Night at the Airport

NEW YORK, New York—As I leave the United Airlines support desk and head back to the seating area, I marvel at how quiet Gate 27 has become. No one is arguing with the attendant at the ticket booth anymore. It’s the resigned silence of a crowd of people whose flights—and re-booked flights—have been cancelled and delayed since 7 a.m. in the morning.

I carefully tiptoe between prostrate teenagers playing poker, drowsy businessmen leaning against their bags, and watchful mothers cradling their sleeping babies. I find an empty place to sit next to a young man in a purple sweater and blue jeans. Our backs are against a large glass window. Behind us, the dark runways of John F. Kennedy International Airport twinkle with the bright white headlights of maintenance vehicles.

I turn and look at the man next to me. He is intently gazing at the estimated times of departure flashing across the monitor above us. Slowly but steadily, the times continue to be incremented by half-hour blocks, being pushed closer to the next day. My neighbor’s grey eyes, wide awake and unblinking behind a pair of stylish horn-rimmed glasses, are riveted on the screen, while his fingers unceasingly tap away at his iPhone. He has an air of excited determination.

“Where are you traveling?” I ask. He stops tapping, and turns his head slightly, still looking at the screen. “Providence, to visit my girlfriend. But I live in Japan.” He pauses and glances at me, managing to avert his eyes from the screen for a moment, and extends his hand. “This is my first time in America. My name is Sho, by the way.” We shake. He then asks, with genuine curiosity and a note of concern in his voice, “Are the planes here always late?”

Throughout the next two hours, no new departures are announced and people leave the gate, finding hotels or heading home until they can rebook. Only about twenty people are left waiting. A woman at the frozen yogurt store opposite our seating area is closing shop.

Sho tells me that he is a practicing veterinarian from a town outside Tokyo.  He’s been with his girlfriend throughout high school and college. Now she’s attending graduate school in Rhode Island. Usually she travels to Japan to visit him, but this time he’s traveling to visit her. He was supposed to depart for Providence at noon today. He wants to get there soon—he has only four days before he has to go home.

Suddenly, the intercom crackles to life. Most of the last flights of the night, including mine, are now cancelled. Times on the monitor rapidly change from black to red and then disappear, replaced by “Cancelled” labels.

The business commuters start grumbling and getting up to head home—there’s no point in rebooking now. They might as well save the miles and exchange their tickets for another week’s trip.

I’m packing up my things and getting ready to leave too. Sho, who hasn’t stopped gazing at the screen above us, gets up as well. “Was your flight cancelled?” I ask. He laughs, “No, thankfully!” He points to a lone line of black text above us, “It was moved to Gate 30. Just delayed a few more hours. I’ll get there soon, hopefully!” He smiles and walks away.

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