Traveling to Vermont for Sarah and Patrick’s wedding this past weekend was filled with many first time experiences. This is why I love to travel. The people you meet, the cities and food and life experiences all become the story your life.
I’m all about stories and this trip gave me an opportunity to tell and listen to many incredible stories. However, the opportunity for all of this to happen occurred under conditions that never should have happened. This is the story of my adventure to Vermont. (wedding and quaint town of Woodstock images will be coming soon)
It’s been said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans”. Having done this more than a few times, I felt I was ready to tackle this trip like a seasoned pro. Little did I know how wrong I was— I know God spent the weekend laughing.
I packed all my camera gear into a large bag that I kept with me at all times. In my suitcase I packed a few days worth of clothes, wedding wardrobe and the necessities. The other 70% of my suitcase was more photo gear. Mono-pod, chargers, extra batteries and my GPS.
The flight left Portland at midnight on Thursday and was a direct flight to JFK in New York on Jet Blue. From there, a connecting flight took me to Burlington, Vermont. A nice 1.5 hour drive through the rolling hills of Vermont and I was in Woodstock.
A spectacular sunrise over the Great Lakes and a photo of the on-board GPS map in the headrest.
The real story begins on my journey home. I will apologize in advance for the length of this post, but it’s such a crazy story and I hope you enjoy a few laughs at my expense. Wanting to arrive early at the airport, I didn’t spend as much time sightseeing on the way back as I wanted. I also drove through this amazing thunderstorm which should have been my first clue.
Arriving in Burlington early, I decided to treat myself to a decent meal before spending the entire day curled in the fetal position to Portland. Downtown Burlington offered many interesting choices, but the one that caught my eye was Big Fatty’s BBQ. The sign over the door said “Put Some South In Your Mouth!”. Portland is not known for it’s barbecue and having been weaned on Kansas City barbecue, I knew this was the place for me. I was squealing like a pig as I ate a sampler plater of ribs, pulled pork, baked beans and cole slaw. I finished it off with the Kentucky Bourbon infused Pecan Pie. Old School!
After checking in, I was greeted at the boarding gate by Sarah, Patrick and his entire family. They were all on the same flight. This was going to be a wonderful trip home. Shortly after, the intercom crackled with an announcement that due to severe thunderstorms in the New York area, there would be a slight delay. Updates in an hour.
Another hour and we were told that a Ground Delay was in effect.
Ground Delay Programs are implemented by air traffic control when the amount of arrival traffic is projected or has exceeded the capabilities of the airport for a long period of time. These are usually a result of adverse weather conditions. The delays are issued for a period of time and affect flights destined for the airport but that have not yet departed. FlightStats
Several hours later, it became clear that we may not make our connecting flight to Portland. Sarah and Patrick were flying out of Portland to Hawaii for their honeymoon, so they decided to find another flight to Seattle and drive down to Portland. Finally the announcement came that we had a 15 minute window in which to board the plane and depart. Oh, and by the way, if you are on a connecting flight to Portland, you won’t be making your flight. Please see a service agent. Small airport, understaffed Jet Blue counter, I let them get all these weary passengers boarded before figuring out what my options were going to be.
The Jet Blue representative told me that they could get me on a flight the next morning to New York and they were expecting more thunderstorms tomorrow. As they tend to build in the afternoon, a morning flight would be my best bet. I asked about my luggage—which apparently was on the plane that just left. No big deal. I could buy a razor, deodorant and a tooth brush at the hotel right? That should have been clue number two. And God continued to laugh.
My reservations were made for the next morning, so I walked to the customer service counter to find out about a hotel for the night. “Since the missed flight was weather related, the airline is not responsible for my inconvenience”. Not caring at this point, I asked for a hotel recommendation. “I’m sorry to tell you that none of the hotels in town are honoring the distressed traveler discount”…clue number three.
I could do this, right? Suck it up big guy, you have to wear the same clothes two days in a row. How bad can that be? Well, the hotel could only provide me a toothbrush and a packet of toothpaste (most grateful) a single blade razor and no shaving cream. I figured I could iron my clothes to freshen them up and as long as I could take a hot shower in the morning, I was good to take on the world one more day. Oh, did I mention the restaurant closes at 9 pm? The bar at 10 pm? A wonderful steak, mashed potatoes and two pints of very cold Guinness and I was happy.
Day two. Arrived at the airport extra early, excited to get home. Three hours early was a little extreme, but better to err on the side of caution. Without getting into all the details, let’s say that this day was worse than the previous. Hour after hour of updates and delays. I was not concerned as I was smart in picking the first flight of the day. The one and only flight to Portland left at 7 pm and I had all day to sit and wait these delays out.
As 6 pm approached, I became a bit worried and started to figure out my Plan B. Remember, I have no luggage. No cell phone charger, nothing. My luggage was on it’s way to Portland without me. Now I had to conserve cell phone time. Only turn it on when I needed to call my wife. As soon as I was sure I’d be spending another night in Burlington, we were given permission to board the plane. All connecting flights were more than likely delayed as well, so they assured us that we would have no problems once we landed at JFK. Clue number four. And God started laughing so hard, his ribs began to hurt.
Arriving in JFK, I immediately walked into what can only be described as a scene from an apocalyptic movie. No room to move through the airport as anxious travelers were standing at the gate waiting to get on the plane I was departing. Running to the gate for my connecting flight, I noticed it was eerily devoid of large crowds of people. It’s then that I find out the plane left 15 minutes ago. How could this happen, I ask? “Sir, you’ll need to work this out with customer service”. I located customer service by the long, long line of people all on their cell phones. I later found out this line was going to require me to stand for over 3 hours. Thanks Jet Blue…and God continued to laugh.
