An airplane is parked at Gate M9 on Tuesday, May 21, 2024 at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois. (Jordan Hansen/The Herald)

An airplane is parked at Gate M9 on Tuesday, May 21, 2024 at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois. (Jordan Hansen/The Herald)

Good luck to Memorial Day travelers: If you’re like me, you’ll need it

I spent a night in the Chicago airport. I wouldn’t recommend it — but with flight delays near an all-time high, you might want to pack a pillow.

CHICAGO — If you find yourself stuck in an airport this Memorial Day weekend, you likely won’t be alone.

This promises to be a hellish time for travelers. I would know.

Last week, I found myself dealing with nine delays and a flight cancellation. I ended up sitting in Chicago O’Hare International Airport for 16 hours after a cascade of issues grounded the plane I was supposed to catch back to Seattle.

It was a reminder that even the best-laid travel plans can fall apart in minutes.

Many Americans will deal with similar issues this holiday weekend. AAA predicts about 44 million travelers will go 50 miles or more from Thursday to Monday. About 3.5 million will travel by air. Airlines also expect to break a record for summer travelers: 271 million are expected to fly between June 1 and Aug. 31.

To make life a little easier, the state Department of Transportation offers a few tools to help plan trips: a series of charts showing when holiday travel routes are the most congested, real-time maps and social media feeds.

In general, it’s better to travel very early or very late in the day if possible. Longer-than-normal waits at ferries are also expected. Flying to or from Sea-Tac International Airport, like I did? It’s not a bad idea to check the Port of Seattle’s security screening times as well.

But flight delays are often last-minute surprises.

A Delta Airlines flight tracker sign board is pictured on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. (Jordan Hansen/The Herald)

A Delta Airlines flight tracker sign board is pictured on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. (Jordan Hansen/The Herald)

Last year, 20.13% of flights from major carriers in the United States were delayed, the most since 21.26% in 2015. This year, amid myriad problems with airlines and Boeing planes, 23,391 flights had already been canceled as of May 24, according to Bureau of Transportation statistics.

The pandemic was brutal on the airline industry. Somewhere around 400,000 airport workers were laid off in the immediate aftermath of the virus. Airline ticket prices have skyrocketed as well, going up nearly 25% over the past year, far outpacing inflation.

I was lucky, in some aspects, to be flying direct from one major city to another. In this case, Seattle to Chicago and back. Some passengers I spoke with said they fully missed their connecting flights, throwing far more complicated travel plans fully in disarray.

‘Scattered thunderstorms’

The 18 hours of delays on two separate flights between Sea-Tac and O’Hare ripped at my sanity.

Do you mind if I grumble for a second? You certainly can, too, and my email is at the bottom if you have any particularly harrowing airline stories.

I was visiting family in Iowa. Visiting my folks would mean a 27-hour drive from Seattle. So flying (usually) makes it much easier. In the future, I will also be using the smaller, more expensive regional airport near where my parents live.

Early morning sunshine peeks into Terminal 5 on Tuesday, May 21, 2024 at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois. (Jordan Hansen/The Herald)

Early morning sunshine peeks into Terminal 5 on Tuesday, May 21, 2024 at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois. (Jordan Hansen/The Herald)

My misadventure began May 16. DL 1074 was slated to leave Sea-Tac at 6 p.m. It did not. It was delayed an hour and a half, putting me in Chicago around 1:15 a.m., local time. O’Hare is about four hours of driving from my parents’ house. I spent the night with my brother’s family outside Chicago. After some sleep, we made it to Iowa.

If that had been the end of it, I would have understood.

Getting back, however, was the real challenge. My flight home was originally slated to take off at 7:40 p.m. local time Monday. Again, it did not. Not even close.

About 30 minutes after boarding around 9:45 p.m., the captain told us we needed to be serviced by a caterer before we could take off, under Federal Aviation Administration guidelines. It was supposed to be a four-hour flight. The Gilligan’s Island theme song was already playing in my head.

For journalism, I later checked with the FAA.

“FAA regulations do not address providing catering/meal service,” FAA spokesperson Ian Gregor told me Tuesday.

Airline staff were trying to get a delivery, but no drivers could be found, the captain told us via intercom. Delta did not respond to a question regarding the pilot’s comments.

Shortly before midnight, the flight was canceled, leading to a mass of tired travelers trying to figure out what to do next. Delta blamed weather for the cancellation.

“On May 20, the Chicago region was impacted by scattered thunderstorms,” Delta spokesperson Alexis Paige said in an email. “DL1376 was delayed overnight due to weather, and will now take off around 11:40 a.m. CT.”

