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Started: 2022-12-23 15:30:41

Submitted: 2022-12-23 16:44:23

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A change in Christmas plans

With both kids in the local public school system, we are beholden to the school's schedule for our holiday travel plans. This year the school district scheduled classes late in the week before Christmas. Their last day of school before Christmas was Thursday, 22nd December. This year our holiday rotation dictates visiting the Stone family, so we booked a flight from San Francisco to Seattle on Friday, 23rd December.

Presents around the Christmas tree
Presents around the Christmas tree

Because we were planning on being gone for Christmas, we held our own family Christmas celebration early, on Thursday night, the last night before we left. We ate cheese fondue (adapting my family tradition from Christmas Eve) and then opened presents from the family plus the other gifts that had arrived at the house.

Christmas stockings hung from the mantle
Christmas stockings hung from the mantle

As the week progressed ahead of our departure the forecast predicted poor travel weather, and I began tracking flights to see what to expect. On Wednesday afternoon, two days before we were scheduled to depart, I checked flight tracking and saw that an aircraft had been assigned to our flight, and that it was just about to fly over my house. The normal approach path to SFO from the south crosses Monterey Bay just east of us, giving me a clear view of the approach from my deck (and of Santa Cruz from inside the plane). I grabbed my binoculars and camera and went up to my deck to watch the 737 MAX 9 cruise above me.

N37528 737 MAX 9 flies over Santa Cruz
N37528 737 MAX 9 flies over Santa Cruz

By Thursday the weather forecast had grown even more dire. We were scheduled to land in the middle of the afternoon, around the time the forecast expected the temperature to rise above freezing after several days of freezing rain, and a tenth of an inch of ice accumulation. Kiesa was worried about the state of the roads, given that we still had to drive more than an hour north to Burlington, the little town where her parents live. I tracked our aircraft as it flew across the country, ferrying from San Francisco to Nashville and back, and then a red-eye to Baltimore. Our aircraft was avoiding the worst of the weather in the midwest, so at least we wouldn't have that specific problem to worry about. Our flight was still scheduled to depart, so we packed and got ready to make a leisurely trip to the airport on Friday.

By the time I woke up on Friday the situation on the ground in Seattle had gotten worse. Our aircraft was on time returning to San Francisco from Baltimore on time, but Seattle (and Portland, and Vancouver, and every other airport I cared to check) were covered in ice and had closed all of their runways and were diverting flights to places like Boise. The nation-wide flight tracking maps had a conspicuous empty corner over the whole Pacific Northwest. Seattle reopened one runway, and was using that to operate some flights: incoming long-haul flights that departed before the airport shut down, and some departing flights leaving for warmer and sunnier locations. (I saw one flight leave for Cancun, and another for Honolulu.) Seattle had a ground hold for incoming flights to manage incoming traffic that kept getting pushed back. An earlier flight from SFO to Seattle had left the gate and was waiting for departure clearance. Our flight wasn't canceled or delayed yet, but it was only a matter of time until it was.

Just as we were about to leave for the airport — I was carrying our suitcases out to the car — we got the text messages telling us our flight was canceled. I carried the suitcases back in and sat down at the kitchen table with Kiesa to follow the link United sent us in the text message to figure out what we could do instead. It quickly became obvious that there was no way to get to Burlington for Christmas: there were no more tickets available at any price on any flight (whether or not the flights could actually land on the ice in Seattle). Even the train tickets were sold out. (I didn't want to drive; it wasn't clear that the roads would be clear enough to drive anyway.) The best we could do was a flight into Seattle late on Boxing Day, one day before we were flying to Denver to ski anyway.

So we scrubbed our Christmas in Burlington, and changed our flight to Denver to leave from San Francisco, arriving at the same time we would have arrived had we left from Seattle, salvaging the ski vacation at Keystone. Kiesa booked another flight for her and the kids to visit the Pacific Northwest the first week in the new year, while the kids have their second week off school.

The upside is that the forecast for Christmas Day in Santa Cruz is warm and sunny (at least by "winter" standards; the forecast high is 68°F), so we're going to the beach.