Traveling from Philadelphia to Houston in the Polar Vortex in 18 Hours

January 8th, 2014

Yesterday was one of my more hellacious travel experiences. I woke up around 7 a.m. eastern in Philadelphia. The night before I gave a really fun talk at the Philadelphia Federalist Society Lawyers Chapter. That night, the so-called “polar vortex” had descended on our nation. When I woke up it was 5 degrees, -22 with the windchill. I was in a cab by 8:00 a.m. The 10 second walk from the hotel to the taxi was brutal. I’ve never felt such a strong gust of cold win.

I was at the airport by around 8:30. I was scheduled to take a direct flight on United to Houston that was to leave at 9:30. The night before I received an email saying there would be a delay for an hour because the crew was not there yet. Uh oh I thought. I tracked the inbound flight and it had arrived. But with no crew, what would we do? Shortly after I got to the airport, the flight was delayed an hour till 10:39. They announced that people who missed connections out of Houston were out of luck, because they had no other flights out of Philadelphia till Thursday (!?). That was an omen of things to come. As an aside, the Terminal was absolutely freezing. The cold air coming from the jetways chilled everything. I had to put back on my UnderArmour pants to stay warm. It was not fun.

Around 11:00 we finally boarded. I was sitting cozy in my regular seat, 8c (aisle seat on the left side of the second row facing forward). Baby crying behind me, but no big deal. I was going home, right? No. Around 11:10, the flight attendant announces that the pilots were not there yet, but they would be arriving any minute. I noticed that the cockpit was empty (a metaphor for my entire day, really). By 11:20, flight attendant said again, pilots are on their way. Now I’m getting nervous. 11:30, flight attendant announces that the pilots “timed out” and the flight was cancelled. (Pilots are only allowed to fly a certain number of hours before they need to rest. I guess they took too long, and couldn’t make it).

Now, if you’ve ever been on a flight that’s cancelled, you know the madness. Immediately, 300 people all trying to get home rush the agent at the gate. They are inundated. Then they announce, please go to the ticket counter outside security. I make my way there, and as I’m walking I get an email from United telling me that I have been rebooked–for a flight Thursday through O’Hare (it was Tuesday around noon at this time). Though, as a nice gesture, my leg from ORD to IAH was upgraded to Business Class.

I exited the secure area, and already the line at the ticket counter was 20 people deep. I try to go to the Premier Access line, but they tell me that I have to go to the regular line. This was like Lord of the Flies. Everyone was pushing and shoving. And I knew there were absolutely no flights. Plus every time the door opened to the street (every 10 seconds or so), an arctic blast subsumed the area. Babies were crying, moms were pushing. Travel brings out the worst in everyone. Please try to be kind. Everyone is in a similarly bad situation. Yelling and screaming doesn’t help. The gate agents are really trying their best in a really difficult situation. I assume they were handing out vouchers to spend two nights in Philadelphia, but I had to get home.

So I did what I usually do in these situations. I check other airlines. U.S. Airways had some flights for $1,000 that had 2 stops.┬áPro-tip. Southwest usually has pretty decent last minute fares. I’ve done this several times before. Once my American flight from Louisville to ORD was cancelled, so I was able to get a not-too-expensive ticket on Southwest to MDW (though that messed up my rental reservation). I’ve also gotten cancelled on US Airways at DCA and was able to go through Union Station to BWI on Southwest. Anyway, I found a single Business Select ticket from PHI to ATL to HOU for $514. Not cheap, but probably less than the cost of spending two nights in Philadelphia. And United would refund my second leg so at worst it may be about $100 or so more. Anyway, I would take a hit, but it was better than spending two days in travel limbo.

But first, I had to get my two checked bags from United. For whatever reason, when I checked my bags in, the agent didn’t give me the tickets. I didn’t think much of it, because I usually never bother with those. But today, it mattered. After waiting about 30 minutes, I was able to find an agent who took my boarding pass. Ten minutes later, he emerged with my two checked bags.

