Isolation due to the pandemic has gratefully allowed me to ignore the destruction of our airline industry firsthand. After a weekend trip from Atlanta to Boston, that returned me to Birmingham, I can report firsthand that the friendly skies are no longer friendly, and the ground is even worse.
Our Saturday flight left Boston relatively on time at 2PM and nearly three hours later we were ready to land in Atlanta. I had such high hopes.
The tag on my luggage said “ATL”, why were we landing in Birmingham? I and three hundred other lost souls still want to know the answer to that question. I know the plane information says it will only hold 200 people but believe me there was at least another fifty percent jammed on that flight.
My guess is we will all remain in the dark as to the actual reason why we were diverted from landing in Atlanta eight minutes before our arrival time. Seriously, we were descending into the Atlanta area, on time and everything good when our captain came on the loudspeaker to inform us that the Atlanta airport was being shut down due to severe storms in the area.
Having flown into the Atlanta airport many, many times during thunderstorms, (admittedly some of them quite scary) I conjured an EF5 tornado churning its way up I85 leveling everything in its path. The fact that we were caught short and not offered a holding pattern to the south and east of the monster storm (tornadoes travel SW to NE) was surprising. The fact that we were diverted to Birmingham and not Macon or Columbus which are an hour closer to Atlanta is also a question for deeper thinkers than I. I was able to focus on the calm air of the flight and no storms visible from the window. Could the Atlanta tower have taken their weather advice from those seldom right but never in doubt “Storm Trackers” at Channel 11 News?
We arrived in Birmingham without a ripple, a cross wind, a drop of rain. We sat on the tarmac for an hour and listened to the futile attempts of the captain to get us underway again. “Could we get refueled on the ground and return to Atlanta?” Nope. “Could we go to the gate and deplane so people could go to the bathroom and get something to eat?” Nope. Could we just stew in our own juices for an hour or so while funneling three hundred people through the three bathrooms onboard? Yep.
Eventually Delta Birmingham found a gate for us to deplane to while they tried to come up with a plan for the 8-10 planes re-routed to “The Magic City.” No one has any information. The captain presumes that the flight will return to ATL on the morrow. Delta does want its plane back but doesn’t really care whether the passengers come with or not.
Fortunately for some, Birmingham was the final destination for a large portion of the flight. They are arriving home early. The Birmingham residents are happy, if only Delta decides to off load the baggage. What to do with the baggage seems to be the next big challenge for the multi-billion-dollar airline.
After an hour and a half, we can see that Delta has decided not to hold our baggage hostage any further and they off load it to the carousel. Let me relate that there is not a Delta agent that we can tell that has been assigned to shepherd the group of lost sheep back to their shelter. Just random popups from uniformed people relating more bad news. The captain has long since abandoned his ship. We gather together and stick close to his point of departure hoping another shepherd will appear.
We are informed that because of some convention in town that there are not enough hotel rooms for Delta to put us up overnight. The smart crowd (seasoned Delta flyers, no doubt) had already seized all of the rental cars while we were waiting in line for the bathroom on the plane. We are a hundred or so now, adrift in the airport that appears to be closing for the night. My God, Chik Fil A has closed!
Finally, someone wearing a ramp agent vest tells us that if we can find a room that our flight will head back to Atlanta at 8AM the next morning, we are already ticketed. Otherwise, Delta was trying to secure a bus to carry those interested, first come first served, back to our original destination. Fifty-three or fifty-four of us. Weirdly, some of us hear that the bus will be arriving at the upper level. Primal survival takes over and we rush to be first in line at the door we presume will be our gateway to return home.
There are two reservation agents putzing around behind the counter who offer us water in massive bottles and snacks in bite-size packages. I muse that Delta is only offering snacks in hundred calorie packs as a means to fight America’s obesity problem and eventually get us all down to a size where we need no seat space at all, just slots like in a mail-room. We are told that the bus is on the way and that they are working on getting the manifest so they can check off who gets on the bus. The bus arrives but the manifest does not.
Let’s divert here for a moment to discuss the manifest. The manifest is the list of “souls” who are assigned to the carrier. It’s not magic, there are no spells or potions involved in producing one. You may have noticed assorted airline personnel like stewards checking them on their phone as they make sure you’re not sitting in a seat that has enough room, like first class. Anyway, it seems to be impossible for Delta to produce the manifest so that we can get on the bus. It is now 9-9:15 PM EST., and the bus driver is pointing out he’d like to get back home in time to go to Sunday services.
Mystery guy dressed like a ramp agent reappears and allows us to start boarding the bus. We are the lucky fifty-three that heard correctly that the bus would arrive on the upper deck. We believe there are others waiting on the lower deck, but we don’t seek them out. We squeeze into seats that are even closer together and narrower than airline seats. I know you don’t think it’s possible, but we’re sitting in seats designed for second graders. In spite of the discomfort, we are still elated to be leaving for our homes. Just one more bit of business keeps us tied to the Birmingham airport, the manifest.
The manifest has been supplanted by what we all know to be a legal pad. We spell our names as they appeared on our ticket to the agent that gathers the details for all of the fifty-three lucky survivors of the flight. I casually comment that had our plane gone down the manifest would have been published within minutes to a department at Delta charged with notifying next of kin. The agent is not amused, but then, neither are any of us. Being “stuck inside of Birmingham with the Memphis Blues again” was not on the schedule. Before we pull away from the curb, I get a text message from Delta that the 8AM departure for our flight the next day has been delayed. Who could have predicted that?
The bus ride is mostly uneventful with the exception of various body parts cramping and/or going to sleep. The bus driver knows what the ATL tag on our baggage stands for and gets us to the airport as quickly and safely as possible. The airport has chosen to have all Uber and Lyft transactions take place at the far end of the North Terminal parking. We are at the South Terminal. What’s a little schlepping at the end of a journey? It’s now 12:15AM on Sunday and we are finally breathing the hot humid air of our hometown.
The Uber driver is a chatty fellow and after I give him some of the high spots of our journey, afterall, he did ask, he informs us there had been no storms in the area that day. He had been at the airport around the time of our scheduled arrival, and everything seemed to be normal. No EF5’s, no active shooters, only normal business. Who am I to believe?
The next day, Delta sent us some apology sky miles and the excuse that the problem was due to the crew potentially going to overtime. We’ll just call that one bull-hockey while we muse on some of Delta’s past prevarications:
1984: Delta Is Ready When You Are
1984: Delta Gets You There
1987: We Love to Fly, and It Shows
1992: Ready When You Are
1994: You’ll Love the Way We Fly
1997: On Top of the World
2005: Good Goes Around
Current: Keep Climbing
The re-flight arrived about 1PM on Sunday delivering Delta’s equipment back to its original destination. Pick one of the catch phrases above.