It’s Hard to Make Friends as an Adult. Have You Tried the Airport?

Airline travel has been rife with disruptions. But some fliers are finding that hangups bring an unexpected perk: new friends.
Airline travel has been rife with disruptions. But some fliers are finding that hangups bring an unexpected perk: new friends.

Summary

‘We just kind of got to talking.’ Chance encounters during travel hangups lead to parties, tailgates and the ‘Delta six.’

The six arrived as ordinary travelers at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in September. Now, they are a tightknit group of friends who call themselves the “Delta Six."

Some bands of buddies begin at school or work. This one started when an airline announcement asked for volunteers to defer their flight to Jackson, Wyo., to the following day—the plane was over its weight capacity.

The voucher value climbed quickly. Once it hit about $2,000, the group that would become the “Delta six" gathered by the gate agent to take the deal and work out logistics.

The six, ages 26 to 47, quickly realized they had much in common: a love for Jackson and a good voucher offer—and a sudden need to fill time at the Atlanta airport.

Airline travel has been rife with disruptions. But some fliers are finding that hangups bring an unexpected perk: new friends.

The next time you’re stuck in an airport, you can wander to the food court for Panda Express orange chicken, thumb through People magazine, or stare into your iPhone until your neck hurts and your thumbs are googling chiropractor near me.

Or, how about making a friend? Yes, right there at the airport. You are sure to have something relatable to vent about.

That was the route taken by the “Delta six": Laura Virostek, Peter Elliott, Caroline Croft Estay, Tyler Case, Jocelyn Boss and Elizabeth Ferguson.

Only two, Elliott and Ferguson, a couple, knew each other before then. Otherwise they were strangers. They had to use their meal vouchers, from the airline, at the airport, so the six dined there together before heading to their nearby hotel.

Case talked about “the best four months" of his life, as a ski instructor for children at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Boss and Croft Estay, both based in Jackson, discovered their children not only attended the same school but were in the same class. Ferguson and Elliott both have ties to Cincinnati and discovered Virostek does, too.

Virostek ultimately visited Croft Estay while in Jackson that week, touring her indoor-farming company. Croft Estay and Boss ran into each other in the airport again in October. And in November, Virostek, Elliott and Ferguson met up for a tailgate at a Bengals game in Cincinnati.

All are now part of a “Delta six" group chat, where topics have included how they spent their voucher money—a final truck payment for Elliott, a trip to Santa Fe for Virostek, a new coat for Croft Estay.

“What really stood out to me is how quickly in a situation like this you can become connected to strangers," says Croft Estay.

“I think we all knew how lucky we were," Virostek adds.

Travelers have faced more-frequent flight delays, and the busy holidays are a prime time for airlines to make deals with passengers willing to take a later flight.

John Kuolt, 43, the founder and chief executive of UP.Labs, was going to a conference in March, on a flight from Los Angeles to Monterey, when the plane rerouted to Fresno because of poor weather.

As he waited in Fresno, Kuolt recognized Laurent Grill, 35, a partner at JLL Spark Global Ventures, who was traveling to the same conference, the Global Corporate Venturing & Innovation Summit.

When the airline announced the flight would return to Los Angeles, Kuolt and Grill walked quickly together to the rental-car center so they could drive to Monterey instead.

Another passenger, Mina Cohen, 32, an event specialist at Fenwick law firm in Santa Monica, was also trying to get to the conference and had the same idea. While walking to the rental-car center, she struck up a conversation with two strangers, Kuolt and Grill.

Realizing they had a common destination, the three decided they’d go together. They even split up among rental counters to improve their chances of getting a vehicle.

Cohen secured one of the last remaining cars, and waved over Kuolt and Grill. Then, as they walked to the parking garage, “we saw someone who looked a bit stressed," Cohen recalls.

That was David Blivin, 66, a managing partner of Cottonwood Technology Fund. “I just said ‘Hey, are you guys going to the conference? Do you have room for an additional person?" Blivin recalls.

Thus the four jilted airline passengers began their three-hour drive from Fresno to Monterey, with a stop for Mexican food at lunch.

“At about the hour mark, you start to run out of small talk," Grill says. “It went from, ‘What do you do?’ to ‘Why?’ and ‘What do you love about it?’’’

Kuolt, Blivin and Grill continue to stay in touch.

“You never know who you’re going to sit next to," Kuolt says.

Earlier this month at the Tri-Cities Airport in Pasco, Wash., Robin Heim spotted someone in line having a coughing fit. That traveler, Mary Clare Johnson, was in a wheelchair, so Heim dashed to buy her water.

The gesture impressed Johnson, 71, who later was thrilled to discover Heim was her seatmate on the flight to Seattle.

“We just nonstop jabbered for the whole hour and a half of the flight," recalls Heim, who is 66 and lives in Chelsea, Okla. She parted with a promise to visit Johnson when she next passes through the area.

“We’ll probably be forever friends," Johnson says.

Heim agrees: “Sometimes, you just need to take a chance on humanity."

Another plus about airport friendships: they are battle-tested, often started when we’re tired and irritable.

One day in June, Johanna Albertsson, a 30-year-old public-relations account director, checked in for a United flight scheduled to depart that evening from Newark for Los Angeles, where she lives. She was looking forward to downtime in the air after a packed trip visiting family and friends.

But at the airport, she learned the flight was postponed and the gate changed. The pattern would continue for the next seven hours.

At some point, she exchanged weary glances with Molly Cornell, a 24-year-old production design MFA student who was booked on the same flight and eager to get home to L.A.

“We just kind of got to talking as we walked back and forth from gate to gate together," Albertsson recalls.

Soon they were showing each other pet photos (Albertsson’s dog and Cornell’s cat), debating whether or not it was actually Ian Somerhalder from “The Vampire Diaries" standing near them (they think it was) and commiserating about wishing they could change clothes.

By the fourth hour, a line formed at the gate as cranky travelers tried to make alternative arrangements. Another passenger strode to the front of the queue, cutting off Cornell. Albertsson felt protective.

“Molly had been sitting there for hours at that point," she recalls. “This lady came up and I just told her, ‘That’s my friend. She was in line.’"

“She definitely got points for that," says Cornell.

Now, the two routinely hang out together in L.A. When Albertsson’s friends asked how they became so close after just one encounter, Cornell replied: “Well, we’ve already seen each other cry at the airport."

Write to Gretchen Tarrant Gulla at gretchen.tarrant@wsj.com

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