It was 9AM on Thursday, May 25th. I was so young. Hopeful.
But seriously, I was excited. At 11:19AM, I would fly out from Jacksonville and be in Venice, 7:25PM the next day. There would be a whirlwind of stops and layovers between, but nothing I hadn’t seen before.
A friend was kind enough to drop me off at the Jacksonville International Airport. We arrived in good time. I got in line to check a bag. And that’s when it started.
But first, please know that I’m not considering this the end of the world. At most, it’s annoying and frustrating. I work very hard to afford fun trips…and I feel like a prick when I tell folks I’m missing a Mediterranean cruise. But it is ridiculous situation and as a type-A who over plans, I feel like a character in a sitcom. Or a terrible ABC, um Freeform, network movie.
But back to the check-in line.
At the front of the line are three large families with enough luggage to fill Noah’s ark. (This is the first time I regret checking a bag for this trip.) The couple behind me also seems to be regretting the situation and we joke about it. I learn they’re on my flight. A few minutes later, I hear them discuss renting a car and driving. And I ask…why? “You’re literally in line at the airport.”
And so I hear about the first delay of the day. They tell me our 11:19AM flight was pushed back two hours due to poor weather conditions at JFK. I also find out the couple’s story. They were scheduled to fly home to New York the day before but due to a mechanical issue, JetBlue canceled the flight. And the wife wasn’t happy. This new delay wasn’t helping.
I’m not worried though. I have a ten-hour layover in New York. I had even made plans to run into Brooklyn, meet with a photographer (another, shorter story), and then head back to the airport. Plus, I receive my seating assignment and it’s in the emergency exit row. That means extra leg room.
The new boarding time comes, the flight crew ushers everyone in standard boarding fashion onto the plane. Mosaic boards first. Then priority…or are they pre-boarding? Frequent flyers. Then elderly, children under two. Active military. Priests. Doctors. Anyone wearing red.
We’re finally in the plane. Doors are up. We’re taxiing away…and the captain’s voice breaks over the intercom. “Sorry ladies and gentlemen. Just got word from air control. There’s a ground stop at JFK. We have to go back to the gate.”
He says we’ll try again in two hours. But I’m not worried. I have a ten-hour layover. My next flight isn’t until 11:25PM and there’s no way we’d be delayed that long.
The passengers shuffle off the plane. I see the couple from New York. They’re not happy.
I settle into a seat near an outlet and get to work, finishing up project work and emails for that week.
The next departure time rolls around.
And again, we do the airplane-boarding shuffle. To my amazement, it doesn’t go any faster than the first time. This is our second time as passengers on the same plane and we can’t seem to load any quicker. I do notice the couple from New York are nowhere to be seen. Maybe they got that car?
The captain announces over the intercom, “We’ve been cleared for a short window into JFK. The moment doors are up, we’re leaving. “
And I’m ecstatic. We can make it. The passengers are seated. Flight attendants are ready. Engines are warming up.
But we don’t move.
And we continue not moving for almost twenty minutes.
The seating assignments on my row have changed and I find myself in close proximity to a blonde woman with an Australian accent. We’re watching the flight attendants intently. The two women keep looking through the door’s window as if something is wrong…or not happening in this case.
I’m my mother’s daughter and my patience is running out. I don’t like being kept waiting. I hit the call button. One of the attendants walks up.
I ask, “Can you let us know what’s going on? The captain made it sound like we’re hitting the road right now…but nothing is happening.”
The flight attendant nods. “I know. We all want to go. But we’re waiting on the jet bridge to be removed.” At her last word, there’s a noise and the bridge is retracted. There’s a communal sigh of relief form the passengers.
As the attendant leaves, the Australian woman (who I learn later is named Diane) whispers, “We’re going to lose that window.”
Flight 678 makes it to the tarmac. But the engines don’t rev. We wait.
Overall, the cabin is lively. People are talking and most seem to be upbeat. I engage in conversation with Diane. She’s from Sydney. She’s in the states with her husband who is in the Australian navy. They’re headed to New York for Fleet Week (and ballet she insisted) and the Memorial Day Weekend. He’s joining her tomorrow. She’s excited. But nervous.
