Tuesday, August 03, 2010

12 hours in airport limbo

On our way home to Ithaca from Cairo, we had a 12-hour overnight layover in Newark. I knew this when I bought the tickets, but at the time it didn't seem like that big of a deal. We've had to deal with long layovers before and we've always come out ok on the other side, more or less. I figured we'd find a quiet place and somehow get the girls to sleep and maybe even get some rest ourselves.

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.

Jeremy and I took turns sleeping while the girls played. Even though it was the middle of the night in Newark, they were still on Egypt time, so it was like daytime to them.

See what I mean about the deserted airport at night being an eerie place?

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?


Susanne said...

Your girls look adorable in their pajamas. :) This brought back memories of Istanbul where we had to wait 12 hours before our flight to Damascus. At least our luggage was checked and we didn't have little kids though. And thankfully Istanbul's airport is nice. I would have hated being stuck for 12 hours in Damascus' airport.

What's weird about Newark is that if you had just driven, you could have been back in Ithaca before those 12 hours were up. But who wants to drive all night after flying for all those hours, right? Even if you were on Egypt time.

Were your flights across the ocean full? We flew Turkish Airlines from Chicago to Istanbul (and vice versa) and the airplane was only about 1/3 or 1/2 full so we were able to spread out to more than our assigned seats.

Hope you are enjoying being home again for a short while before going back to the Middle East! Hope you don't have a Blackberry as I see the UAE is banning some services there for "security reasons."

Bridget said...

I know, we were SO close to home and yet so far. Neither Jeremy nor I were rested enough to drive, for sure. But it was tempting at times as the hours dragged on...

Every flight we took was full except for the one-hour Newark-Ithaca flight. Of course :). At least next time we fly Magdalena will have her own seat so we can stretch out a little more.

Crys said...

We had something similar happen to us in Chicago. We figured we'd go from the one airport to the other and hang out in the airport, eating, resting whatever before our next flight. The problem came when we were told we couldn't actually check in to the "airport/check our bags" until two hours before our flight. So we sat on a bench and blurrly watched Ezra play for hours. We couldn't really go anywhere because we had to watch our bags. What a pain. Glad you made it!

Liz Johnson said...

I had that same thing happen to me in Bucharest - after an 8 hour train ride, I had to spend 14 hours overnight in the airport. It was awful and I smelled bad because we hadn't had hot water for a month. At least I didn't have kids to watch back then... I'm certain that my terrible mood would not have been conducive to decent mothering.

Kudos to you guys!

Merkley Jiating said...

Ear plugs! So smart, you two!

AmandaStretch said...

When I was living in London and was holidaymaking, we purposefully spent the night in the Stansted Airport because of the timing of our flights and the public transportation to get there. It wasn't my favorite thing, but it worked, and I became accustomed to the fact that there were a hundred other people sleeping near us too. The only night I was not so comfortable about it was when I was flying alone. I can't imagine doing it with toddlers though! Though one of my traveling companions at one point might as well have been . . .

The Harker's said...

I would never had known. A little jealous you are in Ithaca again. We get back next Monday evening, so hopefully we'll get to see you guys again one last time before you move again to Dubai.:)

Craig said...

What a memorable experience for your family to file away for many future recalls!

My closest experience was with my wife sleeping overnight on a filthy train station floor in Luxemburg.

Cooper Family said...

I don't know what I would have done in your situation. Maybe go totally insane with my kids having total meltdowns at the same time. Someday I hope my kids will be good travelers.


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