The European Experience

In early June, students, teachers, and chaperones undertook the school Europe trip, an event that had not occurred since 2019. From a beginning marked by aircraft issues to an end impacted by Covid-19, as well as many extraordinary events in-between, the trip was an unforgettable experience for all involved.

In a reminder that Covid-19 still holds a deep impact on society, head chaperone and math teacher Mrs. Jennifer Wilcox tested positive for the virus the day before departure. Mr. Bryan Jones took over as the head chaperone while Mrs. Wilcox quarantined at home.

For departure, the chaperones divided the students into two groups. Those on the first flight, nicknamed the “Dirty Dozen,” departed for Rome by way of Dallas, Texas. The remainder of the students, about 40, took a flight that left slightly later out of Little Rock to Charlotte, North Carolina. While this first flight went off without a hitch, the second flight, from Charlotte to Rome, hit many snags that ultimately resulted in what was a thirty-hour delay.

American Airlines flight 720 (AA720) took off normally and proceeded along the planned route. Soon after reaching the state border with Maryland, the flight circled back due to a maintenance issue. However, this was not a simple turnaround, as the flight was forced to circle around Charlotte for several hours in order to “burn fuel.” The flight eventually landed just before 9:15 p.m., but passengers were unable to deplane until closer to 10 p.m.

This was not the end of the troubles for the group, as securing ground transportation for more than 40 students as well as a not-insignificant number of chaperones, proved to be difficult at best. While some reached the Hilton Charlotte Airport hotel by 11 p.m, some students did not arrive until closer to midnight, with the last group arriving well after 1:15 a.m.

“I thought we were getting screwed over. I thought that we were not going to see the things we were told that we were going to see,” said senior Johnathan Sterba.

Students left the hotel starting at 9:00 a.m. and continued to do so until about 10:00 a.m, as the buses had enough room for only ten people. After they arrived at the airport, students and chaperones went through the normal procedures of checking in and going through security, but the airport security halted some travelers due to a mishap with the dates of boarding passes, which were printed the previous day. After resolving this issue, all were able to enter the terminal.

American Airlines scheduled the second attempt at making it across the Atlantic Ocean for take-off at 2:30 p.m. However, the plane did not leave the gate until after 2:45 p.m., and it did not lift off the ground until 3:28 p.m. The plane took off as normal, with a route that planned to arc over the North Atlantic. Soon after reaching the ocean, however, students noticed an apparent issue with the on-plane flight tracker — the destination had suddenly been changed to JFK, the major New York City airport. The pilot eventually announced this information at around 4:30 p.m. After circling off the coast of New Jersey for some time, the plane eventually landed at JFK at 5:50 p.m., although group members would not fully deplane until 6:10 p.m. Students then broke to find what dinner they could, after which they returned to the gate.

Students were surprised and disappointed at the exceedingly long delay. “I blame American Airlines,” said senior Essa Kassissieh. “It just feels like the definition of insanity — doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result.” 

Several students expressed bemusement at their situation. “At some point,” said senior Cole Cameron, “it turns from annoying to absurd. It feels like a comedy of errors.” 

Fellow traveler Andrew Travis expressed a similar feeling. “It’s just unbelievable until it happens to you,” he said. 

While some students were stressed about missing items on the itinerary, some expressed a “go-with-the-flow” attitude. “I’m just chill about it all,” said rising senior Owen Fraley. “Our parents [were] more mad than most of us. Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches.”

Senior Carter Izard concurred. “My parents were a bit scared about the situation, but I was chill about it all. I was along for the ride.”

One student in particular took to the internet to air his struggles and received an unexpected response. Jake Jansen noted his disappointment in a post on Twitter. Sarah Beckman, a producer at WCNC Charlotte, responded to this tweet. While students were getting what dinner they could find at a largely-empty JFK airport, Jansen took part in an interview over Zoom, which was later used in a story for WCNC.

A student-chaperone meeting at 8:15 p.m. provided much-needed information that was the cause of concern among students and parents alike. The chaperones informed the students that the plane from day one (that which left and returned to Charlotte) was a different plane from day two (that which diverted to JFK). They were also informed that the plan was to have students get back on the second plane unless their parents had qualms about the situation. Although a select few were hung up for several minutes, all eventually re-boarded the plane at 8:30 p.m., ready to finally depart for Rome. 

