Travel Delays and Airport Dismay: Embracing Uncertainty When Traveling Abroad

Kyla Hunter
September 29, 2021

7 hours to departure:

On a last minute CVS trip to pick up extra masks and mini toiletries, I strike up a conversation with the cashier at the checkout. Clued in by my travel-themed purchases, she asks me if I have any trips planned. Eager—as I have been for months —to tell anyone who will listen, I share my plans for heading to the airport for my international flight out of Newark, New Jersey, later that day. As the words spill out of my mouth, I watch a worried look twitch across her face.

Despite the fact that I’ve been religiously refreshing the weather page for days, I feign naiveté as she tells me about the worrisome storm approaching. I nervously smile as she sighs and discloses the daily weather forecast in a hushed tone like it’s a rumor at risk of falling into the wrong hands. Part of me hopes this cashier simply has a flare for the dramatic, while another part feels a rush of growing concern. Despite the sun currently streaming in through the store windows, tonight’s forecast has been looking grim for quite a few days. Hurricane Ida just swept across the south a few days earlier, and fall out from the storm is speculated to be heading north up the coast. Evidently concerned, she gingerly places my belongings in a bag and hands them to me with a whispered “good luck”.

3 hours to departure:

With suitcases zipped and cats bid farewell, the time has come to head to the airport. The process goes surprisingly smoothly: hardly any traffic, a perfect drop-off spot, no delays at security, bags (just barely) under the weight limit, and not even too many tears shed during melancholy goodbyes. Most importantly, the sun is still shining.

2 hours to departure:

Sitting at my gate with my backpack, carry-on, and over-priced airport food I feel almost content. Pros: I have a seat near an outlet and an older lady next to me has an adorable puppy peeking out of a carrier. Cons: Glancing towards the floor-to-ceiling windows to my left, I notice the sky seems to slowly darken. It’s 5:30pm but I tell myself perhaps it’s just the sun setting.

30 minutes to departure:

The area near my gate has steadily filled up with people over the past few hours. Yet, with only half an hour to the scheduled departure time, there has still been no mention of boarding. I overhear people nearby talking about Madrid, and my confidence grows that I’m in the right place. I refresh my virtual boarding pass and take solace in the green letters that read “ON TIME” next to flight number UA 51. Scanning the crowd, I recognize unfamiliar-yet-familiar faces in the large number of young people with hefty luggage and college gear. They’re strangers, but the likelihood that we’re about to embark on a similar journey strikes a resonant cord of kindred spirit. I’m also wearing an obnoxiously-American college sweatshirt, and the thought occurs to me that I hope it catches the recognition of my peers.

0 minutes to departure:

I took out my headphones over an hour ago, but I still haven’t heard any announcements about boarding. The sky is mostly dark, so I have to look closely to see that a light drizzle of rain has begun to fall. Despite the lack of movement onto the airplane, an anxious buzzing and shuffling is readily apparent among the anxious travelers. Amid the confusion, I lean over towards a girl nearby and ask if she has any idea what’s going on. The bad news is no, she doesn’t. The good news is that it’s only about 30 seconds into our conversation before we discover we’re both traveling to Madrid to study with IES Abroad for the semester. Relieved to have made an equally-confused friend, we chat as we wait for news about our flight.

-30 minutes to departure:

We’re boarding! Half an hour late, but better late than never. The sky is black but it’s raining hard enough that you can still see the droplets fall by the glow of the orange and red lights outside across the runway. As travelers gather their belongings and shuffle into line, I exchange contact information and say farewell to Grace—forever my very first study abroad friend.

-60 minutes to departure:

On the plane. I hoist my bag into the overhead, shove my backpack below my seat, strap my seatbelt, make small talk with my seat neighbor about his cool pants, settle down underneath a complimentary blanket, plug in my earbuds, and try to mentally prepare myself for takeoff. 

- 80 minutes to departure:

I’m startled out of my peaceful zen by the sound of dozens of phone alarms simultaneously blaring. Alerts—notifying about flash flood and tornado warnings in the area—light up phone screens all around me.

-90 minutes to departure:

Ushered by apologetic flight attendants, I find myself unstrapping my seatbelt, haphazardly grabbing my belongings, and shuffling down the aisle along with the rest of the travelers as we disembark the aircraft. Planes and tornado warnings do not go together. As I drag my feet towards the exit, I overhear a flight attendant remarking that despite a delay, we will likely still get off the ground tonight. I hope she’s not just an optimist.

