I recently flew from Zurich to Calgary for our E≤30 Stampede meetup. There are no direct flights between the two cities. I decided to fly through Chicago as a friend of mine was the captain on the flight for that leg.
I got to the airport early and enjoyed breakfast at Zurich’s Terminal E Senator Lounge. Then, I boarded the plane just before 1 pm. The captain was awaiting me at the entrance and told me that I got lucky – there was room in the cockpit during takeoff and landing and I could join him there. I dropped my stuff at my seat and headed for the cockpit. The aviation geek in me was thrilled.
A great start to my travel experience
I got strapped in the seat between the captain and co-pilot, put on headphones to tune into the radio traffic and shortly after we were taxiing towards runway 28. The 777-300ER has the largest jet turbines of any civilian aircraft and taking off was smooth and fast. I stayed in the cockpit for over an hour to chat with my friend and talk about aviation. I’m still fascinated by all the different instruments and buttons in a cockpit. I could spend hours on end talking about how that machine works.
I headed back to my seat to get lunch, get some work done and sleep for a few hours. About 2,5hrs before landing I made my way back into the cockpit. It was fascinating to hear the different air traffic controllers (ATC). They were talking about the weather and various other things that might have an impact on our flight. Chicago had thunderstorms that day and they were initially unsure if we had to go to hold before landing.
When we got to Chicago, we were immediately cleared for landing and touchdown was smooth. We then waited for about 15mins to get a gate. Because of the storms, some planes had come in late and we were waiting for one to taxi out. Once we reached the gate, I packed my stuff, said goodbye to the crew and headed towards immigration.
Luckily, Chicago O’Hare Terminal 5 has plenty of Kiosks for ESTA holders and thus immigration took less than 30mins. I knew I had a total layover of almost four hours and headed to the domestic terminal to go back through security and wait at the United Club.
Once there, I found out my flight was already delayed by an hour due to a late arrival of the aircraft. One of three United Clubs at Terminal 1 is currently undergoing some renovations which led to a very crowded situation at the other two. I found a free power plug and was able to get some work done. Wifi was reasonably fast and the lounge – even though extremely crowded – was quiet enough to focus.
The new departure time for my flight was 832pm which felt like 332am in my system. I was slightly bummed when I got to the gate and saw that the flight was delayed by another 45mins. I had set the SMS alerts to my Swiss SIM card and later saw that United informed me about every additional delay and even gate changes. But I was using my UK SIM for free data roaming while I was in the US and missed those updates.
An unwelcome surprise
I went back to the lounge, keeping in mind that the new scheduled time was 945pm. I left at about 920pm and arrived at the gate at 930pm – hoping I would get there just before boarding closes.
Well, my timing was great – boarding was about to close when I got there. The only problem was – they were calling me to see a gate agent. When I got there, she explained to me that she isn’t able to assign me a seat – because I had no visa.
I was completely oblivious because I was 100% sure I didn’t need one. Apparently, I was wrong. And so while I kept talking to the gate agents to keep the door open, I fired up my laptop. I bought a wifi pass and tried to book my Canadian visa. The five minutes it took to do that seemed more like an hour and the agents wanted to close the door three times.
I have to give them credit – they had every right to close the door on me and send off a full, already-delayed plane with about 180 people waiting on board. For all the bad rap that United has gotten recently – they did me a huge favor in this case.
They checked my carry-on, hushed me onto the flight and closed the doors. The flight took another 3,5hrs and by 1 am local time I was finally in Canada.
Have you ever realized you forgot to buy/get your visa at the very last minute?