"He drinks a lager drink,
He drinks a something drink,
He drinks a drink drink,
drink, drink, drink-drink"
"That One Song about All the Drinking That Was Popular for Some Reason" ~ Chumbawumba
At this point, it still wasn't obvious that we wouldn't be hopping another plane within minutes or hours. The apparent graveyard shift authority of United, resembling a light-skinned black version of Groucho Marx, worked his way up and down the front of the crowds, the five hundred person clusterfuck of sleep-deprived, angry customers a steadily growing and grumbing crowd turning to a mob.
I didn't envy him.
He also didn't make things easier on himself.
"Please be patient and stay in line!" He was shouting at the crowd immediately in front of him, closest to the exit point of security, everyone lining up in front of about the ten counters now open and crewed by nightshift employees who likely never experienced anything even close to this volume. "We'll have refreshments brought out in just a few minutes!"
This calmed people down as we began to realize the last time any of us had eaten was lunchtime several hours ago. Now pushing 1am, the vast majority of the San Francisco airport was closed, along with all the restaurants; the thought of 'refreshments,' anything, was something.
The line early on - people were still smiling at this point.
After about ten minutes, I realized our line wasn't moving at all. Looking far down the terminal, I thought there might be shorter lines down the curve. Taking a short walk with my rapidly fading niece riding on my shoulders, leaning into my neck in a way I was starting to feel all the way down my spine, I found a line at the far end with only four people in it.
I waved my family over and smiled at our brilliance in finding the shortest line in the batch. After a few minutes, watching as the United spokesman made his way down the various stations, repeating his barely-heard updates, Geoff and I headed downstairs to the baggage claim to pull the family's bags.
When we got back to the line, I was surprised that the first person was still there, the United person behind the desk with a deer-in-the-headlights look, his ear trapped inside a phone while he stared blindly at the monitor in front of him.
Meanwhile, the United Groucho Marx made his way down to us, now stating that we would be put on planes heading out the next day and that United would fly out the planes "wingtip to wingtip," basically creating a new, one-time flight to Australia with the plane that was still being worked on.
"We have called up our regular mechanic crew and they'll have the plane fixed shortly. It's up to you if you want to go to a hotel or if you'd rather just wait here for the plane to be repaired." For most of the people in line, many of them now-angry Aussies, this sounded like a good plan: just ride out on the same plane a day later, rather than taking their chances on stand-by.
Meanwhile, I sat on the floor, pulled out my book, and read a few more pages. Three long chapters later, I pulled out my phone, looked at the time, and saw that two hours had passed: the line hadn't moved. Meanwhile, Groucho moved back and forth in front of the long, unmoving lines, continually making promises that it was quickly becoming obvious were just there to mollify the crowd and not something that were really going to happen.
The refreshments, for example, now forgotten behind a wave of "we'll have you all out of here in an hour and sleeping comfortably in hotels where we'll call you," had never materialized. The lines never moved, not a single one of them.
The mood began to turn ugly fast as 4am approached. Groucho claimed there was a 800 number people could call and that it might be faster than waiting in line. The overhead screens, that had gone into a Windows update, hadn't displayed any information for a good while.
I pointed out to Groucho that he could just open Notepad and type in the 800 number, and put it on the screen, rather than marching up and down the multitudes of pissed off yelling it at them.
"That's a great
idea - I'll do that right now." There was no eyebrow wiggle, but I assume it was implied. My sister got the 800 number from someone who actually had a pen and paper to write it down with, sat on the floor, and began the process of talking to United that way.
The line, for its part, still hadn't moved. It had been four hours. Likewise, the 800 number never appeared on the screen.
Sitting quietly, reading my book, waiting for the line to move, waiting for my sister to make some headway, I happened to overhear a snippet of conversation that Groucho was having with a rapidly angering Aussie woman.
I walked over to make sure I heard it correctly.
"...we will honor your United flight."
"But what about the connection I missed in Australia? I was going to Cairnes on Jetstar!"
"Listen: we will honor the United flight to Sydney."
"But I missed my flight because of your company's screw up!"
"And we will do our best to make sure you get to Sydney."
I glanced at my own itinerary with dawning horror: our flights out of Sydney were on Jetstar, a decidedly not
United airline. Already a full day behind, we were looking at the possibility of being stuck in Sydney when they got there with now way to get to the north coast and meet my dad.
For that matter, we still hadn't nailed down a way to even get to Australia. Groucho began to move back through the crowd, noting that it was getting close to 6am, and that the morning shift would be coming on. Added to that, morning flights would begin going out and we were all jamming up the United lines...
So we'd have to move.
Obviously, that idea was about as popular as you'd think it would be and the vast majority of people who hadn't already given up simply stood still as crews began to set up the portable line-guide ribbons.
My sister, after an hour on the phone, had secured us a pair of rooms at the Holiday Inn and a possible flight on stand-by through Singapore Air. My mom smiled at this, telling us Singapore was a much better airline; by that point, I felt getting flung by trebuchet on a flying turd would be better than flying United.
Assured that United would be picking up the tab, we headed out the door to a waiting shuttle, knowing that we'd be coming right back in five hours. Still, five hours in a real bed sounded worlds better than sitting on the floor of the San Francico airport.