Recently, I’ve been in a bit of a writing rut, and it’s been eating away at my professional confidence. Every time I’ve sat down to write in the past couple of months, I’ve second-guessed myself with every sentence, and awkward uncertainty and self-doubt have hung over my keyboard each time I’ve sent off another article to one of my editors. They’ve had nothing but positive feedback for the content I’ve turned in, but still I’ve been plagued with frustration and anxiety at the abilities that I see, in many ways, as core to my identity. For awhile now, I’ve needed something to pull me out of this funk, give me a kick in the pants and get me back on track.
Last night, I got exactly what I needed from a totally unexpected source: a company of legal professionals who work to protect the rights of European air travelers. Flightbucks helps passengers get compensation for delayed European flights as allowed by European Union regulations, and the company hosted a contest on its Facebook page asking air travelers to share their worst flight delay story. The winner would receive roundtrip airfare to Europe. I had two unusual stories to share, so I wrote them out and posted them to the Flightbucks page. And I won.
My phone buzzed in my pocket as I stood in my aunt and uncle’s backyard last night, stabbing marshmallows on a roasting stick at a family bonfire, and I pulled it out to read the following message: “Danielle, we wholeheartedly decided that no one could beat your stories! Congratulations, you won the roundtrip ticket to Europe!!!”
For someone feeling critically insecure with her storytelling abilities and their potential to sustain a freelance travel writing career, nothing could have been more motivating than those words, and they couldn’t have come at a better time. I’ll need to save up for train tickets and hostels and meals and everything, which means I need to get cracking on assignments to make money, and I hope to get several assignments in advance of my departure to turn this into a solid working trip, so I need to get going on that as well. This win absolutely gives me the motivation I need to write, write, write, as well as the confidence to know I can :). To cap it off, I recently applied for a new passport since my old one expired earlier this summer, and it just arrived in the mail yesterday afternoon. The timing couldn’t be better :).
If you’d like to read my contest entries, they’re below. If you’d like to follow this upcoming adventure, feel free to subscribe to this blog by entering your email address in the box at the top of the right column, and follow along on Facebook and Twitter as well.
And please give Flightbucks some love! They’re also on Facebook and Twitter, and they can help you get up to $670 per passenger if you’ve had an airline-caused flight delay during travels to Europe in the past five years. Good people :). I’m so incredibly grateful for their generosity.
Y’all, I’m going to Europe!!!
I was 18 years old when I took my very first solo flight, heading from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Hartford, Connecticut, for my cousin’s bar mitzvah. No one else in my immediate family could attend, and given that I hadn’t done much flying at all before this, I felt like such a competent adult as I successfully checked myself out of school halfway through the day, drove myself to the airport, checked in for the flight, made my way through security and boarded the plane. I had a window seat, and as I alternated between watching my fellow passengers board and watching the other planes taxi and take to the skies, I silently congratulated myself for my sophistication and maturity that must have been obvious to everyone around.
At this point, I should point out that RDU airport gets a fair amount of military air traffic due to its proximity to military bases like Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune. It wasn’t unusual to see service members in uniform walking through the terminal, and since I was in unflappable, woman-of-the-world mode, I didn’t perk up visibly when I saw a fighter plane speeding down the runway. I may have lifted my eyelids a little when I saw the pilot eject, but surely that was normal — they must be doing some training maneuver that happens here all the time, I assumed. But when I turned my head and saw the plane cartwheel down the runway, and I realized the pilot’s parachute hadn’t deployed before he hit the ground like a ton of bricks, I started to clue in that this might not be normal. My entire plane shuddered as an enormous cloud of black smoke emerged over the top of the jetway behind which the other aircraft had disappeared.
Everyone on the plane began murmuring, and after a few moments, the flight attendant came on the intercom to tell us there had been an accident and the airport had been shut down while they contained the incident and conducted a preliminary investigation. This was only a few years after 9/11, and of course everyone’s thoughts escalated to the worst-possible scenario as we watched fire trucks, ambulances, police vehicles and all manner of emergency crews race down the tarmac toward the scene.
I found out later that the airplane careened out of control until it clattered to a stop 250 feet from the terminal, and that burning fuel from the plane’s full tanks sloshed down into the sewer system and reemerged as alarming flames from grates all across the airport. Looking back, I have no idea how they reopened the airport so quickly, but my flight was soon on its way to my layover in Baltimore.
