Column – Canceled flight was a blessing in disguise

Published 5:02 pm Friday, July 8, 2022

I haven’t boarded a commercial airplane in years, and after our experience two weeks ago, I hope it will be quite a while longer before I do.

Anne has for years wanted to take our children and grandchildren to Disney World before the grandchildren are grown. The plan was to make the trip after we retired in late 2019. Then, in early 2020 COVID shut down everything. A year later, we had a death in the immediate family — and so it went.

Thus, she made plans for the trip in 2022. Starting early this year, she got agreeable dates from John and Sarah, purchased Disney tickets for the whole clan — 10 of us in all — and reserved on-premises hotel suites to accommodate us. The trip was to be made Sunday, June 19, aboard a United Airlines flight out of Norfolk, by way of Dulles.

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Everybody was packed, ready to meet in Norfolk at 8 a.m. Sunday. Then, at about 8 p.m. Saturday, we received an email from United that the flight from Washington to Orlando had been canceled due to some “unexpected operational issue.” We had apparently run afoul of the national airline personnel shortage that is currently plaguing airlines. The shortages appear to be linked to a variety of causes. Airlines laid off valued professional employees during COVID and haven’t been able to rehire sufficient numbers. In addition, airlines dropped their masking requirements this spring and a lot of airline employees have since come down with the virus, causing them to miss work.

We weren’t the only would-be airline customers who were left at the runway. I learned from a news report a couple of days after our cancellation that during a four-day period, including that Sunday, commercial airlines in the U.S. had canceled more than 4,000 flights, and the Independence Day weekend was shaping up to be a nationwide disaster for flying.

United didn’t explain the cause of its problems, and it didn’t offer any alternate flights or other solutions to ours. The company did say it would let us know if any opportunities developed. The closest the company came to apologizing was the message’s opening sentence, “We are sorry to let you know.” 

With non-refundable tickets for 10 waiting in Orlando, we had no alternative other than to drive. We managed to rent a van in Norfolk for Sarah, her three children, Anne and me. John and Rickie drove their own SUV from West Point. We were all in Orlando by Sunday evening.

In retrospect, United probably did us a favor. Driving to Orlando was cheaper than flying, even with two vehicles, and not all that much slower. Flying, from our arrival at the Norfolk airport Sunday morning until our arrival at the Disney World check-in, would have taken about nine hours. Driving took 12.

Driving, or riding when you’re not driving, is tiresome for adults and children alike, but you can stop and take a break when you wish. Buy a snack, walk around, use the restroom and resume your drive.

The alternative, navigating crowds in busy airports, particularly when you’re in a group of 10, including children, is no picnic. 

I never have done a lot of flying. Our work at The Smithfield Times took us to various parts of Virginia, and seldom beyond. And vacations were generally not to distant lands.

Nevertheless, I do remember flying back when it was more or less a pleasant experience. Airport personnel were almost universally friendly, as were flight crews. Food and drink were readily available and there was a bit more room allotted to each seat and thus each passenger.

Deregulation ended the luxuries and 9/11 ended the pleasantness. Transportation Safety Administration personnel have a thankless job, no question about it. Some of them handle their unenviable screening task with as much pleasantness as they can muster. Others don’t even try to be pleasant. 

For some among us, airport screening is more dreaded than it is for others. I have a steel plate in my neck, a pacemaker, two titanium knees and a plate in one ankle (it’s been a rough-and-tumble existence). With all that paraphernalia, I light up metal detectors like Christmas trees, so I do truly dread going through security anywhere.

To be honest, the drive to Orlando prevented something I’d been dreading for months — flying to Orlando. So, thank you, United, for saving me the hassle of flying your “friendly skies.”

I may fly in the future, but for now, Amtrak and automobiles are looking better all the time.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is