33 “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” Commuter/Geography Plot Holes, Mistakes

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The 1987 John Hughes holiday classic “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” is considered by many to be the best Thanksgiving movie of all time. Many families, including my own, screen the ’80s film at family gatherings this week, and in some cases, those watch parties involve pointing out all the glaring plot holes. Such is the case in my family, which includes several engineers, a few pilots and other assorted non-stupid people.

Throw in a fact-finding journalist, in a holiday environment where the bourbon is free-flowing, and now you’ve got another layer added to this timeless tale of commuter headaches on steroids. PT&A is a story of extremist Murphy’s Law (“everything that can go wrong, will go wrong”), or basically taking American Airlines, anywhere, at any time. Hey oh!

There are a ton of minor and miscellaneous errors that we won’t have time to cover here. We’ve noticed and read about several small scale and easily overlooked inconsistencies and contradictions (Michael McKean’s Illinois state trooper character is apparently dressed in the Wisconsin uniform), but “ain’t nobody got time for that.”

After all this is plenty of egregious over-analysis of a mainstream box office comedy film.

However, if you need more of that sort of thing, be sure to check out this link and also this link which covers some of the Easter Eggs, and harder to catch errors in this movie.

Also, for further reading, I’ve done 1,300 plus words on what bowl game Notre Dame and USC are playing in on Christmas Eve during “Die Hard.”

Manhattan to LaGuardia Commute Plot Holes Aplenty

As the movie begins, Neil Page (Steve Martin) is looking at his wrist watch which says 4:45 pm. By the time he escapes the meeting and gets outside, it’s near 5pm EST. It’s the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in New York City, and on this calendar day, it would have already been pitch black outside for at least a half hour. Yet here it’s still broad daylight.

Also, it’s rush hour, in NYC, and Page thinks he’s going to make the commute to La Guardia (the airport portrayed in the film, despite his ticket reading JFK) from Manhattan in time to catch a 6pm flight? That flight would board at about 5:20-5:30, plus what about time to walk through the concourse and go through security screening?

Page’s co-worker advises him to wait and take the 8pm flight with him. If he did, he’d STILL have to leave around this time. Even in the ’80s, you needed to get to the airport at least an hour/90 minutes ahead of your flight. Finally, a BMW stops just before running over Neil. When it drives off, it is now a Lincoln.

That flight would have likely never taken off in the first place

As all the pilots in my family will tell you, weather changes every four hours. The flight from New York to Chicago is only two, so a severe winter storm of this magnitude, which shuts down O’Hare for a long duration of time, would have been somewhat anticipated.

Most likely, the plane would have never left the ground, because they would have seen a storm like this coming and prepared.

It Would have Landed Somewhere East, not West of Chicago

Let’s say the winter storm that backs up “19 hours of air traffic” as alluded to later in the film, DID come out of nowhere, mid-flight (the American Airlines looking plane on the ground now has TWA colors in the sky for some reason), the pilots would not re-route to a destination hundreds of miles west/further away!

I understand you don’t have a movie unless the plane gets grounded, long short of the destination, but it would have landed somewhere in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan or Indiana, not in Wichita, Kansas.

Train Issues

Are we sure that Amtrak would have let the passengers off and walk across the field of mud? Wouldn’t they be on the hook for trying to provide their massively inconvenienced passengers a more legit way home?

And we sure that the largest city in the state of Kansas has no commuter trains at all? As the hillbilly character tells us, only live stock trains leave Wichita, to get an Amtrak you have to go to some place called Stubville.

Seems suspicious.

Why is the bus approaching St. Louis from the Illinois side?

First off, why doesn’t Page, who’s as desperate and determined to get home as any holiday traveler ever, not know his bus’ destination until Del Griffith tells him during the ride?

Wouldn’t Page, or anybody who ever gets on a bus, at all, know that before boarding? And apparently the bus driver, coming from Jefferson City, Missouri, decided to cross into Illinois first before then coming back into St. Louis.

Why? That’s up to him/her, but what we do know is that bus crosses a Mississippi River bridge into the city.

Getting from St. Louis to Chicago- WTF?! These two points are not that far apart

Unless you’re Bill Clinton, no one is allowed to walk across a working runway, which Page both described and portrays. Granted security pre-9/11 was more lenient, but it was never like this.

Also, Page, as ANGRY as he is (justifiably and understandably so) didn’t think to wait for the next rental car shuttle to come back? Those things run on a loop, and it wouldn’t have been the last one that day as it’s still midday when this scene occurs.

As Griffith and Page watch their rental car burn after a late night accident you can read a highway sign that indicates they’re 102 miles to Chicago.

That would leave them with just about an hour and 45 minutes drive remaining. Considering that it was bright daylight when they left the St. Louis airport, and therefore well before 4pm, at latest, it’s still early evening at this point in the film. Yet they decide to get a hotel; that’s odd considering they were willing to drive the same burnt out car the next day.

Travel from St. Louis to Chicago is only five hours and just a straight shot on Interstate highway 55, yet we see Neil and Dell travel surface roads and switch drivers twice. After spending a night in a motel and driving for awhile towards Chicago they finally hitch a ride in a dairy truck. Del then tells Neil they’re currently about 3 hours from Chicago.

Therefore, for some reason, they drove well over an hour in the wrong direction?? Planes, Trains and Automobiles gives me an ice cream headache here with their twisted pretzel “logic.”

Also, in that hotel, Neal pleads to the good nature of the hotel clerk by telling him he’s been wearing the same underwear since Tuesday. It is Wednesday, the night before Thanksgiving, at this moment.

Approaching Chicago from the east/Southeast?

Del tells Neil that the dairy truck driver gets freaked out when people ride up in the cab with him; therefore they must ride in the cargo hold. But Dell was just depicted riding with the driver.

Also, for some reason they are approaching Chicago on the Dan Ryan Expressway (which is straight south) instead of the Stevenson (the direct route in between Chicago and St. Louis). Also, the vantage point is directly east, i.e. in the midst of Lake Michigan.

Additionally, the Sears Tower, which can be seen through the fog and cloud cover while other very tall skyscrapers cannot, is facing a different direction than the other buildings shown. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is all kinds of wrong here.

How did they get from La Salle/Van Buren to Kenilworth?

We see Dell and Neil say good bye at the La Salle/Van Buren L station downtown. When they reunite, Griffith is in an indoor waiting room somewhere (almost no L stations have these, this specific station definitely does not) and the next scene cuts to Page’s home block in Kenilworth.

So how did they get to a suburban train? They obviously didn’t take a private car because why would they be walking towards the home from a distance carrying Del’s suitcase. I guess John Hughes cut this commuter plot device for time. Anyway, Happy Thanksgiving everybody!

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net, which is partnered with News Now. Banks, the author of “No,  I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” regularly appears on WGN CLTV and co-hosts the “Let’s Get Weird, Sports” podcast on SB Nation

You can follow Banks, a former writer for NBC Chicago.com and Chicago Tribune.com on Twitter here and his cat on Instagram at this link.

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