Strangely, the whole plane crash experience didn’t really rattle me — I felt bad for the pilot who surely had been hurt, but whatever happened, the flight attendants would have told me what to do and I would have been fine. But I reeeeally didn’t want to miss my connection, because at that point I’d be on my own. Of course, by the time my plane landed and I rushed into the Baltimore airport, my second flight’s departure time had already passed, and I couldn’t even find the flight listed on the TV monitors with all the other arrivals and departures. Panicked, I ran up to a gate agent and explained the situation, and she pointed me toward the gate listed for my flight, which of course seemed to be miles away. I bolted past dozens of other gates, weaving through throngs of passengers surrounded by frustrating amounts of luggage, and as I finally reached my destination, my heart sank as I realized the gate was completely empty. The door was closed, and no passengers stood there waiting to board, but! I spotted a gate agent sitting behind the counter, her hair almost invisible behind the basket of luggage tags. I rushed up, harried, with the contents of my purse threatening to burst out on the ground and my rolly suitcase clunking along behind me on its sticky wheels. The gate agent looked up. “Are you Danielle Taylor?” she asked, a little startled. “Yes!” I wheezed. “Come on,” she said, “we didn’t think you’d make it.”
I don’t remember her scanning my ticket before she opened the door and sent me running down the jetway. As I rushed on board and faced a full plane of seated people while I tried to invisibly reach my seat, a group of passengers toward the front of coach began applauding. Apparently the flight attendant had told everyone on the plane that they were holding off on takeoff for a few minutes due to a delayed passenger, and she shared the reason with the folks now cheering me on as I tried to make my way past, mortified at the attention.
Fortunately, my delay was slight enough that the pilot was able to make up the time in the air, and we arrived in Hartford right on time. The bar mitzvah went off without a hitch, and I enjoyed a thoroughly uneventful flight home two days later.
Since then, I’ve taken hundreds of flights on four continents, none of which gave me nearly as much grief as that first solo one that started out with me feeling so magnificent before everything collapsed into such chaos.
(Here’s a local news account of the accident: http://www.wral.com/news/local/story/109650.)
In March 2011, my then-boyfriend and I took a nine-day trip to Costa Rica that almost turned into a 10-day trip. On the day of our departure, we arrived at the airport in San Jose and paid our departure tax, picked up our tickets, checked our bags, made it through security and got to our gate with no problems.
As our boarding time approached, we became curious at the lack of any airline personnel at the gate counter but weren’t too worried until our departure time also came and went without anyone official ever making an appearance. Some of the passengers flagged down a few airport employees in uniform to ask what was going on, but no one knew anything, so we continued to wait. And wait. And wait. Roughly 250 passengers in the lurch with no idea what was causing the delay.
About an hour after we had been scheduled to depart, a frazzled-looking woman in an airline uniform showed up and announced that our airplane didn’t have some of the parts it needed to fly, which we all figured sounded like a justifiable reason to delay a flight. She continued and said the mechanics were working on it, but we’d probably have to wait a few more hours before we could take off. Of course, everyone immediately began grumbling about the inconvenience of the hold-up and how it would ruin everyone’s chance at a connection.
Another two hours or so passed with the gate agent regularly assuring us that the mechanics were making progress and we would be on our way soon. Meanwhile, passengers who had smartphones and internet access had begun searching out other flight options back to the States, more than a little uncertain about the safety of this airplane that was clearly quite a challenge to repair. Then the gate agent made a new announcement: The plane required significant repairs and the mechanics wouldn’t be able to finish fixing it that day, so they needed to reschedule our entire flight for the originally scheduled departure time, but for the following day. At this, everyone began groaning and griping, and the poor gate agent had to call for quiet multiple times before she could announce the next series of instructions. We were to go through customs, then continue to the baggage carousel to retrieve our checked luggage, then go back to stand in line at the ticket counter to get vouchers for hotels and meals.
We did all of this and stood in line with our bags for ANOTHER two hours, not moving at all, as the ticket agents tried to arrange accommodations, dinner, breakfast and ground transportation for a plane full of people. Shortly after the line finally began to move, a manager of some sort came on the loudspeaker to tell the passengers of our flight that somehow (his words) our plane had been fixed, so it would be taking off as soon as we all got new tickets, checked our luggage back in, gone back through security and boarded the plane.
Several people looked more than a little apprehensive about this news – after all, we would be flying in a plane over the Gulf of Mexico that had not long ago been deemed broken beyond repair. However, short of paying full price for tickets on a separate flight that would have delayed us even more, we had no other options. We finally made it to the front of the line to get our replacement tickets and check our bags for the second time, and we went back through security a second time and arrived once again at our familiar gate. Almost eight hours later than planned, we finally boarded the plane.
Now, I grew up in North Carolina and appreciate a good southern accent as much as the next person, but it really doesn’t inspire confidence to have your pilot announce in a good ol’ boy drawl that the team of mechanics “scrounged up” some parts. Personally, I got the mental image of a plane engine held together with chewing gum and duct tape. Flying doesn’t usually scare me, but I was a little jittery from the time we took off until the plane landed safely in Atlanta. Rebooking leg two took another hour or so of waiting in line, but the flight from Atlanta back home to Washington-Dulles went very smoothly, and my boyfriend and I finally made it home from our trip around midnight.
The experience wasn’t exactly how I would have liked to spend a little extra time in Central America, but I won’t forget it anytime soon!