A Bad Day in Houston

Modern air travel is an extraordinary complex system. The endless series of arrivals and departures at any large airport is a carefully choreographed dance. Unfortunately this system can be easily snarled when the process is disturbed.

Houston Airport Concourse
Gate seating, where to spend far too many hours in the Houston airport
The first sign of trouble was our aircrew securing the cabin for arrival early. They stopped the last beverage service and hurriedly gathered the trash long before we began descent. The reason quickly became apparent as towering thunderheads appeared all around us and the aircraft began to bounce and shudder in the unstable winds. Despite the promise of worse our landing in Houston proceeded without issue. Rolling down a wet runway and noting the pools of water covering the grass between the taxiways, clearly the airport had been visited by the heavy rains of those thunderstorms.

Next problem? No gate was available and we spend 45 minutes sitting on a taxiway waiting our turn at a gate for disembarking. I have plenty of time to observe that puddled water and the low slung engines of a 737 can create fascinating little vortexes of swirling water just below the engine intake. We were not worried, we had a five hour layover in our schedule and being late to the gate was not an issue. Many of our fellow passengers were not quite so relaxed, fretting about tight connections and missed flights.

Those fears were realized when we finally entered the concourse and looked about. The terminal was crowded, most telling of all were the long lines at the United customer service desk. There were forty or fifty people waiting. Considering that Houston is a United hub there would be at quite a few such service desks scattered throughout the terminal, they were all busy. Clearly the system was not operating smoothly.

The first thing we learn is that our flight for Portland will be delayed, our five hour layover has just become a seven hour layover. At least there will be a plane, we are thankful for that. I had put an extra day in my schedule in case this part of the trip went wrong. My flight to Hawaii was not the next day, but the day after that, an extra day in Portland spent with my parents is never a problem.

The whole day was a series of encounters with people, each a short story that highlighted what can happen when the system fails to operate smoothly. All day long I witness patience and anger as travel plans are waylaid by the snarl left in the wake of the thunderstorms. Most travelers take the trouble in stride, calmly accepting what can not be changed. United staff are doing their best to recover from the mess. The public address system is a constant stream of gate changes, departure announcements and requests for various passengers to find a service desk.

Partway through our long layover I took a walk simply to stretch my legs, it is easy to walk a mile up and down the enormous complex of gates that makes up the Houston airport. As I stroll through the C gates a lady rushes past me. She is hard to miss as she was loudly gasping for breath and dragging a backpack behind her. Just ahead of me I listen as she begs one of the electric shuttle cart drivers to take her to gate C21, she only had five minutes to make her flight. Unfortunately such a request was against some policy and the driver refused, but let her know she was almost there. Then I watch as she turns down the wrong concourse.

Hurrying after her I get her attention and let her know of her wrong turn, pointing out the sign overhead. She is simply exhausted. We proceed back and turn up the correct concourse for C21. As I carry her bag beside her she explains that she has been traveling for 20 hours, just arriving from Frankfurt. She had missed her connection for San Antonio and United customer service has re-scheduled her. Of course that connection required that she run across far too much airport in ten minutes to make the flight. Arriving at C21 with no time to spare we discover that the San Antonio flight is also late, the boarding process just starting, she was going to make it. It was that sort of day.

Somewhere United found an aircraft for our flight, at the original departure time. With the prospect of getting home on-time we gather our luggage and head for yet a different gate. We were only 40 minutes late in leaving, our aircrew held the departure to allow another family with a baby to make the last connection for Portland. As the aircraft climbed into the sky we settled in for the five hour flight, thankful we were not stuck in Houston.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

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