Thank You Anonymous Hero at Chicago O’Hare’s Gate E2a
Our Plane from Tokyo to Chicago yesterday  --  Narita International (成田空港)  --  Narita, Chiba, Japan  --  Copyright 2012 Jeffrey Friedl,  --  This photo is licensed to the public under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License (non-commercial use is freely allowed if proper attribution is given, including a link back to this page on when used online)
Nikon D4 + Nikkor 24mm f/1.4 — 1/6 sec, f/7.1, ISO 5000 — map & image datanearby photos
Our Plane
from Tokyo to Chicago yesterday

10-year-old Anthony and I flew from Japan to America yesterday, and now I'm at my folks' house in Ohio where I grew up. It wasn't as eventful a trip as some horror stories you hear about, but it had its own bit of excitement, and some good travel lessons.

I'll recount the long story here. I don't expect anyone to actually read it... it's mostly for my own memory...

  • My father-in-law drove us to Osaka Itami airport, leaving from Kyoto at 11:30am and arriving at 12:30 in plenty of time to enjoy a leisurely Starbucks lunch before heading to the gate for the 2:35 departure.

  • Heading through security, we found out simultaneously that 1) Anthony had left his large school scissors in his school pencil case, and that 2) this was frowned upon by security. They politely rescanned everything, then the security officer walked the scissors back out to Fumie's folks, who were still watching from before security with curious wonder at the hubbub, expressions that turned to big smiles when the reason was revealed when presented with the scissors.

  • The short 80-minute Flight from Osaka to Tokyo was almost completely full, but one of the few empty seats was next to us. Schweet! Bodes well for a great trip!

  • The transfer in Tokyo to the transpacific flight was uneventful. We boarded United 882 for Chicago, seen above. When boardaing, I was interested to see whether my seating ploy had worked....

A few days earlier, I'd checked out United Airlines' iPhone app, which is pretty well done for a first-generation app of its kind. I can see my reservation, change seat assignments, sign up for push notifications of flight changes, see the exact baggage allowances for my trip, and much more. There are still many areas for improvement, but I was suitably impressed.

United Airlines iPhone app

And like putting candy next to the cash register, the app made it easy for me to pay a bit to upgrade to “Economy Plus” seating, which adds a few inches of extra leg room. I'm 6'4" (192cm) so the extra space makes a huge difference when spending 12 hours in the plane. I once got upgraded to this for free, and it was wonderful (relatively speaking), so I decided to pay for it this time to ensure it: $120 each to upgrade us for the Tokyo/Chicago leg. I'm fine with the extra fee... I need more space than the average person, so it only makes sense that I pay more than the average person. (I wouldn't want the cost of double-wide chairs for obese people built into the cost of my ticket any more than I expect the cost of double tall seating built into the cost of everyone else's.)

Anyway, I upgraded our seats in the app a few days prior, and picked the two edge seats of a three-seat section, hoping that the undesirable lone middle seat between them would be left empty, and we'd get a three-seat section for ourselves....

  • It almost worked. The flight was fairly full, but most middle seats were empty, but, alas, not ours. So I gave the person a choice of either of our seats to swap so that Anthony and my seats would be together, and she (a snowboard instructor from Salt Lake returning from a trip to Bangkok) choose the aisle.

  • The flight was uneventful and we arrived into Chicago about 20 minutes late. The security line for US citizens was really long, and once finally close to our turn got put into the line for an inspector that was really slow. He would hold up the passport picture next to each American and stare intently, taking his sweet time. I suspect he wasn't comparing the photo as much as using the technique to check out the person's reaction, but anyway, it took forever to get through. Once he was done with us, he asked whether we had a connecting flight, and I said “yeah, boarding at 3:45 in Terminal 1”, to which he looked at his watch and said “Uh, well, good luck, and happy holidays”, and with the tone of his voice, I suspected we would not make the flight.

  • We didn't make the flight. We picked up our one checked bag and were out of customs within a minute, but by this time it was 3:45 and our flight to Akron Ohio (over in another far-flung terminal, a train ride and a security checkpoint away) was boarding, so the 20-minute delay in arriving had doomed us. Unfortunately, it was sort of a crazy madhouse and pretty much every seat leaving Chicago was spoken for, and the line to talk to a United agent to resolve this was long.

  • When it was our turn, the kind agent spent what seemed an hour to try to find anything that would get us to northeast Ohio that evening, but absolutely everything was full. The best she could do was waitlist us on the 9:10pm flight to Akron (five hours after our missed flight), and as a fallback reserve a next-evening flight to Pittsburgh. But she went above and beyond and was using her iPhone to check weather (I considered just renting a car and making the 8-hour drive) and looking up bus info, as alternatives that might help us.

  • I couldn't take our big bag through security, so had to check it, so checked it on the 9pm flight to Akron... it would go to Akron whether we made the flight or not.

