When I go to visit my family in Florida, If I can, usually book the earliest flight leaving on Friday morning (which usually ends up being at the ungodly hour of 5:45am) and return Sunday on the last flight of the night. I always expect delays on the return flight, since it's the last flight out, but nothing like what happened on Sunday.
My flight was scheduled for 945pm. I knew it would be delayed somewhat because everything was a mess on Sunday; Airports in New York and NJ were closed and there were delays up and down the East coast because of it. JFK was grounded for five hours, yet American's website was saying that my flight was still "on time." Whatever, I was hanging out at home with my mom.
By the time it came for me to head over to the airport, the flight was delayed for an hour. Ended up being an hour and a half which isn't too bad considering that flights earlier in the day were either canceled or delayed for 5 hours. We all board and the crew tells us the one of the A/Cs is malfunctioning (aircrafts of that size have two A/C packs but can operate on one). It is crazy hot on the plane. Pretty much it's like there's a fan on inside of a closed, windowless room, but they tell us that it should get cooler once we take off. We're late, sitting there and come to find out there's no ground crew to take the plane away from the gate. So we sit in the hot plane. At some point, we find out they're giving out water in the back and I get up along with several passengers. People are tired, hungry. I talk to a few passengers who traveled from Haiti and have been traveling and delayed since 9am. We don't take off until sometime after 11pm.
It doesn't get cooler after take off. With over 260 people on board plus crew, it's getting hotter and people are fainting and getting sick. Call bells are going off like crazy, attendants going back and forth. An announcement is made for physicians and nurses to go to the back of the plane. After 40 minutes in the air, the plane is diverted back to Miami because of the heat and sick passengers.
As we're landing I look out the window and see all these firetrucks and police cars on the tarmac. For a moment, I thought something else was going on but after we land, they follow us.
When we all exit the plane, we're told there's another plane that's arriving and that we'll be taking off at 12:30am. We all groan and wait in another gate. All the shops are closed and there are no vending machines available. No water. We wait. It takes a while for passengers to exit this plane and we find out that this flight's from Santo Domingo - it has to undergo an agricultural inspection before it can get cleaned.
By this time, it's 1am. Then, we get an unexpected announcement: the plane needs to get cleaned, we need to get on it, seated, overhead bins closed, door closed, before 2am or else the flight has to be canceled. FAA regulations state that flight crew cannot be outside of the plane after 2am (but they are allowed be in the plane and in the air ).
Surprisingly, or maybe not considering the time of night/morning it was, people weren't up in arms. No one was charging the desk demanding satisfaction. People were calm or sleeping. I'm sitting behind some people, one of whom is a doctor who helped one of the sick passengers. "We're not going to make it," he says. He goes on to say that if we don't make this flight, the next time we can fly out is 7pm on Monday. He's talking with his family, who ask if the airlines won't just put everyone on the next flight. "No," he says. "Those flights already have passengers. For whatever reason, the next empty plane is only available in the evening."
At around 1:30am, the ground crew announces that the plane is being cleaned right now and that we need to get ready to board. They're going to board by group number, and we need to be as organized as possible in order to make it on board before the cut-off time. People start to murmur, and the doctor's family behind me start saying that everyone should line up by seat number. People start to get up and get ready.
Finally an announcement is made for pre-boarding. Ground crew tells us that the flight crew is "unhappy and tired, and not really interested in flying. It's up to you to get on this plane and make it happen." It's kinda shocking that she's telling us this. She calls out group numbers and people hustle like I've never seen. People are orderly, not blocking the entrance, moving swiftly.
The plane boards from back to front. I'm in the middle, group 4. When I get on the plane, people are clapping and cheering us on. I quickly stow my bag and sit down. People already seated cheer on the people coming aboard, cheer on the doctor who's running up and down the aisle shutting overhead bins. Every time someone comes on, they're cheered. Other people are getting out of their seats to close open bins and are cheered.
By the time the last person gets on, it's around 1:52 am. Ground crew gets on the speakers and tells us "You guys did it! Congratulations from everyone on the ground crew! We've never seen a faster boarding ever!" All the passengers cheer and clap. It was probably the most awesome thing I've seen airline passengers do in the face of a cancellation. It certainly was an accomplishment! An "unhappy" flight crew member gets on the speaker and in a voice mixed with sarcasm says "Well, you all are certainly proud of yourselves."
And we were.
We landed at JFK at 5:00am. As if to make up for the flying mess, the train gods decided to take pity (they usually do not) and made sure AirTrain, LIRR and the MTA trains were all scheduled so that I waited for each train for less than 2 minutes and I got home in less than an hour. It was daylight by the time I got home.
I have to say, I've had some pretty bad flying experiences but while this one was the longest, it wasn't the worst. Maybe it's because it was so late that people were tired, but we all seemed to roll with it. It certainly was an adventure and I've never seen people hustle and support each other like that on an airplane!