“I am sorry, the next flight is after 24 hours.”
I nodded nervously as I reached out to take my new boarding pass from the airline representative rebooking my flight.
I was traveling from the United Kingdom back to campus for Spring 2022, and my flight was from Birmingham to Abu Dhabi with a layover in Istanbul. I usually fly directly to Dubai via Emirates, but because of the Covid-19 testing requirements to cross the Dubai-Abu Dhabi border, that trip would have required me to spend a night in Dubai. By taking the flight with a layover, I hoped to avoid that hassle and instead make my trip shorter by a day by spending a few hours in transit. I tried to take the easy and sensible route but little did I know.
While checking in for my flight to Istanbul, I was informed that it was delayed and there was a chance that I would miss my onward connection to Abu Dhabi. However, going back home and rebooking my flight would mean that I would need a new PCR test, and it would be close to impossible to find a place that does them on a Sunday, even at the airport. Most PCR testing centers in my town and surrounding areas are only open on weekdays and take at least 36 hours to process — I would not have received the result on time. The airline staff reassured me that the flight would still arrive in time for me to make my connection, and I decided to trust them.
Fast forward to five hours later, having missed my connection, I was preparing to spend a full day at the Istanbul airport. I could stay at a hotel the airline provided for the night, and the next day I would be on my way to Abu Dhabi. Luckily I did not need a visa, so I was able to leave the airport to go to the accommodation that the airline was providing for the night. All things considered, the whole ordeal did not sound too bad. But the process did not go smoothly and was a logistical nightmare — it involved standing in multiple lines and being sent to different parts of the airport, and it felt like no one could really tell me what I should do or where I should go. It took forever to get to the accommodation, and by the time I arrived at the hotel, it was late, and I was exhausted.
I felt scared and alone in a foreign country, but at least I woke up to a beautiful sunny day the next morning and was hopeful that I would be going home soon. Oh, how wrong I was.
On the shuttle from the hotel to the airport, the beautiful sunny day was replaced by fog and a drizzle, which were soon replaced by wind and snow which became progressively worse until the visibility was close to zero. The roads were covered in snow, and cars were skidding down the road. We were caught in a blizzard
, and it was a miracle that we made it to the airport. Once we arrived, we were informed that all flights were grounded, and to my despair, I would be spending another day at the airport with no accomodation provided to me at that point.
I spent the day strolling around the airport, partly because there was nowhere to sit — people were sleeping even on the baggage conveyor belts — and partly because I was afraid of catching Covid-19. Each time my flight was delayed, I had to get a new PCR test, and I did not want to think about what would have happened to me if I had caught the virus while I was stuck in an airport in a foreign country. There is a hotel inside the airport costing a staggering 300 Euros a night, but even that was fully booked. I booked myself a hotel in the city, but the blizzard made it impossible to get to it.
I kept checking the status of my flight, hopeful that the weather would clear up and my flight would not be canceled again. Until it was. The realization that I would be here for another 24 hours, the feeling of being trapped and the stress of the past few days led me to have a meltdown in the middle of the airport. “I cannot be here for another day. I can’t do this”, I thought. There were obviously no hotel rooms for the night, but I saw a room available at the airport hotel for the next night and booked it. The 300 Euro fee was non refundable, and I would be losing most of my savings if the next day's flight didn’t get canceled, but at that point, I did not care. It was an assurance that in the case of another cancellation, I would have a roof over my head and would be able to take a shower.
In between the time I spent standing in rebooking lines, I paced around the departures area, but it got harder with each step. This is because I am in the habit of wearing my heaviest shoes to the airport, to avoid putting them in my luggage. Having spent nearly three days in my Timberlands, my feet felt like they had dumbbells attached to them, and I became numb. I guess they don’t say “wear light and comfortable shoes to the airport” for nothing, and I felt the full gravity of the situation. It showed me that some of my little money-saving tricks I use to help me travel only work in an ideal world. The airport started running out of water and food prices skyrocketed because they could not bring supplies in.
This was an altogether horrible experience, but in my opinion, some good came out of it. I met some interesting people while I was stuck in that airport, sharing stories while standing in ticketing lines for multiple hours. I felt a common understanding among the passengers at the airport as everyone felt stuck and hopeless but realizing that we are all stuck in this together. While I was there, I thought about how I would have been on campus for much less money days ago if only I had chosen to fly to Dubai. However I consistently reminded myself that no one could have seen this coming, and I shouldn’t blame myself.
As it got closer to my flight time, I found it harder to take my eyes off of the flight status. When the gate was announced, I nearly screamed in relief as a crowd of ecstatic passengers rushed for boarding — never mind the 300 Euro hotel room. I have always been a little afraid of flying; nevertheless I was so happy to get on this plane. I left home on the morning of Jan. 23 intending to arrive on campus that evening but only got to campus on the morning of the 27th.
There are a few things that this experience taught me about flying that I think will stick with me and which I think are important to remember for any frequent flier because even though something like this is unlikely to happen, it is not impossible, and it is important to be somewhat prepared in case it does happen — some of them are logistical in nature. Take a direct flight whenever it is possible, wear something to keep you warm in frigid airport air conditioning and have a spare change of clothes.
But other lessons I learned can come from only experience. Objectively, I wasted a lot of money, time and sanity that I could have kept had I booked a flight straight from Birmingham to Dubai. However, I will always treasure how I managed to adapt to the situation and bond with others who faced the same situation. Travel can be a logistical nightmare, and it is crucial that we remain prepared, mentally and physically, for whatever may come our way.
Leo El-Azhab is a contributing writer. Email them at email@example.com