Race to the Airport
You thought you had plenty of time, but something went wrong.
Having spent too much time thinking about what to pack, you spent even more time reevaluating at the last minute. You overslept, or you forgot about the time zone change. The bus came late, or the traffic jammed up.
Whatever it was, as you head out the door, you run up against an uncomfortable fact—you’re late. Not fashionably late, not pressed for time, just … LATE. Thus begins the sense of apprehension. “Will I make it? What will happen if I don’t?”
You know if you miss the flight, it will trigger a whole series of undesirable consequences. This flight is connected to another, and to another. Hotel reservations and commitments will fall into disarray. As you think through backup plans and alternative scenarios, you realize the obvious: I really need to make this flight.
As you approach the terminal, you have a series of goals in mind: first, get the boarding pass. Second, find the best way through security. Third, haul your ass to the gate. But you know that the first goal, “get the boarding pass,” is the most important. If you can successfully check in and get the magic paper from the agent or the machine, you’ve won half the battle.
But as you succeed in the first goal and review the magic paper, you encounter a universal law of traveling: whenever you’re late to the airport, the gate for your flight will be the furthest away from your starting point. In fact, the gate will most likely be in a different direction and departing from another concourse. If gates are numbered 1-79, you know you’ll be hoofing it down to the late seventies.
The race continues! No time for rest, traveler. You take the airport train, tapping your feet and biting your fingernails, checking the time every 20 seconds.
By now you may have realized that some race-to-the-airport activities, like getting to the terminal, often take longer than you think—which is why you’re late and stressed. But other activities, like check-in and security, usually take less time than you think. You head through security, keeping your head low (“nothing to see here”) and your arsenal of electronic gear in hand, hoping to avoid random checks and extended interrogations about whether your iPad is a computer or not.
As you clear security and speed through the airport itself, remember: WALK, don’t run. Running through the airport is unsexy and should be reserved for extreme situations, since most of the time it won’t make or break the odds of reaching the gate in time. In fact, you can also take comfort in another universal rule of travel: most of the time, everything will be alright.
On this trip there is no time for the lounge visit or the Starbucks run. It’s been a stressful morning, and you resolve to do it differently next time. But guess what! Travel karma is on your side yet again. You arrive at the gate breathless, the last passenger to board, with the gate agent tapping her feet and checking the time every 20 seconds.
No matter; here you are. You board the plane with a fist-pump and find your seat, ignoring the look from the passenger who was expecting to fly next to an empty seat.
The purser closes the door behind you and the captain makes an announcement. “Well, folks, we’re now ready to get on our way.” Relax, rockstar traveler—you made it.
This is one of the few circumstances where I truly feel powerless. We all have to conform to the airlines.
Thanks for sharing that Chris.
PERFECT! I absolutely love this description of the “late” traveler. I feel like those of us who are very rarely/never late get hit by this feeling the hardest…but the triumphant moment on the plane, after everything has worked out, is the best feeling in the world.
I showed up at an airport after my taxi was 20 minutes late to find that the check-in computer system was down. After requesting to jump in front of the angry crowd of travelers, I took my handwritten boarding pass to security where I got stuck behind a lady traveling with several large bags of some sort of plant, through a line where the guy behind the scanner was in training. The plant lady and my own carry-ons filled with photography equipment led to some nice questions and training opportunities for the x-ray inspector. Luckily (if that’s the right word), every time I seem to be irreparably late for a flight, the plane I’m supposed to board has mechanical problems. Even though it took me two hours to get from my house to the gate (a trip that averages 20 minutes) I still managed to get in the air on my original flight.
Things do seem to work out.
Oh! I had this happen on both connecting flights going to Istanbul… weather delays in Winnipeg caused us to runrunrunrun (unsexy extreme situation) and just barely squeak through the gate in Toronto. They closed the doors behind us and then we sat for 1 hour waiting for de-icing.
Which made us late in Frankfurt, only there we had no idea where we were running to. Just each time a person in a uniform looked at our tickets their eyes would get big and they’d say “run” and point and we ran (extremely unsexy now – exhausted running).
And no chance for Starbucks or snacks for the whole 18 hour trip!