So again, I ran a fact-check.

Light clouds covered the sky near O’Hare most of Monday evening. Wind speeds reached 21 mph at the airport around 6 p.m. but died down to less than 10 mph by 7 p.m. No rain was recorded at O’Hare from 6 p.m. May 20 until 10 p.m. May 21. I did not see any lightning strikes, but I can’t confirm there weren’t any. Weather earlier in the day did cause a ground stop at O’Hare.

The plane, an Airbus A220-300, sat at Gate M9 overnight.

An airplane is parked at Gate M9 on Tuesday, May 21, 2024 at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois. (Jordan Hansen/The Herald)

An airplane is parked at Gate M9 on Tuesday, May 21, 2024 at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois. (Jordan Hansen/The Herald)

‘Very disappointed’

Meanwhile in Seattle, it was a little foggy and a little rainy.

Monday morning brought some clouds and “the moisture that was in the air, that kind of low cloud cover kind of stuck around for a bit. So we were kind of shrouded around. But besides that, I mean, nothing out of the normal,” said Kayla Mazurkiewicz, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle.

The next night, however, at least one flight was redirected. Everett resident Mary Heileson, 75, told me her flight from Orange County to Paine Field was redirected to Sea-Tac on Tuesday night after two attempted landings in Everett.

During foggy conditions, flights tend to slow down, said Sea-Tac spokesperson Perry Cooper. It’s a similar concept to giving a few extra car lengths of space while driving on the highway in poor conditions.

Alaska Airlines, she said, didn’t give anyone a whole lot of help after getting off the plane 25 miles from where they thought they’d land.

“I was just very disappointed that they didn’t take better care of us after we landed there,” Heileson said.

At O’Hare, Delta offered us four $12 meal vouchers and a night in a hotel 14 miles away. An important note on airline vouchers. They cannot be combined, at least with Delta, so each purchase has to be under $12.

And staying the night in Schaumburg, Illinois, just didn’t seem worth the strife of having to get back to the airport a few hours later. One passenger I talked with told me Delta did not inform the hotel, so he paid for the room out of his own pocket and hoped he would be made whole later.

Our new flight was set to take off at 8:15 a.m. Tuesday.

Believe it or not, it didn’t.

‘I know you’re eager to get to your destination’

In the meantime, I tried getting a voucher to hang out in Delta’s Sky Lounge, but economy-class passengers are not allowed in.

About 15 of us spent the night in the airport huddled around the gate. Carry-ons doubled as pillows and a lucky few had blankets.

In the middle of all this, I made a few new friends. Melissa and Alissa were also trying to get to Seattle after spending some time in the Midwest. We watched each other’s bags while we made phone calls or went to get a drink from Hudson News. We talked about what we did for a living, where we were going and how annoyed we were to be stuck here.

We would have plenty of time to talk.

In the middle of the night, the flight got pushed back another half-hour to 8:45 a.m. Then, 11:40 a.m.

Across the country in Seattle, where the flight was initially slated to land around 11 p.m., my girlfriend was just going to pick me up at the airport. I know that’s not very public transit-friendly of me, but it was going to be a quick zip up I-5 in the HOV lane in the middle of the night.

Delays pushed me back far enough that taking light rail to Northgate would apparently take about the same amount of time as driving. I also played with the idea of taking Sound Transit’s 512 bus from Northgate to Everett, then Community Transit’s Swift Blue from Everett Station to near my apartment, to do it all myself.

But by the time I landed at 2:22 p.m. Pacific Time, I hadn’t slept in about 22 hours. And I was pretty happy when I flipped my phone off “airplane mode” to see a text that she was parked in the cell phone lot. I’ll have plenty of other chances to use the Link once it reaches Lynnwood in August.

I rolled into my apartment and then to my bed around 4 p.m., many, many hours after I originally hoped to be there. The whole experience surprised me. While I’m not going to claim to be the king of the skies, I do fly fairly often and this was easily my worst airline experience.

On Thursday, as I was finishing this piece, I got an email from Delta. I was getting a $175 credit for another Delta flight. And the airline did, at least, apologize.

“We sincerely apologize for your delayed travel day on May 20,2024 from Chicago IL to Seattle WA Delta 1376,” the email read. “I know you’re eager to get to your destination, and it’s difficult when you must wait.”

Hopefully, they don’t actually think the passengers of Flight DL 1376 are still stuck in Chicago.

Got a travel horror story you want to share? Call or email me.

Jordan Hansen: 425-339-3046; jordan.hansen@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @jordyhansen.

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