Tuesday, August 03, 2010
12 hours in airport limbo
What I didn't count on was being thrust into some kind of airport limbo. But that's what happened.
After landing in Newark on Sunday night, we passed through passport control and collected our three suitcases to take them through customs. After customs, we headed toward our departure gate for Ithaca, even though we knew our flight didn't leave for almost 12 more hours. But we wanted to re-check our bags at least so we didn't have to deal with them during the night.
The thing is, though, that when you officially enter the United States via passport control, you apparently exit the airport, at least symbolically. This is true even if you have a connecting flight at that airport. We were still inside the structure itself but all of a sudden we were outside of security, outside of any flight concourse, and it was just as if we had walked in to the airport off the street right then and there.
And by that time it was 10pm and the Continental check-in counters were closed.
And the one Continental lady we did find said that even though our bags were already tagged and checked in all the way to Ithaca, her luggage belt was closed down so she couldn't take them off our hands.
And the people down in baggage told us that why yes, we would have to spend the night in the airport entrance hall until the check-in desk opened at 3am. Either that or get a hotel.
And it's possible that at that moment she noticed the very tired frown forming on my face and said defensively, "well, you bought the ticket."
Well, Continental, you sold it to us. She made it sound like I knew ahead of time that we'd be stuck with all our luggage in the entrance hall where there are no traveler services, no soft chairs, certainly no chairs with handles missing so you can lie down, no carpet, no windows looking out on the airfield, no wide open hallways for children to run in. I didn't know any of these things.
But you know what? It ended up being a singular, surreal experience. We saw the airport at its most unusual. It was quiet and almost completely deserted. Every once in a while, a huge floor polishing machine would go humming by, but that was the only thing going on between the hours of 11pm and 3am. There weren't even any standard security announcements being read over the loudspeakers every 10 minutes.
It was such a weird feeling to walk into the bathroom and see that every toilet in the 30-stall spread had its seat up from having just been cleaned, so you put the seat down on the one you use. Then two hours later, you go back in and 29 of the toilets are still untouched, because you're the only one around to use them.
At 3am, the Continental check-in counters re-opened, and passengers started coming into the airport for the first flight of the day. Around 4am, we checked our bags, passed through security (doing the liquids/laptop/shoes circus for something like the fifth time that trip), and were released from limbo into the regular gate area. There was food, there was carpet, there were huge wide open spaces to run in. It was a much better situation and we enjoyed the last four hours of our layover in relative normalcy.
So be warned: if you have a long layover that involves a trip through customs and a time period in which your airline's services may be shut down, you might spend it with your checked luggage in the airport entrance hall. Who knew?