The author at the wheel, with Sydney in the front seat, Melanie, Dalton, and Taichi in back (Courtesy of the author)

Five strangers, one canceled flight: Our epic overnight carpool to Kansas

We had nothing in common except we needed to be 500 miles from where we were when the plane was grounded


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Julia Satterthwaite
May 18, 2018 11:00PM (UTC)

Airports have a funny way of reflecting the face of humanity. If you want to get a sense of how we’re doing as a human race, go sit in an airport and observe interactions between spouses, patrons and employees, parents and children, and especially those between strangers.

Last year, I experienced an airport complication not unlike what I suppose I’ve come to expect anytime I’m at the mercy of airlines. When a connection is involved, it seems I have about a 50 percent chance of actually making it to my destination on the day of the flight plan.

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After being elected to the national Journalism Education Association Board of Directors, I was headed to a board retreat and traveling from San Francisco to Manhattan . . . Kansas.

On May 18, I boarded American Airlines flight 2207 from SFO to Dallas (DFW), which took off and landed without complication. Then, I had just under an hour to make American Airlines flight 2787, the last of four daily flights that land at the two-gate Manhattan airport.

Thanks to a slow train ride and a tight connection, I had to book it to the gate. Muscles burning and short of breath, I was relieved upon arrival to see that my connection was delayed. At least I hadn’t missed it altogether.

I sat down to catch my breath and noticed a pizza and beer place right next to my gate. I was delayed, but at least I had pizza and beer.

I found a spot at the bar alongside a bunch of overweight, middle-aged men, ordered a personal cheese pizza and a wheat beer, then proceeded to have a lengthy conversation with a Republican from Anchorage, Alaska who co-owns a microbrewery. I patiently listened to his brilliant idea to tax the shit out of the immigrants so they won’t even want to come anymore, and he did not patiently listen in return. Thank God for the pizza and the beer! I got out of there quickly and decided to wait out the rest of my delay at the gate.

As time ticked on, the delay lengthened. One hour and 12 minutes. Two hours. Two and a half hours. Apparently, there were some bad storms — including the possibility of tornadoes — that the airline thought we’d better not attempt in our puddle-jumper plane.

When the storms cleared, the gate agent started calling us to board. I thought we might actually make it that night.

Long after everyone was seated and we were beginning to get antsy, the captain came on the loudspeaker and said they needed to remove 1,000 pounds of fuel to “maximize the payload and exercise extreme safety” and “we have other contingencies that include return to DFW.” It wasn’t looking good for us.

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“I’m just hoping to make it to bed sometime before I turn into a pumpkin,” I joked via text to my husband Rod.

Finally, a fuel truck pulled up and removed the 1,000 extra pounds of fuel and I sent, “Just got the message ‘hopefully we will be able to push off soon.’ Love you!” to Rod. I always feel as if my last words to Rod need to be “love you.” I guess I’m thinking that any plane I get on might crash and I want my last words to be words of love and not bitching about the flight.

Our plane pushed off, and hope surged among the passengers. The captain came on the loudspeaker again and let us know we were fifth in line and would likely be able to take off in 10-15 minutes. This was a one-hour flight we were talking about, that we’d officially been sitting on for long over an hour, so this was welcome information.

Then he came back on again about 10 minutes later.

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9:12 p.m. “Bad news: the captain and first officer are now over their hours, so we have to go back to the gate to get a new crew. FML. My butt is numb and we haven’t even taken off,” I joked to Rod.

While we waited behind planes that were actually going to take off and then taxied back to the gate, the rumblings among passengers intensified. Back at the gate, the captain and the co-captain got off and we waited. And prayed. After 15 minutes, the flight attendant got on the loudspeaker, apologized profusely, and asked us to deplane. Definitely not getting anywhere anytime soon.

“On the bright side, no one dragged me off the plane,” I joked, later thinking I may have preferred that to the on-again, off-again antics that I’d been dealing with for four hours.

Time for plan B

The mass of exhausted, rumpled passengers huddled in a blob in front of the ticketing desk, hoping for a miracle. The woman behind the counter gathered herself and took a good, deep breath before announcing that the flight was cancelled and American Airlines tagged this incident as “weather related,” so there would be no lodging and food compensation, and could we please form three lines for rebooking our flights.

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That’s when things turned ugly. A tall, white man in a baby blue polo at the front of the line yelled expletives and pointed into this poor woman’s face as we all watched — some cheering him on and others like me praying that his teenage daughter would not grow up to be like her dad.

There were three gate agents and three lines. I was in the back of the middle line. As each traveler reached the front, they expressed extreme dissatisfaction — some more extreme than others — before moving on to the minutiae of rebooking. I soon found out the next available flight from Dallas to Manhattan was not until Saturday, two days away.

Rod sent me the American Airlines number and I begged the woman on the phone to find me any flight into anywhere in Kansas — Kansas City, Wichita, Salina — but it had to be tomorrow. After about 25 minutes of searching (and very little line movement), the woman said that, because of the bad storms in the area, any availability on other flights had been snagged by customers from earlier in the day and the earliest she could get me to Manhattan was Saturday afternoon. I thanked her for her time and hung up.

