CALGARY -- If getting there is half the fun, this is going to be a very long Olympics.
"Come Together In Calgary" is the theme of the XV Winter Olympics that open here Saturday, and it has been the theme for me and several colleagues the last two days, as what began as a six-hour trip turned into a 26-hour ordeal that carried us through every time zone in North America and every extreme of weather.
It sounded so easy: Baltimore Washington International to Denver's Stapleton Airport, an hour to make my connection, then on to Calgary. That is, until an equipment problem and a snowstorm in the Rockies delayed the flight to Denver hopelessly -- and all connecting flights to Calgary were booked.
I tried the office, where I found I was not alone. Travel agent Mary Redding had her hands full: Leonard Shapiro and Ken Denlinger were trying to get to Calgary from National Airport, where they weren't in United Airlines' computer even though they had tickets in hand. As far as United was concerned, they didn't exist.
I headed back to the Continental counter. After a false start, the agent said, "Well, let's get you to Denver and we'll work on it from there."
As he was preparing the hotel voucher, another agent found an alternative: "How about Houston? There's a nonstop to Calgary in the morning. One seat left. And no weather problems." I was off.
After a night in a hotel, I was back at the airport for my morning nonstop to Calgary. Baggage checked, I strolled to the check-in counter only to see the sign "IF YOU WOULD BE WILLING TO TAKE ANOTHER FLIGHT FOR COMPENSATION, PLEASE TELL ATTENDANT." Not a good sign, nor was it encouraging when they said they were bumping passengers because of bad weather on the route, which required them to carry fewer passengers and extra fuel.
Since there was no "later flight" with seats, there were few takers on the offer of compensation. Next plan: get a bigger plane. Next plan when that failed: same plane, put everybody on and stop in Denver for refueling. As a measure to avoid bad weather, stopping in Denver in February seemed to lack a little something.
On the other hand, Houston wasn't much better. "Look, they're de-icing planes," a woman said.
The weather en route lengthened the flight -- almost three hours to Denver -- then a half-hour for fuel, then back in the air. "Welcome to Amtrak," our pilot said.
By this time, the passengers were a tough audience. One man in our row was counting empty Chivas Regal bottles; he stopped at three. And it was only 1 p.m. The "fasten seat belt" sign meant nothing to this crowd. One guy simply stood the entire way, reading a novel.
Meanwhile, back at National, Shapiro and Denlinger, with help from United agent Sue Hoover, went from displaced persons to real life, and on to Chicago. Straight into a snowstorm.
At O'Hare, they waited along with the U.S. women's curling team for a connection. No place like an escalator in an airport terminal at midnight for an interview.
In Chicago, they went through two planes -- one couldn't be de-iced sufficiently -- and two pilots -- one could not be found after the switch of planes. The eventual pilot checked a final time for ice on the wings by peering out of a passenger window, flashlight in hand.
From there, it was off to Spokane, where they arrived at 3 a.m. The flight was scheduled to go on to Calgary, but the pilot announced that the crew's hours in the air had exceeded FAA limits and they had to stop for at least 11 hours. All were told to spend the night in a hotel, then come back for more.
The curling team had a momentary fright at the baggage claim area. "Our brooms are missing," one of the curlers said, aghast. They were quickly located, avoiding a major Olympics broom-haha.
United's Flight 985 landed in Calgary at 4 p.m. Thursday, less than an hour behind Continental's Flight 497 from Houston.
One of my editors, O.D. Wilson, summed it up best when I called to say I was in Houston: "You're going the wrong way. These are the Winter Olympics."