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Bridget Gleeson Travel Writer

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Stranded in Brazil

When mechanical error strikes: how to calm down an angry mob of frequent fliers.

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I spent seven long, sweaty hours in São Paulo/Guarulhos airport yesterday, waiting for a flight to Washington DC, before United Airlines announced that there was a mechanical error with the plane. After midnight came the sudden announcement that the flight was cancelled altogether.

Boy, I wouldn’t want to be the airline employee who broke the news. Everyone was already tired and hungry (the São Paulo airport is notoriously short on lounge space and totally devoid of a decent cafe or restaurant) and ready to just sit down on the plane, eat our tiny servings of chicken and rice, and fall asleep in front of Toy Story 3. It was late and most people had either a crying baby in arms or a business meetings to attend the following day in the US. Things got even worse when the airline mentioned that there were no seats available on other routes – we would all have to wait a full 24 hours to catch the next evening’s flight to Washington.

Confusing announcements were delivered over a scratchy microphone in a mix of Portuguese and broken English. Naturally, there was a general uproar. Where would we sleep? What about dinner? What about our luggage? What about going through Brazilian customs for those without visas? Some travelers were Japanese or Russian and couldn’t understand anything that was being said.

What followed was fairly disastrous: one Brazilian guy emerged as the self-proclaimed leader of our grumpy group, and he yelled and cursed in Portuguese as we were forced to wait in long lines at immigration and retrieve our bags from a messy pile of suitcases. He even kicked a luggage cart that rolled right into a woman in a wheelchair. That was a real low point. As we boarded a bus to our overnight accommodations, everyone was complaining in their respective languages. (To summarize the commentary? ‘This sucks. They’re probably taking us to some hotel an hour away. I bet the restaurant will be closed. I’m never flying United again. Nothing works in this city. It will be 3am before we can sleep.’ And on and on.)

I kept my mouth shut – a plus of traveling alone! – and thought about how fantastically spoiled we all are. We expect everything now, and we show no mercy when the plans change – even if the plans have changed to protect our own safety. Still, things seemed pretty grim when we were 45 minutes away from the airport in a dark, deserted neighborhood.

We were all surprised to pull up to the front door of a gleaming, glass-encased business hotel where an elegantly uniformed staff was waiting to whisk us away to our respective rooms. A bellboy lugged my gigantic suitcase into a spacious suite; I promptly unwrapped the chocolate from the minibar, figuring I wouldn’t be paying for it.

Our 24-hour hotel stay included three vouchers for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I wasn’t expecting much (maybe it’s because of what happened last winter on an Amtrak train between La Crosse, Wisconsin and Chicago? I pictured myself in the cafe car, sipping hot chocolate while the snowy scenery rolled by. But the train never came and we were boarded onto a cramped Greyhound bus to Chicago and each handed a $5 voucher for a roadside Burger King. Five dollars actually buys a surprising quantity of food there, by the way.) So I was in paradise when I made my way down to the Brazilian breakfast buffet this morning. Behold, a spread of a dozen brilliant tropical fruits, freshly squeezed juices, pão de queijo and scrumptious chocolate muffins with strong, dark coffee.

The lunch buffet was even more impressive – the hotel put down the white linens and silver and offered us grilled fish and chicken, pasta and steak, eight different kinds of salad, freshly baked bread and a dessert table with tiramisu and dark chocolate ice cream.

There’s nothing really to do when you’re on an extended layover like this – we don’t have tons of time, we’re not close to anything, some of us are not legally approved to even BE in Brazil right now – but we do get a rooftop swimming pool, a fitness center and three gourmet meals out of it.

So, bravo United! You pulled through. Even the grumpy people are in better spirits now.

But being in transit gets old fast. I’ve gone through all my reading material and eaten too many overpriced potato chips in the airport. Please, please – for the love of all that is beautiful in Brazil – just get us on that plane tonight.