And so am I, because we’re on the tarmac and not moving. And that ten-hour layover is amazing, but halfway over.
My other seatmate is a gentlemen from New York as well. He’s spent most of the time playing Magic Online or some other game on his Nintendo Switch. But he joins the conversation, relaying horror stories about a flight last year. Together with the other passengers, he was held in a plane for ten hours.
I tell him I would have rioted…specifically to be arrested and taken off the plane. He laughs. I laugh. But I’m seriously figuring out my plan of action if they try to keep us on this plane longer than two hours.
And just FYI, there is a passenger bill of rights. I learned this from my mother when I called her as we sat on the tarmac. I think the cutoff is 90 minutes and then they have to deplane you. Plus, they need to provide drinks and food and working bathrooms. Seriously…someone had to make this into law? Building a loyal customer base wasn’t enough? Common decency wasn’t enough?
I stand up to use the restroom and afterwards stick around the front of the plane to talk to the flight attendants. The two women look tired. Come to find out, they’re based in New York and this is the last flight of the day for them. They just want to be home and the whole situation is frustrating for them as well. I explain my predicament and they assure me it will work out. At one point I ask if we’ll be breaking out the beer anytime soon. They say most likely. We laugh and I return to my seat.
The intercom crackles and the captain’s voice echoes through the cabin “I apologize folks. It looks like we missed our window. We’re working with air control trying to negotiate a solution. Bear with us. We’re not deplaning yet just in case we get another window.”
But we don’t. And we find ourselves back at the gate with another departure time two hours later…at 9PM.
There’s still the slightest of chances I can make it. The flight time from JAX to JFK is usually shorter than expected…an easy hour and 45 minutes. TAP Portugal (my international airline) is in the same terminal at JFK as JetBLue flights. I’m already checked in…we could get there. I could run to the gate. Get on the plane. This could still happen.
For now, I’m in cute little JIA with passengers from Flight 678 and another JetBlue flight that has been delayed.
Diane and I wait in line to get more information at the gate booth. We’re joined by Teddy who Diane met earlier. He’s an ASL interpreter and works with kids at a school for the deaf and the blind. He’s headed to New York for the weekend but to Europe after that.
It isn’t long before we all agree that we need a drink. The only real option that’s still open is Chili’s. We get wine and margaritas. At one point, another passenger joins us. He was on the 8PM flight that was canceled.
We make jokes about being stranded and traveling in general. We tell stories and laugh and honestly…it’s not that bad. Diane takes lots of pictures and overall, everyone seems in good spirits.
9PM roles around. Once again, we are at the gate. And again, we board. And again, people can’t seem to move any faster than before. But Diane, Teddy and I laugh about it. We’re all seated in the emergency exit row.
It’s almost 9:30. My window is closing. But maybe just maybe…
And then…a tray table breaks. This apparently shuts down the whole process. The crew has to bring a mechanic on board to remove it. Then they have to file paperwork. The best part? One of those pieces of paper has to be faxed to us. Yes, faxed.
Who is still using a fax? JetBlue apparently.
It’s 10PM and I know it’s over. There isn’t a chance of me making my next flight. The plane finally leaves, the flight attendants break out the wine and beer. The two women bring extra for Diane and myself. Maybe it’s funny, but that second bottle meant a lot. Not for the alcohol, but just the thought of it.
Fast forward, it’s 1AM and I’m standing in Terminal 5 at JFK in front of our gate of arrival. The plane finally took off and the flight was smooth. But we reached JFK only to wait another 45 minutes on the tarmac for a gate to open up.
2AM. I’ve managed to get in front of a JetBlue manager. I’ve explained the situation, the jet bridge, the fax. It wasn’t weather. It was decisions by JetBlue that put me in this position. He assigns someone to help me specifically. Her name is Stacy and she just keeps calm. (Stacy, if you ever read this, thank you for dealing with me.) And I’m so grateful especially after seeing the line of unhappy travelers that’s wrapping around the second floor. We all need help rebooking and just getting out of here.
