January's Travel Vortices, Polar and Political
THURSDAY, JANUARY 31, 2019 -- Life on the road has come at us cold, hard and fast so far this year.

I don't know what to talk about first, the polar vortex that made it difficult to fly this week or the political vortex that made airports a mess this month.

Maybe let's start with the weather since it is so fresh on our mind and searing on our skin. I mean, what do you make of a system so severe that it shut down the airports in Fargo and Grand Forks, North Dakota? Fargo! Aw, jeez, too cold to fly in Fargo!

It was also too damned cold to fly much in Chicago. As the air temperature plunged to -20 degrees yesterday, the Chicago River froze and TV reporters gleefully threw cups of boiling water into the air and camera operators reveled in catching the moment when the water instantly turned to steam and snow. Meanwhile, airport officials handed out cups of complimentary hot chocolate to flyers who arrived at O'Hare and Midway.

Why did they bother? Flightaware.com reports that about 60 percent of O'Hare flights were cancelled on Wednesday. Ditto Midway. Minneapolis/St. Paul was a bit better (10 percent cancellations), but nationwide more than 2,700 flights dumped.

Very little aeronautics works in a polar vortex. Deicing equipment ices over. Diesel engines seize up. It's too dangerous even to fill an aircraft's water tanks because the water and the tanks might freeze. Train workers set fire to tracks in the Chicago area in an attempt to keep commuter services running. Amtrak, on the other hand, simply gave up, cancelling yesterday's arrivals and departures in Chicago.

Today has been little better even though air temps nationwide have risen a bit. As of 3:30 p.m. this afternoon more than 2,300 flights have been dumped nationwide. O'Hare cancellations are north of 50 percent, Midway dumps are around 40 percent. About a quarter of the departures from Mitchell Field in Milwaukee have cancelled. And around 15 percent of the flights in Columbus and Cleveland were grounded. There's snow in Europe, too, and flights are snarled on the Continent.

Have I told you I hate the cold? Not as much as I hate snow, but I despise cold. I didn't always. My cold complex goes back to the late 1970s, when winters like this somehow seemed more frequent.

I have a vivid memory of a winter weekend wedding in Buffalo with many bottles of Finlandia, rooms at a dreary-as-you'd-expect TraveLodge and endless mountains of snow. And there was this time in Chicago when I hoofed it half a block to the corner of North Michigan Avenue in search of a cab to McCormick Place. I looked up and a time/temp sign on the building said -10 degrees. That's when I realized my mustache was frozen and falling off and I could not raise my arm to hail the cab. I wore a long, brown leather coat in those days and it froze solid in just the minute or two of early-morning exposure.

For all the havoc wrought by the polar vortex this week, I keep thinking of last Friday's airport meltdown at the height of the political vortex of the partial government shutdown. After a month of creeping TSA checkpoint shortages and rising wait times, Friday morning was the inflection point. Enough air traffic controllers decided to call in "sick" for financial reasons--it was, after all, the second consecutive pay period of no pay--that the FAA ran out of bodies. There was a brief ground stop at LaGuardia Airport in New York and a whirlwind of delays from Boston to Washington.

The shutdown was over by the end of the day. Congress passed and President Trump signed a bill temporarily reopening the government, ensuring that TSA agents, Customs inspectors and air traffic controls could go back to work and get paid.

In service of absolute truth, it turns out that Trump caved on Thursday night after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told him the GOP caucus would break ranks and vote to reopen the government. Friday morning's airport contretemps were just the visible evidence of the national mood.

But Friday's airport vortex raises an interesting question. If the House-Senate conference on border security fails to come to a deal--or, more likely, it agrees on something that displeases President Trump--what happens if the government shuts down again?

If you were an air traffic controller or a TSA agent or a Customs inspector, would you report without pay for a second time? Especially when you realized that a morning of airport chaos at least coincidentally ended a month-long political deadlock.

I'm no political pundit and I don't sit around a table and play one on TV, but I'm thinking a government shutdown in February would lead to a nearly immediate mass sick-out of controllers, TSA agents and Customs workers. As we've learned, far too many of our government employees work paycheck-to-paycheck. They can't afford to be the victim of another political power play and they now know attention is paid when they stay home en masse.

Stay warm this weekend, fellow travelers. Enjoy the football game and then watch the political machinations over the next few weeks. It could get very interesting on the road along around Valentine's Day.

One final note: Many of our fellow travelers rushed to help out financially stressed airport workers and all of us, it seems, were more polite to the TSA functionaries manning airport checkpoints. May I suggest we pay the same respect to the first responders who've been working through this insane polar vortex? There's no work-from-home option for cops, firefighters and medical evac personnel. Fifty above or 50 below, they're on call. They deserve mad props.