Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Kindness of Strangers: During a Weekend of Wild Windy Weather, We Learn How Much it Can Mean When Strangers Help Out

It was chaos at Auckland Airport last night, with cancelled flights and displaced passengers. Sarah Lang was one of them.

Yesterday and so far today, Air New Zealand has cancelled at least 60 flights due to wild winds, and has warned that disruptions to schedules may continue for a couple of days.  Many people are stranded.

Unaware of the weather in New Zealand, I flew from Melbourne to Auckland yesterday afternoon, and was scheduled to board a flight home to Wellington at 7.30pm. I thought I’d left more than enough time. But the lines at Auckland’s passport control were so long – there must have been well over 100 of us – that we were informed via loudspeaker that things were so busy at the airport that no one was allowed through passport control for the time being.  

How long were we going to be standing there like sheep in a pen? Five minutes? Half an hour? More? No one told us how long this might take, which of course made people like me – who needed to make another flight – feel fidgety and stressed. Finally, after what felt like an hour, but was probably more like 20 or 30 minutes, passport control opened again. But, once I got through that hurdle, I saw there were around 100 people in the lines of people waiting to hand in their New Zealand Passenger Arrival Card. I threw away my son’s present of a giant Toblerone because the queue for the ‘something to declare’ line was much longer than the ‘nothing to declare’ line.

Then I started feeling dizzy and really hot. Maybe I hadn’t drunk enough water? An airport staff member took one look at me, said ‘come with me, darling,’ and fast-tracked me to the front of the queue, even though she had so much on her hands already.

I got my suitcase and RAN from the international to the domestic terminal. I got to bag drop just on time, dripping with sweat, then went through security and got to the gate. Phew. But, alas, then came another announcement: because of the weather conditions, our flight was delayed, as were many others, and we would have to wait for a further announcement. I may have sworn at this point, as did another woman, who seeing I was stressed asked me if I wanted to be her guest in the Koru Club. I did.

It was packed with maybe 100 frazzled people. I’d just got myself an apple juice when another announcement was broadcast: my flight – and many others – were cancelled. There would be no more flights that evening, and no guarantee of one the next day. This was bad news. I needed a prescription medication and I hadn’t brought any extra with me (consider this lesson well and truly learned).

So everyone had to line up to see Air NZ representatives to work out adjusted travel arrangements. I overheard someone say that some flights had got to Wellington but, because of the wind, had to turn back. I overheard someone say they couldn’t get flights until Wednesday. I overheard someone else say they were going to rent a car and drive to Palmerston North.

At this point, I began feeling nauseous, dizzy, and then I had a panic attack: it happens to me sometimes, it’s something a lot of people experience, and I refuse to feel ashamed of it. Your breathing becomes shallow. A motherly woman in the line asked me if I was ok (no, I said), gave me a hug, and told the people ahead of us in the queue that I was unwell and could they please let me through. Everyone let me do so without so much as a grumpy look, even though they must have been desperate to sort their travel arrangements. I sat in an office to breathe through the panic attack.

An Air NZ staff member came in and said she was going to get me on a flight the next morning if at all possible. Another lovely, warm Air NZ staff member got me to do some deep breathing, and talked to me about how her daughter experiences panic attacks, and how there is nothing to be embarrassed about. In fact, she said that people having panic attacks after cancelled flights isn’t uncommon at all.

She came outside with me until my understanding, pragmatic mother in-law, Liz, picked me up. When we drove out of the airport, we saw a long queue outside the rental-car booking offices. We went to an open-late pharmacy (taking medication is something else I refuse to feel embarrassed about).

I got back to my mother-in-law’s house around 11pm and got up at 6am to make the 7am flight to Wellington, hoping the flight wouldn’t be cancelled. Reader, I made it. On the flight, I thought about the strangers who had shown me such kindness. Some of these people were stressed-out displaced passengers, and some were staff having to deal with a swarm of stressed-out, displaced passengers. And, touched by the kindness of strangers, I decided to write this story,

As I sat down to start writing this at a café (I needed a flat white, stat), an older woman, Jan, sat next to me, and we started chatting. She was upset about missing her flight because that meant she would miss a family get-together. Jan is a counsellor and says that, in her work and with her family members, she talks about ‘the flipside’. Try to flip a situation, she says, to see it from a different point-of-view. So perhaps I could flip my frustration with my inadequate packing, with passport control, and with the cancelled flight to see the positives: that I’ve made it home, that I’ve learned from the situation, and that people are kind.

Thank you to those people for reminding me of the kindness of strangers. I promise to pay it forward when I can.

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