Ah, this is happened to me on many an occasion! You summed up the emotions really well, especially checking the time every 20 seconds.
Such a universal experience among travelers! I was just in the Bahamas with my husband on a lovely incentive trip. On the way back, there was a maybe college-aged girl and her boyfriend, who were obviously very stressed about making it through Customs in time. She proceeded to freak out and scream at the security people.
Thanks to the rest of the passengers, who, frankly, couldn’t stand her crabbing any longer and let her ahead, she made it through in time. I can tell you, though, if she’d tried a little sugar, we would have let her ahead from the very beginning rather than making her huff-and-puff in line for nearly an hour!
Along with the toe-tapping gate agent, you should also include the hovering and glowering standby passengers who were hopeful about possibly filling that last seat. Vultures, all!
That was great. I could picture everything and remembered a couple of incidents like that of my own. One time I did, in fact, miss the plane. Couple beers and a promise from a security guard to pass by once in awhile and I slept fine on the floor in CDG with my backpack chained to a pole.
Not sexy to run? Oh. Oops 🙂
reminds me of the time I had a friend take me to the airport. We got there late and he said “don’t worry”. I got my pass, couldn’t check my suitcase, got thru security,ran to the gate to see door closed, burst into tears, begged them to let me on plane, finally got on plane – captain remarks “well, we finally got our last passenger.” Dirty looks from flight attendants, who had to find room for my suitcase. Flight gets to Chicago late, I run through O’Hare to gate, clutching my suitcase. Gate people look at me and ask why I’m carrying my suitcase so I explain. They smile and check my case in, one of them escorts me onto the plane and finds my seat for me, I get free drinks all the way to Maine.
Good one – you made me chuckle over the memory of a few hair raising escapades with rental cars in strange cities & flights. As you say, most of the times everything works out just fine…. gets the heart pumping though 😀
We were LATE for our connecting flight home from Mexico in October. Mainly it stemmed from being in an extremely long line at customs. We did the run through the terminal. Not pleasant! Made it to the gate just seconds after the door had closed. Doh!
We must have done something right though. Travel karma allowed the doors to be reopened just for us. Lucky too, it was the last flight of the evening to our home airport. I really didn’t want to spend the night in Dallas!
The funniest part… the captain announced that the flight was held up because they were waiting for someone to come clean the windshield. Never heard that one before!
I particularly enjoyed your use of the second person in this article. Very Calvino of you.
I’ve experienced the walk into eternity to my gate more than once, muttering as I go “Never again”! But what I find most important to my traveling sanity – I always get my boarding pass online up to 24 hours before flight time. I’m amazed at how much time and stress is saved by this simple step.
You triumphantly settle into your seat…the adrenaline which has been flowing liberally in your race to the gate begins to abate…your sense of awareness of self and surroundings returns, at which time you notice the multiple rivulets of perspiration running down your back. It’s your first flight of three, and you’ve managed to soak your shirt and guarantee a certain travel aroma by the middle of the next flight. You turn the overhead vent on maximum…and the one next to it, and make a mental note to fish the deodorant out of your carryon zipper pouch when you land.
Love the line about “is the iPad a computer”. Ah great memories. TSA and I have had some good times over the years.
My husband and I leave next week for Mexico, and we have an hour and 17 minutes to get through customs on our return flight. Realizing this might not be enough time (!), I called the airline (USAir). The agent assured me that, as CLT only requires an hour to get through customs, we would have plenty of time. A whole 17 minutes, in fact! As I’m not about to pay the airline another $300 to change flights, I’m mentally preparing myself for one of two scenarios: (a) a very unsexy dash to the gate or (b) several hours wait at the gate on standby. Well, at least it’s at the end of the trip and I won’t have to worry about hotel reservations and my plans to relax being interrupted.
I have only run through an airport once. It was Heathrow and was almost exactly like the ending scenes of “Love Actually” (without security in hot pursuit). The first flight of my journey had been delayed and the airport folks wanted to put on a later flight (by 12 hours) for the 2nd leg, I begged them to let me keep my original flight. As I told them, if I missed it, I’d have 12 hours to sort it out. They reluctantly agreed, and, despite hearing the “last call” for my flight while shoeless at security at the other side of the airport, I made it!
