Those of us who travel on business with any frequency expect to encounter a variety of trying experiences. It comes with the territory. Flights are canceled without notice; luggage vanishes; hotel reservations are nowhere to be found when you arrive. They're usually nothing more than inconveniences. But something happened to me recently that was a first, and I hope it never happens again. It all started routinely enough in Phoenix, where I boarded a flight to return to Chicago. I had just attended a meeting of the Healthcare Research and Development Institute and participated in a panel discussion on some of the latest happenings in the industry.
I had flown to Phoenix that morning, and even then, based on the weather forecast, I knew my return trip might be dicey. When I checked with my office later in the day, I was told my return flight was canceled. I should have had some inkling this wasn't going to be a good day, but I was determined to get home. I called the airline and asked if I could get on another flight leaving an hour or so later. The reservationist told me I could still catch a flight that had been scheduled to leave earlier but had been delayed until 4: 45 p.m. So I made a reservation and headed for the airport. When I arrived I went directly to the gate. Sure enough, the plane took off at 4: 45 p.m. on the dot. Things were looking up.
The first half of the flight was uneventful. The last part, however, was anything but. Chicago that night was experiencing some of the worst electrical storms to hit the area in some time. The pilot was businesslike as he spoke, telling us that controllers would be putting the flight into a holding pattern. It lasted an hour or so, after which he informed us we were finally headed to O'Hare International. That's when the fun began. I've ridden on some pretty scary roller coasters as a kid, but this ride topped them all. It was like something out of a movie, with plenty of thunder and lightning. We even took a direct lightning strike that literally shook the plane. Everything was fine, but shortly thereafter the pilot informed us we were headed for St. Louis because the storms had knocked out the lights on one of O'Hare's runways. We soon landed in St. Louis, along with a number of other flights that were diverted from Chicago. The people on my plane weren't too happy, but at least we had landed safely.
After an hour of sitting on the runway, we arrived at the gate. The flight crew ushered us off the plane telling us that airline representatives would be there shortly to help us on our way. Then they promptly disappeared. But no one from the airline ever showed up. All of us-including some elderly people and women with babies-were left to fend for ourselves. There we were, stranded in St. Louis at 3 a.m. without a clue as to what to do. A couple of us checked the hotels, but they were all full. Then some of us started calling other airlines to see if we could get early-morning flights back to Chicago. I tried two of the full-service carriers and was instructed by voice mail to hold on and someone would be with me shortly. Of course nobody ever came on the line. Then I noticed in my pocket airline guide that there was a 6 a.m. Southwest Airlines flight to Chicago. I called and was quite surprised when I was greeted by a real live person. She not only seemed sympathetic to my plight but was able to give me a bona fide reservation. And best of all she was pleasant. Southwest, because of the routes it flies and its no-frills type of service, isn't often my first choice of airlines. But the way I was treated by that reservation agent certainly has changed my mind.
I know that to many experienced travelers flying through a storm might not seem like a big deal, but it was to me and most of my fellow travelers that night. And everything came down to this: I wanted to get home to Maggie, my wife of 37 years, who also happens to be my dearest and best friend. That was all I cared about, and being on an airliner that got jolted by lightning brought that home to me loud and clear.
Moments of truth,Charles S. Lauer