indianapolis because her husband had taken a job there and they were relocating from NY. We talked for a bit as she was a nervous flyer and wanted conversation to take her mind off it. I was practically hallucinating with tiredness by then and was struggling to keep my train of thought so I’m not sure I was much use to her.

The first time I flew into Indianapolis and saw the speedway from the air I remember being so ridiculously happy to finally be there. Seeing it four years on as we came into descend was almost as good. Finally, barring a cruel landing incident, I had made it and another chapter of my adventures in Indy could take shape.

Finally arriving at Indianapolis Airport
Finally arriving at Indianapolis Airport

Inside the gate I made my way to where they park the vintage race car each year and as I stood and looked at it a passer by volunteered to take my picture. Once again, I had barely been there ten minutes and that mid-west hospitality was already on offer to a stranger.

I made my way to the baggage reclamation area wondering where the heck my luggage might be. The lady that dealt with me at the first customer services desk the night before had told me it would be delivered to where I was staying if it wasn’t at the airport. It turned out that wasn’t necessary as my case had come in ahead of me. So much for the “you have to fly with your bags” rule, eh?

It had become separated from its tag, though, so I had to describe the contents to the lady there before she’d let me take it. I told her that in the case there would be two tartan coin purses and in each of the tartan coin purses there’d be a little sheep! When I was able to open the case and demonstrate the purses and sheep she was highly amused!

Wheeling my case out of the airport I stopped by the kerb and summoned a taxi via the button on the wall. Squinting in the daylight I took a long deep breath. The worst travel experience I’d ever had was behind me and I was but a taxi ride away from a comfortable bed and – best of all – I was back in Indy, baby!