If you tried to fly over the past week, chances are you spent hours or days trapped in an airport, slowly going insane. This is because relying on airplanes for transport into or out of cold climates during January is the height of foolishness, and unless I have to, I'm never going to do it again. It's a half-miracle I'm even here to tell the harrowing tale.
It started as a good idea, a vacation with my boyfriend to someplace un-cold. I won't take time off of work unless I'm forced to, and his work schedule has built in two week breaks every so often. We both hate New Year's Eve in New York City, I still have to renew my passport, this is the first time in my life that both me and a significant other were lucky enough to be able to afford something like this at the same time, and Puerto Rico is warm. Done. JetBlue flights booked. Vacation to Rincon planned. I spent a week getting sunburned and reading Americanah and drinking Presidente and being knocked down and dragged along the sharp reef sand by Rincon's extremely powerful waves, but by Friday I was more than ready to head back; sitting still for too long gives me hives. Our flight was scheduled to leave from Aguadilla at 6 am.
By Wednesday, New York City was already freaking out about Hercules (tangent: who names a fucking snowstorm? I have a hard enough time remembering my gynecologist's last name), but I assumed it was another one of NYC's collective weather whine fests, like how news anchors really ham up the wide eyed fear reactions to forecasted temperatures that might —- BRRR—- fall into the twenties! Bundle up out there! they would always advise, and I'd laugh and laugh as my brother texted me that the mercury had frozen in the thermometer outside his window in Park Rapids, Minnesota. On Thursday, just to be safe, we changed our flight to 11 am, assuming that by 2 pm on Friday, JFK airport would be back to normal.
We were so innocent and simple then; how could we have known the extent of the ensuing clusterfuck?
Since the meatnormous storm dumped a bunch of snow on the Eastern half of the country, airlines have been canceling flights left and right; about 9,000 were cancelled starting on Thursday, and into the weekend, things were still so backed up that the existing airline infrastructure quite simply couldn't handle all of the people who needed to get away from where they were. Airplanes, you see, are delicate, fussy little sky snowflakes who won't get out of bed for less than 40 degrees, and airlines are staffed by overworked, mostly underpaid misanthropes. Together, they're responsible for more blood pressure spikes than Black Friday shopping and optometrists' awful "eye puff" tests combined.
Last Friday morning at the Aguadilla airport — a tiny airstrip that lets passengers off via ramps directly onto the tarmac — was a clusterfuck of sad tan people on cell phones standing in a line that snaked almost through the entire ticketing area, including one shrieking baby directly behind us. And then, at about 10 am, an airport official made an announcement. The 11:10 flight — the last flight to the NYC area of the day — was cancelled. When we finally got to the front of the line, we discovered that the next available flight directly from Aguadilla to JFK wasn't until Tuesday.
What about San Juan? we asked. We could fly to New York City on Monday from San Juan, or we could fly to Washington DC on Sunday night. We picked the Sunday option, effectively opting to take a flight from a city 3 hours' driving away, to a city 3 hours' driving away, with the expectation that we'd both just feel like shit on Monday after footing the bill for 2 unexpected nights of hotel stays, two rental cars, and 3 more days' worth of meals. Looking back on it, practically leaping across the counter to gratefully hug the JetBlue agent seems completely insane, but nothing is more crazymaking than an airport.
So we rented a car and drove to San Juan; he drove while I frantically explored bus options from DC to New York City that left after 10:30 pm on a Sunday night. Thin. We booked a hotel, and decided that since we were stuck, we'd make the most of it. I poured over my Lonely Planet Puerto Rico book, eagerly solicited suggestions from Twitter followers who had spent time in San Juan. I salivated over mofongo. I made plans to fly kites on a big open lawn in Old San Juan. And then, just before we were ready to go have dinner and take a walk along the beach, my boyfriend thought it might make sense to call the airline again and see if we could possibly get out of San Juan earlier. Just a few hours earlier.
They could get us out of town at 3 am — about 6 hours from when we made the call. We changed our tickets, rushed to return the rental car before the place closed, and made our way to the San Juan airport. At this point, it should be noted, that I'd been awake since about 7 am.
You know how the rest of this story goes. Our flight was delayed until 4:10 am. We looked for a place to lie down but whoever designed SJU's new terminal is a sadistic fuck, and so the place is all tiles, hard metal chairs with rigid, stationary arms, and the place is kept at a constant, breezy 50 degrees. Somehow I managed to sleep for about half an hour, using Matt's legs as a pillow. Then he used my legs as a pillow. Then my legs fell asleep because he has a pretty big head. Then I got up to look at the screen again, wanting to be reassured that the hours were ticking away, and the plane's departure was approaching.
Flight further delayed until 6:15 am.
This is the point where I completely melted the fuck down, like a popsicle in a frying pan. I dissolved into tears, yelled at my boyfriend about how we're NEVER GOING TO GET OUT OF HERE THEY'RE GOING TO CANCEL IT NOOOOOO like it was his fault and he could do something about it, stood in line to talk to the ticket agent because ??? maybe she was magical and I would be the special manic pixie dream passenger who, through kindness and eye batting, could suddenly make part the massive passenger backlog like Moses parted the Red Sea, and maybe cut through the shell of resigned NO surrounding the JetBlue ticket agent and maybe I don't know we'd become best friends or something. Maybe I'd remind someone of their daughter. I'd gotten lucky before!
