When a F5 Tornado Disrupts Your Travel Plans!

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Last weekend Emily and I were planning to visit Las Vegas for the weekend.  Our flight was on Southwest (Emily was my companion on the Companion Pass) from Kansas City to Las Vegas with a layover or connection in Oklahoma City.

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Sleeping in the Lounge

There was a lot of turbulence as the plane approached the airport to land and the passengers to our left were taking pictures of what they described as a “black, dark, ominous looking cloud” but it didn’t strike us as too unusual and we didn’t think too much of it.  Little did we know that the tornado was the widest tornado ever recorded at 2.6 miles.

But as soon as we landed, the flight attendants announced that Oklahoma City airport was under a tornado warning and that we should leave our carry-on bags in the plane and get to the emergency shelter.  Since we’re from the mid-west, this didn’t seem like a big deal and there’s no harm in taking precautions.

Except that the captain look a bit rattled (perhaps he saw or knew something which we didn’t!) and the flight attendants were doing their best to get us off the plane as soon as we could.  So we rushed through the empty terminals with alarm bells going off and into the underground tunnel which was also the tornado shelter.

Taking Shelter Inside the Tunnel at Oklahoma City Airport

There were lots of people, but no one was panicking.  There were a few worried frowns, but everyone was resigned to waiting in the underground tunnel.  We waited for ~2 hours and the atmosphere was quite lively.  One gentleman started playing his guitar and singing!

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Live Music in the Tunnel

A lot of people were taking pictures and remarking that no one would believe them if they didn’t have any pictures!

The TSA staff and airport police were clearly overwhelmed, but they did a very good job of keeping everyone informed of what was going on (there’s a “tornado on the ground”…followed by “looks like there is another one”) and passing out bottled water to everyone.

We would suddenly feel powerful gusts of air sweep from one end of the tunnel to the other end, and there was a leak in the ceiling (likely from a pipe), but we were safe.

Water Leaking From the Ceiling

After two hours, we found out that all flights were cancelled, but that we could sleep in the terminal for the night.

Here’ a news report of the damage to the airport.

There was water leaking into parts of the airport.

Water Leaking Into the Airport

One of the airport doors was blown off.

Blown off From the Airport

And there was a sign which looked like it was going to fall down.

Sign Falling Down
Sign Falling Down

I knew that all flights would be cancelled, but I didn’t get any cellphone reception or internet access in the tunnel, so I couldn’t make alternate plans to get home or to find a hotel.

Fortunately, I had internet on my i-Pad, but couldn’t find any rooms at the airport hotels.  That was a good thing, because we later met folks who did go to the airport hotel, only to find out that they had no power and emergency generator, and then came back to the airport which had an emergency generator and lights.

I searched for Southwest flights online and called Southwest to get re-booked.  There were no flights to Vegas available, but Southwest could get us back to Kansas City on Saturday evening or refund our money.  I decided to have them rebook us for the flight on Saturday evening, but I also made a one-way car rental  from Oklahoma City to Kansas City Airport  for Saturday morning.

There were no rental cars available on Friday night, the roads around the airport was flooded, and taxis weren’t able to get to the airport (so there was no way we could pick up a car rental from an off-airport location).

So we made our way to the gates (with no security screening!) and found a place to sleep.  There were folks sleeping on the floor, on the benches, and in the lounge.

Sleep Where You Can
Sleep Where You Can

We went into the lounge and make a bed out of two chairs.

Inside the lounge
Lounge Access for All

The airport staff and TSA handed out chips, sandwiches, and yogurt for folks to eat.  The sandwiches were in short supply so Emily gave our sandwiches to a family of 4 who reached the line after all the sandwiches were given out, and we had chips for dinner.

Our Dinner!
Our Dinner!

I went for a walk down the terminal and was surprised to see that Oklahoma City had a smoking lounge INSIDE the airport.  I’m not a smoker but was excited to see something different in an US airport!

Smoking Lounge in Oklahoma City Airport

We went to bed and were woken up at 4:30 am by TSA and the airport police who wanted to secure the area and start screening passengers for the morning flights.

There were huge lines outside the airport check-in counters.

Huge Lines by Airport Check-In Counter

So we made our way to the rental counters.

Some rental car companies like National were not honoring reservations because you couldn’t access their part of the lot, but fortunately I had made reservations with Avis.

We camped outside the Avis counter and cheered when someone from Budget (owned by Avis) came over and started processing reservations!

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Waiting for the Avis Counter to Open!

The car rental rep was terrific and encouraged us to car pool to common destinations so that more folks could get a rental.

I had made a reservation for ~$250 and we found two other people to ride with us back to Kansas City, so away we went.

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On Our Way Back to Kansas

Along the way, I was pulled over for taking advantage of the empty Kansas roads.

Emily:  I warned him that we was over the limit, but he doesn’t listen. Daraius:  We were home by noon on Saturday!  I called Southwest customer relations and cancelled our flight back to Kansas City on Saturday evening and got a refund for our flights because Southwest cancelled those flights.

Bottom Line

We were extremely lucky to make it back home safely.  Others weren’t that lucky.

Travel disruptions are unpredictable, but sometimes there isn’t much that you can do.

Don’t stand in the lines at the airport to be re-booked, but call the airline or try to make the changes online so that you can lock in a flight sooner rather than later.

And don’t forget to be nice to the TSA, airport police and staff for their professionalism in dealing with the chaos when flights are cancelled and hundreds of passengers are stranded.  It isn’t their fault.

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