The 1987 John Hughes holiday classic “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” is widely considered to be the best Thanksgiving movie of all time. Many families, including my own, screen the classic film at their 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 some 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 endless commuter headaches.
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 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.”
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 Has Plot Holes Aplenty
As the movie begins, Neil Page (Steve Martin) is looking at his wristwatch 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 somehow 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 almost running over Neil.
When it drives off, it is now a Lincoln.
That flight would have likely never even 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 very 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 thus 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, well short of the destination, but it would have landed somewhere in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan or Indiana, and not in Wichita, Kansas.
Are we sure that Amtrak would have let their passengers off to walk across a field of mud? Wouldn’t they be on the hook for trying to provide their massively inconvenienced passengers a more legit way of transportation?
And are we sure that the largest city in the state of Kansas has no commuter trains at all? As the hillbilly character tells us, only livestock trains leave Wichita, to get an Amtrak, you have to go to some place called Stubbville.
Seems suspiciously far-fetched.
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 where his own bus is going until Del Griffith tells him, mid-ride?
Wouldn’t Page, or anybody who ever gets on a bus, at all, ever, 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 and spend the night in central Illinois. That’s very odd considering how they were willing to drive the same burnt-out car the very next day.
Travel from St. Louis to Chicago is only five hours and 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 goodbye 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, and this specific station definitely does not) and the next scene cuts to Page’s home 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 is the owner/manager of The Sports Bank. He’s also the author of “Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America,” and “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry.”
He’s written for numerous publications, including the New York Daily News, Sports Illustrated and the Chicago Tribune. He regularly appears on NTD News and WGN News Now, while writing for the International Baseball Writers Association of America. You can follow the website on Twitter.