Notes from the airport: Missed my flight; not the end of the world after all

For the first time in my life, I missed my flight. I was in tears. I called American Express, and was on hold with them while they rerouted my itinerary through Vancouver. It will be an overnight flight and I’ll arrive Sunday morning instead of Saturday night, but I’ll arrive.

Then I called W-, who told me things were going to be okay and helped me remember that I was strong. I don’t feel very strong at the moment – my fingers shake – but I can feel the storm of panic and frustration and self-pity pass. Denver International Airport has free wireless, but I can’t seem to connect to it. I used my Kindle to send him a Twitter direct message with the flight details the travel agent gave me. I may be frazzled, but I still turn to frugal workarounds for roaming charges.

There’s a lesson in here about timezones, public transit, and triple-checking my departure time against my printed ticket instead of my copied itinerary. Better to learn the lesson this time than at a more crucial moment – that’s what I always tell myself when I make a mistake large enough to throw me off-kilter. Better now than later. Better a small situation than a life-or-death one. Going home, with Monday a day off, on a US-Canada flight, a missed flight has much smaller ripples than an inbound flight on a critical business trip or an expensive personal trip halfway across the world–and I still get to distill from it whatever it can teach me about life and myself.

That’s the second thing I tell myself during these hiccups: It all becomes part of the story, the rough watersas well as the smooth. I’m learning that after that initial flood of panic, I feel this preternatural calm sets in. I can’t change the past, so I don’t fret about it. No amount of worrying is going to change my short-term future. This nervous energy can be channelled into writing. Not too long from now, there’ll be a day when everything will be back to normal. Why stress out about things I can’t change and that won’t be permanent? Everything is going to be okay.

The situation is not that much different from a hypothetical world where I’m sitting in the airport patiently waiting for my intentionally-booked flight to Vancouver with a connection to Toronto. I’ve done that before. After setting the wheels in motion, it is an easy thing to shift to that track, like rail lines that start at different stations and converge. I learn what I can from stress, then call up that feeling of purposeful waiting.

Missing a flight, surprisingly enough, isn’t the end of the world. (Even if you miss said flight on May 21, the supposed day of the apocalypse.) Even though this is my first missed flight, the travel agencies and airlines have handled innumerable cases like mine before, and they know what to do. The American Express agent found another route to get me to Toronto. although it takes much longer than my original flight does, and arranges it for the change fee $150 plus the fare difference. Better than losing the full value of the flight, for sure! I don’t know if IBM will allow me to expense the increase in my fare, but if not, I can charge it to my experience fund – and thank goodness I have one, so that unexpected expenses don’t plunge me into more lasting troubles. I already know the process for paying part of my American Express card in case IBM policy doesn’t cover the itinerary change. Even though the flight lands early in the morning, W- will be there to meet me. Boy, will I be ever so glad to see him! Everything’s going to work out okay. Worst-case scenario, I pay for the fare difference myself, and it takes me a little longer to save up for my next goals. No big deal.

W- is right. I’m strong. I bounce back almost involuntarily. Maybe this hiccup will help me become even more resilient, if I remember to take the right lessons from it, if a future crisis makes me think, “Aha, I know how to deal with this, I’ve survived something similar before” instead of “I’m such an idiot, I can’t do anything right, like that time I missed my flight.”

Things I am glad about:

  • Amazon Kindle 3G connection. I’ve been talking about this so much on my blog and on Twitter, I know! But in areas without free, reliable WiFi networks, it’s been really really useful to be able to search for information and post updates.
  • Travel agencies, airline personnel, and lots of other travellers. I’m glad I booked this work trip through American Express, because they knew how to work the system in order to get me home. For our personal trips, I’m going to make sure I write down the toll-free numbers for the airlines so that I can get to them quickly if I need to reroute. I’m glad that airline personnel have handled many other missed flights before, and I’m a tiny bit glad that other people have run into and solved these problems. Can you imagine being the first person to miss a flight in the
  • Chocolate stroopwafels. As I headed out the door of our house, W- gave me two chocolate stroopwafels from our trip to the Netherlands. “For emergencies,” he said. I ate the first stroopwafel on the way out, cheering myself up after facing the prospect of a week-long trip. I saved the second stroopwafel. This counts as an emergency worthy of a stroopwafel, I believe, and I will have it shortly. The thought itself is comforting already.
  • Air travel and computers. Isn’t it amazing that we can fly through the air? And that computers can link together different routes, different cities, different companies? Can you imagine what it might’ve been like to miss a steamship that runs only once a month?
  • Writing. If you had told me in school that writing could be a comfort and a joy, I might’ve fallen in love with it then instead of getting bored by all the book reports and critical essays we wrote for teachers and never for ourselves. Writing will be my last and longest love, I think, even after time strips away friends and family, and hands and eyes fail.

