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Saturday, September 01, 2007


Summer Air Travel 2007

Near the beginning of Kris' and my August vacation, I tried to fly to Chicago for the retirement dinner for my dear friend, Don Hallberg, who retired on August 31 from his position as Executive Director for Development Services at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's (ELCA's) churchwide office in Chicago. Since Kris and I were vacationing with friends who have a home on Chincoteague Island, Virginia, I made arrangements to fly to Chicago from the Norfolk, Virginia airport, the closest (still a two hour drive) airport to Chincoteague with direct air service to Chicago. My plan was to fly to Chicago on the afternoon of Thursday, August 23, attend Don's dinner that evening, and fly back to Norfolk and Chincoteague on Friday morning, August 24. That was my plan.....

The weather report for Chicago on August 23 did not look good - thunderstorms in the afternoon and evening. However, my flight was still listed online as on and on time, so I headed to the airport on Thursday morning. I arrived at Norfolk airport in plenty of time for my 2:30 p.m. flight to Chicago. The flight was on time. With a little luck, I thought, I'd get to Chicago even before 4:00 p.m. local time and have time to stop at the churchwide office before going to Don's 6:30 p.m. dinner at the Marriott O'Hare Airport Hotel.

As they boarded our flight, United announced that those who might be in the boarding area for the 5:30 p.m. flight could/should board our 2:30 p.m. flight since the 5:30 p.m. flight was already known to be two hours delayed. (It never flew that day). We took off on time and were in Chicago airspace by 3:15 p.m. Chicago time.

At this point, the day began to "go south" as they say.

We circled O'Hare for nearly an hour before the pilot told us that we could not land because of tornado warnings at O'Hare. And, we were running out of fuel, so we had to divert to Fort Wayne or South Bend, Indiana, to get more fuel and wait out the storm. The pilot added that the weather was so severe that the control tower at O'Hare had been evacuated!

We were diverted to Fort Wayne and landed there around 4:00 p.m. Then we sat on the runway. Each time it appeared that we might take off, we were delayed again by a new batch of thunderstorms at O'Hare. By this time I sort of knew I was not going to make any of Don's dinner!

We sat on the runway until nearly 7:30 p.m. Finally, they found a gate and jetway and let us deplane. The pilot announced that he hoped to reboard us within an hour or so to fly to Chicago. We quickly lined up for food at the one place still open at the Fort Wayne airport. It was not pretty.

No sooner had I sat down with my food when it was announced that we should pick up our luggage which was already in baggage claim and board one of the buses which would now be taking us to O'Hare. We left Fort Wayne by bus around 8:00 p.m. and reached O'Hare, still in the midst of thunderstorms, around 11:45 p.m.

As I looked around the lobby of the O'Hare Hilton, filled with folks sleeping on the floor since the hotel was full, I was happy that I had a guaranteed room. My room was available and on the top (10th) floor. Just one problem - limited electricity because of thunderstorm power outages meant no elevators. I walked up 20 flights of stairs to my unairconditioned, warm room. However, I was still glad to have a bed and I even got a little sleep.

Fortunately, when I had checked in on Thursday, I had already checked in for my return flight on Friday. Hundreds of people off of cancelled flights on Thursday were trying to get onto flights on Friday. Mine took off about an hour late. I was happy to be back in Norfolk and soon back in Chincoteague and, mostly, happy to be out of Chicago!

Now I remember what I do not miss about my former life when I travelled regularly by air! Delays are part of air travel. I'm told they are worse this summer than ever.

I do have to say that United and United Express handled our situation quite well. The pilot kept us informed and, obviously, could not control the weather problems which were quite real. Hundreds of thousands in the Chicago area were without power on Thursday night.

Anyway, I was sorry to miss Don's dinner, but very relieved to be out of Chicago that Friday!

Sometimes all you can do is live in God's amazaing grace,

Eric Shafer

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