You haven’t lived until you’ve slept in an airport.
Airports are usually home to strangers in a hurry, who cut each other in line and deal harshly with employees. Air travelers look disheveled and anxious, interacting with no one.
This past Saturday night at the Indianapolis International Airport, the dark hours of the night shed a new light on airport creatures.
As the cab pulled out of the Sheraton University City Hotel near the University of Pennsylvania campus, my phone buzzed with bad weather text message warnings from my family in Chicago. I began to wonder if I was cutting it too close.
When I registered for a conference in Philadelphia, it didn’t occur to me that bad weather might delay my return. Snow in February in Chicago? Who knew?
But twenty hours from now I was to be performing with the Northwestern University Concert Band. Not only am I the entire bass clarinet section, but if I missed the concert, I’d have a big, fat F on my transcript.
At Philadelphia International Airport, with plenty of time until scheduled takeoff, I opened my cosmology textbook in the crowded gate. Five minutes later, the call board screamed the word “CANCELED” next to my flight number. The 8:25 p.m. flight would have been the last to Chicago that night.
With more tears flying than airplanes, I elbowed my way into the Customer Service line to capture a coveted spot on the next flight home. Would I make it home in time for my band concert? I ran a list in my head of possible bass clarinet substitute players.
My family members were on the phone right away to determine alternative plans home. A flight to Indianapolis would be departing in half an hour—could I make it to the gate on time? Could I take a train home from Indy?
I ran to take a shuttle to a distant terminal, and I arrived at the gate at 8:17 for the 8:30 flight.
The smallest plane I had ever been on—three seats wide—landed in Indianapolis at 10:20 p.m. From there, I could take a 3:30 a.m. bus, a 6 a.m. plane or a 6:30 a.m.
train. With the snowy Chicago weather, the bus was not a viable option. I would have to stay at the airport until 5:30 or 6 a.m.
I searched for people and food in the midst of blue and white balloons—you’d think they hosted a winning Superbowl team or something. I found no food (the restaurants were closed and no vending machines were in sight), but I found three soda machines and three “24-Hour Flower Machines.” I couldn’t snag a Snickers bar, but a snapdragon bouquet was at my fingertips.
A lone security guard directed me to the Southwest Airlines desk where people were setting up cots for the night. Sure enough, around 30 weary travelers were drifting asleep on green, foldable cots with baby blue blankets.
In a heartbeat, your typical airport people were transformed into human beings.
As I read about the night sky, a man asked me what I was studying in school. We talked about the weather, and then he said I should get a cot and a blanket. I wasn’t ready to sleep—I needed to study and make some phone calls. A few minutes later, he came back with two blankets for me.
I asked an airport employee to direct me to the nearest water fountain, and instead of telling me, she brought me a bottle of water.
When I was finally ready to sleep, a man offered to find me a cot. The woman next to me gave me after-dinner mints.
With no cots left, I slept on the floor in a makeshift sleeping bag. Cradling my purse, I got two hours of inadequate sleep.
At 4 a.m., as I waited in line for a ticket for the Chicago flight, people resumed the usual hustle and bustle of an airport. Strangers did not make eye contact. It was as if the spell of kindness to strangers from the night before and the ephemeral tranquility had been broken.
Since I couldn’t check my suitcase because of the uncertainty of my transportation situation, I had to surrender my hair gels and shampoos at security to become “property of the U.S. government.” Somewhere, some government official now has shinier, wavier hair from my Pantene Pro-V Hydrating Curls shampoo.
My plane to Chicago was not canceled, and we departed for the short flight at 6 a.m. and landed at 6 a.m. Thanks to time zones, you really can be in two places at once.
I breathed a sigh of relief. My Philadelphia tears were lightyears away. I took a cab to campus, slept and performed in a wonderful band concert.
Saturday night gave me an interesting perspective on humanity. Can strangers in a strange airport become friends? Can people help each other because it’s the right thing to do? Is it really that hard to smile at one another?
Inside every stressed traveler is a friend who wants to cover you with a blanket. Inside every overworked employee is a mother who wants to quench your thirst. Can it be that inside every outwardly cold person lives a warm human soul?
You haven’t lived until you have worn your glasses and pajama pants in the Southwest Airlines ticket line and woken up to the sound of flight delay announcements. But you also haven’t lived until you’ve seen a different side of humanity—a side that creeps out at night to your fellow stranded passengers.
Falling asleep in my soft, warm bed Sunday night, I couldn’t help but think about how warm I felt the night before underneath the blanket from a kind stranger.
With the airport lights still on, stranded passengers attempt to get some sleep near the Southwest Airlines ticket line.
Travelers have no problem wearing their usual sleepwear in the airport.