  • We took the airport train to the terminal where the flight would be leaving that evening (hopefully with us on it), passed uneventfully through security, then stopped by United's Red Carpet Club, the ritzy travel lounge for the 1%. 20 years ago I had traveled on United a lot for business and had reached an at-the-time rare and unpublished “100k Status” (more than 100,000 miles per year), and had been allowed to use the lounge. This time I was traveling in cattle class, but hey, it was their maintenance delay in Tokyo that caused me to be stuck here, so maybe they'd let us use the lounge for a few hours.

    “Were you traveling internationally in first class?” was the question. “No” was my answer, and so “No” was the answer from the man at the front desk who reminded me strongly of Chris Tucker's character from The Fifth Element.

    I thought at least to ask whether he could check whether my waitlist status had improved, but he directed me to a customer-service counter instead.

  • We got a very pleasant lady at the customer service counter in Chicago O'Hare Terminal 2, who confirmed that my waitlist status hadn't yet changed, but she kingly dug in a bit and listed all the flights going to Cleveland that night, suggesting that I could just visit the gate to try my luck. One such flight was leaving momentarily from a nearby gate, so Anthony and I ran over there...

  • We arrived as the final boarding call was being made, to a check-in desk with other customers (obviously folks on standby) hovering around. I explained the my situation to the gate agent ("Flight from Tokyo arrived late so I missed my flight to Akron; I'm just looking for anyway to get to Grandma and Grandpa's house tonight") and she inspected her terminal for the longest time, but in the end said there was no room. Bummer.

  • I stepped away from the counter, but told Anthony that we should just stick around to see what might happen. She was calling half a dozen ticketed customer's names who had not yet shown up, and if they didn't show up, and if there weren't that many on the waiting list, we might actually have a chance.

  • Time limit for the ticketed customers passed, so she calls the standby folks and they go on. Anthony and I just stand nearby waiting, and suddenly she calls us over, gestures to the tired-looking buff guy in his late 20s at the counter who is turning to pick up his bags, and said “he just gave up his seat so you two could get on”. He had been there the whole time, and had apparently heard when I explained my plight to the lady.

  • Dude, really, wow thank you so much! Are you sure!?” was all I could mutter. I was instantly choked up at this selfless act, and yet as happy as I was for it felt bad for him... he looked very tired. But in a truly selfless move he just picked up his bags, smiled a “good luck” smile, and walked away, not even allowing me to thank him properly.

  • The check-in agent said “just give me your boarding passes (for the later flight) and go”, so Anthony and I shuffled down the boarding ramp while I dialed my folks to tell them I would be arriving in Cleveland in an hour, asking the flight attendant what time we arrive while I stood in the door of the plane. It was all very rush-rush and a bit exciting, and I was so happy for the turn of events. Our seats would not be together for the 45-minute flight, but I wasn't complaining. I got Anthony situated in one seat, then started looking for a place to shove the carry-on bags...

  • ...when the gate agent appeared, waved me over, and apologized quietly that she'd have to pull us from the flight because a ticketed passenger had finally just arrived. Doh! Easy come, easy go! I was disappointed, of course, but mostly was still basking in the glow of the act of kindness by that guy at the gate who had given up his seat, and now felt really bad for him because now he had done it for nothing.

  • I called Anthony from his seat, and we walked back up the deserted boarding ramp and into the now-deserted gate area. I dumped our luggage and started to organize things and make a plan for what to do next. First on my mind was to check the Cleveland flight leaving in an hour from the neighboring terminal, but the smell of popcorn from a nearby vendor had Anthony's attention.

    When traveling with not-small kids like Anthony (who is 10), their attitude can make or break the situation: when he's fussy, I'm fussy, and everything is much worse than it needs to be, but during this entire trip he was an absolute angel. Every time things got tough, he'd say “it's our buddy time!”, and we'd fist bump, and get through it together. He was perfect. So it was with this in mind, on my knees in the deserted gate area trying to organize my luggage, that I thought to defer on the next flight and get the popcorn.

  • Then the gate-agent lady appears again, and says they found room, and hurry up we can get you on. So we rush down the boarding ramp again, and I'm calling my folks again to say that the 8:10pm arrival in Cleveland is on again. It turns out that one of the passengers was a United Airlines pilot, so he could move to an extra seat in the cockpit, freeing up a second seat in the cabin. Other passengers made volunteer seat changes, leaving two seats for us next to each other. It felt like a miracle.

  • A flight from Chicago to Akron or Cleveland always feels a bit odd because you taxi at the airport for about the same amount of time it takes to actually fly (about 45 minutes each). We arrived to Cleveland at about 8:15, and Anthony ran into Grandpa's arms.

