Stranded!

December 26, 2010

Terminal 2/3

JFK Airport, NY

There had been repeated warnings of a big winter storm headed our way but I took this with a veritable mountain of salt, given that the online as well as TV weather forecasters have a penchant for dire forebodings. Forecasts that are delivered with a generous splash of doom-and-gloom projected scenarios likely generate more viewers (and hence more revenue) than realistic estimates. In any case, I had a flight to catch and by the time I left for the airport, all flights were on schedule. Same old, same old, I thought.

Arriving at JFK, it seemed business as usual, which meant the usual disinterested airline personnel at their lackluster best. I checked in my backpack and took a seat. The view outside had changed. The few flakes that I had started with had changed to dense clumps that were coming down and layering themselves on the every available surface. My fellow passengers and I smiled at each other and bolstered ourselves with the knowledge that we were already checked in and just waiting to board. The arrivals monitors had turned an alarming shade of red – the list of cancelled flights seemed endless. The departures monitors were doing their best to keep up. More and more flights were cancelled. But at last our flight was called and we filed into the plane and into our seats with alacrity. The flight crew handed out headphones and ensured we were plugged into our individual monitors and kept pacified watching movies or television or playing games.

The welcome message of “flight crew cross check” crackled in through the static and we waited to trundle along the runway. But a few seconds later the static-laden voice of the captain came over the intercom. There was some sort of problem with the GPS system. We had to wait until service personnel came onboard and fixed. It. So we waited. Some twenty minutes later, once again we were ready to taxi. But again we did not. This time the captain said that we did not have the right tug to pull the aircraft out. The fury of the storm had increased to near white-out conditions and the grounds crew could barely clear the runways. The runways had to be de-iced before we could leave and all the aircrafts were being tugged to the runway prior to takeoff. Given that most flights were cancelled, this shortage of available tugs was a mystery, unexplained to this day. So there we were, still on board, still waiting to take off. The next bid to take off failed as well – the generator had failed it seemed. It came back on for a few minutes and promptly died again just as the passengers were cautiously beginning to get their hopes up. The narrow window in time we had had was up and after a little more than four hours of sitting on the tarmac, we filed out again.

The airport terminal had undergone a remarkable change in the four hours that we had be on the plane. Groups of vociferous passengers crowded the desks at the few gates stilled manned by airline personnel. The smarter ones had long since disappeared from the desks, leaving a few still gamely trying to keep peace. The sight of a couple of carts loaded with airline pillows and blankets told its own story. We were in for a long night at the very least. The scene outside showed complete white-out conditions. The snow in some areas was already several feet deep and getting deeper by the second. The airtrain had ground to a halt. Ground transportation followed suit soon after. It was not even possible to go from one terminal to another. It seemed like Terminal 2/3 was going to have to be home for the next while.

Inside the terminal, the change was no less dramatic. Those long uncomfortable rows of chairs that I always thought were screwed into place, were apparently movable. Groups of passengers had banded together, moved them to form little sections of their own, bounded on each side by a row of chairs. These were ‘hoods’ in the making. And in each of these little ‘hoods’ were piled the luggage of the group. A couple of people were left on guard while the rest went to forage for pillows, blankets, food and drink – whatever that could be coaxed, cajoled or bullied out of the few remaining hapless personnel. How quickly humans revert to clan mentality, I thought. Really interesting to obeserve! I wished I were a psychologist so I could decipher this phenomenon. This was rapidly becoming kin to a refugee camp albeit a camp with heat, working toilets, and drinking water.

And in this elevated refugee camp we remained for three days. Stretching out on the floor was the norm. The lucky ones with blankets and pillows, and others slept covered with assorted clothing. It was startlingly similar to the homeless on New York’s streets. Buying food the first day from the shops in the terminal was easy but by the third day this dwindled to a halt. There had been no deliveries and there was no food left. We could not even leave the terminal! The snow had not been cleared and there was no transportation between terminals let alone to the city or the suburbs. Some hardy souls wanted to tramp through the snow to a neighbouring terminal. But the TSA in their infinite wisdom would not allow anyone outside the transit area because they lacked the requisite boarding passes.

“But I have to get out to have a smoke” came a plaintive cry from a passenger.

“Just go into the restroom and take a hit” was the reply from the TSA personnel.

“What about the smoke detectors in there?” asked the passenger.

“Oh, those things haven’t worked in years” was the complacent reply from TSA.

Finally on the third day we seemed to be finally coming out of deep freeze. Flight monitors were flickering, showing a slowly increasing number of flights. Many of the passengers had cancelled their plans altogether and were happy to leave; they wanted to go home. But there were others still determined to leave, myself among them. The mad scramble to the desks, bellying up to the front and getting a seat on outbound flights was reminiscent of buying train tickets in China and India. Common courtesies and all niceties were on hold. The same shoving and elbowing and for me, the same handicap of being vertically challenged. After a battle royal to get my checked backpack, I finally got myself on the next outbound flight by the skin of my teeth. It had come down to the number of checked bags; I won out over another man simply because he had multiple suitcases. I came away clutching the boarding pass with a sense of achievement far exceeding the task accomplished.

And so finally, having seen enough of Terminal 2/3 to last me several lifetimes, in the afternoon of Dec 29th, I left for Bogota. In most countries in South and Central America, the passengers tend to applaud on safe landing at the destination. On this flight though, we took off to the tune of thundering applause.

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