Courses & TravelDecember 28, 2010

Weather Beats Travel By A Score Of 10&8

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That would be four words that elicit the foulest of the four letter words.

Everyone can relate to the horror of a pilot trying to explain that there's no available gate for deplaning. A 30-minute delay can end up being an hour, or even an hour and a half. Two hours on a tarmac is enough to inspire the Dalai Lama to storm the exit door and pull the cord that inflates the big yellow slide.

What I can't relate to is what passengers of Cathay Pacific flight 840 from Hong Kong to New York went through on Monday.

               After 16 hours in the air, these poor people were trapped in their seats for another 11 hours.

With reports of 80 mile-per-hour winds, temperatures in the teens and up to three feet of snow on Sunday, it's no shock that air travel in the Northeast has been a complete mess, but 11 hours on a tarmac on the heels of a 16-hour flight? That's not a mess, that's being held hostage.

On Monday afternoon--from the comforts of Hawaii--I started receiving cell phone images of the fresh powder via Alexandra, my Connecticut-based girlfriend. On Monday night, Alexandra negotiated the roads from Fairfield to JFK to pick up her sister, Kady, who was flying in from Hong Kong.

Kady's flight was scheduled to arrive on Monday night at 7:30 p.m., EST. I'm told the flight and Alexandra both arrived early. The problem: there was no available gate for unloading the passengers. Kady, who flew coach and had logged 16 hours of air travel, not only had to wait for 11 hours on the tarmac, getting through customs took an hour and a half and she waited an additional 90 minutes for her luggage. In total, it was a 30-hour trip for Kady and company to get from Hong Kong and out of JFK.

"The flight attendants started by saying we'd deplane in 20 to 30 minutes," says Kady. "Then they said it would be an hour; then an hour and a half. At one point we didn't get an update for three hours."

Kady confessed that she broke down and cried. Can you blame her? She started to feel claustrophobic. She says she was amazed that the overall scene on the plane was fairly calm. "It was a very civil situation. Most people slept."

By law, the alcohol was locked up prior to landing. The on-board entertainment was off for the first two hours of the delay. Flight attendants rationed water, orange juice and Cup Noodles. "The attendants tried to do as much as they could," says Kady. "At one point they requested a set of stairs and a bus, but they were denied."

Meanwhile, back in the airport, Alexandra--the loyal sister--was being given no information from gate agents or monitors, there was no food or drinks being sold at JFK and her cell phone battery was dying. "I got the last Reese's Peanut Butter Cup from the vending machine," she said. Ironically, the only thing left were rolls of Life Savers. Alexandra killed the first of what would be 14 hours of wait time by chatting with other people in desperate situations and snapping some pictures of the madness at the airport.

She shot this picture of a taxi and the cab line (everyone lined up along the gate is waiting for a cab):

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Sharkey speaks to a pilot about a new federal law that imposes fines on airlines for keeping passengers stuck on the tarmac, which has resulted in quick cancellations if airlines think there's a risk of paying the price for not playing nice with their customers.

"The federal rule that went into effect last April fines airlines up to $27,500 for every passenger kept on planes idled on tarmacs for over three hours."

Unfortunately for Kady and company, I don't think those rules apply to passengers on international flights.

At the tenth hour of what I consider a hostage crisis, Tom, Kady's husband, sent this e-mail to the CEO of Cathay Pacific Airlines:

Subject: Attention: Mr. Slosar, CEO, Cathay Pacific Airlines | Urgent__

Dear Mr. Slosar,

My wife took off yesterday on CX 840 for JFK at 5.30 p.m. It's now 7 p.m., the following day, 25.5 hours later, and she's still on your aircraft, having spent 10 hours on the ground at JFK.

I understand that a snowstorm has affected JFK. However, by departing Hong Kong when you knew the forecast, Cathay Pacific took responsibility for those passengers. It astounds me that your staff can't disembark the aircraft in 10 hours. Think about that for a moment: TEN HOURS! Surely, in that time, some busses could've been sent to the aircraft, or some gates reorganized; surely you could get permission for them to disembark in an unconventional way, even if it meant being escorted across the apron on foot. I simply can't fathom that you would abandon them and your own crew with so little energy or creativity applied to getting something done.

Note to your website only indicates the aircraft hasn't arrived after 25 hours; terrifying for all of us worrying about our loved ones.

I feel extremely sorry for those poor passengers, and I'm disgusted with Cathay. At the very least, please investigate why your systems have failed so comprehensively so this doesn't happen again; it could be you on the plane for 25.5 hours (and counting) next time.

____Yours sincerely,__Tom

As of Tuesday afternoon, Alexandra was exhausted and Kady was still rattled. "Would you believe our flight wasn't the worst of Cathay's problems? There's a flight from Vancouver that had been on the tarmac for 12 hours . . . and counting," says Kady. "When we got to baggage claim I spoke to some passengers just off a British Airways flight from London. They were complaining about a six-hour flight and seven hours on the tarmac. I couldn't help it, I shared my story."

Kady's scheduled to go back to Hong Kong in mid-January. "I don't know if I'm ready to get back on a plane."

I know what you're thinking: Glad. It. Wasn't. Me.

--Matty G.*

*(Image of airplane courtesy of Reuters; taxi and "campsite" courtesy of Alexandra Tremaine.)