  • It took quite a while to file the report about my bag, but I was confident that it would arrive into Akron later that night, and so hopefully they could deliver it to us the next day. Dad let me drive, and we arrived at my folks' place an hour later. It was below freezing so much so that we couldn't make snowballs when Anthony and I tried. I took an Ambien CR to fight jet lag and help me stay asleep, and we were in bed by 11pm.

I got up at 6am... I would have liked it to be 8am or 10am, but seven hours of sleep is better than I usually do. As of 9am this morning, my bag is still in Chicago, so Anthony and I may head out to Walmart for some clothes. Christmas Mass is this evening at 4pm.

All in all, we were only a few hours later than our original plan, and I'm still touched by the anonymous man who gave up his seat for us. Thank you anonymous hero!

Now we look forward to Fumie arriving with her folks in a few days...

All 13 comments so far, oldest first...


Merry Christmas to you and your folks!
Glad there are still those kind of people out there.

All the best from Germany

— comment by Andreas Muelder on December 25th, 2012 at 2:15am JST (11 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

Welcome Home!!

— comment by Ray on December 25th, 2012 at 2:38am JST (11 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

I read it. What a story! Brought a smile to my face. Merry Christmas to you and your family!

— comment by David K on December 25th, 2012 at 3:56am JST (11 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

That was actually a very cool “over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house” story! thank you!

— comment by Susan Dennis on December 25th, 2012 at 5:29am JST (11 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

Oh, boy, this story was quite exciting… I am glad that finally you made your flight and got home safe! Looking forward to your pictures!

— comment by Zsolt Arkossy on December 25th, 2012 at 6:47am JST (11 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

The joys of international travel huh Jeffrey. Have a wonderful time with your family and friends at home!!

— comment by Geoff the kiwi on December 25th, 2012 at 10:53am JST (11 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

What kind of bag did you use for carry-on with the camera equipment?

The tag says it’s a Lowepro ComputTreker AW. I can put my D4, a bunch of lenses, my laptop, chargers, etc., and it works as a backpack. I picked it up from a local camera store while traveling many years ago, and have been satisfied with it. —Jeffrey

— comment by Christopher on December 25th, 2012 at 5:11pm JST (11 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

Nice Christmas tale, thanks for sharing 🙂

— comment by Damien on December 25th, 2012 at 8:11pm JST (11 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

A warming tale on a cold Xmas day here in the Scottish Highlands, it made me smile.
Merry Xmas all the best for the New Year.

— comment by Gary Sutherland on December 25th, 2012 at 10:07pm JST (11 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

Sounds like quite the trip. An observation on reentry into the U.S.. It was not always that way. Usually the inspector (for U.S. citizens at least) was semi-friendly with a whiff of a ‘welcome home’ attitude. When son unit & I returned last June from 3 weeks in Japan, we were given the hard stare and questions as if we’d been somewhere/done something we ought not to have.

As for Ohio, son unit is happy to be home away from the wind swept wilds of Ada, Ohio to Northern VA, where winter doesn’t quite have the same bite, at least for now.

— comment by Bob on December 25th, 2012 at 11:14pm JST (11 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

Hi Jeffrey,

Hope you have a good time with your family. Say “Hi” to
Fumie for me.

We had a busy Xmas – 16 for lunch, including our 4-day-old
grandson, Robert. Louisa & he got out of hospital that morning.


— comment by Jim Breen on December 26th, 2012 at 7:51am JST (11 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

I’m glad you made it home eventually. Chicago seems horrible for making transfers from international flights – I had to go through it to get to Montreal from Singapore in the summer, and the world’s slowest immigration officers were on duty. I assumed it was because I was a foreigner: I suppose it should cheer me that citizens get treated equally 😉

What’s the situation with travel insurance in Japan? I only mention this because in Singapore, travel insurance pays out about $200 per person for delayed baggage, for every 8 hours that bag takes to reach you. All of a sudden [if you’re going home] delays become a bit more acceptable, because the longer they take to get your bag to you, the more money the insurance company will pay you. I think we made a third of the cost of our tickets back, just by United thinking you can transit through Chicago and catch your outbound flight within 30 minutes…

I don’t know much about travel insurance one way or the other. I used to buy travel health insurance, but have realized lately that Japanese National Health Insurance which I have domestically also covers me internationally. —Jeffrey

— comment by James on December 26th, 2012 at 10:01am JST (11 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

Wow! You probably remember my FB post about our travails getting home a few years back. Your story reminds me why I don’t like travelling just for fun anymore. I have done enough travelling for several lifetimes many years back, when it was much more pleasant then (no security lines to speak of, for one thing). But, I do think I will try to take the family to Malaysia this summer. My kids still are up for adventure, that is for sure.

Anyway, Merry Christmas, and I look forward to seeing you in the new year. Have a great time visiting your mother and family, and have a safe journey home. I also hope Fumie and her parents have a wonderful visit. I am sure that your parents will adore them.

— comment by Arthur on December 26th, 2012 at 7:44pm JST (11 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink
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