Turns out the airport officials actually booked me on BOTH flights for the 2nd leg of my journey and, when I missed flight 2, they cancelled my return trip. After some worrying moments in a Middle East airport wondering where the ticket agent went with my passport, that worked out too. 🙂
I *loved* reading this. Especially as I prepare to depart for Mexico on Monday at 5 AM.
It also brought back a very fond memory of almost missing my International flight because of a regional flight being delayed due to poor air traffic control planning (so said the gate agent). That flight was taking me to Israel for the first time and I remember literally bawling my eyes out with relief and joy as our flight began to taxi after a totally UNSEXY SPRINT through the airport. LOL! 🙂
Thanks for this lovely post, CG!
Hahaha – This is *so* me lately… 🙂
I used to be a very timely person, but the older I get, the more I seem to underestimate the amount of time it takes me to do anything. Thus, the constantly, “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, I’m going to be late!” feeling.
Thanks for the reminder to slow down and remember that everything usually turns out okay!
Great post, and all the comments are too perfect! Brings back many memories… being thankful that there are moving walkways so that as you unsexily sprint for the gate, you can move at seemingly lightning speed, so when you check your watch in the next 20 second segment, it feels like you are actually getting somewhere 🙂
This was great. “Running through the airport is unsexy” had me actually laughing out loud (not that imposter, loling). It’s even more unsexy for the person who goes from “I got two seats for the price of one, this flight might actually be comfortable! Win!” to “Oh my god that sweaty heavy breather is heading right towards me, oh my god, get me out of here.” I’ve been on both sides of this equation and neither is much fun.
Though there is something awesome about feeling your own forward motion transfer into the plane as it barrels down the runway, far faster than you were running through the airport but somehow exactly the same, then that magical lift- and oh, sky! Panic becomes power becomes flight. It makes you feel like the plane runs on your own adrenaline. What’s cooler than that, I ask you.
Oh this brings back so many memories. Esp a LA – SFO flight. Had to do the unsexy sprint, beseech people & of course, kicked myself a dozen times (unexpected traffic was the excuse!)
Glad to see am not the only one 🙂
Reading this after missing my 630a flight this morning – 1st missed flight ever…talk about stressful! Luckily I was able to get on the next flight…but what eerie timing for this article!!
My heart is racing just reading your post. I remember taking a train from Wellington to Auckland, NZ for a flight back to Honolulu. The train broke down and we were transfered to buses. We actually got the train folks to call Pan Am (yes….Pan American World Airways) to advise of this delay. Pan Am said “too bad, we will not hold the flight”. We got to Auckland–I took a cab to the airport while my traveling companion took another cab over to the B-n-B where we had stored the rest of our luggage. When we got to the airport, we threw all of our stuff in the bike boxes, taped them up and checked ’em. And we just rolled the bikes on “as-is”. We were the last ones to board. Crisis averted.
I wish you had not written this post quite as compellingly as you did – it brought back a similar fraught memory for me.
As the travel god would have it – I made it too!
Hehe, being a blogger you can at least make a nice blogpost about the whole story if that unlikely thing happens and you really miss the plane and all things go totally different than you had planned…hope this will be my consolation the next time I am late at the airport:)
Yikes, just reading about this got the adrenaline levels going and made me feel stressed. I’m a bit anal about leaving for the airport much earlier than I need to precisely because I don’t do so well with adrenaline flooding through me. 😉 I do remember just barely making a connecting flight because the first flight left really late, and sexy or not it did involve doing a very fast sprint to the next gate. Did I mention I have a preference for direct flights, whenever possible?
Actually had a similar experience with a connecting flight. I was running through the DFW terminal yelling for people to get out of my way! I got to the gate as the last few people were boarding!
After having missed two flights, I always go like 4 hours early.
I loved the article!! I can’t tell you how many times this has been me. I can’t tell you how many times I have been the “unsexy” one running through terminal only to see that I can walk just about as fast 🙂
Great post! (fist pump!)
You are a great story teller. Seth Godin would be proud of you.
I’m just not getting the point of this post, at all. If there’s a lesson here, it didn’t come across.
