By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“You might miss the real ugly stuff before you take off,” my driver says in blurred English as he navigates the empty, quiet streets of lower Manhattan.
Tuesday, February 13, dawns miserable and cold, and the skyscraper-swallowing sky is releasing the first tiny flakes of snow as we head toward JFK. A born-and-bred Angeleno, I moved to Manhattan right before 9/11 to be the executive editor of a major magazine launch. Now, everything that I can carry is headed back to Los Angeles with me, stuffed into three duffle bags, a backpack, a laptop case and a leather garment bag that bulges like a pregnant sea lion. By the time we arrive at the airport, the faint snow has turned to icy swirls and pelting slush.
I have flown JetBlue more than 50 times since its inception and have praised the company to anyone who will listen. So I am a little surprised when it is announced that passengers scheduled on flight No. 211, departing for Long Beach at 8:45 a.m., will be shuttled to a makeshift terminal constructed of aluminum and tarp. This has never happened before. An absurdly frigid bus ferries us through the ice to the provisional terminal that is almost as cold. We can see our breath as we speak. The terminal has one magazine stand offering a smattering of snacks, one bathroom and the lighting scheme of a 7-Eleven. We finally board the plane at 10:45, the captain announcing, “Okay, we are gonna back out of the gate now and see if we can be one of the last planes out.” Hmmm. The plane creaks back and forth a few times, like it’s trying to shimmy out of a mud hole, and finally lumbers onto the tarmac.
The captain’s voice again: “We are gonna have to get in line to de-ice the wings, and that will take about an hour.” It’s now noon. The seat TVs — JetBlue’s coup de grâce — all flicker with images of Anna Nicole Smith. I decide to make idle chitchat with the girl in the window seat, who looks like the lead actress from Gray’s Anatomy. She is going to L.A. to see her boyfriend; she likes to text him a lot to let him know how excited she is. Time crawls along, and two hours pass. No announcements, no passing out of water and snacks, no crew members even showing their faces. Were they ever here?
Finally, the captain’s voice crackles: “Because of federal rules this crew has timed out and we are not gonna be able to get you out of here. We are gonna have to go back to the gate and wait for a new crew.” Four hours after creeping out onto the runway, including an hour to de-ice the jet’s wheels, we’re back at the freezing ad-hoc terminal. It’s 2:15 p.m. People instant-message friends and family until the wireless juice is sucked dry. Then, we stare off into the ether. The buzz is that a new crew will be here by 4 p.m. I eat some nuts, drink a Snapple and fall asleep, a bundled mess of jackets and bags on the frozen floor.
I’m awakened at 7 p.m. by the announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, a new crew is here but we still don’t have a captain. He should be here within the next two hours.” The captain finally arrives at 8:15 to faint cheers — a sense of camaraderie and a bit of gallows humor still hold sway at this point. But it’s tenuous. As we board, an angry French dude with a New York Giants hat on snipes: “By the fucking time we get out there and de-ice and warm up the engines this crew will have timed out too!”
We settle into our seats. Familiar faces. More Anna Nicole. Someone mentions the movie Groundhog Day and everyone tries to laugh. The plane crunches its way out of the gates. The captain says: “We are gonna defrost the engines because they are frozen solid and then we are . . . seventh in line to de-ice. This should take . . . about . . . two hours.” A chorus of boos rings out, followed by furious texting and “pick me up at . . .” phone calls. The lights are dimmed — either so we won’t have to look at our fellow passengers’ wan faces, or so the flight attendants can hide. Three hours pass with no snacks, no water, no blankets. No announcements. The toilets choke and clog. The Frenchman murmurs something about a mutiny.
We all understand that weather is out of our control and can be bothersome at the very least, but it hasn’t snowed or rained in more than five hours, and as we sit stranded on the runway, other planes (American, Delta, etc.) take off. It seems that this isn’t about the weather anymore, but something even more sinister. JetBlue has become the toast of the industry by, as it has been fond of trumpeting, restoring reasonable prices and “customer service and effective communication” to the airline industry. It has hired pleasant, amiable people from other industries (former actors, former theme-park guides and wannabe disc jockeys) who can crack jokes and call you funny names. Now, though, with push coming to shove, JetBlue is in so far over its head that all it can do is bolt the captain’s door, post an “OUT OF ORDER” sign on the toilets and . . . hide. We are left completely on our own. Things start to get messy.