“Attention passengers! As some of you may have noticed, the plane has performed an 180 degree turn and is heading back to Newark.”
I, for one, had no idea that we had turned around and was completely shocked! We were a few hours into the flight and to turn around rather than trudge on towards Madrid seemed absurd.
“Without getting too technical, there is a crack in one of the layers of the front windshield. As a safety precaution, we have to turn around to Newark since the journey across the Atlantic is too hazardous.”
Well, that doesn’t seem too serious, right?
“We’ve slowed the speed of the plane down drastically because of the damaged area. Don’t worry, we’re probably not going to crash.”
Okay… not exactly the most encouraging pep talk ever incited by a pilot, but it will have to do. At this point, there is a nervous tension amongst the passengers and flight attendants. The pilot does not do us any favors by consoling us with,
“If we feel as if we need to land the plane as soon as possible, we have already notified some nearby airports. Hopefully that doesn’t happen, but we will know more when we land.”
Of course we’ll learn more when we land! Whether it be enflamed when we nosedive into an unsuspecting town or whilst drowning in the Atlantic, we’ll know the severity of the problem soon enough. I was just hoping to finish my complimentary film before the crash.
Well, as a rational soul might have conjectured, we did not crash. The plane touched down safely on the runway a few hours later. It was the beginning of a new day, so there wasn’t a restaurant open. I think I speak for the rest of the passengers by stating how upset I was when I didn’t receive the promised complimentary dinner. With grumbling stomachs and attitudes, we vacated the faulty airplane and entered the terminal from whence we left. Once safely inside, we all huddled around a stout customer service agent and awaited his speech. All of us fell from our high hopes and steep expectations as his short speech trailed off. The airline had no idea when the flight was going to resume and that it was in our best interest to get comfortable. Well, that didn’t sit right with some passengers. As the frustrated individuals mobbed around the hapless agent, I took advantage of the chaos by finding temporary accommodation. I am no stranger to falling asleep in airports, and I was in the mind to prepare for the worst. After a quick scan of my options, I settled upon an isolated row of seats near the flight status board. To my furtive dismay, I was followed. My unwanted companion plopped down on the seat next to me – half of my bed – and huffed and puffed as if he was trying to blow a house away. I said the obligatory few words,
“Well, this sucks dude.”
A surefire method of making friends is to always state the obvious in the midst of an emotional crisis.
He agreed, naturally, and we proceeded in a conversation. It turns out that he is the same age as me and is a native to Newark, New Jersey. A student of Economics, he was planning to visit Madrid to visit his girlfriend whom was involved in a study abroad program. He had Monday and Tuesday off, so he thought, ‘why not visit Madrid for a few days?’ This delay was eating into his four-day, $1,000 extended weekend. As a college student, it is unheard of to spend that amount of money at once, unless you’re a little league drug dealer or couldn’t make up your mind whether to get a tattoo sleeve on the left arm or the right arm, settling for both instead. This lovebird was appropriately upset and I felt for my unwanted-now-wanted companion. An hour eclipsed in the conversation until we were finally told that there was another plane ready to take off at a terminal on the other side of the airport. Oh, and it was only available until 1:45AM, otherwise the flight would be canceled.
The ensuing 30 minutes were utter chaos. A horde of humans stampeded towards the new gate, reminiscent of the Running with the Bulls. Every single one of us were extremely nervous about making it onto the plane in time, and our nerves were not calmed by the presence of only one ticket checker. People were pushing and shoving, screaming and shouting, but somehow managed to form some semblance of a row of lines. It was ordered chaos. I felt sorry for the misguided soul that asked where the line for “Boarding Group 3” was. To censor and summarize, he soon learned from several people that everyone was just trying to get on the plane, so it didn’t matter which line he stood in, just so long as he was seated on the plane before 1:45.
I don’t know how we all managed to find our seat and stow away our bags in a matter of 25 minute – an airline record – but it happened. Of course, the plane didn’t begin to move for 20 minutes. We were finally setting off for Madrid! It could’ve been much worse, but all works out in the end!
We sat on the runway for an hour until we retreated back to the gate. The astonishment that washed over the passengers was apparent when were informed that all operational systems were down, and that the flight to Madrid was officially canceled. We all felt as if we had been duped, hopping on and off the plane to no end. Furthermore, it was past 3AM in the morning and none of us had any idea what to do. My thoughts were centered on running back to the same row of seats that I had claimed before as a bed.