I settled on asking if maybe JetBlue could give me a voucher for a bed in the hotel that's attached to the airport. It was only 2 AM; I could book it over there and sleep for 3 hours before going back through security. I just wanted to get some fucking sleep. My eye makeup from the day before had navigated so far south that it looked like football eyeblack at halftime.
"Listen," the woman told me when I just asked if maybe JetBlue could point me in the direction of a bed, since thanks to their flights being cancelled, I'd been up since 7 am and the only place for me to sleep was the tiled, Comet-smelling hell of the San Juan A terminal. She said, "Listen. Everyone is in your shoes. I can't make the plane take off."
"Yes, I know that," I replied. "I just want to know if it's possible you can give me a voucher for a room so I can sleep for a couple of hours.
She smiled. "Honey, I was in your position once. I was in an airport for 4 days. There's nothing we can do."
I hate JetBlue. I have never hated an entity more.
Meanwhile, elsewhere, many others were in my shoes. As I scrolled through Twitter on my phone, I saw dozens of people I followed trying to pass their time in airport hell by making jokes or by futilely sending angry tweets in the direction of the the poor social media interns hired to field their rage. One friend was trying to get from Austin to Chicago. Another from LA to New York. Another to Philly from Chicago, a rare case of airport double fucking. Chicago was fucked, Boston was fucked. Everything was fucked.
Our plane finally took off at almost 9 am. When we landed in New York City, the passengers broke into applause. We collected our baggage, shivered in the line for a cab, and were able to get back to downtown Brooklyn without a hitch.
We were some of the lucky ones.
Here's what would have happened if we would have waited until the Sunday flight to DC:
We wouldn't have gotten to DC until 2 am, long after the last train left on Sunday and long before the first train left on Monday.
Here's what would have happened if we had just said fuck it and tried to fly out of San Juan on Monday:
That's because, starting on Sunday night, parts of the US were hit with what we're now calling the POLAR VORTEX, a skull-shatteringly cold mass of air that just kind of sat on the middle of the country, paralyzing transportation across the country.
According to CNBC, by 7:40 am on Monday morning, there had been 2,977 delays and 2,665 cancellations, mostly on ExpressJet and JetBlue, two airlines that fly into cold and snowy environments yet seem curiously under equipped to handle cold and snow. Passengers who tried to reschedule flights didn't have much luck; one Twitter user complained of a 5 hour hold time on the phone with Delta airlines. One woman Tweeted that she'd been waiting for 10 hours to have her flight to London reassigned with no word from United Airlines. Another said they'd been on hold for hours with JetBlue. Even Former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich had some serious airport snafus.
#Delta cancels flights but does nothing. FAA should require airlines to put customers on next available flights even if on other carriers.
— Robert Reich (@RBReich) January 4, 2014
But there was no getting anywhere on any airline. According to American Airlines, it was so cold yesterday in Chicago that they couldn't refuel the planes; the fuel was frozen. Major interstates were closed, making travel by road virtually impossible. And crowds at the airports continued to grow. Here's a shot of O'Hare, from yesterday.
Pic of the day: Thousands delayed, cancelled. waiting in customer service line at O'Hare. pic.twitter.com/f8X1UGEdDc
— Phil LeBeau (@Lebeaucarnews) January 6, 2014
And it didn't stop today, either. According to NBC Chicago, 1,000 flights were cancelled out of O'Hare today, and almost 200 from Midway. Across the US, about 2,000 flights were cancelled. In Toronto, cold temperatures forced another frigid buttload of cancellations, although according to reports, airport employees handed out donuts to stranded passengers as a weak but kind of adorable gesture of goodwill. CANADA WHY ARE YOU SO CUTE AND FROZEN?
I've spent hours over the last couple of days feeling a watered down version of survivor's guilt over the fact that I was able to get back to New York during the needle-eye hours between Snowy As Hell and Cold As Balls, while thousands of people, days past the stage in the airport that led to my mini meltdown, remain unshowered, sleeping in upright positions on metal chairs, while airline employees shrug and refuse to hand out hotel vouchers. I've been pouring over news stories and frustrated tweets and almost obsessively checking the status of the flight we would have taken had we agreed to fly out of Aguadilla on Tuesday, as the airline had suggested.
What have I learned? That, while it's silly to plan one's life around freakish weather events like those that have befallen the US over the last couple of weeks, I'm never relying on airplanes to get me to someplace cold in January again, unless I absolutely have to. And, it could have been worse; I could have been stranded someplace much less lovely than Puerto Rico, someplace filled with the stench of stress sweat in puffer jackets, of scarves that have been rubbing against greasy hair for hours, of hot, heavy boots taken off, of wiggling bare toes. But, from this point forward, if I want to go somewhere warm over the New Year, I'll travel to the Florida Keys instead, or New Mexico, and sleep soundly comforted by the fact that, in a worst case scenario, I'll rent a car or hop on a bus to get home rather than wait for airlines to get their shit together.
Image via AP.