Up at 6:00 a.m. Out the door and on the U-Bahn (metro) by 7:45. Arrive in Frankfurt, after a change in Mannheim, via an always-enjoyable high-speed train by 10:30. You spend what may be your last train ride in Germany for a very long time taking in the snowy fields and overcast sky through the huge picture window. Maybe you’re listening to some Ryan Adams, or Feist, or Wham because it’s Christmas. You forget about the two parents and five or six pieces of luggage you’re traveling with until you’re just about at Frankfurt, resulting in the all-too-familiar mad rush to get bodies and suitcases off the train at the airport.
You’ve heard a lot about the chaos at Frankfurt Flughafen – and Heathrow and Paris – over the past few days. But you’re on a direct flight to D.C., where the snow isn’t half as bad as it is in Western Europe (Florence just got heaps of snow for the second time in 25 years) so you should be fine, right?
Except you’re well aware that all the events that occur at airports are typically inextricably linked with each other. A delicate and fine-tuned system, airport procedures are sensitive to everything from late passengers to icy runways to air traffic control problems thousands of miles away. And when it’s the holidays, and when so much snow has delayed people for days and airports are just now getting back on schedule… one should expect chaos.
On the elevator down into one of the largest airport terminals in the world, you observe a sea of people with specks of brightly dressed airport staff members, directing travelers and supervising lines. You and your bags gently push your way through. Deep breaths begin now, and when you see how your father is already scowling, you can’t help but offer a small smile… which promptly fades as soon as you reach United Airway’s ticket counters.
Mobs of people comprising zigzagged lines sprawl from the counters. Lines, you think to yourself, are a fascinating feature of society. The fact that people only “queue up” in certain societies makes them all the more interesting. In airports, though, people follow lines religiously, and this is when obeying becomes frustrating and the urge to break all the rules is hard to fight. But, you tell yourself when you realize United’s lines go on longer than at least one and a half football fields, we’re all in this together, right?
You quickly learn that these people have been in line for four hours. You, however, are one of the lucky ones – your dad’s mileage status means you only have to wait an hour and a half in the Premier Executive line. After about 30 minutes in line, you put your headphones in to drown out the complaining going on all around you. You get it, of course, but you also know there’s nothing that can be done. Snow is snow, and snow causes delays. You and your parents make friends with those around you, commiserating and swapping “worst flying experience” stories because misery loves company and at least you can share some laughs while you wait. You wonder what the effect might be if Love Actually were playing on T.V. screens all around the terminal. And then, just as you’re about to reach the ticket counter – despite all odds, and amidst crying babies and angry men and women who are frustrated to the point of tears and attempting to negotiate with ticket agents – someone breaks out in song.
“I’m leaving oooooon a jet plane,” a man wayyyyy back in line begins. Suddenly, a few people are smiling, and others join in. “I mayyy get oooooon an airplane,” he continues, and everyone laughs. This small crack in the tension does wonders, and soon, the lines begin to inch their way forward again. United agents have started “triaging” flights, doing what they should have done hours ago and attempting to sort out who is on what flight, who actually has a ticket, etc. It’s still chaos, but all of a sudden you and your parents are at the counter, your bags are given those beautiful hot-pink “Priority” tags, and you’re on your way, being wished “Happy Holidays” as you go.
Your dad is pulled aside going through Security (this happens every other time he flies, thanks to his cornucopia of electronic devices) and your passport is scrutinized at customs (colorful visas obtained in countries like Togo result in raised eyebrows from time to time). But soon, you’re gliding on past Duty Free, past gate A60 where your delayed flight will be departing from in two or three hours, and entering the Lufthansa Lounge (thanks again, Dad!) Well into your day of traveling, you are now delightfully off schedule and sitting in a leather armchair enjoying a brötchen, fresh fruit, and a glass of champagne as you watch snowy planes take off outside. A few minutes later, when you decide to sit on the floor and type while your laptop charges, a nice young German man asks if he can kindly bring you a chair so that you can be more comfortable. Even though you realize he probably just doesn’t want anyone in this fancy lounge to be sitting on the floor, you tell him you’re perfectly comfortable and are fine without a chair. There’s such a thing as too spoiled, isn’t there?