CAIRO - YOU have to say one thing about those storms that have been battering the United States - they put the adventure back into air travel, not just inside the U.S. but in countries thousands of miles away that have air links to American cities.
Behind those reports that John F. Kennedy Airport in New York or Logan Airport in Boston were closed for a day or two are innumerable stories of airplanes, passengers and flight crews wandering for days in an aviation wilderness, and of frantic ground personnel trying to improvise new schedules and feed and house the lost souls.
When the system breaks down, the passengers best equipped for survival are the experienced travelers who carry only hand luggage, travel alone and have enough money to switch to alternate routings.
At the other end are the weary innocents, the first-time travelers on a budget, who don't know the tricks of airline ticketing. They are locked into a specific itinerary and lack the confidence to risk spending an unprogrammed night in an unknown foreign city.
I learned this during an odyssey that began 6 a.m. on Jan. 21, when I arrived at Cairo International Airport for what was supposed to be a routine trip to Washington - Trans World Airlines flight 803, direct to Dulles Airport with stops in Paris and New York. As soon as I got to the airport, I knew the game was afoot.
TWA announced that the flight would operate only as far as Paris because the 747 Jumbo that was supposed to take us across the Atlantic had not been able to leave New York, where Kennedy Airport was snowbound.
TWA simply sent home all the Egyptian passengers because there was no guarantee they could go beyond Paris and they lacked visas for France. For us Americans, it was time for a quick decision - stay in Cairo and try again the next day, or go on to Paris and freelance from there.
It was an easy choice for most. From Paris it might be possible to make some other connection - Frankfurt-Chicago, say, or London-Miami - and if not, why not enjoy an evening in Paris?
Our tickets read Cairo-Washington, TWA agreed to rewrite them at the airport to Cairo-Paris-New York-Washington, which meant we could get off at each place and resume the trip later. TWA also agreed to leave blank the space on the ticket marked "carrier," which meant the ticket was good on any airline. The airlines don't like to do that, but they will if you insist.
Shortly after takeoff on the four-hour Cairo-Paris flight, the cabin crew produced the one book we all wanted to read - the "ABC Guide," a comprehensive listing of international flights around the world.
Could we make the National Arilines Paris-Miami flight? No, it left from Orly Airport only half an hour after we were to arrive at Charles de Gaulle, at the other end of Paris. What about Paris-Washington nonstop? Only on the Air France Concorde, 10 hours later and twice as expensive. How about Chicago? No good, it required a change in New York.
There was a possibility on TWA from Paris to Boston, but we assumed that if Kennedy Airport was closed, Logan would be too. It was our bad luck to be traveling during the six-week winter period when TWA curtails its transatlantic service, dropping its own Paris-Washington nonstops.
It didn't look good, but we reckoned without the extraordinary helpful and inventive performance by the TWA staff at Charles de GFaulle. Shortly before we landed, our flight attendants made an announcement. Kennedy might be opening in a few hours and Air France was going to try to get off a flight to New York. If any of us wanted to get on it, and take our chances on getting from New York to Washington, TWA would try to find seats for us. It was also possible tht TWA's flight to Boston might be able to get off. Which did we want?
Another quick decision. Air France seemed like a surer bet, but most New York-Washington flights left from La Guardia, not Kennedy. On the other hand, we weren't sure Logan would actually be open. I signed up for Air France to New York, agreeing to upgrade my ticket to first class if there was no room in economy, and a dozen others made the same choice. The rest of our traveling companions, another 15 people or so, either asked for Boston or wanted to stay in Paris in the hope of going to the midwestern United States later in the day.
We arrived at Charles de Gaulle just before noon. TWA's ground personnel had taken our names by radio, contacted Air France, and booked our seats. We had open tickets, which made it easy, but our luggage was checked into Paris, which made a problem.
A polylingual TWA agent lined us up like children, observed with a smile that "Americans are so easy to handle," and marched us quickly through immigration and customs and back out again to the Air France check-in counter. We were breathless, but delighted with this small miracle of air travel. But our adventure had only begun.
Our Air France 747 taxied out to the end of the runway just as an impenetrable fog settled over Chrles de Gaulle Airport. We sat there for more than three hours waiting for it to lift, eating our lunch while waited. It was to be my last meal for 24 hours.
Airborne at last, we learned that the transaltantic flight would take eight hours instead of seven because of the fierce headwinds. In the end, we would have settled for eight hours. We were somewhere over Albany, N.Y., when the captain learned that while Kennedy was indeed open, only one runway was working and there were so many planes stacked up waiting to land we would have to circle the airport for at least two hours.
Since we were running low on fuel, he said, we had no choice but to go to Montreal and refuel, and try New York again later.
Some groans, some resigned laughter, some petulance from the passengers, who knew Kennedy Airport was sure to be chaotic and who were, mostly, hoping to make connections out of New York.
A dozen intrepid souls marched to the front of the cabin and appealed the captain's decision. They sent a message asking him to go to Dulles instead and to let anyone who wanted to disembark get off there. Nobody on the plane wanted to go to Montreal.
But an international airliner is not a democracy. The response to this appeal was, "Fasten your seatbelts. We are beginning our descent into Montreal." The refueling operation took 90 minutes and we were off again.
It was midnight when we landed at Kennedy, 10 hours late but better late than never. I don't know what happened to my fellow passengers who had missed their connections to Kansas City and Houston and Seattle, but for me and Lou Oliver, a General Electric executive from Gaithersburg, the game began all over again. We were still trying to get to Washington, long after the last flight listed on the schedule had left.
Kennedy Airport was, predictably, a madhouse, a chaotic scene of unshaved men, red-eyed women, snow-bound cars and flight boards reading "canceled" or "delayed." The saddest case I saw was a young mother who had been traveling so long she had run out of paper diapers for her infant.
In the confusion, Oliver and I formed an ad hoc partnership. I waited for our luggage while he went off to inquire about any late flights to Washington. The prospects were grim. It took nearly an hour to claim the bags and clear customs, and by that time - 1 a.m. - the airport information staff told us the last flight to Washington had departed.
But TWA came through again. On the theory that we were still TWA passengers and they might help us, we trudged through the frozen night to the TWA terminal and introduced ourselves to the harrassed ground staff as "the last survivors of your flight 803 out of Cairo. Can you help us get to Washington?"
A check-in clerk, trying to handle our request while he took care of a family of six looking for a flight to Madrid, telephoned a contact at National Airlines, on a hunch.
"The good news is that they have a flight that was due out of here at 8:30 p.m. and it's six hours late so it hasn't left yet," he said. "The bad news is it's fully booked. All you can do is go over there and try it.
Another trek through the snow. Another mad dash to the gate. Sure enough, National's last flight to Washington and Norfolk had not yet left - because it hadn't even arrived from Philadelphia. The gate attendant took our tickets, consulted his passenger list, made a telephone call, and announced that we were on. We got the last two seats, and what happened to the others who left Cairo with us trying to get to Washington I still don't know.
National's 8 p.m. flight left Kennedy at 3 a.m., and we landed at National Airport (still open because of the emergency situation) at 4. A mere 30 hours had elapsed since I boarded a taxi for trips to Cairo Airport. I was lucky. I might have been traveling with my children.