NCUR students battled bad weather and bureaucracy

Participants in the National Conference on Undergraduate Research faced inclement weather and airline bureaucracy during their trip.

Kelly Holm, Senior Reporter

Out of 89 hours encompassing the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) presenters’ journey from Hamline to Atlanta and back, 41 were spent in airports, according to a Facebook post by senior Avery Marshall.

The voyage, which began in the early afternoon of Wednesday, April 10, was due for completion by evening, with a Chicago layover along the way. But as afternoon faded, nearly 40 Hamline undergraduates were still circling MSP airport’s tarmac.

“We were sitting at the gate,” senior Leanne Byman said. “That’s when we heard about the first delay. Our boarding time got moved back… 30 or 40 minutes.”

It only went downhill. After boarding, April showers of the snowy variety made deicing necessary before departure. The pilot initially promised the procedure would take under 30 minutes. But the plane waited for over three hours, only to have to leave the deicing line upon running out of fuel.

“It was four and a half hours… from when we were supposed to depart to when we actually did,” Byman said.

During these obstructions, faculty booked most presenters onto a late-night flight from Chicago to Charlotte, N.C., and from there to Atlanta early Thursday. A smaller group would travel straight from Chicago to Atlanta.

However, upon landing in Chicago, the Charlotte group nearly missed their flight due to an unruly passenger and the lack of a jet bridge connecting the plane and airport. When they could finally disembark, their connecting flight had left the gate and was taxiing toward the runway.

“When American Airlines realized there was no other way to get us there they turned the plane around, brought it back to the gate and put us on,” Byman said.

If this action had not been taken, supervising faculty would have cancelled the trip.

“If we couldn’t make this flight, we were just going to turn around and go back to Minneapolis,” senior Gavin Jensen said.

The group of over 30 landed in Charlotte at 1:30 a.m. and waited at the airport all night for their morning flight to Atlanta. When both groups arrived there at last, several students had already missed their presentation times and had to be rescheduled.

On Saturday, returning was not much better. A connecting flight to Dallas was repeatedly postponed due to tornadoes in Texas, so American Airlines sent the group to Chicago instead, with the promise of hotel vouchers before a Sunday flight to MSP.

“They did provide us with vouchers eventually. But… it was like 11:30 p.m.” Byman said. “We had been waiting [at Chicago O’Hare airport] for… hours.”

Some were given vouchers for the Holiday Inn, while others were placed in the Hampton Inn. Both were about 20 miles from Chicago O’Hare; only the Holiday Inn had a connecting shuttle. Recipients of Holiday Inn vouchers comprised about 20 percent of the group.

Vacancies there were limited. “The Holiday Inn… had to bunk many of us into very few rooms,” senior Jimmy Koch said.

Recipients of Hampton Inn vouchers were even less lucky. The vouchers were supposedly worth 15 rooms, but the hotel had no record of reservations and were full that night. A few students were transferred to the Marriott, but most remained at the airport.

“Sleeping in airports was a new thing to me,” Jensen said. “Charlotte was better because we had carpet to sleep on. Chicago O’Hare kind of smelled like urine.”

Security was not yet open, so Pipers camped in the airport’s public access area.  

“A random man tried stealing my wallet as I slept,” senior Abberamee Visvanathan wrote on Facebook. Though another student was able to halt the theft, Visvanathan “couldn’t believe this was happening at all, and was just too shocked to lay back down or even close my eyes.”

After returning, professor Jen Robb filed a complaint with American Airlines. Many travelers felt compensation was necessary.

They should owe Hamline for any debt incurred from the hotel situation,” Koch said.

Professor Matt Sumera agreed reimbursement would be nice.

“American Airlines seemingly got every single thing possible wrong that could go wrong,” Sumera said. “I have opinions about what I’d like to see them do, as far as what they will do, that’s a different thing.”

He acknowledged compensation was unlikely when Pipers were one of many problem-stricken parties.

“We were one group of hundreds of people who were stuck,” Sumera said. “Unfortunately, with strange weather, and global climate change, and other types of things that are going to impact our environment, I feel like this is probably the direction in which a lot of air travel is going to go.”

Robb agreed.

“If we were to say American Airlines owes us money for the damages, they owe it to everyone on that plane,” Robb said. “We had pretty terrible circumstances, but we weren’t the only ones.”