“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.
The Gray’s Anatomy girl finally tires of BlackBerrying her boyfriend and begins sobbing uncontrollably, her thick tears visible in the half darkness: “They won’t tell us anything; there’s no flight attendants anywhere. I just wanna go home.” A fistfight breaks out by the one working bathroom, which smells like Malibu Creek runoff; a vicious anxiety attack seizes a mother whose two children are screaming like hyenas; a lady who looks uncannily like Kathy Bates stands up and begins muttering: “Please help me, someone please help me, my medication is in my baggage and I need to get it now.” A bald, menacing-looking guy starts banging on the cockpit door, saying he and his new wife “have to get off the plane.” (There isn’t a crew member to be found!)
Finally, as the tension peaks, the captain emerges from his den. It’s 1:30 a.m., five hours since the second time we left the gate. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are next to de-ice, but this crew has timed out and we are gonna have to take you back to the gate and cancel this flight. You are gonna have to gather your luggage at baggage claim and please call 1-800-JetBlue to reschedule.”
The angry Frenchman tears into the captain in a hybrid of French and English.
“We will not get off this plane until someone from customer service is here to help us,” someone screams from the darkness. More anonymous, tired, angry voices follow. “What baggage claim do we go to?” “Why did it take so long for you to cancel this flight?” “Where the hell are the flight attendants?” “Will JetBlue pay for a hotel room?” “My dog is sick, are there any vets open in Queens at this hour?” “Can someone ple-e-ease help me? I have nowhere to go.”
The doors open and a gust of cold air greets us as we deboard the plane into the waiting arms of . . . no one, except the hundreds of haggard figures who have turned JetBlue’s JFK terminal into a refugee camp.
This ominous greeting is nothing compared to what waits for us at baggage claim. With JetBlue flight cancellations accumulating like a real blizzard, there are now, at 2 a.m., close to a thousand people packed into baggage claim and at least three times as many bags strewn across the floor like dead bodies. People mill about crying, exasperated, looking for a JetBlue employee (“call 1-800-JetBlue for customer service”) to help them find their bags, to tell them what’s next. It is a disaster zone.
By the time I find my bags — 5 a.m. — every hotel room in Queens is booked, so I hunker down with the rest of the airport campers. Over the following days and nights, I roam the airport looking for information, check in to see if I can get on a standby flight (“call 1-800-JetBlue”), eat pizza, wash my face and brush my teeth in the bathroom, sleep on the floor, check my e-mail when I can, talk to fellow refugees. I’ve taken on a real-life version of Tom Hanks’ role in The Terminal. For its part, JetBlue has all but abandoned its post, leaving its customer-service line — which replies every time with, “I’m sorry, our lines are full, please call back at a later date . . . ” — to deal with the crisis. By Thursday evening, I finally give in and book a $150-a-night hotel room in Manhattan to regroup, rest and plot my way home.
The hotel provides me the respite I need to battle JetBlue. I recruit the help of a friend in Los Angeles and we tag-team the customer-service line. I wonder about the folks who couldn’t afford to get out of the airport. A day later, my friend awakes me from a deep slumber. “Grab your shit and get to the airport, you’ve got a seat at 4:05.” For the first time in days, I no longer feel like a spirit wandering in limbo trying to find a way home.
The flight takes off only an hour late, Terra Blues chips and spring water flow, flight attendants, still a bit dazed and unsure, try to be jovial. I spot a woman I recognize from my first flight last Tuesday, nearly 100 hours in the murky past. She winks and waves with a smile. We are whole again.