Dulles Snow Debacle


I remember Feb 03 distinctly -- I was of all things going house hunting and this major "President's Day" snowstorm paralyzed the Eastern Seaboard for days that no one was going anywhere. The Pentagon loved the fact that I was living in the Metropolitan apartments in Pentagon City -- and was the dude that could always come in.

We had not had any major snow storms for years since -- in 2007, we had virtually none. Most years we would have two significant snowfalls (more than 3 inches) and a couple times with just flakes that appear so soft and delicate as they fall, some stick, some just disintegrate.

That's why the Blizzard of 09 completely caught me off guard.

I had agreed over a week ago to take my friend to Dulles, so she could fly to Colombia. "Sure thing," I said. "I'd be glad to."

Little did I know that this seemingly easy trip to Dulles would turn into a 20-hour historic Christmas exodus ordeal.


Her flight was scheduled to leave at 3:30 PM on Avianca to Bogota, Colombia. By mid-morning, I knew that this flight would not take off today.

Speaking with my friend on the phone, I told her that I would be glad to take her to the airport, however, I don't suggest going today but recommended going first thing in the morning instead.

However, Avianca instructed us that the flight was scheduled to leave on time, and if we didn't show up at the airport, my friend would miss her flight and she would not be rebooked.

We looked out the window and was shocked to see the snow coming down like golf balls in an overcrowded driving range, some being thrown as hard as a Nolan Ryan fastball.

Thankfully I had a Subaru Baja AWD, and I knew my car could handle well in the snow. It was a risk, but I felt we could handle this.


I asked my friend to keep on calling both Avianca and the Washington Metropolitan Airport Authority to see if we could get an update in the next few minutes. A cancellation would be good news because we would avoid having to make the dreaded 27-mile trip to Dulles until perhaps tomorrow morning.

Meanwhile, I headed outside to prep the vehicle. My Subaru was almost completely snowed in and it took me a good, intense 30 minutes just to pry myself out.

After I picked my friend up in Anacostia, we crawled down South Capitol St and entered cautiously a snow-ruined highway. We were aghast turning as white as the puffy elements that blanketed the isolated freeway -- nothing much had been cleared -- this was no man's land and the chances of us making to Dulles on time or even at all had suddenly come into serious question.

Over the 14th Street Bridge, we tried to take a shortcut via the GW Parkway. But there were too many skidding vehicles at the exit ramp -- the whole scene resembled a stock car derby at a muddy racetrack. We slowed to ask if everything was alright -- no it didn't seem so -- the people there were all in a trance. We decided to continue on 395 South instead -- the longer, but more surer route.

Despite the harsh conditions, I wasn't feeling all that stressed. Actually the constant rain of flow of tender chunks of snow felt calming, warming and in many ways, carthartic.

Within several miles, the traffic completely came to a slow, painful, dreadful crawl. Apparently a semi had gotten stuck several miles ahead and everyone behind him was paying the price of slowly chugging along, feeling the intense cold wind and keeping our eyes peeled as the visibility had plummeted -- even the car several feet ahead of us seemed like a distant blur.

I used this downtime to check my Iphone. I searched Twitter to see what people were saying about delays. "No flights are leaving Dulles," stated a post -- I appreciated the real time information from desperate travelers like us. Wouldn't it be nice if some innovative traveler on Avianca could tweet their latest info and broadcast the obvious.

Thankfully, we managed to peel ourselves from the virtual parking lot and before long, we had made it to 495 North, heading to Tyson's Corner.

That's when my friend called Avianca once more. This time, Avianca informed her that the flight had actually departed and that she would have to pay a penalty of over $1,oo0 to rebook for a flight that leaves Dulles the day after Christmas.

She was almost in tears...

I was livid. First I was feeling remorseful since it appeared that my friend would not be able to spend Christmas with her family -- the family that she had not seen in a few years.

Then I was in an utter state of shock. I glanced over to my friend who instructed me to radically alter course and set a Bee line for home. At this point, there was no point in even showing up at Dulles, despite the fact that we were only 15 minutes away.

As I continued driving north towards Bethesda, I started questioning the status and motive provided by Avianca. With the constant gush of snow and blizzard winds gusting to 40 MPH, it was physically impossible for the plane to depart.
Then I started questioning the motive once more -- perhaps Avianca knew the real status of the flight but decided to withhold it from their customers , in hopes of gouging them for more money. After all, how would their customers know whether a flight did depart on time at all.

In no time, we were approaching Exit 45 towards the airport. But my friend instructed me to head back -- for a moment she had given up hope -- all hope of seeing her family this Christmas.

The drive towards Bethesda and down Connecticut towards Adams Morgan went rather smoothly, albeit painfully. The snow continued to come down fast and furious and it was now starting to get dark, making matters a lot worse.

It was then that I decided to call the Washington Metropolitan Airport Authorities to see if they could give us an update on our flight. We were amazed and overjoyed to hear that the flight was still on the tarmac, regardless of what Avianca had said.

