“Son of a…” I said under my breath this afternoon as I turned away from the gate agent who told me I was at the wrong terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City. I was fighting back tears. I’m not that girl who breaks down under stress and I wasn’t about to become her. Frustrated by the agent who sent me here to begin with, I made my way back to the leaky shuttle bus to go back where I had just come from.
I packed myself in with strangers on the old rickety bus. I had recently discovered the bottom of my carry-on was soaked with an unknown liquid and that my flight had been delayed for a third time today. The universe had been testing my patience from the moment I had arrived on the East coast last weekend.
I made my way out of the terminal this past Sunday night and could see a line for the cab stand as I approached the glass doors. Not unusual. As I stepped through the exit way, the reality of the situation came into full view. I followed the line of people down the length of the terminal and around the corner. It kept going.
I found the end and stood there, thinking a million miles a minute on how else I could get into the city. I texted a couple of local friends for ideas while I contemplated what to do. It was late and I was not dressed to stand outside in line for several hours.
There were people chasing down already-full city busses as they approached the terminal and any gypsy cabs that arrived were immediately swarmed by a mass of people. It was a chaos I’ve never experienced at an airport before.
One of my friends suggested one of the various shuttle busses that run from the airport into the city and at that same exact moment I overheard a man in an exchange with a worker who was selling tickets for one of those shuttles.
“I need a ticket to JFK not the city,” the man told the worker. The man selling tickets explained that they can’t do refunds but that he could try and sell that ticket to someone and buy another one. I made the decision to jump out of line and take a chance.
“Hey man, I’ll buy that off you,” I said as I approached them, “It’s headed to the city, yeah?”
By this time there was a horde of other people behind me ready to jump on the opportunity if I passed it up.
“Yeah, one way,” he said with a southern accent. I handed him some cash and took the ticket, at which point the man running the bus service informed me it could be another 2 hours before I could get on an actual bus.
Rather than get pissed, I smiled, said it was cool and stood there assessing the situation. I watched people interact with the man selling tickets and listened to him communicate to the bus dispatch through his walkie-talkie.
“I can make myself really small, you know. Just saying.” I joked with him as he stood on the curb awaiting the next bus that was supposedly oversold. He laughed and shook his head. But he was smiling, I knew that was good. I wasn’t going to push him.
When the next bus pulled up, chaos erupted again. He worked the crowd, checking tickets so he only boarded those people in the order they had bought tickets. I stood there calmly, watching the situation unfold. I felt bad for the guy. He had a tough gig that night.
I caught his eye as he loaded the last of the passengers for that bus and he nodded his head towards the door.
“Thank you,” I said to him quietly, almost in a whisper, as I hopped on board the packed shuttle bus.
“I got you,” he said as I passed him. I truly was grateful. Packed in like sardines, we traveled into Manhattan and I jumped off the bus at Grand Central Terminal. I walked swiftly across the historic hub, jumped on the train to head to my hotel and prepared for a couple days of meetings before heading back home to the Midwest.
“Ummm,” I said as I read the email alert on my iPhone while at lunch with some colleagues on Wednesday. My flight home was delayed. While there was snow predicted back home that evening, I wasn’t worried. It happens often and I usually still get out. The airline gave the option to change my flight and I mulled it over. Changing it meant staying in the city for additional meetings the following day which wouldn’t be a horrible thing… but it also meant missing a workout with my personal trainer and a meeting I had committed to being at Thursday night. I decided to head to the airport and go for it.
In the hour and a half cab ride, my flight was delayed twice more. I settled in on the floor and leaned against a frosted window behind a stairwell in the terminal where I had located an unclaimed outlet, a valuable thing in a crowded airport. The departure time stayed steady for the next hour or so and I was gaining confidence that I’d be sleeping in my own bed that night. I got excited for my workout the next morning and stuck buds in my ears to drown in some music while I waited.
Then the dreaded announcement. Delayed again. And then again. And again. Four hours into my wait, I knew in my gut that we weren’t going to get into the air that night. I approached the ticket agent and asked him to change my ticket. There was a weather waiver and I knew I was allowed to do that at no charge. I’d rather hang out in the city with my friends than sit in a filthy airport for a flight that wasn’t getting off the ground.
“The crew is right there, they’re ready to go as soon as the aircraft arrives.” the extremely overweight man said while perched on a stool behind the counter, pointing at two pilots and two flight attendants who were leaning against the wall. They had that unmistakable look of exhaustion smeared across their faces.
“At what point will it be too late for them to fly?” I rebutted. “Can’t I just rebook now?”
“You’re going to get out of here tonight,” he said arrogantly.
“Fine.” I conceded, walking away and parking myself back on the floor. Legs crossed, I pulled out my laptop and hotspot to look up my options. Two more hours passed and then the wave of red ran down the flight status screens. All flights cancelled.
I jumped in line immediately at the gate to rebook. I could really let this guy have it; I was tired and frustrated enough to come unglued. But I took a deep breath and kept my cool while we rebooked my flight for two days later.
I’m typing this as I sit once again at gate 23, listening to delay after delay being announced over the PA system. There’s a mutiny forming around me made up of fellow passengers who have had similar experiences, sharing their stories with each other.
I just took a chance and took a standby ticket on a flight that’s still scheduled for on-time departure.
Will I get home? And what have I learned from these challenges this week? That’s still to come…