Friday, February 16, 2007

Seattle Times-Writer details Jetblue Saga

Writer details snowbound JetBlue saga

By Ranny Green

Special to The Seattle Times

NEW YORK — Travel stories associated with the famed Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show are legend.

The fact that America's second oldest sporting event (this week's was the 131st annual) is held annually here in February only sets the table for travel woes. Last year, the city received a record one-day snowstorm of 26-plus inches on the eve of the show.

This year, the weatherman turned the tables and waited until the show was a wrap to deliver his big punch — a snow, sleet, rain and ice show that brought ground and air transportation to a crawl.

It took me two hours Wednesday to get from the Hotel Pennsylvania in Manhattan to JFK for my scheduled 7:30 p.m. nonstop flight home. When I arrived at the airport more, than a dozen lines at the JetBlue counters were 20 to 30 angry customers deep.

About an hour later, I checked in and was told that my flight was still scheduled. So I made my way to the departure area, walking over and around hundreds of travelers whose flights had been canceled or were in the midst of long delays.

I found a place on the floor and periodically checked the overhead monitor to see if my flight was still a go. With regularity, JetBlue began posting more cancellations nationwide, as planes were grounded in the Midwest by snowstorms.

Finally, as 7:30 approached, dozens of travelers began demanding the status of the Seattle flight but received no definitive answer. About 8:15 we were told our flight would be leaving from another terminal and that we would be shuttled to that site.

That was a positive sign, I concluded. By 8:45, we were all in place at the new departure gate, assuming we would be loading within minutes. Finally, at 9:30 we began boarding. We were ecstatic. But that proved short-lived.

After we were aboard, we were told there would be a short delay until another pilot could be found. That took another 1 ½ hours. Finally, after he came aboard, the plane taxied away from the gate and onto the tarmac — where it was put in a line for de-icing. By then, all the passengers were frosted, too.

Because the plane had been on the ground at JFK all day, it had built up a substantial coat of ice, which we were told would take time to melt. Well, that meltdown was beginning to happen inside the plane, too. Passengers were grumbling, some even yelling, and others crying, feeling trapped by poor air circulation.

The four flight attendants and the pilots handled everything with cool and class. It wasn't their fault that they had been thrown into this abysmal situation; they attempted to keep us informed even as numerous passengers pleaded to be taken back to the terminal and allowed to disembark.

At 2 a.m., with the wind chill at minus 2 degrees, we knew de-icing wasn't going to happen quickly.

During what was to become a six hour-plus delay on the tarmac, the pilots opted to shut down the engines to conserve fuel. Otherwise, they announced, this scheduled nonstop would require a fuel stop en route to Seattle, the last thing any of us needed to hear.

The only saving grace through all of this was continued snack-food and non-alcoholic drink service. But with a full flight and poor air circulation, the cabin became exceptionally warm rather quickly, and everywhere about me people were peeling off their sweaters to avoid overheating.

Finally, by 3 a.m. we were airborne and enroute home, touching down at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport at 6:30 a.m. Seattle time (9:30 in New York), almost 12 hours after having boarded the flight.

There was one cheery moment on the way home — and that was when we were told by JetBlue that we'd get a full refund and a free roundtip flight, at least for all passengers who'd sat onboard as we had longer than three hours.

By the way, there is only one JetBlue flight daily between New York and Seattle, which prompted me to ask the JetBlue check-in attendant at JFK, before I left, if there was room aboard the next flight the following evening. And she replied, "All of our Seattle flights are full until Sunday."

When we touched down at Sea-Tac in the wind and rain Thursday morning, home never looked so good, even though my eyes were half shut from lack of sleep.

Ranny Green is a Seattle Times desk editor. Contact:; 206-464-2740.

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

No comments: