If everything had gone perfectly, my flight from Corpus Christi Texas to White Plains New York on Tuesday February 7th would have been grueling. Corpus Christi to Dallas, an hour and a half, then an hour and ten minute layover with a change of terminal on the light rail; Dallas to Washington Reagan, 2 ½ hours, with a three hour layover, and a change of terminal on a bus; Washington to White Plains, an hour flight before touching down at 11:15 pm. But when I left my hotel at 9:10 am on Tuesday, it never occurred to me that I would not arrive home for a full 24 hours – not until 9:20 am on Wednesday.
In fact everything did start out perfectly – even better than perfectly, as the first two flights left early and made up more time in the air. Things went perfectly right up until the moment at Washington Reagan when we were called to board at our gate, Gate 35X. The monitor showed Flight 5173 “On Time,” and boarding began right on schedule.
If you are not familiar with Reagan Airport, let me explain the infamous Gate 35X, which is a gate in name only. In fact it is a series of “Doors” at the bottom of an escalator, through one of which passengers board a bus with mostly only standing room that, when it finally starts to move, winds through the airport at 5 miles an hour to the plane.
On this night – on this our first of six times on the bus! – the bus stood longer than usual, and when it reached our plane stood again with the doors closed, for perhaps five minutes. When the doors finally opened, it was not for us to file out, but for our captain to hop up onto the bus and make an announcement. “I can’t take off because I can’t land,” he told us. White Plains had fog. He needed half a mile visibility to land, and visibility was only a quarter of a mile in White Plains. And so we had our second ride on the bus. The plan was to take us back to the terminal, wait 15 minutes, and see if visibility improved.
To me it seemed highly unlikely that heavy fog was going to lift in 15 minutes, but sure enough, in 15 minutes we were back on the bus for our third trip. Soon we were on the plane, buckled in, moving, taking off, and up in the air. Relief, well, perhaps premature.
Before long the captain came over the intercom to say hello. “As I told you, there is a quarter mile visibility in White Plains. We’re going to try to get you there.”
Excuse me? This was the moment when the 20 of us on the plane began to bond. We frowned at each other. Didn’t he say he needed a half a mile visibility? Try to get us there? Well, I thought, at least if we have to divert to La Guardia I can get a cab home. Better than being in Washington.
Settled in. Drinks, pretzels, reading. A little over a half hour later, the captain: “I’m sorry to say I have some bad news.” Flight controllers would not clear us to land because of the fog. We were already over Long Island at this point. “The Company wants us to return to Washington.” Stunned exhalings of breath rippled through the cabin. LaGuardia was right down there below us, but the Company, American Airlines, to be clear, was sending us back to D.C. Inexplicably, we did a u-turn over Long Island and returned to Washington.
For me, the moment that symbolized the whole American Airlines experience was the moment when we touched down where we had started. The robotic, brain-dead flight attendant began her rote spiel about keeping seat belts fastened until stopped at the terminal by reciting in monotone, “Welcome to Washington.” You have got to be fucking kidding me.
By some strange coincidence when the twenty of us stepped off the plane onto the tarmac at 12:30 in the morning, there were two policemen waiting at the foot of the stairs. The Company was taking no chances.
Our fourth bus trip returned us to Gate 35X, at the usual crawl. Gate attendants met us as we entered the terminal, calling out our names. New boarding passes for each of us on the next morning’s 6:17 flight were fanned out on the table in front of them. Even with a long night ahead, it was a relief to know I wouldn’t have to try to re-book myself.
One person complained bitterly that she was not about to take a 6:17 am flight, and I believe they accommodated her. Several people went to hotels, as we learned when we all re-congregated in the morning. They spent $140 and two cab fares for about 3 hours sleep, if indeed they were able to sleep. American would not pay for hotels because it was a weather-related cancellation. Nor did they give us food vouchers, or offer any other help.
Most of us just decided to sleep in the terminal. Or try. A half dozen of us hung out together: a couple heading home from Nashville; a Mercedes Benz service manager returning from a convention in Phoenix; a college student returning home from one of the Carolinas, and a couple of others who had also come a long way to this dead end at Gate 35X. The first thing we discovered was that every single set of seats in the terminal had arms. With the entire terminal at our disposal, we could not get comfortable. We settled down near recharging stations, either trying to sleep sitting up, or lying on the hard floor.
It was not long before a security guard came along and contradicted the American Airlines personnel who had told us we could hang out anywhere. We had to leave the secure area. After giving some halfhearted argument, we followed him out and downstairs to the long corridor of deserted ticket counters. A single cluster of seats facing the windows looking out on the departures drive would be our new home. Behind us, workers were buffing the floor, communing with each other and passing female workers in shouted banter. Sometime around 2:00 one of the workers sauntered over to one of the women passengers and engaged her in conversation. With people trying to sleep all around him, he shouted to her as if he were standing next to an airliner taking off, until our friend from Nashville eventually said something to him and he retreated. I may have slept for an hour. I ate what few unhealthy snacks I still had (nothing, of course, was open in the airport), refilled my overpriced bottle of water at a fountain, and checked my watch.
