Tarmac torture

December 29, 2010

By Chris Taylor

“You weren’t on that Cathay Pacific flight, were you?”

People have been asking me this question with a unique mix of sympathy and outright horror. And the answer is yes. The one that idled for 11 hours on the tarmac of New York’s JFK Airport, as we waited in vain for a gate. With two kids crawling over me, ages 2 and 5.

Yes, I was on that flight. And this is what it was like.

It was actually our second time boarding Flight 888, since the previous day, we’d been delayed until 1 a.m. and then sat on the Vancouver tarmac for three hours, until they finally sent us away at around 4 a.m. because of the blizzard in New York City. Frustrating, sure. But still within the bounds of human normalcy.

It was only the next day that things spun out into some kind of sadistic psychological experiment. My wife likened the experience to having slipped into Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. But I saw more of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit, the existential classic where mismatched strangers are thrown together for eternity in a tightly enclosed space. As he wrote, “Hell is other people.”

We landed a little after 2 a.m. Tuesday, following another three hours on the Vancouver tarmac and another five hours in the air. I’m unlikely to ever forget the pilot’s pronouncements that followed. They reminded me of a Stephen King cover blurb for the bestselling book The Hot Zone, about a breakout of the killer Ebola virus. King said the first chapter was the most horrifying thing he had ever read – and then it kept getting worse. In our case, each time the pilot’s voice came over the intercom, things kept getting worse.

Firstly, we were informed there was no gate to receive us. Oh, and he added casually, a previous plane had waited seven hours. Passengers looked at each other to check their hearing; he couldn’t have elicited a more chilling reaction if he had announced he had just chopped up his co-pilot and eaten him with a nice Chianti.

A mother of a young child in the row behind me looked as if she had just been stabbed in the neck. Seven hours? That can’t be right.

In retrospect, I would have taken seven hours in a heartbeat.

Over the ensuing 11 hours, various rationales were tossed out. A missing British Airways crew, a lack of customs officials – two for 1,500 travelers, it was said — and another aircraft that butted in line. Each time it was a couple of hours here, another couple of hours there. Soon it was morning. Then it was lunchtime.

We were able to look outside at the snowy ground, but couldn’t get to it. It was like the Greek myth of Tantalus, but with blankets and headsets.

Passengers were remarkably calm, perhaps because the aircraft was filled with mild-mannered Canadians. My wife, a fine lass of Haitian descent, claims that a planeload of trapped Haitians – a culture much more accustomed to fighting for their lives, every single day – would have resulted in different headlines. They would have likely commandeered the cockpit, secured a catered breakfast, and personally guided the plane down Flatbush Avenue by sunup.

But we Canadians sat meekly, nibbled our onion crackers, and waited for news. And waited.

As for my children, the gods took pity on us. Today’s kids are an entitled generation that expects on-demand Spongebob episodes, a Wii console permanently within reach, and a permanent supply of freshly-made pancakes with real maple syrup. On Flight 888, it goes without saying, we had none of those things.

But by some alchemy, my kids were replaced with children I didn’t recognize. They slept sweetly most of the way; the elder ate Petit Ecolier chocolate biscuits and played Angry Birds, while the younger was content to tour the plane and play in a makeshift daycare in the back, where other harried parents had gathered. It was a Christmas miracle.

As for the flight staff, they left in the kitchen, buffet-style, a modest wicker basket of crackers and peanuts, along with some open cartons of apple juice. Then they pulled off a neat magic trick: Most of them simply disappeared. I don’t know if they all gravitated into first class, or if there’s a secret hatch to a luxury employee lounge, but many of them just vanished. Can’t say that I blame them, since they were going on a couple of hours of sleep themselves, and were tasked with dealing with hundreds of passengers with no resources.

At one point I asked a flight attendant if she had ever been through anything like this, in her entire career in the air. Her response: “Never.” At a certain point she even developed fear in her eyes, as if she was concerned we were going to rise up and roast her limbs for brunch.

The punchline: When we finally deplaned on Tuesday afternoon, in a different terminal and without a single Cathay staffer to receive us, customs officials told us we couldn’t leave the area without our bags. Which, since the airline didn’t have any baggage handlers, meant perhaps another couple of days sleeping on benches in the airport terminal.

Faced with an armed insurrection — and the “extenuating circumstances,” as one kindly guard put it – security decided to let us out of JFK Airport. With no bags, and psychologically debilitated, but at least with our freedom. In the taxi line, we all looked around and squinted as if we’d just been released from the hole on Rikers Island.

I’m not sure how much longer we all would have lasted, fresh out of baby milk and patience. But if there’s an enduring moral to Cathay Pacific Flight 888, it’s this: Whatever life throws at you, you plaster a smile on your face and keep moving. Or not moving, as the case may be.

Chris Taylor is an award-winning freelance writer in New York City. He can be reached at christaylornyc@yahoo.com.


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I have no intention to appear insensitive to your plight.
However, compared to those who found themselves sleeping over 2, 3, even 4 nights in airports due to cancellation of successive connecting flights, you did the right thing to “gloat” and enjoy your journey. For some reason, my local TV news showing stranded travelers in Russia and various airports around the world with no sleep.
Curiously, the interviewed travelers seem to complain most frequently of having no tea or coffee served. I guess they cannot complain that there are no beds in the airport lounge for them.

Posted by Janeallen | Report as abusive

Sounds about like taking the train with Dr. Zhivago from Moscow to Varykino. At least you didn’t have to change your own straw.

Posted by AdophMarx | Report as abusive

I had trouble understanding the chronological order of things. You departed YVR at 4AM (7am NYC time), and landed at JFK at 2AM? The flight was 19 hours from Vancouver to New York???? I think you made some typos, but anyways:

If it was a Cathay Pacfic flight, some of those poor souls were coming to New York all the way from Hong Kong. Imagine being stuck on the tarmac for 11 hours after 14-15 hours of flying all the way from China plus 3+ hours layover at Vancouver. What a complete nightmare, that I can’t even begin to imagine. I’ve been stuck on that tarmac at O’Hare for 4 hours due to lightning storms…I can’t possibly imagine 11 hours.

You should tell this story to every petty newbie traveler who complains about a 1-hour flight delay, or about being reunited with their luggage 2 days after their flight…you know, the newbie travelers who complain about very minor (and fairly common) inconveniences just so they can brag about the fact they’ve flown somewhere. Tell them about being stuck on the tarmac -cramped, crowded, stuffy, tired, and starving- for 11 hours…that oughta shut them up.

Thanks for sharing this story. The travel gods were extremely cruel to you that day. :(

Posted by skye_egg | Report as abusive

skye_egg: isn’t telling this story to every “petty newbie traveler” pretty petty in itself? Who are you trying to impress?

Posted by bobjohnson9000 | Report as abusive

I just don’t get any of it. Why couldn’t the airline just use the wheelie stairs and let people walk off the plane onto the tarmac? I mean I understand that their are regulations but seriously? No one could make an exception? I find this whole ordeal more a disgusting example of how completely irrational our bureaucratic system is, than of how crappy it was to fly during this ordeal. I was delayed 3 days in Florida during this time and it was terrible, but at least I wasn’t made to get on a plane and just sit there. There is no excuse for treating paying customers this way.

Posted by horsegal148 | Report as abusive