This Is What It's Like to Be Stranded at the Airport Overnight
A photographer shares his night in Chicago O’Hare.
On May 2, I was flying home from a shoot in Columbus, Ohio. John, my shooting partner, was on vacation, so I was rolling solo on this one. My original flight was slotted to leave Columbus at 5 p.m. headed for L.A. with a brief layover in Chicago O’Hare.
As we were waiting to board the plane, the attendant announced that our flight was delayed two hours, causing widespread pandemonium. It turned out there were several tornadoes and other wild weather events moving through the Midwest causing massive delays and cancellations.
Related: How to Know If Your Flight Will Be Delayed Before It’s Even Announced
Knowing that I would now miss my connecting flight in Chicago, I spoke with United and they were able to get me onto an American flight heading out of Chicago later in the night. Eventually we got on the plane only to sit on the runway for about half an hour. At this point, I realized my new connecting flight was all the way on the other side of ORD (I flew into concourse B and my connecting flight was at the end of concourse H).
As we sat on the runway I was counting the minutes realizing that even the best case scenario would only give me a few minutes to race across the whole airport and catch my flight. Several people on the plane had similar circumstances and there was a lot of tension in the air. To make things even worse we taxied at ORD for a good 20 minutes, literally driving the plane right past my connecting flight as we slowly drove around the airport.
Related: This Is the First Thing You Should Do If Your Flight Is Canceled or Diverted
Once we landed, I raced off the plane toward my connecting flight. As I got one terminal away from my flight I received a text message saying my flight was canceled. It seemed that almost every flight in or out of ORD was canceled. Sweating from my sprint across the airport, I saw there was another flight still slotted to leave that night for San Francisco. I wasn’t sure if it was the right move, but I figured if I could get to S.F., worst case scenario I would drive or get a short flight home. I explained my situation to the flight attendants and they were nice enough to let me on the plane.
The flight was suppose to leave any minute, but we ended up sitting for about an hour. I didn’t think much of it because at this point I was watching “Black Panther.” Suddenly, I heard people start screaming, so I removed my headphones to discover that the flight was now delayed four hours. By the time I got off the plane and up the gangway, the flight was delayed another five hours. I was obviously bummed, but tried to see it as an adventure.
I called American Airlines’ customer service and re-booked myself on a flight going directly to L.A. the next day. It was now around 10 or 11 p.m. and it had finally sunken in that I was going to be staying the night at the airport. I sort of walked around aimlessly for a few minutes until I decided to post up near a charging station and listen to a podcast. Feeling restless, I decided to walk around and see if there was anything interesting to photograph. My thought was that I would find some weird scenes of people hanging around the airport.
The first thing I saw was a guy who was sleeping upright in his chair. What caught my eye was that he had a bright blue sweatshirt pulled over his head. The people around him were very confused when I took his photo. As I continued walking around I realized that almost everyone in the airport was sleeping. I decided to walk around and take the opportunity to study the different ways people chose to camp out for the night.
Some just slept upright in the airport seats, as if they had passed out watching TV at home. Others figured out unique ways to lay down on the seats, often times weaving their legs over and under the arms of the chairs. Some were lucky enough to snag a bench and turn it into a make-shift cot, while others chose to crash in the most private corner they could find.
I walked around for about an hour before the weight of the day’s adventure finally got to me and I became exhausted myself. I made one last call to the airline and was able to get on an even earlier flight that morning. I decided to make my way toward my departure gate where I ended up crashing, becoming one of the airport campers I had been photographing. I chose to sleep near a charging station, placing my bags under the seats next to me to protect my camera gear. I got a few hours of sleep before I woke up as the first few flights of the day started to take off. In a haze, I grabbed some coffee and slowly made my way onto the plane.
While it was not the best way to spend a night in Chicago, what I loved about the experience was that it reaffirmed how much I love the adventure of being a photographer. You never know when life will hand strange circumstances and as a photographer you always have to be ready to seize the moment.
Upon landing in L.A. and taking a two-hour Uber ride home — thank you, L.A. traffic — I calculated that I had been traveling for about 20 hours. Exhausted, I stumbled into the house, took a much needed shower, and collapsed into bed for the remainder of the day.