DENVER—Watching with a mixture of bewilderment and pity as a small group of solitary travelers quietly boarded his plane at 11:15 p.m., United Airlines pilot Terry Elston shuddered Monday while attempting to imagine why his passengers could be taking a red-eye to Atlantic City. “Good lord, I don’t even want to know what surreal downward spiral a person’s life could take that they would need to get to Atlantic City by 4:30 in the morning,” said Elston, feeling chills running down his spine at the mere thought of circumstances either so inconvenient that a more humane time couldn’t work or so urgent that it couldn’t possibly wait until the morning. “Nobody just gets a sudden midnight urge to fly to New Jersey, so some terrible purpose is calling each of these poor slobs tonight, many of whom don’t even have carry-ons. I can’t guess what collection of fucked-up things could be going on here, but they can’t be good.” Elston further noted that as unsettling as the red-eye situation was, these passengers were most likely nowhere near as panicked and fear-soaked as the people currently boarding 1 a.m. flights departing Atlantic City.