Like a pack of sheep, we were herded to this help desk and that help desk, all in pursuit of a customer service agent and the promised accommodation package at a nearby hotel. After 20 minutes of searching in agitation, we all managed to locate the lone agent. I have to give credit where credit is due, for she is one of the toughest individuals that I know, and I never even officially met her. To face 200 enraged passengers at 3:45AM was beyond my capabilities. She managed to stifle the crowd by using the desk’s phone as a shield to deflect the prying voices and obscenities of the long line of passengers. This ruse turned into mere folly, as a crowd of customers began to shout,
“GET OFF THE PHONE! GET OFF THE PHONE NOW!”
I was waiting in line with an elderly couple who had pre-booked a tour and were fearful of being left behind; I sympathized for their bank account. Luckily, they were able to get in touch with their tour company and were told that the tour would wait an extra day. It turns out that there were quite a few other tour-goers on the flight. However, this did not appease their vocal discontentment, nor should it!
I felt like I was waiting in line to buy festival tickets; an arduously slow line filled with complaints about how slow it was. It didn’t help that every five minutes there would be an individual who thought him/herself privileged enough to head straight for the front of the line and demand answers, curse at the ill-fated agent, or futilely attempt to obtain a coveted accommodation package before the other passengers. Each time this happened – which, as I stated, was every 5 minutes – the line would remain stagnant since the agent would defend herself and attempt to console the angry passenger. Not to mention, it took her near 10 minutes to help each individual customer since she had to input all information manually.
After an hour, the line had managed to move by 5 paces, each pace representing the number of passengers the agent managed to help. My feet were almost off the linoleum and on to the carpet! A small prize, but one that was greatly needed. More and more people began to trail out of line and off to who knows where. I don’t even know why I remained in the line, only in hopes that I would receive a new ticket and find some answers. Another half hour eclipsed when we were greeted by another 200 enraged passengers. It was becoming a real party – ahem – riot!
Apparently, the same predicament had taken place on the United Airlines flight to Tel Aviv, and now all the passengers were sent and directed to this lone customer service agent. Remember when I stated that she is the toughest person that I know? Well, there were now 200 more reasons to back that up.
No one was in a cheerful mood. Well, maybe except for me, since I had finally stepped foot on the carpet. Matter-of-fact, I had both feet on the slate-colored carpet! I was so exhausted at this point, that I sat down and resorted to a half-crawl, half-crab-walk whenever the line started to move, which was rare. Most of my fellow passengers had either left with accommodation packages or just left out of anger and spite. I was almost towards the front, although ‘almost’ is an hour and a half away. I had witnessed full-on shouting matches, a monsoon of tears, and a surprising amount of police presence for 5AM. The line had also gained another flight’s worth of passengers from a Dublin flight that experienced the same problem. I am so glad that I was not an employee for United Airlines, and never shall I ever be.
By 5:30AM, two workers finally came into rescue the lone agent, although, they both were received with 200+ complaints and double that number in petty demands. People had been waiting in the line for 3 hours, all with conflicting and ever-changing information. Everyone was tired and there didn’t seem to be any resolutions being made except for the allure of the accommodation packages. The sad fact is that the agents had not even helped a single customer from the Tel Aviv or Dublin flights yet, since they were still working their way through the Madrid flight. At this point, I was a few people back, but devoid of hope. I had heard from the other passengers that new tickets for Madrid were not being handled yet. I wasn’t even going to accept an accommodation package, so I really began questioning myself of why I was really in this line.
As if a higher power was reading my dark thoughts, good news came in the form of a once-alone customer service agent. I was the last person from the Madrid flight to stay in the line, and there was only one other fellow survivor in front of me. We were both told that a new flight to Madrid had just been scheduled, and that it would leave for 9:30AM. Both of us were able to obtain tickets and that our seats would be upgraded since we were the last ones in line. I almost cried. The Spanish man and I shook hands (possibly embracing in a hug, who knows? I’ll never tell!) and promised to each other that we would catch up later. I never saw the man again, nor did I see some of the other passengers that I had conversed with throughout this catastrophe. They had either left in frustration, or accepted the accommodation package and were asleep by now, of course in frustration as well.
I am grateful to myself that I stood in that line, even though I really couldn’t tell you why I did. Either out of stupidity or some unknown clairvoyance, one more likely than the other, I had managed to endure the worst of the night and was finally able to get something to eat! Stay calm in the face of an unexpected disaster and definitely stay in line! Do it for yourself, and do it for the crazy memories that will stay with you forever. I mean, what’s travel without unexpected adversity?