Justine is a world traveler. She enjoys traveling solo to places others don’t travel to and immersing herself in local culture. She does not have frequent flyer status because each region has different airlines. This is her account of Flight 416 from JFK to Dakar, Senegal which she refers to as the Flight from Hell. Here it is, Part I, in Justine’s own words:
I’m in Dakar airport, waiting for Delta flight 217 back to JFK. I run into people from my JFK-Dakar flight 416 about a week ago. We refer in mock (or not-so-mock) horror terms and with knowing looks to The Fight, That Flight and The Flight From Hell. Here’s what happened to Delta 416, scheduled to depart JFK for Dakar, Senegal at 9.18pm on Saturday February 15, 2014.
As it’s snowing in New York on the Saturday I’m flying to Dakar, I arrive at the airport about four hours early. (Hmm, the Airlink shuttle folk were over-cautious in their travel time estimate.) I kill time taking snow-covered-JFK photos from the Wingtips Lounge in Terminal 4. As I leave for gate B22, my 9.18pm flight is showing as 9.45pm. The plane that’s at the gate when I arrive eventually leaves, so that can’t have been my plane. My plane’s MIA.
Delta’s using the incremental bad news approach tonight. The delay becomes a one hour delay, then two hours (which I get by text before it’s announced from the podium). I learn that my plane’s been in the hangar all day. We’re waiting for a gate to park it at – occupied by the Accra flight. Gate change to B36. We all schlep to B36, a bit of a distance.
The Accra plane pushes back around 11.30pm. So where’s our plane now? Stuck behind a disabled plane that must be towed. Confidence is not instilled by the fact that podium staff regularly go to the window to try to find our plane. There’s just about fisticuffs as some passengers express their dissatisfaction. A Delta agent calls security. One of our first officers (who I’ll call Mr. Popular Pilot) steps between the warring parties to calm things down.
As the wait continues, Mr. Popular Pilot patiently answers individual passengers’ questions about crew time-out, but he doesn’t know the deal under the new, complicated FAA rules. The flight’s three hours late. The flight’s four hours late. Woohoo: Mr. Popular Pilot is pointing out the window. That’s our plane approaching the gate! But it sits forlornly out on the tarmac a short distance from B36. Mr. Popular Pilot explains that we need ground staff to bring it in, as snow’s covering the ground markings. Some of us say we’d be up for it to move things along. Mr. Popular Pilot tells me we have an extension under crew time-out rules, so no problems on that score. We wait. And wait. And wait.
Gate change announcement: Back to B22. Exasperated looks all around. We trudge back. I help a woman with a three-month-old baby girl, as she’s hauling lots of bags as well as the baby. We wait at B22 until the podium announces … a gate change back to B36. Mr. Popular Pilot, sensing (correctly) that he has a passenger riot about to erupt, grabs the podium phone and gets to work. He shortly announces that we’re staying at B22. I start clapping. Others follow. (Mr. Popular Pilot deserves credit for everything he’s doing tonight.)
Around 2am we board, for a five-hour-plus late departure. Despite Delta’s repeated announcements in the previous, oh, five hours about there being plenty of overhead space, this is, ahem, nonsense. So there’s a scrum for the overhead, and many bags must be gate checked. There’s no gate agent so, of course, Mr. Popular Pilot comes to the rescue again. Eventually the bags are loaded. Some late people arrive. Where on earth were they, given that the plane is five hours late? Oh, back at B36. There’s a spot of bother closing the door, with a flight attendant having to push from the inside. But we’re ready to go.
Not quite. Time for de-icing. A truck sprays gunk over the plane to clear the snow and ice and add a protective layer to stop ice building up again. Like a big car wash, really. The cockpit announces that we’re at the end of our runway so once we’re de-iced, we’ll take off straightaway. De-icing ends. We’re about six hours late, but we’re finally going to Senegal! C’mon Delta: Wheels up! Wheels UP! WHEELS UP!
A few minutes later, the cockpit comes on with the “We gave it our best shot” speech. The nail in the coffin? We were three minutes from (extended) crew time-out when de-icing ended and just needed confirmation that the flight plan was in place before the pilot stepped on the accelerator to send us hurtling down the runway before us and … Atlanta couldn’t find the flight plan in time. Most likely because it’s filed for a 9.18pm departure, not an almost-4am departure.
Seriously? Really?! YOU HAVE GOT TO BE FREAKIN’ KIDDING ME!!! (This is a paraphrase. Much, much worse things are said in the cabin around me.) Having recently read Patrick Smith’s comprehensive Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel, I understand why we need a flight plan. What I don’t understand: how this mess happened.
So we’re sitting at the end of the runway, but must turn around and go back to Terminal 4, not to Senegal. And – you guessed it – nothing happens fast here either. I don’t think anyone feels better when the cockpit says, “We’re basically in the same position we were in a few hours ago: waiting for a gate to clear.” Don’t get me started.
“Cabin crew, prepare doors for arrival.” (Huh? We never left.) I feel like I’ve spent the last approximately 12 hours at JFK in some sort of extended Saturday Night Live skit. End of Act I.
To be continued. When I tell friends and colleagues a condensed version of the flight 416 story, this is the point at which they say, for example, “What a terrible experience.” To which I reply, “I’m not finished yet. It gets worse.” Do you think Delta makes the best of what is already a bad situation? Read Part II to find out.