3AM. I can’t find my bag. I had seen fellow passengers leaving with theirs…but mine was nowhere to be seen. I have to wait in baggage claims. The lady helping me decides to go on break and disappears. Thank goodness for Raheed. (I think that was his name…) He’s out to fix everyone’s problems whether baggage or not. They finally figure it’s been transferred to TAP’s baggage area. Someone is going to get it. (This is the second time I regret checking a bag.)
4AM. I get my bag. I get back upstairs. Stacy informs me that all they can offer is to get me on the next TAP flight. But that means I won’t arrive in time to depart with the cruise ship on Saturday. I’m livid. I demand that they find a solution. They need to book me on another airline this. They need to fix that.
“We can’t do that” is the answer.
“What about the Lufthansa flight you just mentioned. You said they’re a partner!”
“We tried. But there’s a red error that keeps happening. We can’t rebook you in our system.”
“Then find someone who can. Someone in management!”
“How do you know they can’t?!”
I storm off. And I call my mom. Because if anyone is willing to hear me out at 5AM it’s my parents. Plus, she’s probably been up since 3AM.
She suggests I just buy a ticket on a different airline. I laugh and say I don’t have that kind of money on hand. And then my saintly wonderful mother offers to buy it. I can work to pay her back.
5:30AM. I have a flight booked on Lufthansa. It leaves at 4PM and will get me into Venice at 9:45AM. I can still get on the ship.
Noon. I’m in terminal 1. I’ve slept awkwardly on luggage for an hour and eaten egg drop soup for breakfast. (Don’t ask. I apparently crave Chinese food when I’m stressed.) The Lufthansa check in desk is now staffed with employees. I’m in line. I’m at the desk. I’m literally placing my bag on the scale.
“You’ve got a problem.”
I look straight into the eyes of the Lufthansa employee. He’s an older gentleman and his face says that he doesn’t care about my predicament. “Your passport expires in a month.”
“You need at least three months. They won’t let you into the country.”
This folks. This is where I can’t even bring myself to cry. I’m not mad. I’m not sad. I’m more horrified at the joke this trip is becoming. The really bad, not funny, punk’d level style of a joke.
I move to the booking desk and the people there are a little more helpful. The ticket is fully refunded. And they tell me to get the passport renewed. There are expedited options they say, but it’s a holiday weekend. Maybe they could get it back to you on Tuesday. And you’ll need proof that you’re traveling. But while you can get on a flight with the current passport, customs might stop you from even entering the country upon arrival.
“They’ll send you back.”
The expiration issue is news to me. But not to anyone who I’ve mentioned this too. I’m still not sure how I missed this wildly important bit of information.
12:30PM. I’m standing at the exit of Terminal 1 with a slip of paper with the address and phone number of the New York Passport Agency.
Less then sad, I’m angry. And yes, angry that my “best laid plans” have been severely disrupted, but more so that I feel like I’m losing. Losing what? I don’t know. But being stuck in airports for 36 hours with only two hours of sleep isn’t winning. And then I planned my next moves.
I’ll present them in the same manner as I thought them:
“We’re not giving up. Okay. Passport office. Holiday weekend. They can expedite. Said something about a doing it in a couple of hours. Really? That’s crazy. I need proof of travel. Shit. Lufthansa canceled the flight. But I have the first ticket. Maybe that will still work. What if they check? They’ll check. They do a damn security check. Of course they’ll check the manifest. TAP! I could get the TAP Airline seat. Shit. I have to find Stacy. She won’t be happy to see me. I shouldn’t have walked out. Wait…I need to call the passport agency. They said appointments are best. It’s short notice. They won’t have one. And they’ll be closed until Tuesday. Whatever. I’ll try.”
I dialed the number and somehow navigated the labyrinth of recorded options to talk to a human. At that point I was on the airtran back to terminal 5 and JetBlue.
“Well, that’s odd. We do have an appointment for today. It’s at 2:00PM.”
“What?! Yes. I’ll take it.”
“Shit. I have to get into Lower Manhattan in an hour. That’s not possible. Traffic. Okay. I have an hour and a half. 1 Jetblue. 2 Stacy. 3 rebook. 4 print boarding pass. 5 Uber. That’s thirty minutes to find Stacy and rebook. I couldn’t find her earlier. What if it’s still a madhouse? Call TAP. They can change it.”
