It's every passenger's worst nightmare: An airline cancels a flight, stranding travelers in need of alternative ways to get to their destination. That's what happened to 13 strangers who booked a Frontier Airlines flight from Orlando, Florida, to Knoxville, Tennessee, on Sunday evening.
After customer service representatives announced that passengers would have to wait 48 hours for the next available flights to Knoxville, the group came together, rented a van and took off on a 12-hour road trip.
One of the passengers, Alanah Story, a media manager, documented the journey on her TikTok account. Her initial video announcing the impromptu road trip got 3.6 million views in three days.
Story said the flight was canceled because of staffing issues. She, her mother and her godmother were heading back home after having taken a vacation in Orlando. Story was prepared to spend a few more days in Florida, but her mom told her they were joining the group in the van.
"I was just, like, are we actually about to get in a van with people we don't know? Like, is this safe?" she said.
The prospect of getting into a van with strangers is scary for most people, and Story admitted she was initially "freaking out." However, once she met the group, she said, she got "good vibes" from everyone.
Michelle Miller, an agricultural educator, echoed the sentiment.
“We got along really well, like, we’re just, like, a big, crazy, dysfunctional family,” she said. “It was fun. ... We are all really different people. But we all came together and had a great time.”
Some of the passengers were just trying to get home, while others had pressing matters to attend to in Knoxville, including an appointment for a college campus tour and an agricultural conference.
Miller said she initially asked the Frontier Airlines customer service representatives whether the airline could put everyone on a bus to Knoxville. In recent months, some airlines have put passengers on buses as the industry has faced pilot shortages, and Miller said she has been offered that solution in the past.
Frontier didn't offer a bus option, and other passengers overheard Miller's suggestion and considered driving themselves. Eventually, everyone who wanted to drive came together to rent the van.
The group got to Knoxville around 8:30 a.m. Monday. Miller made it in time to give her keynote speech at the National Agricultural Aviation Association’s Ag Aviation Expo.
Meanwhile, fellow passenger Laura Puckering, her fiancé, Carlos Cordero, and her daughter Mikayla, who traveled to Knoxville to visit the University of Tennessee, were able to make their 10 a.m. tour appointment. Puckering was grateful for her fellow passengers' help in getting her family to their appointment on time.
"We supported each other. We cared about each other and what each of us wanted to get back to," she said.
The group was surprised that their journey went viral, and Story said the passengers were so excited by the response that it was hard to sleep in the van.
“I slept max 20 minutes,” she said.
Despite the lack of sleep, the group was glad that their story was able to bring viewers joy. Puckering said the video seemed to "restore faith in humanity." Story agreed.
"We're very different individuals, and we came together because we all needed each other," she said. "I think it resonated with people because they could feel a strong sense of community through their phone screens. And I feel like that's something that, you know, we're really lacking a lot right now."
The road-trippers said they plan to keep in touch with one another, and Story said her family and another Knoxville-based passenger, Q, already had plans to do karaoke together.
While the road trip brought new friendships, the group still had troubles resolving issues with Frontier. Miller said she was able to request a refund from Frontier, but others in the group had trouble doing so. Puckering also said she requested a refund. Story said she was offered a $76 refund and a $50 voucher.
Jennifer De La Cruz, a senior director of corporate communications at Frontier Airlines, said customers had the option to receive a full refund or wait for the next available Frontier flight.
"We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience caused by the flight cancellation," she said.