(photo by Erin Trieb
Spending the Night in the Dallas Airport
DFW shut down for hours thanks to some statewide Texas thunderstorms, pinning me in Southern California’s John Wayne airport. After a couple hours of waiting, I started to get a little worried that I wouldn’t make the transfer in Dallas to get back to Austin. I wanted to see my girlfriend. I wanted to get some rest before a buddy who’d been living in Africa for a year came to Austin to stay with me.
In short, I wanted what most travelers want at the end of a trip: I wanted to be home. The sooner, the better; the later, the worse.
It got a lot worse.
When my 4:50pm flight finally took off at 7:30pm, I knew I’d have to run to make my connection. Fortunately my flight to Austin was rescheduled to depart at 12:09am.
We didn’t touch town until 12:15am.
I ran off the jetway and straight to the Departures screen. No Austin flight to be found. I sprinted to the nearest American Airlines desk—at Gate A9—and panted, “What gate does the Austin flight depart from?” shoving my boarding pass into the attendant’s hand.
“D40.” She replied. “They’re still boarding, you might make it.” Only four terminals away, no problem. She saw my grimace and kindly gave me directions for the fastest way to get there.
I don’t know if you’ve been to the DFW airport, but it is frickin’ huge. I must have sprinted a mile and a half, dragging my bedraggled black Pierre Cardin carry-on behind me. I’ve been in some long hallways, but these were the longest. I ran down one for probably three minutes before I even got sight of the next turn, and I was breaking land-speed records in the process.
When I got to the gate there were still about ten people in line at the ticket counter. My heart lifted and I headed straight for the door to the jetway. Only problem: the door was closed.
“The flight has boarded, sir.” The attendant said.
“But I have a ticket.” I replied, waving the flimsy paper in the air.
Turns out all the people in line had also missed this flight. I looked around, bewildered. There were at least a few dozen people hanging out, looking downcast, kicking the proverbial dirt with their shoes. By the time I got my turn to talk to the guy, I already knew there was no way out: I was going to have to spend the night in the airport. They weren’t giving comps for taxis or hotels because it was an act of nature that delayed all the flights. I got my standby ticket for the first flight in the morning, and a legitimate seat on the plane leaving at noon. Noon! That’s far too much time to spend in an airport.
A couple guys started chatting with me. I suggested that we try renting a car and driving back—it was only a few hours to Austin. But they had a buddy who could give us a ride from San Antonio, and there was still a flight out. The gate attendant swore that we could make it. Only one problem: it was back in the A terminal.
So we started running. This time we took the SkyLink train, which honestly was a little slower the marathon I’d completed minutes earlier. But by this time you already know what happened when we got to the A gate.
It’s starting to sound a lot like the “Maybe” story. Maybe there’s something to that. Nevertheless, this angelic attendant took pity on us and managed to get myself and my two buddies—Pro and Brian—guaranteed tickets on the second flight out, at 10:40am. Certainly better than noon. Better than the stranded girl Erin’s 6pm ticket. Or Marge and her son’s 11pm ticket.
So here we were, 2am in the Dallas airport, nothing to do until 7:40am when the first Austin flight takes off and we can pray to get on Standby. Naturally, we get to know each other.
We get burritos, and my new buddy Pro buys mine for me just to be kind. We talk about our travels, our jobs, our lives. We meet other stranded airport refugees and make friends. We search for some place to settle down for the night, someplace secluded for the morning (none exists), someplace dark (all the lights in an airport stay on 24/7) some place quiet (there were constant sounds). We do what humans do best in a tough times, whether it’s a real crisis or simply an unfamiliar night spent in an unfamiliar place: we share. We join. We commiserate. We laugh. We get to know each other, and we become friends.
It’s Pro’s birthday, Brian dresses like a model, Erin is a photojournalist that does stories on Iraq. Marge used to live in Texas and she likes it better than California because she says the people are nicer. Her son is finishing high school and wants to study particle physics. He’s good at it. We’re all tired, no, exhausted. We’re all a little grumpy but we’re happy to be around each other, even though we’d never met before in our lives.
I go looking for cots and blankets for everyone. There are hundreds of people tucked away in nooks and crannies throughout the terminal. One guy found a relatively obscure alcove where people get their shoes shined. Another eschewed the cot and curled up under some chairs instead. A few were on cell phones or computers. They all wear the uniform of the dark red and neon orange airline blanket. Most use two, three or four, because they’re too thin and small to really keep a person warm. This also means there are none left in the terminal.
At this point I don’t even care. I know that when I get back to the area my new friends have set up, one of them will go with me to the next terminal. At this point it’s all an adventure.
I still wished I was home, sleeping in my bed. I still wished I’d gotten to see my girlfriend. I still worried about getting only a few hours of sleep and having to go straight back to work. I still lamented having to sleep on a cot in the airport with a blanket that was about as warm as a bikini in Antarctica. None of those feelings went away, but getting to share the experience with these strangers allowed more space inside of me to hold on to more feelings. Feelings of excitement when we tried to nab a golf cart, feelings of belonging when we took a picture, feelings of curiosity when we told stories about our histories, our families, our likes and dislikes.
These “positive” and “negative” feelings might seem like strange bedfellows, but that’s exactly what this experience was all about. Talk about strange bedfellows—I slept in a “room” with a dozen strangers. I’d gotten to know five of them for an hour at best. And these kinds of paradoxes aren’t just something you can have, they’re something I believe are almost always going on inside of us. And like unexpected visitors in Rumi’s Guest House, I’m learning to welcome them all.
In the end, I was the only one to get on the 7:40am standby flight, but we all made it home. We exchanged numbers, and I even got to celebrate Pro’s birthday a few days later. Spending the night in the airport wasn’t the way I wanted to pass my Monday night. I don’t think I’d elect to do it again. I’m still a little sleep deprived. But I love that night, and I love the joy of connecting with other human beings. I love that we find companionship no matter what the circumstances, that we find deeper connections because of the circumstances. Thinking about that, I’m happy.