Flight Layovers / Essay -- Stuck In Atlanta: The Pits In The Heart Of The Peach

There's an old joke in the South that when you die, on your way to heaven you have to change planes in Atlanta.

I learned recently that connections to hell - or at least purgatory - also can be made in the Georgia capital.

Thousands of travelers faced long delays and canceled flights during the winter holiday season. My own little nightmare occurred in Atlanta. It was my destiny.

Any love affair I might have nurtured with the Peachtree City had been snuffed out in the spring. My first trip to Atlanta, last April, was an ordeal of overpriced hotels, clogged streets, and garish hypercommercialism in the days leading up to the now-infamous Summer Olympics. At the end of the year, I wrote that Atlanta was "my least favorite city in the United States" for 1996.

I may have been through with Atlanta, but Atlanta wasn't through with me. It lay in wait. When I booked a discount ticket to Paris on Delta Air Lines, I was had. If you fly Delta, you change planes in Atlanta.

The night my year-end story condemning the city was rolling off the presses, my flight home from Paris was touching down at Hartsfield International Airport for what was scheduled to be a very short layover.

Atlanta is the home of Delta's $33 million bad-weather war room - a warren of officials and workers ready to jump into action at the first sign of drizzle. It's a key city for Delta - the airline flies 100,000 passengers through Atlanta each day, the most of any U.S. airline through any single airport.

A dark and stormy night

But this was a sneaky storm, suddenly stronger and colder than anyone expected. Hartsfield - and I - were in for a long night.

A light but steady snow was falling as the plane taxied to the terminal, the kind of storm Easterners call "ice drizzle."

I ran the usual Hartsfield gantlet - long lines at immigration, a customs agent who treated me like a Cali drug cartel smuggler after discovering an apple in my carry-on luggage, and another half-hour in to recheck my luggage.

In the terminal, I was swept into a maelstrom of screaming, groaning, yelling humanity. The light snow was practically a blizzard for Sun Belt Atlanta, triggering the cancellation of dozens of flights. Delta ended up having to put up 1,600 stranded customers in local hotels.

I scanned the monitor for my flight - no blinking "CANCELED." Just delayed an hour. No strange hotel room for me. I was one of the lucky ones - I thought.

At 6:35 p.m., the anxious crowd shuffled onto the jet. Not a seat to spare. But we were happy to be on our way. Soon takeoff, then dinner, a movie and a nap.

But we were going nowhere. Very slowly.

Get it yourself

Up in first class, the flight attendants poured champagne and served snacks. The hordes in economy class sat unattended. Call lights beckoning stewards and stewardesses blinked and pinged unanswered like musical Christmas tree bulbs.

A woman dared buttonhole a lone attendant speeding by, asking sheepishly if she could have a cup of water.

"There are cups and a fountain up at the next bulkhead," the attendant said crisply before hurrying off. Translation: Get it yourself.

In most cases, flight attendants work long hours serving huge numbers of demanding people while maintaining a cheerfulness that would make most human beings' smile muscles ache.

Perhaps that was the case here, I thought. Perhaps the attendants were too busy preparing for takeoff, or dinner, or doing safety training to bring the lady and the hundreds of other parched, hungry passengers a bit of respite. I unbuckled and headed back to the aft area to investigate.

Two flight attendants were chatting against the bathroom doors, while a third sat in a chair writing Christmas cards. I headed up to the foreward cabin, where two attendants unloaded bottle after bottle of champagne destined for first class.

An economy-class passenger peeked past the partition, smiled and asked for a beer.

"We can't serve alcohol while on the ground," a flight attendant answered, not making eye contact. "It's against FAA rules."

What about the folks up in first class gulping champagne?

"Oh, there's a special federal license for first class," the attendant chirped.

Both the Federal Aviation Administration and Delta said later that no such license exists.

Near mutiny

Another hour went by, the captain irregularly reassuring us that we were "third in line" for de-icing.

"It will be just a little while," he said soothingly.

A woman traveling with two small children asked when dinner might be served. Like many others on the scheduled 5:35 p.m. departure, she hadn't bought any food, figuring that meal service would be forthcoming.

"Oh, we can't serve meals on the ground," the attendant said.

With a near mutiny on their hands, the attendants switched on the movie: "That Thing You Do!," Tom Hanks' spunky '60s rock film.

Two hours later, the film was over and we were still at the gate. Unable to get off the plane. Unable to leave. No food. One soft drink.

Women cried, men swore. The flight attendants disappeared to get away from the mob.

The disembodied voice gave irregular reports over the intercom - "We're third in line for de-icing."

When we finally pulled away from the gate, nine aircraft were in front of us. Each de-icing took at least 20 minutes. Doing the math, I slumped in my seat.

As we inched along, frustration grew. A dapper European gentleman two seats in front of me firmly but politely vented his frustration to a flight attendant, bemoaning the poor start to his American holiday.

The flight attendant later huddled with a colleague to vent about the complainant, smirking, "What do you expect - he's a foreigner" in her honey-dripping Southern accent.

Finally giving in to reality, the flight attendants fired up dinner. The cafeteria-quality grub was portioned out with sour faces. As the prepackaged meats were communally digested, the cabin lights dimmed and the next movie was shown: "Big Night," about a sumptuous Italian meal served by gracious, friendly restaurateurs.

Sarcastic applause

Six hours after we stepped onto the plane, it was finally our turn at the de-icing machine. The snow had stopped hours ago.

At last the Delta flight climbed into the night sky, the takeoff earning a sarcastic round of applause from those passengers yet to pass out.

Todd Clay, a Delta spokesman, would later say that, like its passengers, the airline was a victim of the weather.

"Our job is to get passengers from point A to point B but sometimes Mother Nature gets other ideas," he said.

Last year, Delta had to cancel about 10 percent of its flights, losing $440 million in revenue because of rebookings, overtime and other costs. On the night of my flight, the FAA kept pushing back the takeoff pace along the Eastern Seaboard, creating what aviation folks call "creeping delay."

"Once the plane left the gate, it's hard to turn back to let people off," Clay said. "You get out of the de-icing line and you have to start all over again at the end of the line."

The flight crew really thought all along that we were close to takeoff, but the FAA would push the clock back further as the evening progressed, Clay said. As for the flight attendants: "We're looking into that. We weren't there, so all we can do is apologize to any passengers who felt they were inconvenienced."

Goodwill gesture

Though Clay said the airline would likely have done it all the same way again given the information Delta had from the FAA at the time, passengers on my flight have been sent a $100 voucher as a goodwill gesture.

Aside from the AWOL flight attendants, I harbor no ill will toward the folks at Delta. I blame it all on Atlanta.

Five and one-half hours after my plane took off, it landed in Los Angeles. I stumbled to baggage claim, then onto the shuttle bus to the parking lot. I stood alone, cold, dazed and dirty in the middle of a sea of concrete and cars at 3 a.m.

An hour later, I pulled into my driveway, staggered to bed, kissed my wife and dropped to sleep. At 6 a.m. sharp, my 3-year-old son awoke and ran into the room, filled with excitement to see me after a long absence.

"Daddy, Daddy, get up. UP! UP!"

Atlanta had its revenge.