Well in fact you dont only miss you flight by being late! We turned up very early for a flight last week, so early in fact that the gate was not showing…however the flight before from the same airline (Easyjet) had the gate posted and was showing as being 75 minutes late. Ours was also an estimated 30 mins late so we groaned thinking we were in for a long wait…We went to sit near the gate where the previous flight was expected and got our books out…..we listened to every announcement diligently to see if there was any update, but as we were not near screens we didn’t go check every 10 mins…. Eventually about an hour before the delayed flight was due to go we checked the screens and it said flight boarding so we went to the gate (a long way away from where the previous flight had left) Once we got there they told us boarding was closed and we had missed the flight (although plainly sat on the tarmac with the door open still and the screens were showing still boarding) – the flight had in fact been advanced back up to the normal time of departure, but the announcements they claimed to have made were obviously not played where we were sitting. Frustrating or what?
When we remonstrated, they patiently & rather sarcastically explained that the best is to arrive early and not risk getting through security too late so they patently did not believe our story. They were very condescending as were the staff in the sales office. We lost our money for that flight and had to buy a replacement ticket from a competitor airline who still had space…We could have missed our trip I guess, but had lent our apartment to friends of ours (a family of 5) so there would have been nowhere for us to sleep anyway!!
We had a great weekend after the false start, but never again will I wait for an announcement I will instead sit on top of the screens and go ask…incidentally as the plane taxied out the the runway the screens were still saying “boarding” !!
Ah, even though I’m just 21, I’ve had my share of adventures like this.
One time I was navigating the Glasgow bus system to get to the Central Train Station and get to the Prestwick Airport, I was 18 at that time and completely alone on my first trip.
Another time I had a trip from JFK to WAW with a midstop in LHR for an hour and because of the security check, I barely made on my connecting flight.
I know well the feeling of “if you miss it, all is lost”.
Me, too! I loved this post, Chris, and can also relate. When I took my flight to London in February, I had to take a bus from Dallas to Houston. Missed the bus transfer in Dallas because the Arlington bus was late (they actually taxied us to Dallas!), waited 4.5 hours for the next bus. Then had to go all the way downtown and then take another bus 45 minutes BACK to the airport we’d passed on the way down.
The most recent one involved a train from London to Holyhead. Ended up on the wrong platform after a ticket confusion (3 train changes plus a ferry ticket), and when I got to the other side of the station, discovered my coach was the very last one. Half did the unsexy run, half power-walked. Got on the train and sat down, and the train pulled out half a minute later.
Yes, your post really hit home, Chris. Keep ’em coming. It’s fun to remember our own problem flights and trains. It’s also fun to read the commenters’ stories.
This made me chuckle. It reminded me of the time my flight was delayed in DSM, and I had to run through MSP to catch the last flight home (to Alaska), pregnant, with a kid clinging to each hand, nary a service cart to be seen–I was unsexy at that point anyway, so why not run?
This just happened to me yesterday after leaving for the airport in Minneapolis at 5 in the morning and flying through Charlotte for a connection to Charleston. I was the last one on the plane and was seated in the last seat on the last isle. They gate checked my bag because all the bulkheads were full but I made it. SWEET!
There’s always another flight and I have met some of the most interesting characters at airport bars and coffee shops having similar escapades. When I got my million miler letter from AA back in December of 1994, I thought the adventure was close to being over but with all the added layers and bullshit, I now see it has just begun. Grace under pressure is how Papa Hemingway defined courage and the adventurer realizes like Jimmy Buffett that most times I have been late, “It was my own damn fault.” Happy Trails All
Brilliant! Have been there many times — your descriptions are so universal! I think every one of those things!
Hoofing it to gate 79, bypassing Starbucks, no time for rest – ha! I know flying through MSP, every time I think, “They made this place too big!”
So it’s not just me!! I’ve only had once close call on a flight to Moscow, and it all worked out. The amazing thing is, in spite of all the adrenaline and worry, it ALWAYS works out! 🙂
Speaking as that Captain on the PA: “Run next time. My pay is partially based on our airline’s on-time performance, and 25 things you can’t see couldn’t be done until you sat down. (Also, I’ll confess I’ve been that guy once or twice.) Hold the hand pump; See you at TED.
Ha ha ha, great post Chris!
