Planes, Trains, Automobiles - And Chaos

Birgit Starmanns

© Copyright 2014 by Birgit Starmanns


Photo of a crowd of people waiting to go through security check.

While business travel is often tedious, an unexpected event can sometimes cause some excitement. Which may just be too much excitement.

“Your flight is in four hours,” said the airport employee that was checking passports as passengers entered the check-in line in the Frankfurt airport. This was the first stop of multiple checkpoints, even before I could get to the counter to check my luggage. She had said it to the man in line in front of me. “You might make it to your flight.”

Did I hear that correctly? Might???? Make?? It?? My flight was in a little less than three hours. This did not bode well.

The man in line looked at me, and as many travelers do, started a bit of small talk. It would still take a little while to get to the baggage check-in counter after that passport check. “I already have my electronic boarding pass, think I will ditch my liquids and skip checking my bag,” he told me.

“Not an option for me,” I said. “Between the computer bag and my purse, I can’t get a third carry-on onto the flight.”

While he skipped the line to throw away his liquids, I waited to get to the check-in counter. The friendly airline employee explained that there was a strike of the security staff (the equivalent of the TSA) at the Frankfurt airport that day, plus a strike of the baggage handlers. While checking in my suitcase, he advised, “There’s nothing we can do for you until you get past the security checkpoint, it’s out of the airline’s hands until then. Once you get through, we can help with flight arrangements.”

Ominous words.

I had taken a shuttle to the airport, and had arrived much earlier than normal on this particular business trip. I did recall receiving an alert from my company’s travel department, mentioning a strike. Since these alerts are sent frequently, including warnings about not drinking the tap water in certain countries (even including Germany!), I developed a habit of simply dismissing them. I had been hoping to get a nice lunch and check out a few stores at the Frankfurt airport before going through security. With this warning, I abandoned that idea, and headed straight towards the checkpoint.

As I started walking down the hallway, which was a good 30 feet wide, I stopped in my tracks. There was a hum. As I kept walking, the hum quickly escalated to a roar as I came closer to a crush of people. Travelers were literally elbowing and stepping on each other. I approached the mass, and after only one minute, realized that the same hoard was now behind me. The hallway was filling up at an exponential rate.

Everyone was individually jockeying for position. With literally only 3 inches between myself and the person in front of me, a couple tried to squeeze in. We made eye contact, I stuck out my elbow, and they stopped trying to step on my feet. There were families that tried to duck behind the advertising boards to inch their way ahead of crowd, but ended up stuck behind an electronics display with no way out.

And there’s always that ONE traveler. The one who held up his suitcase over his head, yelling, “I have a flight in 30 minutes,” elbowing his way through. We thought that his suitcase would hit our heads, so we let him through. Within 10 minutes, he was back, yelling that there is “no chance, I’ll try tomorrow.” Again wielding his suitcase like a weapon over his head.

I kept rising up on my tiptoes to assess the situation. I saw the flash of what seemed to be a reporter’s camera. When I later saw the photo in the Wall Street Journal, the photo showed travelers standing about 1-2 feet apart. That was not the case where I was in the back; we were all crushed. I was standing just under the green fire escape sign when the photo was taken.

Other travelers had shared that terminal B was closed, and everyone was being funneled through the A concourse. I had to go through this portion of the hallway to get to the Z concourse, the international terminal. I was hoping that if I were able to get to that section, there would be a chance to get home. Since everyone else was headed left to concourse A, I made a good 10 feet of headway to the sign that indicated that concourse Z was on the right. It only took me 30 minutes to make that headway.

Maybe I have a shot. I obsessively checked my flight status on my iPhone app, it was still scheduled to take off on time.

Suddenly, a generator went off over my head, creating a deafening noise. Added to that, with the heat of all those people jammed together, someone had opened the fire escape door. No one was leaving through that door, but it in some refreshing air got in – along with the constant “beep – beep – beep” of the alarm that the door was open.

The noise made it impossible to hear the police as they entered the fray with their megaphones, alternating their announcements between German and English. On the fourth run-through of the announcement, after the generator above my head gave out, I was finally able to hear that the airport was closed, and police was asking us to go back to the main hall to be rescheduled.

“No way,” I thought, “I am going to give it one last shot.” While the crowd reluctantly disbanded, I headed towards the Z terminal, going against the stream of the crowd. It was obvious that the police had put up a barrier earlier, but the ropes were down and they were not stopping anyone from getting into the next pre-check point area in concourse Z. Ten minutes later, the barriers were back up, so I thought I had caught a break.

There were three very long lines. Luckily, with my Premier Executive status, I could get into the shortest of the lines. Coincidentally, I ended up behind the same traveler who had put his liquids into the trash. As we looked through the next level of security, there was passport control, which was not taking any new travelers. It was easy to see why – there was a sea of people beyond the passport check. Once every 20-30 minutes, another 8-10 people were let into the fray.

We were now close enough to the airport staff – and I speak German – to understand that border patrol was now taking the place of the screeners. “They are prioritizing connecting passengers,” one told me. “If someone arrived from another airport, they will likely make their flight, but airplanes are flying out close to empty.”

Among the travelers, there was almost a sense of community. We would hold each other’s place in line if someone needed to use the rest room. The airport personnel came through multiple times, passing out beverages and energy bars – at no cost! And we all grumbled about the strikers, who continuously walked en masse through the airport, waving signs, using loud whistles, and clapping. And smiling – which upset us as travelers.