The flight was now delayed to 6:30 PM. We could still make it to the airport, but we would have to start from scratch since we were already back home in DC.

The second time around was rather interesting -- the storm was even more intense and there were times when we hit a patch of snow, we started to drift only to have my rear wheels gain traction and stop us from fishtailing (Thank God for AWD -- All Wheel Drive).

After making a few wrong turns and driving methodically down the Dulles Tollroad, we were finally at the airport by 7:30 PM, after navigating the roads for over five hours -- we were dead tired, our bodies as rigid as the snowed turned ice that piled up like dwift wood on both sides of the highway.

My friend tried to check in at Avianca, while I went to park at the garage. Unfortunately, the counter was closed and so were the checkpoints. Even the departure listings did not mention the Avianca Bogota flight. There was a complete dearth of information -- we felt we were lost in a foreign country with no directions or currency. Luckily my friend ran into some Colombians who happened to be on her flight. They informed her that they were told by Avianca to be at the counter by 5:00 AM the next day. We were relieved and for once, we we were set free.

With this information, we settled in at Harry's Tap Room and were fortunate to be the very last customers before they closed. All they had was chicken tenders, fries and soup -- and at this rate, it tasted like we were being rewarded with a five-course meal. Plus the Harry's ale was nice and was exactly what the Doctor ordered on this long, cold night.

It was now 10:00 pm, and we had several hours to kill before showtime at the counter. Walking around the airport was depressing -- people were spread out everywhere. Lying listlessly on the floor, every corner, every seat accounted for. Even the shoe shine chair was been used for someone to take a nap, while his iMac sat delicately on his lap.

Plus it was bright, loud and absolutely zero privacy. I peered inside the USO and it was crowded with Soldiers and Marines -- many heading to Afghanistan -- resembled the tight, canned berthing on an LST (Landing Ship Tank)

We were fortunate to make our way to the Subaru which was as cold as a huge block of ice in an New England fish market, but the garage offered the quietude and solitude not found anywhere inside the terminal. For a moment we were alone and images of the snow-strewn highway were now distant and slipping.

The next morning we were up at 3:30 AM. Our faces were beet red and our noses were as cold and bright as Rudolph's.

It was a special day: "Feliz Cumpleanos!," I said. She smiled at the irony of spending the first part of her Birthday in the car. "Thanks, I almost forgot," she said. It could only get better from here, she insisted -- this was her day--may her biggest wish come true.

We were the first ones at the counter. Around us, a sea of people, some sleeping, many in a daze. And after much push-back, haggling and negotiation, Avianca manifested my friend on the first flight leaving Dulles. They pushed back heavily at first, saying that the manifest was already sent to Colombia. But we didn't buy that story. We along with a few others told our compelling story and finally convinced Avianca to allow my friend to board the first flight (her original plane) rather than wait for the second one.


As I waited and watched my friend negotiate with the managers, I noticed someone in the corner of my eye -- someone I didnt know, but someone I recognized on the cover of a magazine. As I always do, in moments like these, I walked up and said. "Aren't you runners? Weren't you on Runners World?" Yes indeed, it was Matt and Adriana who two years ago graced the covers of Runners World.

It was great to meet them in person. I knew and remembered them, I felt that I knew them as friends. Matt told me that they were heading to Colombia to work on support a project for their High Cloud non profit organization. I thought their work had a great vision and was very inspiring -- what a great timing to see them and coincidentally on the same plane as my friend.

It was at this time that I knew that everything would be ok.
In a way, Matt and Adriana were like angels bringing good tidings in a time of distress and hopelessness.


After we got the boarding pass, we informed the airlines that they were irresponsible in holding onto the flight despite knowing the severity of the weather and the slim chances of the snowfall clearing.

They could have made things easier and put less people at risk if they had simply canceled the flight first thing in the morning -- it was a lesson learned indeed, one starting with the patronization of Avianca (never again) and a complete reaffirmation of the RUNIN model: to Reflect, Understand, Negotiate, Innovate and Navigate -- tackling this very huge snow problem and ensuing massive delays.

The key was that we were persistent realists who complied with Avianca's erroneous call. However, we did our own research and called their bluff.

Meanwhile we know that United, Delta and all the big carriers had canceled their flights in the morning and often times automatically rebooked their passengers -- this is the right way of treating your customers, even if it affects their revenue -- safety is paramount and the right thing to do.

Later that day, when I was driving back, I stopped by the Capitol. The Snow had blanketed the Mall creating a terrain that was foreign but beautiful. I tried to dive in it, splash around in it, run in it -- but the layer was too deep, I wouldn't make any traction -- it was like ocean foam on a giant wave without the surf.

Quietly, I surrendered to the safe confines of my vehicle, glad that my friend had boarded the plane, glad that we had made it back safely and smarter knowing that the next decision would only be made with more experience, more rounded and thus more wiser.

* Photo from Loudon Times

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