Sunday, June 23, 2019

A few minutes after we settle in to our overnight crash pad, airport staff tells us we can’t lie on the floor, so those folks climb back up into the seats. Which are not really comfortable enough to sleep in. Most of us feel like walking around. Doha is a beautiful airport, full of snooty shops—rated one of the best airports in the world—so it’s a great place to explore. I tell everybody to do what they want, with just 2 rules: 1) nobody alone, groups of 2 or more, and 2) regather here at 6 am to confirm our gate and plan for departure. If you’re not here, you’re on your own to get on the flight, and if you’re not on the flight, we leave without you.

At 6 am we’re all back, some with half-empty food containers. (I’m telling you, the amount of food these people can eat … ) The gate (E-3) has been posted, so we head over—taking the airport train just for fun—and sit outside security for a bit. There are no toilets at the gate itself, so we take care of business here. When the security line’s pretty short, we head in. Security is tighter here; they wand us for explosive residue, make me take my tablet out of its case for wanding, give me the pat-down.

The westbound flight is shorter than the eastbound, because of the prevailing winds in the northern hemisphere (and especially, I assume, the jet stream), so this flight is scheduled for just 13 hours and 20 minutes. But that’s still plenty long.

The A350-900 takes off from runway 34L at 8.58. We head north from Doha over the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf (whichever you prefer to call it), then over Iran, the Caucasus, Cappadocia, the Black Sea, Rumania (where Sam’s from! we fly right near his hometown!), Germany, England, Ireland, and then the Big Water south of Greenland; enter North America at Newfoundland, enter the US at Presque Isle, then across New York and down the Shenandoah Valley to Atlanta.

Just 15 minutes out of Atlanta, the pilot tersely announces that we’re being diverted to Charlotte because of weather at ATL.

Well. That’s a big change, right here at the last minute. Gonna need to text the driver of the van who’s meeting us. OK, get an hour of the onboard wifi. I figure there are two possibilities: either we sit at Charlotte until the weather clears in ATL and then get in there late, or they choose to terminate the flight at CLT, in which case the simplest thing for me to do is 1) get the 2 transit passengers (Michaela and Shelbie) rescheduled on flights out of CLT, and 2) rent a 15-passenger van and drive everybody else to Greenville, probably still getting home before midnight. At this point, my only job is to get these kids home (and keep them alive in the process).

I text the Transportation folks at BJU and let them know more info is coming as soon as I know which option we’re dealing with. Shortly one team member finds a notice on the Qatar Airways site that the plan is to sit an hour at CLT and then resume the flight to ATL. Good. Simplest option.

Well, it turns out to be 2 hours on the tarmac, but it’s relatively pleasant. Everybody’s standing around on the plane chatting, and the cabin crew is circulating with trays of snacks to keep everybody reasonably happy. And it’s OK to use the toilets while the plane is sitting there, so no real problems.

Have I mentioned that it was 2 hours, not the announced 1? OK then. I entertain myself by watching the ground crew on the forward camera, standing around the nose wheel, and when they all leave, and then one guy pulls the chocks, I know we’re getting ready to go.

So we start taxiing at 5.35, about 2 hours after we were originally scheduled to land in Atlanta. Off runway 36C at 6.32, land ATL on runway 27C at 7.12, with no complications.

Now our problem is that Michaela and Shelbie have outgoing flights in an hour, and we have to go through immigration and customs, which in ATL I’ve seen get pretty chaotic, especially when there’s a lot of people going through right after multiple wide-bodies land at about the same time.

As we’re taxing to the terminal, both girls learn that their outgoing flights have been delayed 20 minutes or so. OK, that gives us some breathing room, but it’s still gonna be close. I tell them to get ahead of us, don’t wait, and book it straight to immigration, then tell the line watchers there that they have a tight connection and could use the help; if their luggage isn’t at the carousel, don’t wait for it, the airline can get it to you in a day or so. So off they go. Keep us informed by text.

When we get to immigration—on the way we hustle past most of the others in our flight—the lines are surprisingly short, the booths are well staffed, and the place is humming. We’re all through in 15 minutes. I’ve never seen it happen that fast.

We catch up to Michaela and Shelbie at the luggage carousel; immigration was so fast that the luggage hasn’t arrived yet. Soon it starts trickling in. When the two transients get theirs, off they go to catch the bus to the domestic side of the airport and maybe catch their flights. By my calculation they have an hour; I’m confident they’ll both make it.

A few minutes later Michaela texts us that she made her connection. That’s good; she has jury duty at 8 am Monday (PDT). That’s cutting it close.

Soon Shelbie tells us she missed her connection; she didn’t arrive at the gate before 20 minutes before flight time, and despite the fact that her incoming flight was delayed, and her outgoing flight was delayed too, they apparently calculate by the originally scheduled departure time. That strikes me as just crazy, but what do I know? Anyway, she’s standby on a couple later flights tonight, so I start praying that she gets on one of those. She has access to money if she needs to stay overnight here, so that’s about the best we can ask for.

Blake tells me his parents are here, so he’ll head out with them instead of taking the van to Greenville. OK. Now we’re 8.

When we all have our bags—and we do—I text Dave Versnick, the driver, who’s been waiting patiently for our late arrival, that we’ll be at the curb in 10 minutes. We breeze through customs—they basically just wave at us—and out through the crowded terminal lobby to the Atlanta sunshine, which I’m pretty sure is hotter than anything we experienced in Africa. Soon the van pulls up, and in we go.

The crew had been talking during the trip about eating a last meal together at a nice sit-down restaurant on the way to Greenville; they were thinking Texas Roadhouse, and I’d identified one near I-85 in Buford, GA. But with the flight delay, we’re looking at arriving in Greenville after 11 if we don’t stop at all, and they decide they’d rather not take an hour or more to stop for dinner, even if it means missing steak. Kinda surprises me. 🙂 So we say we’ll hit a fast-food place somewhere and eat in the van to save time.

It’s about 8.30 when we leave the airport, and the first place we stop (at 9.01) has just closed the dining room at 9, and ordering for 9 people (including the driver) is pretty inefficient at a drive-through, so we continue driving and looking. As we come to an exit, I call out the names of the fast-food places, and we wait for agreement.

Eventually they go for a McDonald’s.

Seriously.

The dining room’s open till 10. We order at the counter for our last meal of the trip.

Away we go.

After the food is eaten, the van gets quiet as most of them fall asleep. Since it’s after 10, I figure falling asleep now won’t short-circuit their jet-lag recovery.

We stop at an exit just a few miles short of Greenville to drop Cathryn at a 7-Eleven where her Mom is waiting. It’s good to see her sister Jessica, who was on the team in 2015.

Then on to Greenville. We arrive about midnight at the place where we gathered to leave, behind Nell Sunday. Seems as though it was longer than just 3 weeks ago. Abbie walks to her ride out in front of the dorm; Peter and Sam head off the same direction; everybody else meets her ride here. Kat, it should be noted, almost leaves her carry-on sitting in the parking lot. 🙂

All the remaining 7 distributed to safe care.

Job done.

Dave drops me off at my house, which is right next to where he’s taking the van. I tell him thanks and good night, and my dear wife, who is, shall we say, not a night person, opens the door to let me in.

Home.

Soli deo gloria.

The blog—which, to speak truthfully, I finish late the next afternoon—runs 58 pages and 34,853 words.

Good night.

Dan Olinger

Chair, Division of Bible in the BJU School of Religion.

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