And of course, we were all trying to make alternate arrangements. The man who was now without his liquids was a 1K flyer, he was only on hold for five minutes, and rebooked his flight. I was on hold for about 15 minutes, as I obsessively now checked whether my battery would hold out. Instead of a non-stop to San Francisco, at least I had a flight going through Washington, D.C. and I assumed that – since it was in five hours – I would hopefully be able to slip in with the next group of 8-10 that was let into passport control. Another traveler in line behind me asked if I could pass him to the United Airlines agent, since he had the same status but no cell phone battery life left, so I handed him my phone.

Suddenly, the last group of 10 came back out. This concourse was now closed as well, and all airport staff packed up and left that station. Really??

With nothing else left to do, I headed back to the main hallway. My manager was in line at the airline counter, and waved me over.

“Is your phone working,” he asked. “Mine is not. I wonder what’s wrong.”

“Yes, it’s working,” I responded. “Which date did you give IT that your trip is over? I usually add an extra day or two, since I’m never sure in which time zone they will cut off the international roaming.” And of course he then asked to borrow my phone as well, but was told that he would be on hold for an hour. After checking my battery level, he gave it back and decided to stick it out in line to speak to the local agent.

I thought that I would go ahead and have that nice lunch now that I had planned on earlier, since I obviously wasn’t going anywhere for a while. As I started to pay, the waiter mentioned, “There’s a rumor that the concourses will open again at 2 p.m.”

That settled it, no dessert for me! I paid quickly and headed back over to terminal Z. This time, there was no claustrophobia-causing crowd. Unfortunately, the barriers were still up near the passport control, so there was just no getting through.

I called United again, to reschedule my flight – yet again. Apparently the big rush was over, I was almost immediately connected to an agent. She said there were no flights available until at least Sunday, originating from Frankfurt.

It suddenly occurred to me that I could take the train to another airport! I asked about cities in an ever-in-creasing radius – Hamburg, Munich, Amsterdam, Paris. Nothing. But there was a flight originating in Berlin!

“I’ll take it!” I almost shouted. The flight was only leaving the next morning, so that gave me plenty to time to catch the train.

Before making my way to the train station, I purchased a new top at one of the stores. Even if I didn’t have my luggage, I would at least feel a little fresher!

On my way to the train station, as I took the escalator down to a lower level, the strikers came through again, still whistling and laughing. I couldn’t help but swear under my breath, but didn’t want to yell at the strikers – since it was a 20-30 to 1 situation!

The German gentleman behind me was suddenly also very angry, yelling “Yeah, exactly!” and shouted my own cursing at the strikers. It was obvious that no traveler was on the side of the groups on strike.

At the train station, after another half-hour wait in line, I learned that Frankfurt airport is not the site of the Hauptbahnhof, or the main train terminal. I first needed to take a local train there. Luckily, the agent was very friendly in explaining to me where I needed to go.

And after the admittedly short ride to the main train station, I had about an hour to wait. I stopped into one of the restaurant-bars, and decided it was a good time to arrange for a hotel, and considered myself lucky to still have some smartphone battery life. I booked with the Marriott, and re-verified the check-in date at least three times with the agent, due to the time zone difference, since the agent was based in the U.S.

The train was the ICE, or high-speed train, with only one stop between Frankfurt and Berlin. And the ride still took over three hours! I had a little trouble finding my seat, since some of the wagons re-started their numbering in each section.

One train attendant told me to keep going towards the back, but I must have missed my seat. She then seemed irritated when I asked her again, to which I shot back, “For those of us who don’t live in Europe, you need to understand that re-starting the numbering is just not logical.” At least she then directly showed me to my seat.

I booted up my computer, and purchased the on-train WiFi, to check e-mails. There were already dozens of e-mails from colleagues, asking if we had all made our flights. The chats at least passed the time, and I did get some work done.

Upon arrival in Berlin, the taxi ride was fairly short. At this point, I had been awake and on the move – think trains, (almost) planes, and automobiles – for 22 hours. I didn’t care where I ate, and wasn’t in the mood to try to discover the Berlin nightlife, so I simply had dinner at the hotel.

On my way back to my room, I stopped by the front desk and asked how long it would take to get to the airport – and to get the complimentary toothbrush and toothpaste, and a 5-Euro deodorant.

I woke up to a melodious chime sound. I was out of bed instantly, but couldn’t place the sound, when it stopped. I jumped back into bed. The chime rang again. I again prowled the room, and finally realized that was the telephone with my wake-up call. I checked my cell phone, and I had slept through that alarm. I started to panic. In parallel, there was a knock on the door. The woman at the front desk had sent someone up to make sure that I was up, since I was not answering the phone and I had expressed concern the night before. I am eternally grateful to her, since she obviously saw my exhaustion. And her actions ensured I made my flight!

The check-in at the airport went smoothly, except that they did not allow the deodorant through security!

At the end of this particularly long trip home, I valued the strange camaraderie at the airport, the care of the employees both at the airports and at the hotels. It was wonderful to hear “Welcome home!” at immigration in San Francisco!

And in the future, I will definitely take those warning emails regarding travel exception conditions more seriously!

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