When Virgin started domestic flights out of Perth, Western Australia, they were forced to use the international airport for a while. Whilst the domestic and international airports are side by side and share runways, the driving time between them is considerable.
I turned up to the wrong airport one day, just about right on time, but it quickly turned into the panic of your story here. Oh the relief of success that had looked so certain to be denied!
There has to be a better way, Mexico city is the worst at showing you where to get your gate pass. There are 3 different places that all have the same airline company and big distances between them.
So true! I had this exact situation a few months ago, flying from California back to South Carolina. I mistimed how long it would take me to get to the airport, so I was running from the rental car, to the rental desk, to the car, to the check-in counter, security…it was a mess. But I got a work out – and learned a lesson! Thanks for this!
I remember as a student flying home from college in Europe and changing flights in Brussels. There was a one hour time difference and I thought I had all the time in the world, and sat there missing my flight. I felt so dumb, and cried.
Some people like you live a dream that I’m only dreaming. I hope I see the world 1 day.
Ah, you’re so right. This happened to me last year, when I was on my way home from Iceland. I thought I had about thirty minutes left, when suddenly I heard my name coming through the speakers. Ouch! Luckily I had my boarding pass already, so I knew everything would probably be alright. I did run, though 😉
On the other hand, I have some very nice memories coming from moments when my travel schedule got all screwed up. Spending a night in a hotel that’s way too expensive or getting help from locals I otherwise would’ve never met, for example. I love those unexpected times!
I was flying to Bozeman, Montana, to do some fly fishing, and my friend Chris, who had a later flight, was in no hurry while packing. Long story short, we get to the airport without about 35 minutes before my plane departs. I finally swallow my pride and straight up ask people if I can cut them in the security line to make my flight. I didn’t even put my shoes back on, just ran to the gate. I made the flight, but got to soak in my sweat and adrenaline for the next six hours.
On another flight from Boston to Providenciales, with a connection in Charlotte. On account of bad weather, we had to sit on the runway for an hour in Boston. I was literally the LAST person to get to my connection gate in Charlotte. The US Air people at the desk addressed me by name when I ran up: “You must be Mr. Church.” I was on my way to meetings for the biggest marketing contract of my career. The dirty looks of all the people waiting on the plane didn’t matter.
I experienced being late twice already! 🙁 I paid so much to rebook my flight. It’s so sad.
Oh boy, have I been there! In 1992, my sister and brother and I gave my parents a trip to Europe for their retirement. Since I was the traveler of the family, I made the arrangements. I saw them off at Kennedy anticipating all they would have to tell me when we met a few months afterwards in Denmark. I myself would be leaving for three months in Copenhagen a month later. All went well with my parents.
As for me, I did everything right, too, and got in my taxi to KENNEDY, and arrived there fine, around 4:00 in the afternoon. Unfortunately, it was only when we couldn’t find the airline there that I remembered I WAS FLYING OUT OF NEWARK! The taxi driver asked when my flight was and then said “I can do it.” That began the most hair-raising taxi ride of my life. Through New York City rush hour traffic, he drove like a mad man, passing cars on the right, even on bridges!!! I put on my seatbelt as tight as it would go, closed my eyes, and prayed. And we did make it, and I did make my flight. But I will NEVER forget that taxi ride or get into a taxi to go to an airport without checking my ticket to make sure it’s the right one.
Nice piece of prose. Yes, I’ve never heard of a plane waiting for anyone.
Hey Chris, unfortunately I haven’t shared this experience yet, but I have been late plenty of times. You make a great point about everything usually being alright, especially because of our overestimation of the time requirements of certain steps. I think we usually make it harder on ourselves than it has to be.