On the phone with TAP, I rush into the departure deck. It’s a wildly different scenario than 10 hours ago. The line is gone, the cots have been removed. I hear the TAP operator in my ear. She says my booking as already been changed. But she can’t access the history. I’ll need to contact JetBlue.
I’m not sure what to do at the point but thank god I’m literally in the JetBlue terminal. As I turn to the desk, the first JetBlue employee I see? Stacy.
And she’s not mad to see me. She’s surprised I’m still here. But not mad. I rush to explain everything to her. Her eyes widen.
She takes me to the desk and has an attendant check.
I had been booked! They went ahead and booked me! I’m ecstatic and request a printed version of the itinerary.
2:15PM. I’m in front of the New York Passport Agency having experienced the most amazing car ride from JFK into Manhattan. After explaining the situation to my Uber driver he said he couldn’t make promises but he would try his best. He was wonderful, explaining route changes, what areas would most likely be crowded. I had also called the New York Passport Agency again to let them know I was running late. “Your appointment is 2:30PM, but I’ll let them know,” the rep said. So I wasn’t late! I was early.
From there, a few things:
- You can’t bring food or drink into the building. I went back outside to eat my Publix sub. I was carsick from the ride to Manhattan. I took a bite of the sandwich, regretted that my stomach couldn’t handle it, and threw it away. That’s the true tragedy of this story.
- After getting in and receiving paperwork, I was told to get my photo…which is apparently not that hard. Right down the block, at the back of a bodega, two men have set up a camera and flash facing a white wall specifically for passport photos. Got to love New York side hustles.
- But it was cash only. Their ATM wouldn’t take my credit card. Neither would the Chase one across the street. But thank god, the teller inside was able to help.
I got cash. Then the photo. Then back into the passport building. I handed everything over, got a number and went upstairs to the 10th floor.
It is like a scene out of a movie. The AC isn’t working. There are windows across the far wall with attendants. Screens hang from the ceiling with rotating lists of which numbers (customers) should be at which station. Every part of the room and furniture is shades of beige and bland colors. In stark contrast to this are the oversize and beautiful color photos of exotic places that hang behind the government employees.
Facing the employees are rows of old plastic seats, filled with a variety of people. Young and old. Black and white. Kids, babies and more.
Because I made an appointment, I don’t wait long. Maybe ten minutes. I get to the window, hand over the paperwork and am told it takes a few hours. I can leave and come back. But be back before 6PM because that’s when the doors are closed. However, if you’re in before 6PM you can still wait. The office works past closing until all expedited passports are done.
I decide I want to stop lugging around my backpack and bag. Earlier during the ride to the city, I went ahead and booked a hotel room. Whether I got the passport or not, I wasn’t going back to JFK. I needed to sleep. And I needed a shower. (Just fyi, I’m so thankful for technology. Using just my phone, I did an instant book through Expedia at a hotel near the passport office. I literally picked the cheapest and closest option off the map.)
3PM. I walk to the hotel and check-in. I also realize that I’m craving Chinese food. Soup dumplings to be specific. (I am my father’s daughter.) The hotel is on Canal Street in Tribeca so I’m super close to Chinatown.
With the help of Yelp, I find a place nearby called Master Bao.
And I go. And it’s wonderful.
5:35PM. I start back for the passport office. The will call office is also on the 10th floor and it’s hotter than the first room. Everyone is sweaty. No one is smiling. I wait in line. I start to feel lightheaded. I’ve been on my feet all day with no sleep and the heat isn’t helping. When my turn finally comes, the woman behind the glass can’t seem to find my passport. For what seems like an eternity, but not more than a few minutes actually, she sorts through several boxes of envelopes.
But then…she finds it.
And I’m on the verge of tears because this feels like a win.
Another win was catching up with an old friend on a rooftop bar with amazing views. Not a bad way to spend an unexpected layover in New York City.
In the end, I’m not going to make the cruise. I can try to meet it at one of its ports of call. But I am still getting on the flight tonight. Hopefully I’ll be in Europe tomorrow…and from there…well, I took two weeks off of work. My previous itinerary is jacked. There’s plenty of room for adventure.
Unless the TAP Portugal flight tonight is cancelled.