4:45 AM, January 21. The alarm shouted its usual cheerful “WAKE UP” to me in my hotel room, urging me to get out of bed in time to get to the airport for my flight home. I groggily packed the remaining bits and pieces of my luggage and stumbled downstairs to the taxi stand for a cab back to Hartsfield Airport. The weather forecast in Boston said heavy snow, which might mean some delays. I stepped out into the foggy, rainy Atlanta morning and headed for the airport, expecting to be home right around 1 PM, plenty of time to enjoy the day.

5:40 AM. Getting through security was a breeze – almost too easy. I worry sometimes when someone does NOT check my bag, with all the electronics and wires I carry. I’ve seen what my bags look like on the X-ray scanner, and with all that confusing wiring and sets of devices, you have to be either an expert baggage scanner or you just don’t care about your job to not pull the bag off for inspection.

7:30 AM. Talking with the rest of the team from the conference before they head home to Baltimore. I head for my gate, breathing a sigh of relief that the flight board still says AIRTRAN FL 270 ON-TIME in bright green letters. Time for a cup of coffee. Unfortunately, it’s airport coffee, which is right up there with hotel coffee.

10:00 AM. The usual rush to get on the plane and struggle for overhead space. It’s Tetris with luggage and elbows, but I get seated and get ready to go. So far, so good.

10:30 AM. We push back from the gate and head out onto the runway. Storms wash the field with drenching rains and so many flashes of lightning, it’s like being photographed at an event. We come to a stop and I look out the window. The runway looks like a parking lot, with planes waiting in every direction. That sinking feeling sets in.

The long flight

11:15 AM. The storm intensifies. Lightning is flashing nearly every 3-4 seconds, thunder making the aluminum skin of the plane rattle. We’re still parked. The captain hits the PA to announce that the airfield is closed due to weather.

11:30 AM. The captain says, we’ve got a 2 minute window in which to escape Atlanta’s fierce storm, otherwise we’re going to be here for a while. He says we’re going for it and to buckle up, it’s not going to be an easy ride out.

11:35 AM. Free roller coaster ride with every coach class seat! Ever been in a commercial jet when it feels like the floor just drops out from under you and you fall 4-5 feet in a second? Yeah, that.

11:47 AM. What’s with the faint burning insulation smell?

12:15 PM. What’s with the very not faint burning insulation smell?

12:20 PM. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. A few of you have noticed a funny smell in the cabin, so we’re making an emergency landing at the nearest airport, which is Charlotte, NC.”

The long flight

12:45 PM. Everyone off!

1:30 PM. The gate agent says they’re trying to find the problem and fix it because there are no other planes in the area we could use to resume our flight.

1:46 PM. That’s funny, all the gate agents for Airtran/Southwest disappeared.

2:30 PM: I make friends with a captain who’s dead-heading up to Boston. He checks his internal airline flight schedule (I want that app for my iPhone!) and sees a replacement airplane that’s queued to be sent to Charlotte on the field in Atlanta. That’s good news, but there are still no gate agents to be found.

4 PM: Charlotte is a very nice airport to be stranded in. There’s even a sushi shop. Too bad there aren’t Airtran/Southwest gate agents to tell us what’s happening with our flight.

The long flight

4:35 PM: The Airtran/Southwest gate agents magically reappear to let us know they have heard that our replacement plane is in the air now. Then they vanish again. The off-duty captain says that it left at 4:15, should be in Charlotte at 5, and that there’s plenty of time to catch a beer in the bar and make bets about the next day’s Patriots-Ravens game.

5:19 PM: Boarding the replacement plane.

7:38 PM: Touchdown in Boston! Can’t wait to get home.

7:40 PM: “Uh, ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain speaking. Apparently, there are no free Southwest gates right now. There’s a plane in our gate that’s requested pushback, but they’ll need to be de-iced, so we’ll be waiting for a couple of minutes.” The off duty captain laughs and says, more like 20 minutes.

8:06 PM: Finally off the plane. Off duty captain was right on the money.

9:05 PM: Home, a mere 16 hours after I left the Atlanta hotel. For the record, it’s 18 hours to drive from Atlanta to Boston, so for today, air travel was only slightly faster.

The moral of this story is this: if you are a professional speaker, this story is why you never, ever travel on the day that you speak (unless of course, you’re fabulously wealthy enough to afford your own private jet, which clearly I am not). The air transit system is so unreliable that if you’ve got a professional commitment, bad, bad things can happen to foul that up. Had I been traveling to a venue instead of home, I would have missed it entirely.


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