I enjoy air travel, but these days it can be a challenge. Gone are the days of accompanying loved ones to the gate or rooftop lounges where one could sit and watch the plane take off and land. For passengers, it is a much more focused and time-consuming adventure.
Whoever assigns gates to incoming flights does an exceptional job of placing my arriving flight at the opposite end of the airport from the gate of my next departure. It is almost as though my doctor has been in touch with them, and this is the carriers’ contribution to my exercise and fitness program.
As airlines tighten their belts and trim the number of flights offered, connection times between them keep getting trimmed. In a perfect world I prefer at least an hour between flights, but these days I know of some connections that only allow 33 minutes or so. That is a little too close for comfort in my book, even when things run smoothly. Those, I have been told, are legal connection times. The minimum requirement seems to vary according to airport size, but the fact that there is such a thing as “legal” connection suggests much thought has gone into determining how many minutes can be sliced off a schedule before the airline can be held responsible for a missed flight.
On our recent return from Mongolia, we had what appeared to be a reasonable itinerary. Our flight out of Ulaanbataar departed around 9 a.m. After a 3 ½ flight to Seoul we had a ridiculous 6-hour layover, but I would choose that over a risking a missed connection in an international location. We were scheduled to arrive in Atlanta around 7 p.m. with a little more than a 3-hour layover. That, I thought, would allow a leisurely process through immigration and security with ample time to make it to the domestic terminal to catch the last flight of the night to Dayton.
It all looked good on paper. Only the 6-hour layover in Seoul turned into seven hours. Then we spent nearly an hour on the runway waiting for clearance to take off. Our nice 3+ hour cushion in Atlanta had shriveled to scarcely more than 60 minutes. Not to worry, I consoled myself. Sometimes, delayed flights make up lost time in flight. Maybe we would receive a nice boost from a tailwind. Possibly that would be our fate. We crossed our fingers. Perhaps, if the stars aligned just right, things would turn out okay.
Rather than gain a few minutes on the flight, we actually lost about another fifteen. We began to deplane with fifty minutes until our scheduled departure. Our next gate was about a 17-minute walk, according to the airport mapping feature. By the time we landed, Delta had already sent a text with a new flight booking for the next day at noon, plus vouchers for meals and a hotel room. Twenty-seven hours earlier we had left our beds to start the long journey home. We did not relish spending a night in a hotel or an airport lobby, especially without our luggage.
I said to Judi, “Let’s not accept this new reservation just yet. I know it is a long shot, but let’s at least try to make our connection.” Who knows what might happen? So, off we went determined to give it our best shot.
Our first stop was immigration. I have seen long lines snake for several rows, in some cases and taking an hour or more to clear. On this night, we were third in line! Immigration cleared – check!
Next to baggage claim in hopes for a speedy delivery of our two bags. This is always a wildcard. One can only wonder what goes on between the cargo bay of the plane and the airport conveyor belt. Do they ride in circles like Shriners in a parade? Do they take the scenic route to add variety to their workday? All I know is that somedays the baggage arrives to the claim area before I do, but other times it is a l-o-n-g wait. The first piece arrived promptly and hope began to rise. However, the second bag took its own sweet time and our hope began to break down.
I flashed back to a return flight from Israel many years earlier, when the luggage arrival was so slow that my mother-in-law’s parents took a seat on the edge the conveyor belt to wait. It made for a good picture of them sitting under a photoshopped sign that read “Unclaimed Luggage.”
This night in Atlanta, I entertained thoughts of abandoning the bag number two altogether. Who needs a bunch of dirty clothes anyway?! It would eventually find its way home. Alas, common sense prevailed. We could do nothing but wait on this wayward suitcase. At last, the second bag tumbled down the conveyor belt. With hope fading but not extinguished, we moved on to the next phase.
Customs was a breeze because, like Oscar Wilde, we had nothing to declare but our genius and walked through without even slowing down. Ever onward, we rechecked our bags with the airlines, and hurried to airport security. We had burned about 25 of our 50 minutes (forty if the doors to the next flight really closed 10 minutes before departure).
I understand that security is important but have never understood what authorities think passengers could access since deplaning that would be a threat to flight safety, but passing through another security checkpoint is always a requirement when transitioning from the international to the domestic terminal. At this point, traveling with TSA Pre-check probably saved our skin. Shorter lines. No taking off shoes or removing liquids, etc. We breezed through in just a couple of minutes. Finally, through the multi-layered check points, we were off to the races. The airport train smiled on us, pulling into the station about a minute after we arrived to the platform.
I could feel the adrenalin rise – success seemed possible. All we had to do was walk briskly maybe half a mile to our gate. This trek reminded me of being out for a Sunday drive and winding up behind every pokey driver in the county. I overheard a pilot talking on the phone as he ambled along the hallway, complaining that people were bumping into him and not even bothering to apologize. If I had had the time, I might have stopped to encourage him to move his slow-poke behind to the side so he was not such an obstruction to those on a tight schedule. It is easy to take your time when you are the one flying the plane, because you know it cannot leave without you. But in our case . . . well, we had to keep moving.
As our gate came into sight, we saw passengers moving through the doorway into the jet bridge. We had made it through this obstacle course in about 35 minutes. No hotel would be necessary for us this night!
As we sank into our assigned seats on the plane and heaved a sigh of relief, I could not help but think that this is why we persist against the odds even if every objective source tells you something cannot be done. We never know when things will work together in complementary fashion, or we might catch a break so that what seemed impossible becomes possible after all. Life is a complicated interplay of events that, although unrelated, nonetheless affect one another and have unintended consequences. Some of those consequences waylay us as we journey from one gate to the next, leaving us to sort through the options and find another route home.
In some ways it reminds me of prayer. Often when we pray, we are praying against the odds. For cancer to be healed. For tumors to dissolve. For wars to cease. For greed to dissipate. For goodwill to prevail. Some will view such prayer as nonsense; others will consider it as essential. Some undertake prayer early; others resort to it only when all else has failed. In either instance, some of those utterances seem to fall on deaf ears. The rational side of us knows that prayer is not intended as a means for manipulating God to give us what we want but we ask anyway. At the very least it is part of clearing our own hearts. At its most fervent, is seeks outside assistance when we have nowhere else to turn and we dare to ask, even plead, for a miracle. We persist because the alternatives are unacceptable – cancers that kill, tumors that complicate, wars that ravage, and greed that robs and erodes. We persist with what is in our control. Having done all that we can, we ask beyond ourselves in hope that a different outcome might be had.
The desire to change the world weighs heavily on many hearts on a daily basis. The question of “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is not a new one. Or not necessarily bad things, but merely frustrating or irritating things? As the saying goes, “Life happens.” Even if dealing with it is our responsibility, sometimes a little outside help would be appreciated, often leading us to pray. I do not know why sometimes those petitions seem to go unanswered. I only know that sometimes, we are pleasantly surprised – often enough that we persevere, even against the odds. Whether it is divine intervention, or the alignment of a dozen unrelated factors that create a small crevice of opportunity through which something good might emerge, we will take it. As we arrive at the next gate, we can be thankful that another night in the airport won’t be required after all.