You Never Know When-Makin' Somethin' Out of Nuthin'
Published: Wednesday, September 13, 2006
Updated: Tuesday, September 21, 2010 11:09
by Kendrick Bales, kkb226
Over the past five years, I have flown over 1,000,000 miles on airplanes to virtually all corners of the earth. However, this summer I had possibly the most hysterical (though not so much at the time) and interesting flight that I thought I would share with you. This summer, I was flying from London to New York for a meeting and was supposed to return the next day. When I got to the airport, all seemed fine; it was a beautiful flying day. (This was before the terrorist drama.) We got on the plane and had a problem with the cargo door - it seems it wouldn't close. This gave us a two-hour delay which I passed happily falling in and out of sleep sipping the champagne that the dutiful Virgin Atlantic flight attendants kept going around. Our flight was scheduled to leave London at 2:00 p.m. and by 4:15 p.m. we were finally in the air. The flight over the pond was uneventful; it wasn't until we got stateside that the antics began. About 40 minutes outside of JFK the captain casually announced that there had been lightening strikes at JFK and Newark and we were being diverted to Philadelphia. All of us looked at each other and asked if we all had heard the same thing, and indeed we had - were going to Philly. Being diverted isn't that uncommon, so I assumed that once the weather cleared that we would be on our way back to New York. We landed just after 6:00 p.m. at PHL and taxied to a hangar area away from the regular terminals and parked. The captain turned off the seatbelt sign, and we waited for the weather to pass. After an hour, I noticed a fuel truck appear to our left and park under the wing. Hopeful that we were making progress, I called my driver who was waiting at JFK for me to say that I thought we were on our way. I couldn't have been more wrong. The fuel-truck driver got out of his vehicle and got on his cell phone. Still, nobody believes me when I tell them what happened to us next. The reason why I know all of this was because I had the best seat in the house: seat 1K on the Upper Deck of the 747-400, in the first row of Upper Class. From this seat I could hear all that was going on in the cockpit because the flight deck crew were using the speaker phone to liaise with operations in London and the fuel company in Philadelphia. Through the cockpit door I could hear the fuel company demand cash for payment of the fuel. I couldn't believe what I was hearing until I heard "But sir, we do not carry that kind of cash on our aircraft, won't a company credit card do?" The pilot was trying to pay for the fuel with a Virgin Atlantic Corporate Card, and the fuel company couldn't accept because it didn't take credit cards! The pilot, at the command of a $250 million aircraft was trying to tell the guy on the cell phone outside that Virgin was "good for it," that they would pay. The in-flight service manager stormed out of the cockpit, nearly running me over as I was leaning into the hallway trying to hear what was going on. He threw his hands in the air claiming that the night had gone from annoying to farcical, and that he couldn't believe what he was hearing. Finally after intense discussion with operations in London, a stair truck came to door 2L and the fuel company representative company came onboard with a representative from the airport. After all that, the deal was sealed essentially on a handshake, with the pilot and airport official signing responsibility, and the fuel company agreeing to refuel the aircraft. It finally appeared that we would be on our way. We were refueled and got in the queue of at least 30 planes for take-off, all of whom had been diverted as well, and the captain came on again: "Were sorry ladies and gentlemen, but according to the law, we have to be at the gate with the door open at JFK in 19 minutes for this flight to be legal. It is against the law for my crew and me to fly anymore today. We'll have to sort out a gate and will update you as soon as possible." So we weren't going home after all. I immediately called Hertz and requested a one-way rental from Philadelphia Airport to New York City and waited for the antics to continue. We returned to our holding area (where we had spent the last four hours) and waited for another 45 minutes before being assigned a gate. Then after arriving at the gate, we waited another hour to deplane. I checked my watch as I got off the jetway - 12:16 a.m. (We had landed just past 6:00 p.m.) The immigration hall was another fiasco. Just before we had arrived, two planes full of Lebanese refugees had arrived from Beirut for processing with refugee status. (I am not trying to compare our situation on the Upper Deck to that of a refugee fleeing bombs, and it actually gave me pause to reassess my own situation, which, after all, wasn't that bad.) However, the INS, in a rare moment of foresight and planning, had assigned eight agents to the visitor lanes, and two to the U.S. Citizen/Permanent Resident lanes, and here came 378 passengers from a flight from London to New York, half of whom belonged to the latter category. I lucked out and didn't end up waiting that long for immigration, but the baggage took more than two hours to come out. I had my bags and was ready to go at 3:30 a.m. During the wait in the baggage claim area, I had befriended some of my fellow passengers. The Virgin passengers also looked like refugees, by the way. More than half of the main cabin passengers had taken their blankets with them, (maybe as a sign of protest) and entire families were laying on the floor with the Virgin blankets, sleeping, waiting for their baggage. Operations at the airport said that they didn't have anyone to unload the baggage, and the flight crew didn't dare come through the baggage hall to get accosted by irate passengers, so we were left for two hours wondering if our bags would even come. After I had my bags, I thought about leaving, but I knew that my full-size vehicle had room for at least three other people and I would feel really guilty driving up to New York by myself knowing that an entire plane full of people needed a lift. So, I looked around at all of the people who I had shared this night with, recognized an attractive young woman who was also sitting in the Upper Deck, and asked her where she was going.