Stuck at the Airport

July 18, 2006

There was a severe thunderstorm in New York late in the evening last week. It was so severe that JFK was closed for a while. This is the worst time for a connecting passengers, since by the time it reopened, the last flights out to the west coast had been canceled and next flights out were in the morning.

The airport was a zoo with people going in all directions. Some families were wasting time and energy standing in long lines for a cab. Some were crowded around the hotel information board to use the courtesy phone to locate a hotel room, apparently unaware that a swift comparison of the number of stranded people to the number of available hotel rooms would indicate that their prospects were bleak. Others were going to different airline counters looking for alternate routes. People were acting on the first idea that came into their heads.

Our friend J called from the airport close to midnight. She had been traveling with her family and elderly mother from Rochester to Seattle and was one of the many stuck. The next flight out to Seattle was about 9 in the morning. It was hard not to get caught up in the chaos of the airport and think about the best action among the unpleasant alternatives. Still, with a few minutes of thought, we accomplished what the masses standing in line for cabs had not—we carefully considered the options and chose the one we knew to be the best, sparing her hours of fruitless cab-waiting or hotel room-searching. What we did seems simple, but in an airport in the middle of the night, it can really do a lot for your blood pressure and peace of mind.

We started the conversation by casting a net to consider the possibilities. After a few minutes, there were 3 choices: (i) Find a hotel, (ii) Stay at our place in Manhattan or (iii) Spend the night at the airport.

The priority of the key considerations was to ensure that J’s elderly mother did not overextend herself and that they make the morning flight.

Using Orbitz and information from the airport, it only took a few minutes to determine that all of the hotels that had a shuttle to the airport were booked. Several other hotels were identified that were reasonably close, but did not have an airport shuttle. Before booking, J took a look at the line for taxis. It stretched beyond belief, at least 1-2 hours, and likely longer as the early morning wore on and fewer cabs entered the airport. Hotels were not going to work.

Staying at our place involves taking the Airtrain to the subway or commuter train and then coming into the City. In most cases, this would be the best action since it is an easy hour for a young person, with some walking. However, this is too much energy for the elderly late at night. A modification would be to take the Airtrain to a station outside of the airport and take a cab the rest of the way. Normally this would work, but the lateness of the hour added some risk that a taxi may be difficult to get. Under no circumstances should there be exposure to the scenario of getting stranded in an unfamiliar place.

So the most appropriate action under these circumstances was to return to the lounge of the airport and be as comfortable as possible. Since the alternatives had been explored in 15 minutes, the family did not have to spend more anxious energy and could wait it out. The confusion and false starts continued for many others.

In retrospect, it may be applied common sense. The trick is to be able to apply it to new situations in the heat of the moment. Considering the generalizations can help to do that.

Generalizations to Other Problems:

1. Cast a wide mental net for all the alternatives before acting on any. List in order of preference for the outcome.

Initial thinking is more efficient that acting

2. State clearly the priorities of significant limitations.

An early understanding of these priorities keeps the problem solving on track.

3. Explore the feasibility of the options in order of preference, considering the limitations.

Reference Paper

The paper “When Things go wrong, Initial Responses” in the papers section discusses these and other points in more detail. Of particular relevance is the first section about evaluating the actual situation.