p.s. Reading and loving your book and this is appropriate that I just read the Travel section. Got me thinking…
Yes – I have been there also. Arrived about 3 minutes late to check-in for a flight Madrid – Barcelona – Helsinki – Delhi… Flight was with Iberia who are THE worst when it comes to being flexible on a couple of minutes… I asked them whether it would be possible to meet the next leg of flight in Barcelona, and they then happily SOLD me a ticket on the flight leaving about ten minutes after mine, strangely failing to mention that once you miss the first flight of a long haul journey like this… there’s no way you can get on on the next leg because you have to get all your boarding passes at once…. I did eventually find this out on arrival at Barcelona airport, about 150 Euros poorer… Luckily the flight I missed to India was booked with Frequent Flyers and Qantas were very nice and changed the date for me, so I could go another time… 🙂
Needless to say ever since then I am ridiculously early to all check-ins…
Two thoughts: One, I’ll sprint regardless of what people think. Remember this website is about nonconformity. Two: Who cares if people are waiting on board or whatever. If the plane isn’t late for departure then they can just wait for me. Again you do what you have to do to get the job done. I’ve never made a plane a wait. I’m the type that always get to airport way too early to hang out, read a book, check email, call home or whatever. Portland and Seattle are my favorites.
I have never ever missed a flight. I almost did once but walked real fast and made it to the door just in time. Sigh of relief! Another time I went all the way to the airport and was told I did not have the right papers to the transferring country on my way back home. I was upset but atleast I did not get there to find out I would not be allowed to journey forward…that would have been a nightmare! I recently saw somebody come running for their flight a good ten minutes after the doors closed and broke down sobbing after frantically banging at the door trying to get them to open it … it felt sad because I am sure that must have been a connecting flight and it would now be the beginning of a pandora’s box of troubles…which is why I always go early for my flights and never just in time!
HAHAHA! Countless times, from driving through snowstorms to trains, taxis, rides from strangers and the always familiar feeling of dreadful panic. “Never again,” and yet somehow it happens again. “No, this time REALLY never again.”
Gotta love the fist pump when you’re finally in the most comfortable, cramped middle seat in economy-minus you’ve ever sat in.
“As you think through backup plans and alternative scenarios, you realize the obvious:” I keep scheduling my travel such that there’s no room for error. If I just busted the mythology that time is money and realize that time is life then I wouldn’t keep doing this to myself. So as you rush to the airport, fearful that you won’t make that plane (and God knows in these crazy times lots of things far outside of your control can and will go wrong) you say to yourself: I don’t care if I miss this flight. There’s always another one, and another hotel and another client and another meeting. Relax. Be kind to yourself. Breathe.
Ha! Like many others, I can relate to that. So many last-minute dashes for a flight but made it on time. Once in Mexico City, I missed my flight and not another until the next day so went to see my mother who’d been semi-comatose only to find her seated and behaving normally. We had a great conversation – our last, A lucky miss.
Another time, NY early morning traffic held me up. I arrived with moments to spare to find the love of my life waiting there for me. That time, I would have given anything to miss the plane but somehow they got me on. Never saw him again.
Oy, Boy, this recalls 2 travel horror tales: First was our family’s first and only all-together international trip, to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. After one flight was delayed, we were made late to our connecting flight in Guadalajara. We all ran to our gate, luggage in hand, to see the plane already pushed-out, & revving up to taxi for takeoff. Since security was not like it is now, my father pushed past the gate guard, ran out ONTO the runway, and literally stood in front of the plane with raised arms, blocking it from takeoff, refusing to move until they let us on…which they did. It was my first time ever seeing my father run like mad, sweat bullets and make the world stand still.
Second, also in Mexico but with my girlfriend years later, we were at least 90 minutes early for the flight, so we napped in the sun. We awoke in shock as we realized we had 2 minutes to get the plane. Running, we just made it, maybe 3 minutes late – the runway was absolutely baking. As we walked onto the stifling plane, the captain announced: “Well, folks, here are the two who kept you all waiting,” and the whole plane burst into boos, en masse, in perfect synchrony. We both blushed well past crimson.
Brings to mind a memory about catching a flight from Beijing to Shanghai in the summer of 2008, where after spending much time looking for the check-in counter, found out that the airline was actually at the newly built airport terminal for the Olympics, which was a long cab ride away. After much other hoopla, we finally arrived at the correct airport to find a massive crowd of people at the check-in counter. With much “Sorry! We’re about to miss our flight! Could we please go before you?” and many kind people who took pity on us, we made our way through half of the crowd. Then we hit a large group of American tourists as part of a tour group. Just so happens that the women leading the tour group, who’s at the front of the line, turns out to be the girlfriend of a friend of the person I’m traveling with. Phew. We catch our flight.
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