There are more thoughts for this list, but I’m at the gate waiting for the flight to Vancouver. Everything will work out.

2011-05-21 Sat 17:00

  • My boyfriend and I have been planning a few days at a spa since December. We wanted to go for new year, but it didn’t work out. So we started again for my birthday, but the one we wanted was booked up for 3 months. Eventually he got an appointment for one night over the long weekend at a different one.

    Friday, I was panicking because he hadn’t booked any appointments and I was utterly convinced it was all going to go wrong. After all, we hadn’t managed to make it work during the last 6 months!

    An hour before we were supposed to leave, he called them and discovered there was a mix-up and we’re booked in for Sunday night the weekend following, which is obviously not a holiday. We could make it work, book a day off or come in for the afternoon and make up the time, and I could reschedule my trainer etc etc…

    When I was panicking, I thought I would be really upset if it didn’t work out, but when it came to it I just laughed. I mean, if these are our problems – a missed spa weekend – it’s hard to complain about life. I guess we’re not going to take a trip to the spa any time soon, but that’s OK. I can get a mudwrap and a facial locally. It’s not worth the stress of reorganizing everything to miss a Monday morning.

    I tend to take the attitude that money can’t buy happiness, but sometimes it can reduce stress, and I’m normally happy to pay some amount for a less stressful life. We were working out how to go next weekend instead, and then I realized – the expensive spa night was going to be a source of more stress. Not the point of it, so we’re not going.

    I guess the thing I’m taking from this, is that I felt much worse when I just *thought* everything was going to go wrong than when it did. You’re never the first person to do whatever stressful thing it is, whether it’s miss a flight, forget to pre-register to visit the US, or accidentally exceed your meal cap on your corp card. I’m trying to stop tying myself in knots about things that might happen because invariably the reality is no big deal.

    Glad you made it back OK!

  • Antonio

    I just wanted to comment on a related experience I had last december… You are likely to have heard of the Icelandic volcano that completely disrupted air traffic last year or the one that recently attempted to do the same. Right, I’m not going to talk about that. In december, a different disruption came to the European air traffic: Spanish air traffic controllers strike, all at the same time, no service at all. Well, precisely at that time I was going to leave for my holidays and was affected by the disruption. When I tried to call the Spanish numbers (toll free or not) for Finnair, I only got to their voice mail. I tried to phone to their Finnish phone number, no luck either. It was only when I reached their US offices that I managed to get to a great agent that managed our reroute as soon as the air controllers were put back to work by the military forces in Spain.

    So why I comment?

    1. Don’t stick to the local or toll-free numbers for your airline/travel agents.
    2. Don’t despair (you already know that) ;-) There is always a solution.

    Kind regards.

  • @sachac Missing flights and/or rerouting is a reality of business travel. While a company should reasonably expect you to travel economically, unexpected events happen. Booking excursion fares and adding on occasional change fees still works out cheaper for the company that booking full fares. (Do people still fly Y-class?)

    While I’m certainly well plugged-in electronically, my inclination is to shun advances in technology that could cause problems in the moment. I print out the travel agent’s itinerary and ticket receipt. I print out paper boarding passes.

    I was amused to be on a business trip with Stephen, when he thought he would try the e-check-in with a message sent to his smartphone. When we arrived at the airport in Saint John, NB, the agent printed out a boarding pass for him, as there wasn’t automation for that flight of less than 20 people. I actually dropped my boarding pass somewhere, and when I returned to the check-in desk, the agent printed another copy without asking my name, because she remembered it. Old technology (and people) work.

    Of course, there was the time that I arrived in Munich on a Sunday to discover that European daylight savings time zone changes meant that my connecting flight had left before I arrived. I still made it to Helsinki, with an extra stop in Copenhagen that I hadn’t originally planned.

  • Cate: Yes, it certainly helps to remember the bigger picture!

    For me, I think the most stressful moment is right after something bad happens, when I feel that “I _wish!_” most strongly. Then my happy-do kicks in, and I stop feeling upset about things I can’t change. =)

    Antonio: And often the solution works out even better than one could’ve planned. =)

    David: I’m glad to hear this is more of an ordinary occurrence than it felt like in those first moments. It’s funny how useful that distinction between exceptional and ordinary is. I might reactively feel that something is exceptional and upsetting. When I realize that it’s ordinary, it becomes much more manageable.

  • kanye west

    I missed my train :(