It was a routine layover. Returning from business in Cleveland, I was to change planes in St. Louis, and then fly to Omaha and home.
My flight was 20 minutes late in boarding, and then we sat on the tarmac for another half-hour. Finally the engines revved and roared, and we began to pick up speed as we headed down the runway. Takeoff was tantalizingly close. But abruptly the jet shut down again, and the plane coasted back to the gate. The pilot said “a minor mechanical problem” was the culprit.
Back in the terminal, I stood with hundreds of other travelers, watching the monitors. My 4:30 flight was rescheduled three times. By 8 p.m. I had called my wife and tried to be optimistic about making it home before midnight. I sat eating an overpriced slice of pizza, waiting, still waiting for the flight to leave at 9:30.
But suddenly the airport crowd began to murmur, and I stood again to stare at the monitors. I watched in disbelief as over a hundred TWA flights were cancelled. The message boards clicked over like a long line of dominos. A baggage handlers strike had done us all in.
“Oh, Lord,” I prayed silently. “What a mess. Can you get me out of this?”
I figured the airline would have to put me up for the night, and I could get home the next morning. I stood at the end of a long customer service line, one of many lines I had endured that evening. By the time I finally reached the counter, the exhausted clerk told me they’d filled all the hotels for the evening. No room at the inn for me.
I persuaded her to put me on another airline, hoping for early the next morning. She booked me on a United flight through Chicago, but I would still make it home by about noon the next day.
“Okay, God. Maybe my airport hassle isn’t Your biggest problem. But I’d still appreciate Your help.” I was beginning to conclude the Lord wasn’t terribly interested in bringing order to the chaos of my situation.
I wandered through the airport, dragging my luggage and hoping for a quiet place to curl up for the evening. By now it was after 11 p.m. I should have been home several hours ago. On a whim I decided to head back to the United gate from which I would be flying out the next morning.
Since St. Louis is TWA’s hub, United Airline’s presence is represented by only a few gates. I found mine, deserted at this late hour.
Then I saw him, a man standing behind the gate counter. He was dressed in an orange jumpsuit like part of the ground crew, with heavy boots and ear protectors slung around his neck.
He looked up at me with a smile. “Can I help you?”
“Well, I guess. I got stuck here in the airport tonight because of the TWA strike. They booked me on the 7:15 flight out tomorrow morning.”
“They did, huh? Hmmm.” He frowned. “You know, that flight’s going to be cancelled. Weather in Chicago.”
Now how did he know that? I thought. “Swell. That’s the way my luck has been running all day,” I moaned.
“W-a-i-t a minute. Let me just see something . . .” He typed away on the keyboard in front of him for a few seconds. Then the printer began to spit out another ticket.
He showed it to me. “Okay, I’ve got you on a 9:25 flight tomorrow morning. You’ll have to go to Denver and backtrack, but this one will get you to Omaha. Your new gate is right over there,” he said, pointing.
“Wow, thanks!” I was amazed. The entire conversation felt surreal. What was he doing here in the first place, in an empty part of the airport. And how did he know my Chicago flight was going to be cancelled. Or that the Denver one wouldn’t be?
“So what are you going to do now?” he asked.
“Oh, if you don’t mind, I guess I’ll just sit here for the night.”
“I think I can do better than that. Come on.” He motioned me to follow him across the waiting area to an unmarked door, secured with a combination lock. He punched a sequence of numbers, and opened it with a flourish. “Our VIP lounge. Looks like nobody else is here, so you’ll have it all to yourself.”
“Wow!” I said again. Two wow’s in less than five minutes. I dropped my bags and turned around to thank him again, and he was gone.
I had a very quiet and fairly restful evening in the VIP lounge. When I drifted off to sleep, I thanked God that He did, in fact, care about my chaos. And that He had bailed me out, but in a way I would have never expected.
Early the next morning as I was waiting to board my plane to Denver the PA crackled with these words: “United flight 574 to Chicago, scheduled to depart at 7:15 this morning, has been cancelled because of inclement weather.”
I know, I smiled to myself. A guy in an orange jumpsuit told me last night.