Aviation specialists, airlines and federal officials say the system is prone to breakdowns, especially in busy pockets such as New York, where delays are climbing. And because airlines are operating with nearly full flights, it is more difficult to rebook passengers who get delayed or stranded. -USA Today
No truer words have been written in a newspaper…trust me on this.
New York City airport delays are spinning out of control and passengers across the country are paying the price. None of the three major airports in the New York City area came anywhere close to the national on-time average of 74.35% and two of them finished dead last. Frontier was the least likely to cancel a flight, with a rate of 0.2% in June, followed by Hawaiian Airlines, with a rate of 0.3%, and Southwest, at 0.4%. Of the major U.S. carriers, JetBlue Airways was July’s worst performer in terms of delays, with only 64.98% of its flights arriving on time, according to FlightStats. The industry average was 74.79%.
After hours of standing in line, it was my turn with a customer service agent. I quickly explained my situation and was told that there is one flight a day to Portland. They could book me on the flight tomorrow night, but it was sold out. Guess what? It’s sold old until Thursday! That’s when I asked the agent to get creative. What other cities do you fly into? Can we figure out another way to make this happen for me before Thursday?
In the end, they couldn’t care less. They did not offer to find me another way home on any other airline or even attempt to make this right. Fortunately, my wife was diligently trying to help me figure this out. My cell phone was almost dead and I’m staring at an agent that has no empathy and my wife tells me that she can book me a last minute fare on Frontier Airlines that leaves tomorrow morning (Tuesday) at 10 am. The only catch is that it’s from LaGuardia airport. 12 miles from JFK. I asked the agent to issue a refund on my ticket. She had to call a supervisor and made a big deal out of issuing a refund for a pittance of what I actually paid. I asked if they could shuttle me to LaGuardia or issue me a taxi voucher and the answer was NO to each of these.
My first time in New York. Stranded without my luggage, a cell phone that was nearly dead and I had to leave the safety of the airport and walk into the big unknown that is New York. I found a Yellow Cab booth and made the journey from JFK to LaGuardia at 1 in the morning. The traffic was insane and $40 later, I arrived at the destination that would get me home. If I was paying attention, really listening closely, I would have heard God laughing.
As I walked into the airport, I discovered LaGuardia was in effect closed. I would have to wait until morning to confirm my arrangements. An airport representative walked up to me and asked if I wanted a blanket. I asked why he was handing out blankets? “For all the travelers sleeping at the airport tonight”. As I walked the airport, I discovered people laying on the floors everywhere, up against windows, curled up on the luggage scales at the ticket counter, laying on cardboard in line at the airline counters. It looked like a gathering of homeless people. Little did I know that shortly, in just a few hours, I’d become a homeless person myself.
My priority throughout this whole trip is that my clients memories, encoded on compact flash cards and entrusted to my care were protected. That $20k worth of camera gear was not lost or stolen or thrown around by a careless baggage handler. As the weariness of the past 48 hours caught up to me, it became apparent that I was going to have to find a place to lay down and get as much rest as possible. I walked around the airport and staked out my quiet corner up against a retail shop and spread out my blanket. With my camera bag as a pillow, the strap wrapped double around my arm in fear of having it ripped away from me while I was sleeping, I closed my eyes.
The sounds of LaGuardia preparing for the day are loud. Travelers arrived on late flights, walked past me pointing and I just curled up trying to slow the tingling sensation of my limbs going numb on the cold, hard floor. After 2 hours of intermittent sleep, I got up and walked the airport until 4 am. The airport came alive at 5 am and life exploded at the airport. I have never been so fascinated with watching people. The yelling and screaming of stranded people who want to be heard, travelers struggling with too much luggage, TSA scanners throwing luggage around (which is why I will NEVER check camera gear) and the constant noise that is New York.
I spent the next 5 hours at the Frontier gate and was amazed at their customer service. A flight had been canceled the previous night due to technical problems. They apologized to all their customers and offered them a flight voucher in addition to picking up the tab for their hotel and food expenses. In addition to this extraordinary service, they added another flight in their schedule to help get stranded travelers out of New York. The very flight that my wife was able to get me on at the last minute. This is a lesson in customer service that Jet Blue should learn.
In the end, I boarded a plane for Denver looking and smelling like a homeless person. When we landed in Denver, the entire plane clapped and offered the crew heartfelt thanks for getting them home. As I boarded the plane in Denver to fly home to Portland, it occurred to me that I was the only one that knew the story of the past few days. No one understood why this guy with the large camera bag and disheveled clothes, smelling like a homeless person was so red eyed and happy to go home. I can only imagine that if I stayed with Jet Blue, I would still be in New York today.
To wrap all of this up. Lessons and observations. No matter how well prepared you are, you can always be better prepared. Portland has one of the nicest airports in the country. I’m serious about this. It’s unconscionable that major airports have no restaurants, no bars, no televisions to keep stranded travelers comfortable. Even the airport in Burlington had nothing. I had to survive on coffee and cold, plastic wrapped sandwiches all day long. My entertainment were the people I met and a new service I discovered called ChaCha. Free mobile answers, anytime, anywhere. You can even ask them to send you a joke! I also discovered a wonderful black tea in one of the coolest packages I’ve ever seen. Tea Forte
But in the end, be it ever so humble, there is no place like home!