The wheels in my brain started formulating options:

Wait it out in Dallas for two days and get on a Saturday flight to Manhattan, only to turn around and go home to California the next day.

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Find the next available flight to SFO and just go home, waving my white flag of defeat.

Check into a hotel to get some rest, then rent a car early in the morning and drive the 7 ½ hours to Manhattan.

Meanwhile, my fellow stranded passengers were displaying varying stages of grief. A distraught young lady mentioned that her sister’s wedding was on Saturday, she was the maid of honor, and the next flight out wouldn’t get her to the wedding in time. She joked that a group should rent a car and drive, but she wasn’t old enough herself to do so. Another woman said she was headed to her cousin’s graduation and would be down for car sharing.

A young man who looked no older than the high school students I teach said he was on emergency leave from the war in Afghanistan to attend his kid sister’s funeral, which was the next day.

I heard a record scratch. I lost my breath. Time stopped.

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These people had places to be. I was old enough to rent a car and I could help.

We began hatching a plan. A mass of people started to gather at the back of the line, focusing on the hope of the drive instead of the hopelessness of getting a flight in a reasonable time frame.

Everybody wanted in the car. I felt like Oprah: You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! But I couldn’t give everybody a ride. We ended up organizing ourselves into two groups: one headed to Manhattan and one to Wichita.

It was 10 p.m. “I’m going to rent a car and drive with a few other folks from the flight, okay?” I texted Rod (as if he had a choice).

“Do you trust these people?”

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A shy Japanese man wearing a Trump T-shirt also needed to get to Manhattan. This was no time for politics, so I pulled out some rusty Japanese phrases from my time in Japan. “Hajimemashite,” I said. Nice to meet you.

I was nervous about driving for over seven hours through the night and then attending a board meeting the next day. I asked for people’s names, professions and home cities to text to Rod so he could track down my body parts if needed.

“I’m riding with Melanie (a preschool teacher from Panama City), Sydney (a swine fertility specialist from North Carolina), Dayton (on emergency leave from the army in Afghanistan for his 11-year-old sister’s funeral – car crash), and Taichi (from Japan and works for the U.S. Coast Guard maybe?)”

We stopped at a Starbucks, where I ordered a venti iced vanilla latte with an extra shot. Then we took a shuttle to the rental car area, where eventually National agreed to let us take a vehicle from the Dallas airport, drive it to Manhattan and leave it there. We left at 11:25 p.m.

The long ride

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Five strangers get stranded in Dallas. They hatch a plan to drive to Manhattan. Watch next week’s episode to see the drama unfold. It felt like a combination of “Lost” and “Real World.”

We were seated as such: me in the driver seat, Melanie in the front passenger seat, Sydney (whom I called Shelby for most of the ride because she was too polite to correct me) behind Melanie, Dayton in the middle and Taichi behind me.

As I pulled the white Toyota 4Runner to the rental car check out, I said aloud, “This may be the weirdest thing I’ve ever done.”

Nervous tension filled the air. I could tell my passengers were aware of my anxiety and perhaps wondered if they had hitched their wagon to a death trap. Taichi was gripping the oh-shit bar in the back seat with an intensity I hadn’t seen before.

When we took off, I needed to be guided to the main freeway, but Melanie was in front and struggled to pay attention to the Waze app and instead gazed intently at the horizon. Luckily, Dayton had driven this same route on more than one occasion from Fort Riley in Manhattan to visit his mom in Texas. I was getting backseat directions in new territory in the pitch black. If it had been safe, I would’ve been clutching that oh-shit bar myself.

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Eventually, we made our way to the main route, which involved a lot of driving straight. That meant a lot of time for conversation. This is the thing people ask me the most about when I relay this story: “What did you talk about?”

That was the best part.

Swine sperm and bomb squads

Sydney is a swine fertility specialist. She examines pig semen for a living and checks to see if at least 70 percent of the sperm in a specimen are viable. If not, it’s off to the slaughter mill. I asked her if her job seemed boring or repetitive and she said no, it was pretty fun and she got to work with great people. I thought her job sounded kind of gross, but she said it could be worse; there were people who had to collect the pig semen.

Sydney also told us how excited she was for her sister, who was marrying the best guy in the world. He was deaf, and Syd’s sister had learned sign language to communicate with him. She showed us engagement pictures that clearly captured the couple’s love for each other.

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Sydney is one class shy of her animal science Bachelor’s Degree and will likely continue in the family business of swine management.

Sydney and I differed on two things: she loves bacon and hates Ford Motor Company. I hold the opposite opinion on both, but we bonded on our love for Adele.

Dayton still had two months of his nine-month tour left to serve in Afghanistan after his 10-day emergency leave. He spends 8-10 hours each day driving around and combing the streets for bombs. When they find one, his team marks it and calls in a bomb squad to detonate or remove it.

When I asked if he planned to go back for another tour, he said of course, as this was the only way to make money in the military.