However, students would have to wait longer, as news came from the flight attendants that the plane would stay on the ground for 45 minutes in order to receive fresh in-flight meals. Those 45 minutes lasted over an hour, though, as the plane did not pull back from the gate until 9:38. Yet again, though, this was not the last of the delays, as due to a computer switchover, a runway switch, and what may have been a police car on the tarmac, the plane did not lift off until 10:40 p.m.

The plane landed at Rome – Fiumicino International Airport at 12:30 p.m. local time. Passengers had to deplane via “air stairs” instead of a jet bridge, after which they boarded buses to take them to security, customs, and baggage pickup. This procession through the airport was followed by the group’s introduction to one of the two tour guides for the group, Jackie. Students boarded the bus and headed out on their first day of the trip. “It was really unfortunate because it caused a domino effect that interrupted a lot of the important early events,” said senior Jake Jansen. “We did not really get to acclimate to the time zone — we were thrown right in, and we had to get going almost immediately. We also missed seeing the inside of the Colosseum.”

After a quick but intensive tour of the sights of Rome, including the Colosseum, the Pantheon, as well as the ruins of the Roman Forum, students were left tired by the pace. However, nearly all considered the tour to be a great experience. “My favorite part of Italy was seeing all the historic sites,” said Jake Jansen. “There was so much history with the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and the Colosseum. I really loved learning about all of the sites and it definitely expanded my view of history.”

The next day was focused on the Vatican, with students taking a guided tour of the world’s smallest country. While many students appreciated the art and architecture, the religious significance of this visit was not lost. “The Vatican was an extremely cool experience,” said Phillip Zawislak. “Visiting the beating heart of the Catholic Church, as well as walking through St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, was a real joy.”

After lunch, the tour took an excursion to the mountain town of Orvieto, where students could take in the architecture, taste the gelato, and enjoy an unparalleled look at the natural landscape. “The views from Orvieto were breathtaking,” said Zawislak.

The next stop was the city of Florence. Whether due to the sheer amount of sights to see, or the extended period of free exploration time, Florence was commonly noted as the favorite city of the trip. “The culture [in Florence] was amazing and there was so much to see,” said Jansen. “I got to see such places as the beautiful Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Michaelangelo’s David.”

The trip then took a visit to the town of Verona, the city most commonly known to high schoolers as the setting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The trip then continued onto a small Austrian town, where students and chaperones took in a German-language Mass.

The next major stop was Munich. Shortly after arriving, students participated in a bike tour of the city. The tour did have to be abbreviated due to a thunderstorm. While some students expressed confusion about why the bike tour did not take place during better conditions, some noted the bonding experience that it provided. “My favorite part of Germany was the bike tour. It took place in the pouring rain, and it was a funny experience that I will never forget,” said Jansen.

The next day also took place in Munich and was marked by the stark dichotomy between the two major planned events. The first was a self-guided walkthrough of the BMW World, a time that many students used to unwind and look at cars. The other major event for the day was a tour of the Dachau concentration camp. After watching a film and exploring the grounds for over an hour, many noted the experience as a solemn occasion that allowed for reflection and a deeper understanding of history.

The last two days were tours of Prague, including a river cruise and a tour of Prague Castle. Students were appreciative of the atmosphere in Prague and the Czech Republic in general. “The constant stream of shops, the clean air, and the constant new attractions that presented themselves before you made Prague one of my favorite places from the trip,” said Zawislak.

The flights to come back to Little Rock occurred in a much less crazed fashion than the flight over. However, one student and one chaperone extended their stay in the Czech Republic an extra week due to testing positive for Covid-19 the night before the flight home. The whole group tested on June 9, just three days before the Centers for Disease Control dropped the testing requirement to enter the United States.

The overwhelming opinion was that the 2022 Europe trip was an unforgettable time for all and full of memories that would last a lifetime. From the flight over to the flight back, from Italy to the Czech Republic, the trip was a profound experience that students and chaperones alike enjoyed, in spite of delays, fatigue, and thunderstorms. “All in all, it was a fantastic trip, and I do not regret going on it in the slightest,” said Zawislak.

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