Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Stuck at O’Hare

Dateline: 12:41 pm April 2, 2007 Filed under:

I don’t recommend spending any more time at Chicago’s O’Hare airport than humanly possible. As much as I love the urbanity of Chicago, their main airport is lacking. I prefer to fly in to Midway, which is just the right size to rub elbows with fellow travelers and exciting takeoffs and landings, and has a lovely, quaint Irish pub, Reilly’s Daughter, which makes flight delays worthwhile.

So you’d think my worst experience involving O’Hare was last spring when I flew through Midway on my way to Cleveland. My Northwest flight was late leaving Minneapolis because they had to change a lightbulb on the wingtip (Question: how many Northwest mechanics does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: three. All you need is a screwdriver and stepladder). I missed my connection on Continental to Cleveland, and the Northwest gate agent found no other flights to Cleveland that night…from Midway. But a United flight was leaving O’Hare in an hour. O’Hare is well over a half-hour away in good traffic. He gave me a taxi voucher and sent me on my way. Although the traffic cooperated, I still arrived at O’Hare 45 minutes later, too late to check in to the United flight. By sheer luck mine was the one late United flight that night, so I actually made it! Gives new meaning to connecting in Chicago!

That is no comparison to trying to get to Brussels for a U2 concert a couple years ago. Checking in at Minneapolis, my passport was denied. It had two months to expiration, for which some countries will refuse entry. Needless to say, I could not get a boarding pass.

Consulting with our airlines, Northwest and British Airways, resulted in calls to the passport agency in Chicago. As luck would have it, we were flying out of Chicago on British Airways, and they would honor the ticket and we could fly standby the next day, if a miracle occurred and I cold get a passport. The U2 concert was not for another day and a half, so we could still make it.

We rented a car at Hertz and hit the Interstate to Chicago, staying at my in-laws in Milwaukee for the night. At midnight, we called our friends in Brussels (it was 7AM there), and heard and “uh,oh” over the line upon hearing we were in Milwaukee and not on a Boeing 777 over Greenland. We were in the middle of a big adventure and our friends were rooting for us.

Come morning, we dropped the car at O’Hare and took the el in to the loop. We got a passport photo taken at City Hall and headed to the passport agency. Sitting in the waiting room with other idiots who didn’t adequately prepare for their travels abroad, who should appear on TV but Bono himself, live in Brussels at the EU, lobbying for aid for Africa. Salt in the wounds. I’ll be there soon, Bono!

The day spent in the passport office was long. Being on the 18th floor of the Federal Building was giving me Vertigo, but I knew that Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own to a foreign country without a passport. Jen headed out to O’Hare early in the afternoon to get on the standby list with hundreds of other kids just out of school heading to Europe with their grandparents for a June vacation. Things looked bad, but the ticket agent recently went all the way to Australia to see his favorite band, so we had an ally.

By act of God and $127 American dollars, I actually got my passport the very same day, so at 4PM I boarded the el for a 45 minute ride to O’Hare to catch a 5:30 flight. We sat in the airy international terminal and watched three British Airways flights board that evening. We were not on any of them, probably because our friend the ticket agent got off duty at 4PM.

Beleaguered, and knowing we’d missed the U2 concert, we retired to a hotel near the airport, only to return in the morning. Beginning to feel like Tom Hanks in The Terminal, we were considering spending our entire trip there. The first flight came around, and 298 people checked in. Our friend the ticket agent was back on duty and felt terrible for us. He felt so terrible that he managed to get us seats 20 E and F, business class seats facing backwards at the center of the plane. $6,000 seats for $800 plus a $127 passport plus car rental plus hotel plus el fare plus song and dance, boo-hoo, we’re missing a U2 concert!

We fumbled around with our luggage and were offered champagne before sitting down. Nice. A copy of the Financial Times. We sat in these pod-like seats, fiddling with buttons, raising and lowering the seatback (they lie flat), lumbar, checking the channels on the adjustable flat-screen TV, little cubbyholes, and the little reading light.

The real treat was the menu. Many choices. I chose a gin and tonic, peppercorn steak, a glass of Spanish red wine, cheesecake and Bailey’s for dessert. As I get older, being pampered on an airplane getst far more attractive. When I can actually afford it, I plan to do it again.

So we missed our concert. But we still saw our friends, bicycled through the Belgian countryside, wandered the streets of Brugge, Gent, and Antwerp, drank Belgian beer and ate fries and jalepeno mayo with a little tiny fork at 2AM, and enjoyed early summer in northern Europe with its 10PM sunsets and lingering twilight.

Besides, we saw U2 later that fall. And lo and behold, when Bono sang the line “freedom has the scent like the top of a newborn baby’s head,” Jen had a tiny little baby growing in her belly, even though we didn’t know she was pregnant quite yet. So Bono was singing to a sold-out crowd plus one that night.

I’d say it all turned out well. I’ll never forget those days spent at O’Hare airport, but I still like Midway better.

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