Dayton spoke almost catatonically when he told us how his 21-year-old step-sister was driving his 11-year-old sister Kaitlyn in a car in Indianapolis when a cyclist crashed in front of them. His step-sister veered, lost control of the car, went into oncoming traffic and Kaitlyn was killed instantly.

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We were nearing Oklahoma City when weather-watcher Sydney told us that we’d be hitting one of those big storms – maybe with a tornado.

As we drove into the storm and I found the windshield wipers couldn’t quite keep up with the torrent of water trying to drown our hope, I began to panic. I gripped the steering wheel as tight as I could. I leaned forward. I said aloud, “I don’t know what to do.”

“Keep going,” my passengers said.

In that time, I felt the weight of my passengers’ lives on my shoulders. I don’t know how airline pilots do it. In any case, it was precious Dayton’s life that I wanted to sustain above all.

Finding common ground

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My privileged life of access to experiences and education seemed to offset the life that Melanie had lived. Melanie had a lot of sad stories.

She told us about her unstructured childhood, her work at a machine shop, her teenage pregnancy, how things got better when she left the baby’s dad, her work as a preschool teacher and then preschool manager, her renewed faith in the church and God, how she found the love of her life (who also worked at the machine shop) and had another child, yet this one had every challenge possible: she has autism, allergies, developed pica and ate everything in sight . . . as passengers we kept waiting for the story’s conclusion, for a happy ending, for things to get wrapped up with a bow. But none came.

She did show us beautiful pictures of her nine-year-old daughter Lilian and five-year-old Aubrey. They looked angelic and totally at peace.

Melanie’s stories about her family were just as sad, including that her brother once took a car with a stranger and wasn’t as lucky. As a lady driving a car full of strangers, it was hard to hear, especially when carrying the weight of Dayton’s Army stories and sister’s death.

But then we bonded on another level – many of us had a sibling or close loved one who was a failure – a danger to society even. Mostly, our stories revolved around the connection between mental illness and addiction, which broke my heart again that the same issues my immediate family has dealt with for over a decade and my extended family has been haunted by for generations are part of the American fabric.

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Americans don’t take care of the mentally ill. They see mental illness as weakness. And the mentally ill are predisposed to alcohol and drug addiction. It’s no surprise that I, Melanie, Dayton and others have members of the family who are suffering. It feels wholly insurmountable. But we can do little things to make a big impact.

Into the home stretch

After a good hour of holding onto the oh-shit bar, Taichi had settled in and was the only one who was able to sleep in the car. When he woke, Taichi told us about his wife and 10-year-old son, his host family in Kansas that he started visiting when he was in 6th grade, and the trips he took to the U.S. every year.

We finally reached the Manhattan airport at 5:51 in the morning and returned the car. As we sat together like zombies who missed the apocalypse, I asked Taichi some questions. “Tell me about your family.”

He showed me a beautiful photo of his wife and son during cherry blossom season. I decided to push it and ask him directly about his Trump T-shirt and “Make America Great Again” hat.

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“Do you like him?” I asked.

“Oh no! It’s a joke. My host family hates Donald Trump and I just wanted to see their faces when I show up wearing a T-shirt and hat,” he replied.

But I’m not so sure. After reviewing his Facebook page, he and his son both seem to wear a lot of Trump propaganda. I suppose I don’t really care, as long as he knows that not all Americans are selfish and rude. Some Americans will give up their night to drive you where you need to be.

So what do you do when faced with life’s inevitable problems: Do you swear at other folks who didn’t cause your problem or do you put on your big-person pants and find a solution?

You gather strangers, buy yourself a venti iced vanilla latte with an extra shot, stand in rental car lines until you find a company that will allow you to rent a vehicle large enough to fit five people and travel 7 ½ hours one-way from Dallas to Manhattan.

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To deliver the soldier to his base. The maid of honor to her sister. The cousin to a graduation. The Japanese traveler to his host family.

Because humans are stronger when we work together.

The aftermath

The Army required Dayton to report in person to Fort Riley in Manhattan once he was stateside so they’d know he made it back safely. Before heading to the airport, we dropped him at the base, where his wife took a picture of all of us even before embracing her husband. She would help him check in and drive him the rest of the way to Indianapolis.

We didn’t all decide to become Facebook official friends until after we dropped off Dayton, and we didn’t know his last name. It was awful to have to search for stories on an 11-year-old who died in a car accident, looking for every spelling of Caitlyn/Caitlin/Kaitlyn/Kaitlin imaginable, to find him. But I did. And we all got to see pictures of Sydney in her purple lace and chiffon bridesmaid's dress at her sister's wedding.

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I made it to the JEA Headquarters in Kansas for the Board of Directors retreat. My flight home to San Francisco? Don't ask.

Watch our Salon Talks interview with Katie Couric

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Julia Satterthwaite

Julia Satterthwaite is a Journalism and English teacher at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino. She advises El Estoque and elestoque.org, is a Director-at-Large for the Journalism Education Association and the Digital Media Chair of JEA NorCal. She lives in Redwood City with her husband Rod and two adorable boys, Micah (7) and Jonah (5).

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