-2 hours to departure:

Back in the all-too-familiar airport gate with my cohort of disheveled, exasperated travelers. I reconnect with Grace and another study abroad student, John, that she met sitting next to her on the plane. With nowhere to sit and no will to stand, we make ourselves at home on the airport floor. 

- 3 hours to departure:

News has finally reached us that half of our terminal lost power, and parts of the airport have started to flood from the torrential downpour. After watching the departure time get pushed back by thirty minutes for the second time,  Grace, John and I make our way over towards a pair of college-aged boys sitting across the gate. Once again, we quickly learn that they also happen to be studying with IES Abroad. Striking up a conversation about our frustrations and confusion, we bond and manage to laugh through the pain. We may be a sad looking group of bedraggled study abroad students, but our numbers are growing.

- 4 hours to departure:

It’s only 11:30pm but it feels like three in the morning. We deboarded two hours ago. Every half hour, the departure time gets delayed even further. On the way back from the bathroom, I walk past two girls and overhear them discussing Madrid universities. Introducing myself, I learn that one is from the U.S., studying abroad at her home university’s Madrid campus, and the other lives in Spain, a senior at University Carlos III of Madrid. I invite them to join our group of Madrid-bound college students on the same flight.

Searching the internet for information about the storm, we come across live news videos of parts of Newark Airport undergoing severe flooding. News reaches us that baggage claim is underwater, and parts of other terminals have completely lost power. In a nest of luggage and limbs, huddled in a circle on the airport floor, we share our backgrounds, hopes, concerns, and exhaustion. 

- 5 hours to departure:

After countless delays, unanswered questions, and endless confusion, we receive confirmation on the outcome we’ve been most dreading: the flight is officially canceled. At this point, most travelers rush towards the help desks and form long lines with the hopes of reimbursements and rebookings. My friends and I whip out our laptops and try to examine our options: try to catch the next flight out? Go to a different airport? Get a hotel? Sleep at the airport? None of the options are ideal. The next hour is spent searching for flights, trying to get reimbursements, booking, canceling, waiting, rebooking, and commiserating over the absurdity of the situation as the rain pours down outside.

- 6 hours to departure:

Out of nowhere, cheers and shouts of glee erupt by the desk at our gate, breaking the tense silence. As heads turn and confused whispers dart back and forth, the news makes its way toward us: “the crew is willing to fly!” Without thinking, my friends and I snatch our belongings, leap to our feet, and dash towards the gate to join the line that is already forming. In a chaotic buzz of information we learn that the tornado and flooding warnings have subsided, and the crew is willing to fly (despite the regulations regarding limited hours for pilots and flight attendants). 

Numbers at the gate have dwindled—many passengers gave up, went home, or left to seek out alternative plans via the airport customer service office. Yet the remaining travelers quickly formed an energetic crowd around the gate exit. Strangers embraced each other with looks of wonder and exclamations of incredulity. In a miraculous matter of minutes, we were back on the plane. 

Once again, passengers of flight 51 stowed their baggage and settled into their seats. Yet, this time with a degree of anxiety, exhaustion, and anticipation filling the air. I could almost feel the whole plane hold its breath until the moment the wheels lifted off the ground. 

Eventually—spoiler alert—we did make it to Madrid. Interestingly, despite the eternity spent trapped in Newark Airport, we were only a few hours behind most other students on our program. Although the process was harrowing, the camaraderie felt with the other travelers at my gate truly transformed the experience from horrifying to heart-warming. Aside from meeting interesting new people, it was of monumental comfort to have a group of friends to rely on through a tense, difficult process. Members of the “Newark Airport Crew” (as our group chat came to be called) certainly began our study abroad with a bonding experience that was unexpected, but about as authentic as it gets. Ultimately, the experience brought people together in a way that only studying abroad (and maybe a tropical storm) can do.

Kyla Hunter

<p>Hello! My name is Kyla Hunter and I am a rising junior at Duke University studying Mechanical Engineering, with a focus on Energy &amp; Environment. Although I was born in Princeton, New Jersey, bouncing around between different states as a child was the beginning of my interest in exploring new settings and meeting new people. I have long dreamed of studying abroad and am thrilled to be participating in the IES - Engineering, Math &amp; Science Program in Madrid this fall. On campus, I am a Residential Assistant for first-year students and a tour guide for the School of Engineering. In my free time, I can often be found drawing in my sketchbook or playing the piano in the common room. I look forward to sharing some of my experiences as I navigate new cultural, social, and academic endeavors in Spain!</p>

2021 Fall
Home University:
Duke University
Princeton, NJ
Engineering - General
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