The Southwest flight was scheduled to leave PHI at 5:17. So I walk from Terminal D to E to the Southwest ticket counter, and try to check my bags. At the time it was about 12:45. Apparently, I couldn’t check my bags until four hours before the flight. So I had to wait in the Tundra Terminal for another 30 minutes till I could check my bags, fearing every time the doors opened, where the rush of polar vortex would swirl in. Eventually I was able to check bags.

I went through security, again. Though this time without TSA Pre (I had forgotten to add my known traveller number to my southwest proposal. Hobby only recently got TSA Pre, so I hadn’t needed it). I finally made it through to the terminal around 1:30, so I had about three hours to kill. I splurged on a United Day Pass ($50) to get some rest away from the freezing terminal. Around 4:45 I walk to the Southwest Terminal, and as I’m approaching the gate, I hear the announcement that the flight was delayed an hour from 5:17 till 6:05. Fortunately, my leg from Atlanta was delayed from 8:50 till 9:50 so I should be able to make my connection.

I board the Airtrain flight, and am seated in my cozy seat. Then the flight attendant says something about the toilet (commode in airplane speak). Apparently, it wouldn’t flush. Some sensor went off. “Shit,” I thought. I hear the flight attendant say they need to find a “lavatory truck” to drain it. I asked the flight attendant if she has ever experienced this before. She said no. Apparently they are allowed to fly without functional toilets but they wouldn’t. (The weirdest delay for me was once when the flight attendant call button would not stop dinging–this delayed the flight 2 hours, roughly the length of the flight, so they could stop the dinging). Twenty minutes later, the co-pilot exits the cockpit, puts on a jacket and hat, and goes outside to check on something involving the toilet. He says everything looks ok. Then, the pilot actually goes into the bathroom to test it out. I hear a flush, and he screamed “Whooooo!” We were in business. By 6:42 we were taking off. At this rate, I would land around 8:30 and have plenty of time to make my connection at 9:50, even in the labyrinth that is ATL.

We landed at 8:30 p.m. Plenty of time. We pull to the Jetway, and I’m chomping to get off the plane. I’m waiting for the expected knock on the door, and it opens. But it doesn’t. The jetway was broken. Seriously. I never found out if it was due to the cold, or lack of staff due to the weather. At first the pilot said they may need to pull out and taxi to another gate. I’ve done that before. You can sit on the tarmac for hours! I saw them unloading the bags. At least my bag would make it home to Houston, even if I didn’t. By 8:55, finally I see the Jetway moving towards us. Success. I figured I had about 20 minutes to make it to my gate before we started boarding (in ATL that is not always doable). When I get to the gate, I see the inbound flight sitting there. Phew, I thought just made it. Then I realize that no one had gotten off that plane. Apparently their jetway was broken too.

The flight was then delayed another 30 minutes (forcing me to watch Piers Morgan, a show I’ve never actually voluntarily watched). We finally boarded after 10:00 (apparently Piers Morgan doesn’t like kale). Then we sat on the plane for another 30 minutes. Apparently the airport was so short-staffed that one person was responsible for loading *all* of the bags. The Southwest pilot did some decent standup comedy to keep us entertained (see the Vine). At 10:50, the door was closed. By that point, I was on my last battery (I had gone through all four of mine during the day. Though I did finish all of Clark Neily’s “Terms of Engagement” and Randy’s Barnett’s new afterword of “Restoring the Lost Constitution.”). We would sit at the gate for another 20 minutes, at which point they did the safety demo. 20 minutes later we were cleared for departure and took off at 11:24.

I (finally) touched down in Houston at 12:13 a.m. central time (changed time zones). After another 30 minutes, my bags finally came off the baggage claim. But not yet ready to go home yet. Why? Because I flew United, my car was at Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH), about 45 minutes away. Southwest flies to Hobby. Fortunately, my amazing girlfriend picked me up. I was home around 1:30. I’ll need to go back to IAH today to get my car.

So from start to finish, it was about an 18 hour travel day.

This morning, I called United and they said they will credit the return leg. I will need to file a report to seek reimbursement for the Southwest Ticket I had to buy. The way I look at it, the $517 I spent was roughly equal to the cost of 2 days of food and hotel in Philadelphia, not to mention the inconvenience. As a Star Alliance Gold member, I hope they agree.