A disabled passenger had arrived ahead of us in a special bus for our flight to the skies over Long Island. We had stood on our bus watching the laborious process of lowering ramp and wheeling him onto the plane, retrieving the wheel chair and raising the ramp, before our door opened. Now at 2:30, as I sat staring out through the airport window, I watched as he was wheeled to the curb and loaded into a taxi. Within minutes, one of our fellow travelers had retrieved the wheelchair, enabling her to sit at the bank of charging stations against the wall, working on her computer.
A long night was still ahead. When we had arrived at 12:30, the prospect of sitting until 5:30 didn’t seem that horrible in theory, but by 3:30 it was already feeling very long. Soon thereafter, our Nashville traveler came by, nudging those sleeping, to let us know that TSA would come on duty at 4:00. He suggested that since there had been several other flight cancellations the day before, we might want to stand on line now. And so we trooped back upstairs. At 3:45 in the morning, there was indeed already a line. But we sailed through security, and took up our earlier places in the seats at Gate 35X.
But sleep was over. Now almost family, we took turns watching each other's bags and heading for the just-opening food concessions. By 5:30, faces that had been absent during our long vigil reappeared, and told us of their hotel experience. And then at 5:50 it was time to take the escalator down to boarding Doors.
Tiredly, we staggered out to the bus for trip number five. The doors closed. As usual the bus stood for minutes. But it never did start moving. The doors reopened. Someone shouted for us to return to the gate. Back inside came the announcement: Flight 4048 had mechanical problems. There would be a delay.
At this point, several people were getting irate and laid into the gate attendant, who offered them the pleasure of talking to a manager. They sallied forth, and when they returned, happy that they had unburdened themselves, though with nothing to show for it, they reported what she told them. In 9 out of 10 cases, these mechanical problems had a quick fix. Not to worry. What about the tenth case? I wondered.
The next flight to White Plains was at 2:00 in the afternoon, if there were even seats on it. I could not possibly sit until then. I would have to give it up and go to a hotel. But that was not an option. A massive snowstorm was bearing down on Washington and New York, and would arrive with a vengeance the next day. Suddenly this was becoming a problem without a way out. Amtrak was all I could think, but retrieving bags, lugging them through the city, getting home from Penn Station while exhausted…… And so we waited.
About 20 minutes later, the gate attendant lifted his microphone and began to speak as I watched his expressionless face for some inkling of our fate. They had found another plane for us, he said. When it was fueled and the crew were aboard, we would leave the gate. Not, obviously, a quick fix of an airplane’s mechanical problems this time. But definitely a solution.
A sigh of relief – sort of, maybe.
We did board the bus, for the sixth time, crawled through the airport to our new plane, found our seats, taxied. The flight took off – an hour late. Once in the air, the captain came on the intercom to tell us weather conditions. Cloudy in White Plains, with some ground fog. Turning around to look behind me, I saw raised eyebrows and wide eyes.
Westchester County Airport, White Plains. With relief I saw my bag come around the conveyor belt. (It had been placed aboard five airplanes since I handed it over in Corpus Christi.) The sun was peeking through the clouds on a very pleasant early morning in White Plains as I retrieved my car. I arrived home at 9:20 am, 24 hours and ten minutes after I had left my hotel in Texas.
Others had been quite angry. They had already fired off enraged notes to American Airlines and posted on Facebook by the time we took off. But I couldn’t quite work myself up to real anger. I couldn’t see how exactly American had been at fault. They had certainly tried to get us to New York. And when they couldn’t, they immediately provided us with tickets on the next flight. Maybe that ill-fated flight to the skies over Long Island was misguided, but they tried. As for not diverting to LaGuardia, the captain told me they could not get a slot. Whatever that means and whether I believe him is another matter.
It was more a question of attitude. I can truly say that no one at Washington Reagan cared. Not one American Airlines employee showed the slightest inclination to offer comfort in word or deed. No person made the slightest individual effort on our behalf. We were only 20 people. Just 20. At the least, they could have opened one of their lounges for us. They did not. Would Southwest personnel have treated us this way?
Beyond the uncaring individuals stands the uncaring corporation. Over the course of the night, we had plenty of time to discuss what an airline that cared even minimally about its customers might do in this circumstance, which is not a rare one. It might have an employee prepared to assist us to find hotels. It might even have cots stored on site for a situation such as this. But American Airlines, like most, perhaps all, airlines, is quite content to leave its customers stranded and abandoned.
When we were first kicked out of our seats in the secure area, several of us ventured off to find the American Airlines manager. We headed for the only office that was open. No manager was to be found. The response from the three people sitting in the office: “We’re Baggage,” said one. "We’re just Baggage,” said another. “You can’t sleep at the gates,” chimed in the third. I didn’t stay for the rest of the conversation.
I later learned that part of the blame for this fiasco goes to slimy Westchester County politicians and administrators. In this incredibly wealthy county, the airport's REI lights were out of commission and not being fixed for a very long time. For all I know they still have not been fixed.
As I understand it, Runway End Identifier Lights are the first thing the pilot sees when approaching the airport. If the REILs are not working, the rules for visibility are drastically stricter -- thus the problem landing in fog without REILs.
On a subsequent early-morning flight from Westchester on JetBlue, my flight was delayed because the arriving aircraft was circling, due to fog. When we finally took off, our pilot came on the intercom to complain. He asked us to call our elected officials because nothing was being done about the absent REI Lights