It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when I realized that our flight was never taking off.
Indications came early, as snow swirled light and fast en route to JFK, and intensified as I arrived at an airport with what seemed to be no designated area for my airline. A customer service desk, unmanned, bore only a sign with an 800 number to call for more information. Calls to that number went to an automated system which was never answered. I reached out to @VirginAtlantic on Twitter and was informed that the staff would be available to help us slightly in advance of check-in, so we sat and waited, talking with fellow passengers about their long road to the airport. Many of them had been stranded by the previous closures at Heathrow – their New York vacation extended because they couldn’t get home.
As we sat there, the rumors started about a potential airport closure on the horizon, which – to any rational person – seemed, frankly, like the right thing to do. It would be annoying to go back to the beginning, but we’d understand. Snow every which way meant zero visibility and high winds. But that was a decision for the airline – and there were still no Virgin Atlantic staff members in the terminal. Nothing we could do.
The VA staff arrived, put up the signs, and started processing us in that long serpentine line that at the end of it you hope there’s a log flume or some sort of other lineworthy attraction. And honestly, we thought there was – it was called VS004, and it would carry us to London. That was our light at the end of the long check-in process – getting to where we were going, for some of us, after days or weeks of delays.
And so we moved through the line, like links in a centipede, processing our checking and our seat assignments and our baggage. We took our bags to the drop point, passing them through a machine that scans for – what, exactly? – whatever it scans for.
As I moved toward the security line, I realized that I had forgotten to remove my neck pillow from my luggage and I sensed a mild disturbance in the force. I’d buy a new one, I thought, quickly followed by “hey, the flight’s going to be canceled so if I buy one, I’m going to have two the next time I fly.” The thought was fleeting, like the sleet, I hoped.
Then I joined the security process – even with no line, it is a process. Haven't flown in a while? You'd be shocked. All outerwear – coat, scarf, gloves, hat, sweatshirt – removed, in a bin. In a separate bin, the computer. In a separate bag, the liquids that are dangerous if their containers contain more than a collective several ounces. Oh, and shoes! Don’t forget our dangerous shoes! In some airports, you must put them in a bin. In others, you must under no circumstances put them in a bin! They are wily creatures, those shoes, which apparently present regionally specific issues when it comes to security scans.
That sleet turned to snow, the ultimate powdery white cliché covering the horizon and blotting out everything in sight. How would it be possible for us to fly in this weather?
At least we turned out to be right for that last part. After all the rigmarole of having the passengers board, then waiting (delay a little more, then a little more, not like we’re racing an increasingly snowpocalyptic snowstorm here) for the last four passengers to wake up, board and take their seats, followed by what seemed to be a highly-pressurized Orange Slurpee car wash to de-ice the planes (yes, while we were inside), and then moving away from the gate and then coming to a halt, we knew we weren’t taking off.
While we were on the ground being de-iced, we were also de-engined, which meant de-aired and de-washroomed. With the lavatories locked until after takeoff, we really weren’t going…anywhere. But really, we knew that all along.
When the voice came over the loudspeaker, it was upsetting, but a bit of a relief, because we knew we weren’t crazy. The wind, the snow, the negative visibility – represented flying conditions that simply weren’t safe. The pilot spoke to us about Virgin Atlantic’s commitment to safety, and that they wouldn’t ever take off unless the conditions were 100 percent safe. We were glad for this announcement, but we would have been gladder for it earlier, before the snowstorm peaked, when we’d been able to go back to the places we were staying. Because really, any way you looked at it, cancellation was the only foreseeable outcome. You know, unless you were Virgin Atlantic.
We deplaned. Eventually – because, by then, the snow accumulations between the plane and the gate had to be plowed for us to return to where we started. All things told, we were on the plane long enough for a trip to Florida, but we were still mid-blizzard at JFK.
We were asked to claim our bags at baggage claim – as if we had finally arrived after our long journey to nowheresville. Then we’d head to the hotel, where Virgin Atlantic had told us we’d have rooms – we’d rest for about 10 hours, then make our way back to JFK for the next day’s flight, at the same time that we were supposed to leave on Sunday. Annoying, but the promise of rest enticed us. The baggage carousel started, spit out about 6 suitcases and then stopped. The next announcement was that the crew was “unable to get to the luggage” (the luggage hold was frozen, so they’d have to leave our bags on the plane for the possibly-fictional flight we would be taking tomorrow), I was laughing out loud. Because what else is there to do, really? We’re not going anywhere.
We gathered on the main concourse of the airport, but at this point, the crowd was losing it. Even the attempt to organize us into hotel buses didn’t work – most of us sat on the floor of the airport we’ve been at for most of the day (I got here at 12:30, trying to beat the snow, but in the end, the snow beat me). They separated us into lines by class (which I didn’t like because I saw Titanic) and then separated out the families with children, which – despite my awareness that the situation was in no way comparable - made my collective unconscious shudder. But no matter how many lines they separate us into, there’s no shaking the feeling: we’re not going anywhere. Not today, and probably not tomorrow, let’s face it. I’ve played the positivity project for more than a week – “it doesn’t matter how long it takes for me to get there,” “I’ll get there when I get there,” “if it’s meant to be, I’ll get there” – but at this point, we were all pissed (and for the benefit of any Brits reading, this does not mean ‘drunk’), and just wanted to go home.
But with the roads closed, the few taxis that got through charging $100 to get to Manhattan, and the AirTrain shut down until further notice, home wasn’t an option. The choices were limited to main concourse JFK floor-bed, or third-floor shops level floor-bed. And by floor-bed, I obviously mean floor.
I decided to stick it out, and make one more good faith effort to get to London, but after three strikes of airplane cancellations, anyone would agree that it would be time to throw in the towel and admit that the UK just isn’t going to happen for me this year. I scoped out some prime floor, curled up around my carry-on, huddled under the winter coat that I had – by some premonition – not packed in my luggage (now frozen onto the plane, if you recall), and settled in, trying to ignore the cold floor that was imparting its temperature to my bones, and my bones, which were jutting into the cold floor.
I’d sleep, for however long, and that would take me one step closer to the Monday night flight – if it still existed. Tomorrow would be another day, even if it contained more of the same. Tomorrow, we’d get food vouchers to use in the airport, to sustain ourselves before the next attempt to escape from snowpocalyptic New York. Tomorrow, I’d know where I was going and what I’d have to go through to get there.
Stay tuned for the next installment of the saga: "Things To Do When You're Stuck In the Airport During a Snowpocalypse," coming soon to this space.