On Standby at the Airport

September 8, 2017

As a former United Airlines employee, I’ve had quite a different relationship with airports than the average traveler. Everybody knows how stressful airports are in general, but try spending hour upon hour–and sometimes day upon day–waiting, hoping, for a seat on a plane to get you to your destination, while being on standby. Sure, I got to travel anywhere virtually for free, either on United or for a deep discount on other carriers. Sure, this benefit took me to parts of the world I would never have dreamed of visiting if I was a regular traveler. However, the very nature of standing by for a flight caused me much stress, extreme anxiety, gastro-intestinal issues and sometimes even tears. When you spend enough time hanging out in various airports, a certain knowledge and feeling is developed about each one, almost as if they were people with their own personalities.

When I wanted to go someplace, I would spend hours poring through the different routing options for that trip. The object was finding flights that had open seats, preferably in first class (yes, another perk of working for the airlines.) Sometimes, I would have to make crazy connections from my origin just to get to my destination. One time, I had to fly all the way to Chicago from San Francisco so that I could get on a plane with space to Salt Lake City, Utah. The zigzagging across the US (and even around the world) that my coworkers and I had to do was often comical.

An airport is an ingredient in the process of getting me to places that bring me joy, knowledge and wonder.

As an employee with many options of where to connect, I could decide which airport I was able to deal with depending on my mood. That usually included the choice between connecting in Denver or Chicago, two of United’s hubs. Chicago O’Hare is an OK airport; it has some big, airy spaces with interesting displays. Yet, when an airport is as big as Chicago is, it can also be a stressful experience. If I didn’t get on one flight, trekking to another gate in another terminal for the next flight seemed the norm. And, if I couldn’t get on that next flight, I’d be forced to backtrack to the original terminal for the next waiting time. I usually had neither the patience nor good humor to tolerate that possibility. As far as connecting airports, I much preferred the new Denver Airport, with its long people movers and its amusing brass dinosaur footprints along the floor. I was comforted knowing exactly where McDonalds and Cinnabon, were so that when my standby situation became too long and frustrating, I could eat something familiar and fast if need be.

I think one of the airports I have a very strong and turbulent relationship with is London Heathrow. Anybody who’s been to Heathrow knows it’s a city in itself. There are countless shops and eateries and almost endless duty-free shopping. Spending a few hours there is tolerable and can make the transition from one country to another a bit easier simply because I can understand the language (usually).

On the other hand, Heathrow can seem like a giant prison. Many times standing by for flights I’d be stuck in the chaos of Heathrow all day–or once, all night. On the way back from a trip to Dublin with my mother, we trudged back and forth from gate to gate trying to get on any flight back to the US. Our efforts were unsuccessful. After this, we were too tired to find a hotel, so we decided to spend the night in Heathrow. Since nobody was allowed to stay in the security area all night, we were required to spend the night in the non-secure area. All the shops and restaurants that during the day were teeming with travelers, were shut. Our evening meal consisted of drinks, candy bars and chips from the vending machines. The metal seats that served as sleeping berths were less than ideal.

The mixed emotions evoked by being in airports brings to mind what women often say about men: “Can’t live with them. Can’t live without them.”

Then there was the smelly bum. (That’s what we called them back in those days.) He was stretched out across several seats near my mother and me, making them look like a luxurious, sleep-inducing bed. His constant snoring, alternating with chest-rattling hacking, made for quite the fellow sleeping-in-the-airport companion. He was probably harmless and wouldn’t have stolen our stuff, but my mother (bless her heart) stood guard all night while I tried to catch a few winks, stretched out on some seats with my head in her lap. She didn’t sleep at all. That’s just one example of my many encounters with London Heathrow Airport.

My vast experiences at myriad airports were often trying and stormy. Yet an airport is also an ingredient in the process of getting me to places that bring me joy, knowledge and wonder. As much as I resist interacting with airports, I realize I need them to live the life that I desire. The mixed emotions evoked by being in airports brings to mind what women often say about men: “Can’t live with them. Can’t live without them.”

About Sean Sebring

At six weeks old, my parents took me on my first road trip to Hot Springs, AR. From that first trip, I’ve expanded my travels to many parts of the globe, thanks in part to working for United Airlines and teaching English in Turkey and the Czech Republic. I think traveling and exploring the world is an innate part of me that I am excited to continue.

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