Exit Row (1200 words)


AUTHOR'S NOTE: Everyone's who's flown enough times has a few stories. This true story isn't so much about a rough flight as it is about a group of people with a choice to make, and how they handled it.

I turn the laminated emergency instructions over in my hand. The artwork is part infographic and part comic book. There’s something trendy about this style and there’s an odd simplicity to it, as if, standing in the pandemonium of a flaming fuselage, everything can be reduced to a Lego instruction.

My stomach drops as the jet careens over an invisible speed bump. I glance out the window. Sheets of rain, impenetrable clouds. I can’t even see the wing. A great hand slaps the jet from the starboard, jolting my head right, then I grow heavy with the seat pressing hard against my legs. My fingers curl around the arm rest. Up ahead, reality bends as the cabin twists left. I know it’s a trick of my inner ear messing with my perception because I am in the plane and can’t see it move, but I feel it flying off-axis. Winds push the nose one direction and tug the tail another.

We fight to line up with the runway when the engines rev with a cyclic whine and the seat pushes hard against my shoulders. I feel the nose pitch upwards and we blast back into the sky. The plane levels out. Minutes elapse, circling.

The man’s voice over the intercom is calm, reassuring. “This is the captain speaking. You may have noticed we ran into some crosswinds and things got a bit choppy, so we needed to abort the landing. We don’t have enough fuel for another landing attempt, so we’re getting some instructions from the tower. Hang tight.”

I raise my eyebrows and exchange glances with my seat mate. “Did the pilot just say that we don’t have enough fuel to land?”

The man shrugs in response.

Step one of the emergency brochure is visible above the seat pouch. A red rotational arrow indicates how to release the exit door. I study it.

“Uh, this is the pilot,” chimes the speaker. “So, I’d like to clarify that we have enough fuel to land, but if we need to abort the landing we will not have enough fuel to power back up to a holding altitude. Looks like we’re going to a different airport where the weather’s better. Should be about fifteen minutes.”

The analytical side of my brain ponders how this works from a fuel consumption standpoint. I glance at my watch. 11:15 PM.

Rain continues to pelt the window during fifteen minutes of uneventful flight. Gravity eases as we descend, and, out of nowhere, the runway appears a few feet beneath us. Wheels bounce and squeal. Everyone leans forward in a coordinated lurch. Once the plane has stopped, the pilot informs us we are in another state, he’s waiting on a decision to either refuel or deplane, and we can use our phones.

The blue glow of a hundred phones springs to life. I text my wife. Weather trouble. Will be late. Don’t wait up.

A murmur filters through the passenger cabin. People are forming sides: deplaners versus refuelers. I am a deplaner. We don’t really get a vote, but it’s what people do.

We all sit inside the plane for twenty minutes. I swipe through Google Maps trying to figure out where we are. GPS locates us. We are nowhere.

“Uh, this is your captain speaking. Looks like we’re going to deplane.” A small, happy cheer sounds from the deplaners. “We’ll work out transportation to get you back.”

It’s a tiny airport. After we shuffle off the plane and meander through the gate we all find ourselves herded next to the baggage claim conveyor. It’s near midnight and the only employee is a young man wearing a fluorescent orange vest. He’s cheerful. “Hey, folks. Grab your luggage and make yourself comfortable. We’ll try and get some buses here to drive everyone back.”

Google Maps shows a two hour drive. I’m looking forward to dozing off on the bus.

The woman next to me is a refueler and is unhappy with the bus option. We chat for a minute before the conveyor buzzes. I fetch my luggage, find a seat, and use my suitcase as an ottoman. I’ve got my earbuds in, tuning out the world in favor of a playlist.

I don’t see the orange-vested man for forty-five minutes. When he reappears, he says, “No luck with the buses, but we’re working on vans.” Another forty-five minutes goes by. “No luck with the vans, we’re working on cabs.”

At this point, the passengers have assembled themselves into Survivor-like clans. The refuelers are having another go at convincing people to fly back. The disgruntled are discussing formal complaints to the airline. A group of men have Googled a limo service and are looking for people to go in on the cost with them. This doesn’t seem like something I can expense. I’m still listening to my playlist.

I glance at my watch. 2:10 am. The orange-vested man returns. “We’ve got some cabs. They’ll be coming in as they’re available. First one should be here in ten minutes. If you can gather your luggage and follow me, we’ll wait out front for them.”

Our herd trudges forward, passes through the sliding doors, and stands behind the concrete pylons of the taxi stand. It’s still raining, but we are under an overhang. The breeze is cool and the night has the stillness of early morning. I find it a bit refreshing.

Ten minutes pass before headlights snake their way along the airport road. We all follow them with our eyes. As they grow nearer, we collectively realize it’s a standard yellow cab sedan. Three people can fit in the back seat.

I straighten. Seventy-six tired and grumpy people are standing in the rain at 2:20 am. We must choose the lucky three to enter the cab. I am expecting a Hunger Games event.

But, that is not what happens. There is a couple with an exhausted mother-to-be, looking very pregnant. The crowd shuffles them up from the back, parting, and nominates them to go first. No one says anything. We just all agree. There is a certain camaraderie to our group, a shared trial overcome. The woman thanks everyone as she slips into the cab with her husband.

The next couple to go is an older husband and wife who have been traveling all day. We help them to the front of the line.

And so it goes on, a new cab arriving every five to ten minutes. It’s peaceful, orderly. The orange-vested man continues to be cheerful, smiling, opening cab doors for people. I am in the last group. When he opens the door for me, I shake his hand and thank him. His positivity was infectious, and he made a long night a little better.

During the two-hour ride home the cab driver talks and texts on his phone. The car rocks like a ship in a storm, windshield wipers flicking at full. I close my eyes and put my headphones in.

When I finally walk into my bedroom, my wife is asleep in the dark. I change and crawl into bed with her. She stirs and murmurs a greeting, and I place my hand on her arm.

Orange digits on the alarm clock glow 5:46 am. I close my eyes for four minutes before the alarm goes off.