I've Got a Ticket To Ride, But They Don't Care

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It took me 28 hours to get from Richmond, Virginia, to New York this weekend. I wasn’t walking to support campaign finance reform or to raise money for charity. I was flying — or rather I was trying to fly — home from my college roommate’s wedding in Williamsburg.

It all started so innocently; the flight down on Thursday night was uneventful enough. We sat for an hour or so on the tarmac at La Guardia before taking off, arriving about 90 minutes late at our destination. It wasn’t enough of an inconvenience to even register on my usually attentive annoyance meter; after all, that sort of waiting is par for the course these days, and any frayed nerves were ably soothed by a delightful flight attendant who cheerfully handed over extra bags of peanuts and pretzels to mildly disgruntled passengers.

The return trip, however, was a whole different story. Arriving at the Richmond airport for our 4:50 flight back to La Guardia, we were greeted by grim-looking storm clouds and a frenzy of activity at the gate. (Note to New Yorkers: A "frenzy" of activity at the Richmond airport consists of about six airline employees walking through the terminal at slightly elevated speeds. This is not a JFK/Newark frenzy, in which rabid-looking German Shepherds sprint freely through throngs of hysterical international passengers).

We were hurried towards the waiting plane, thunder rumbling ominously on the horizon, as the gate personnel assured us that as long as we got on the plane in the next 89 seconds, we’d be able to take off without much difficulty. If we lagged, however, we were bound to be walloped by one of the three major storms stalking the East Coast. A voice rang over the loudspeaker: "It could be a rough flight, folks, so let’s get you on that plane." (That’s what I think they actually said, although I can’t be sure because from my end it sounded more like "Okay, lemmings, kiss your friends goodbye and get yourselves onto this flying death trap so we can seal up the doors and send you hurtling into the eye of the storm.")

This probably a good moment to let you in on a little, um, phobia of mine. I am absolutely terrified of flying. Even in the best weather, I grip the armrests as the plane takes off and terrorize whoever’s sitting next to me by muttering under my breath and sharply inhaling whenever we hit the most innocuous turbulence. Friends who have flown with me often exchange weary and sympathetic smiles as they relay their war stories and show their battle scars. (I have a very unlovable habit of digging my nails into the arm of anyone who’s brave or stupid enough to offer to fly with me.) You would think this would keep me from flying, but for some reason (masochism?) it doesn’t. I fly more than most people I know, working myself into a frenzy of paranoia each time. A co-worker recently endured the 11-hour-long trauma of sitting next to me on a flight to Los Angeles. (We sat on the runway for 5 hours before taking off).

So when the p.a. boomed out its tidings in Richmond, I didn’t hear a rational request for speedy boarding. I panicked, bursting into tears and clutching at my friend Lindsay’s shirt. "I can’t do this. I can’t. I won’t get on this plane. Did you hear what they just said?" I sobbed. I stumbled over to the USAirways ticket desk and considered heaving myself onto the airline agent and begging for mercy. "Yes?" she said, looking at me nervously. "Can’t fly… terrified… storms…wind shears…death…." I stammered, trying to illustrate my point by flapping my arms around wildly. "Do you want to wait until tomorrow morning to fly out?" she asked, kindly. "Oh, yes. Yes, please. Thank you so much," I gushed, joyously calculating my new 15-hour lease on life. "That’s fine," she said, then added confidingly, "I don’t think this plane is going to take off anyway." Just then, a huge bolt of lightning tore through the slate-colored sky.

I grabbed the new tickets and sprinted out of the airport, hands shaking and head spinning. My boyfriend, Ed, who has heroically endured more flights with me than anyone, and Lindsay followed, shaking their heads and chuckling. The "poor, deluded Jessica" looks stopped when we stepped outside and were greeted by the worst thunderstorm I’ve ever seen. Torrential rains, ear-splitting cracks of thunder, whipping winds, 737s falling from the sky. (Just kidding about that last part).

We drove through the rain, slowly, back to the comfort of Lindsay’s parents’ house, where I pulled myself together and prepared for a morning flight. At 7:30 Monday morning, however, the bleating of my alarm clock was silenced by the announcement that the 9:18 flight had been canceled. I called, rebooked us onto a 1:10 flight, and in the interest of saving poor Lindsay from having to drive us back and forth from the airport one more time, called on the way out the door to check on that flight’s departure time. As scheduled, I was assured.

Not exactly. We leaped out of the car, said our good-byes and sprinted to the gate, ready for a scolding from the desk agent for our tardiness. Instead, we found doleful-looking passengers sprawled out on the airport floor, resting against their bags, reading paperbacks. The flight was delayed. And, as the afternoon wore on, delayed again, and again. Finally, after herding us on to the plane and then herding us back off, USAirways canceled the flight altogether. Why? Weather problems in New York. (When we called friends back home, they sounded surprised. What weather? It’s a bit cloudy, they told us, but should that really be a problem?) "Weather," of course, is airline-ese for "we don’t really have a reasonable explanation for why we’re canceling your flight, but we’re going to tell you it’s weather because then we aren’t responsible for feeding or housing you while you wait for us to get our act together."

Joining the line at the ticket counter, we figured we’d just take the 4:50 flight. Nope. Canceled. How about an evening flight? Nothing available. How about another airline? A Continental flight was scheduled to take off for Newark in a few hours but they weren’t taking on any new passengers — it turns out they were mulling a cancelation as well. Now we were in trouble. I was missing work, Ed was missing his first day back at medical school. And we were trapped in Richmond, with diminishing hopes of escape.

I dragged my bags over to another, less mobbed ticket counter, tried to look as pathetic as possible, and asked the agent what I could possibly do about lodging for the evening. After a few false starts, he kindly arranged for a hotel room. I figured at this point we were stuck until the morning flights began, and I wasn’t at all interested in spending the night on the airport floor. Slumped against the wall, hotel voucher in hand, we contemplated our options. We could stay overnight and try to make the earliest morning flight, assuming it wouldn’t also be canceled. We could try to get a little bit closer to New York and then re-evaluate our situation. Or we could just chuck our lives back in Manhattan and start fresh in Richmond.

We went with the second choice, talking our way onto a flight to Philadelphia, figuring once we were north of Washington, D.C., we could just take a train back to the city. This flight actually took off — and I have to say that desperation to reach one’s destination may be the only truly successful cure for flying phobias. I was so ready to get the heck out of Richmond that I didn’t even think about what might happen to the plane. And as it turned out, nothing happened, although we did have to circle for 20 minutes over the Philadelphia airport as we waited for clearance. But hey, what’s another 20 minutes?

We landed safely, hustled off the plane, and headed for the train station next to the airport. Clambering onto the train 30 minutes later, we were told we’d bought the wrong ticket for our route and would now have to spend twice as much to replace it. We shrugged and handed over the money. Three hours later, we pulled into Penn Station, thought about kissing the floor, thought better of it, and headed uptown. In the cab, I made a mental note to send USAirways a bill for the train trip.

The cab pulled up at our building and we looked at each other in disbelief. We were finally home. And now that I think about it, it definitely would have been faster to walk.