Normally people pull carry-on luggage through the airport, talking on their Bluetooth devices, faces closed from their fellow travelers as they move through this liminal space. Sometimes there’s a group traveling together but they turn inward, laughing together and sharing food. Occasionally people get chatting if there’s a slight delay or a slight attraction. People browse through magazines, do one last check of their cellphones or laptops, repack their stuff and then board their planes where they do everything they can to ignore the physical proximity of their neighbouring passengers.
This all begins to break down when there is a significant delay, a flight cancellation, a long stay in the airport. Then a sort of community is formed, with different people taking on different roles. There are those who wail, those who complain, those who make jokes. Some wait in line stoically. Some still keep themselves apart from the rest. Some seek answers. Some push to the head of the line.
Me, the other night, I darted around watching all this. Because maybe that’s the role I play, observing. That was what I did on 9/11 fourteen years ago: watch for all the stories. And that’s what I did when our flight was held over so that we arrived home 22 hours late after a Sunday night on the cold concrete floor of the Las Vegas airport departure area.
I’ve already sent my complaint to AIr Canada about how the situation was handled, but there’s another more side to the story too. It’s the part where passengers became human and personalities emerged. During the initial fiasco when no one–including the staff–knew what was going on, people slipped into roles. I watched one woman began to shriek threats and thought to myself, “So that’s who will be playing that part.”
Eventually once the dust settled and we made our way back through security and to the same boarding gate, people began to settle for the night. The woman behind me pulled out her iPad and began Skyping with her sister, explaining the problems. I brushed my teeth at a bathroom sink next to others who were doing the same thing. Rituals that we each perform daily in the quiet of our own apartments and houses we managed to do side by side with strangers in a bright public place.
My very favourite part of the delay was walking around at 3 am, after I woke up from my makeshift bed behind a bench near the windows, and walked around. Many people had fallen asleep by that o’clock despite the bright lights, constant Muzak and occasional bells from the omnipresent slot machines. There were couples spooning on the floor, or leaning into one another, tilted back on their uncomfortable chairs. There was one woman sounding asleep with her body curled around the metal tube that divided both one seat from another and comfort from passengers. The very act of sleeping in the open on an airport floor was an entirely vulnerable one. The man who slept nearest me had plugged in his electronics beside him, ten feet from his body. I’m certain nothing was stolen from anyone because although people did what they could to find small places of privacy, we were at the same time in it together. When the man with the electronics didn’t hear the pre-boarding call, my daughter had me wake him up. I tried with words first but he didn’t stir in the least. It took three gentle touches to his back–which was slightly damp with sweat after more than a dozen hours in the airport–for him to awaken. But we weren’t going to leave anyone behind.
On the plane, there was much more courtesy than usual–people helping one another take bags in and out of overhead compartments, passing a camera bag over to someone who needed it, sympathetic in-it-together smiles replacing the impassive traveler face. Small conversations across shoulder-rests sprang up.
When we finally made it to our destination, we cheered and disembarked. My son was still wearing shorts so he went to the bathroom to change. As we waited, we saw among the now-larger crowd many of our fellow passengers. We hadn’t exchanged names but we knew that one couple still needed to get to the East coast which was still slowed by a massive snowstorm–we wished them luck. A woman smiled at me and waved goodbye. My seatmate on one leg was headed home to the funeral of a child in her community–I expressed my sympathies. A gray-haired couple who had stayed awake the whole time and pressed the flight attendant for details of how they could fastest get home now walked in a leisurely way through the terminal–they nodded at us.
Even after we were home, this community persisted–on social media–as different passengers shared horror stories and sympathy on Air Canada’s Twitter feed.
But it’s the beauty of the vulnerability of the people curled up on the floor of the airport that stays with me, that gives a sense of common humanity and that at least somewhat transforms the memories of our otherwise unpleasant journey