The big board at O’Hare International Airport is a bully — lording in front of the terminal and announcing your travel fate in high-definition.
Throughout every day, stressed travelers cautiously approach the screens, hoping for good tidings in the form of the coveted phrase “ON TIME.”
The less fortunate receive a message treated in yellow that represents disrupted travel, either a flight delay or, worse, cancellation.
Reading such a note is dispiriting for anyone, but it hits different when you have 120 eighth-graders in your charge — just ask Glencoe parents Annice Moses and Tina Balderas.
Moses and Balderas were chaperones of Glencoe Junior High students who were headed for an educational trip to Washington, D.C., in February — a journey three years in the making that was rescued by dependable parents, patient teenagers and one tenacious airline employee.
The eighth-grade field trip had an inauspicious start.
The travelers were to meet at Glencoe Junior High prior to their Feb. 17 flight, but they could not get into the school. While the problem was quickly resolved, it was a sign of things to come.
With about 120 individuals set to depart across two flights destined for Washington, D.C., the group gathered in the school’s auditorium with snow and high winds picking up outside.
“The weather was pretty crazy, but we had not received any info from the airport that the flights were canceled,” Moses said. “There was a feeling of optimism against Mother Nature.”
That feeling evaporated quickly upon arrival to O’Hare.
The big board delivered the news: Flight 1 canceled. Flight 2 delayed.
Balderas began making calls. The trip’s travel group was not much help, she said, and she began playing phone tag with a number of American Airlines agents.
Eventually, a plan emerged involving a new flight; however, the airline needed to mobilize a crew. About seven hours later, the students and chaperones were still posted up in the terminal.
“It got to a point where I said, ‘You need to let us know if there is a chance. If not, we need to get buses back here and get the kids home,’” Balderas said.
The airline reportedly told Balderas to take the group home, but she should keep an eye on her phone; they were still trying to charter a flight.
“I was thinking ‘yea, right. That’s never gonna happen,’” she said, but she also told the students not to unpack — just in case.
While the first group stood by in O’Hare, the second group was flying high across Appalachia.
Group 2 withstood a flight delay and departed Chicago around 11 p.m., arriving at their Washington, D.C. hotel around 3 a.m. Friday, Feb. 18.
The next morning the students in D.C. began to check off their itinerary — Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Wall. Meanwhile, Moses was on the offensive, doing what she could to help Balderas and the second group back in Chicago find and board a new flight to the nation’s capital. She said all she saw of the International Spy Museum was its bathroom.
Amid the chaos, the students’ collective understanding and upstanding behavior were essential.
“I think honestly because they saw all the adults were completely determined and it was just a question of when (their classmates would arrive), not a question of if,” Balderas said.
Back in Chicago, Balderas’ phone rang at 7 a.m. It was Anita Pearson from American Airlines.
Pearson helped combine the Glencoe group with a group of students out of Oak Park, who also lost a flight, to justify a chartered flight that afternoon.
But they’d have to get more buses — and to hurry.
“Every single kid was back at the school by 10 o’clock,” Balderas said. “It was amazing.”
Pearson worked the overnight shift but stayed on in the morning to help Balderas’ group, even giving Balderas her cellphone number. She was instrumental in holding the flight until 1:30 p.m., as well.
Balderas and Moses gave Pearson credit for making the entire trip happen.
“I said thank you so much,” Balderas said of her conversation with Pearson, “and she said, ‘I’m relentless, these kids haven’t done anything in two years. They really need to go. … We want to get them out.’
“Initially no one was going to help get us out.”
The D.C.-bound plane took off around 1:30 p.m., and the student groups joined forces around dinnertime.
Balderas’ group met Moses’ at a small Mexican restaurant that never knew what hit it.
“It was like the president arrived,” Moses said of the celebration. “The kids went nuts to see their friends. I lost it. I was crying. … Thankfully Tina met Anita. She really saved the day. It was something.”
The two groups took on D.C. adventures together for the remainder of the trip, which lasted until Sunday evening, Feb. 20.
The flights home were relatively uneventful, and Moses and Balderas said despite the emotional and tense scenario, and because of Anita Pearson’s heroics, the Glencoe students enjoyed a trip they will never forget.
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