Tuesday, October 4, 2016

USA Part 3: The Flight From Hell

Apologies in advance, but this starts off really wordy, but I promise it'll be worth it.  Assuming you find joy in watching other people suffer horribly.

I'll pick up where we left off.  I had just filled my belly with delicious Shake Shack and was bound for LA for a brief stopover, then home to Brisbane.  A mere 22.5 hour journey.  Easy peasy.

Just as I boarded the airplane at JFK rain descended upon the entire east coast, so the captain cheerily told us there'd be a slight delay in taking off.  Should pass quickly, nothing to worry about.

So we didn't worry, and waited for the rain to subside for one hour.  We waited two hours.  At that point we started to worry.

Then we waited three hours.

At which point federal law requires the airline to give passengers the option to disembark the plane.  After much confusion and misinformation we learned that if you choose to get off the plane now you won't be getting back on tonight, which means you'll be flying standby tomorrow (or who knows when) to get yourself to Los Angeles.  As far as I could tell nobody took their federally mandated right to get the hell out of that sweat box.

I've alluded to the high temperatures in New York, right?  Conveniently the business class cabin had frosty air conditioning while us back in steerage were peeling off layer after layer in an attempt to not overheat.  No A/C for the proletariat.

We waited four hours.

At which point people around me started getting text messages from loved ones, "You at JFK today? Are you OK?"  They were responding to news reports of an [alleged] active gunman shooting people at the airport.

Madman with a gun, at the airport.  Inside the terminal building we were parked right outside of, like sitting ducks.  Is it a crazy person?  Is it a terrorist?  In the USA you never can tell.  Not that it matters much, anyway.

Therefore our federally mandated right to leave the aircraft was revoked; nobody was going anywhere.  We could see the lights of cop cars flashing in the distance.

What I'm about to say next sounds 110% bat shit crazy, but I am dead serious here.  It was at this stage in the...whatever it was, I can't say flight...that I actually thought I had died in the cab on my way to the airport, and didn't know it, and was now in Purgatory, where I would languish for all of eternity.  I legit thought I was dead because it felt surreal that one thing after the other was going wrong, and there was no end in sight to this soul crushing and possibly life ending experience.

I had been sitting on a hot, sweaty, grounded airplane for over 4 hours and had a not-zero-percent chance of dying a violent death sometime in the near future.

This is flying domestically in the United States, people!

I had to laugh to keep from crying.  I clung to my precious store of water, because it was only a matter of time before it started running out.  Everybody made friends with their neighbors and explained just how screwed they were with their connecting flight or work in California the next morning.  Can you imagine the rumors flying around the cabin of overheated, sweaty, hungry, frustrated passengers who think there's a blood bath happening right outside our door?  Can you even imagine?!

I can.  Because this was my limbo for the past, by now, four and a half hours.  All the while this son of a bitch stared in my face:

We were fortunate that the entertainment system worked, and there were USB phone chargers at every seat.  Unlucky for me airplane wifi only works in the air, so I was without any means of communication with the outside world, with god knows what happening in the terminal building 100 feet away.  Should I ask to borrow someone's phone and text my parents to tell them I'm not dead?  At least not dead...yet.  Who knows what media frenzy is going on out there, and what my family and friends were seeing?

I should have mentioned earlier: there never actually was a shooter.  Anywhere.  Someone thought they heard shots, which triggered this whole mess.  Later they attributed the whole thing to somebody hearing cheers for the Olympics and mistaking it for gunshots.

Oh, America.  Never change!

I hadn't actually seen footage of what was going on inside, until just now 6 weeks later.  Holy crap I can safely say I'm glad I was where I was, and not living this nightmare!  I would take countless hours of Purgatory over minutes of pandemonium and panic any day!

As you may know, flight crews can only work a certain number of hours per day.  Sitting on the tarmac doing nothing counts as work towards their maximum limit.  At hour 5 we were one hour out from them hitting their max, and having to start the whole miserable process over again with a new crew.  A new crew that would have to get to the airport on closed roads, thanks to the non-existent shooter.

At this point, the heavens opened up, both literally and figuratively.  The ground crews were back in action, travelers seeking refuge from the terminals out on tarmacs were herded back inside.  We had to wait, briefly in the grand scheme of things, for a refueling truck to come juice us back up after 5 and a half hours of sitting idle.

After 5 hours and 45 minutes, with 15 minutes to go until we had to taxi back to the gate and wait for a fresh crew to materialize out of nowhere, we were taking off.  Finally we were taking off!

Taking off...on a 5.5 hour flight.

Yes, folks, we waited on the tarmac longer than the cross-country flight itself.

We took off and flew for five and a half hours without incident, and landed safely at LAX a mere six hours behind scheduled (3 a.m. vs. 9 p.m.).

Needless to say my flight to Brisbane, which left around midnight, was long gone.  So...more waiting to rebook.  But at least they gave me, without me having to ask or fight for, this:

Check-in time: 4 a.m.

Pro travel tip: Always fly with a change of clothes (underwear especially) in your hand luggage, along with the usual toothbrush and mini tube of toothpaste.  I have always followed this rule, and never needed it.  Until now!  After my 12+ hour ordeal in a literal sweat box I have never in my life been happier to shower and put on a clean pair of drawers.

My flight wasn't leaving until midnight that night, so I had all day in LA to entertain myself.  After sleeping nice and late I consulted a few former residents about where to spend my bonus vacation day.  The answer to that was Venice Beach:

Venice, Californ-i-a has a seedy past.  It was ground zero of the crack trade back in the gang banging 90's.  In case you were wondering, it was Crip territory.

But today it's lovely!

With only a slight resemblance to its shabby past.

I even saw 3 dudes get arrested!  Good times.

If I had gotten up at a decent hour (not happening with a 5 a.m. bed time) I would've also hit up Santa Monica, which isn't far down the road.  But alas I had other big, BIG plans to attend to!

I have lusted after what is considered to be the finest fast food on the planet for years.  In-n-Out Burger is strictly a west coast phenomenon, so I've never had the chance to indulge myself.  Until now!

It is only by sheer luck - or cruel twist of fate, more accurately - that I got to experience two culinary masterpieces less than 24 hours apart!

I must admit I can't compare apples to apples.  In-n-Out doesn't serve chicken burgers; they have a very basic menu.  I couldn't bring myself to drink two strawberry milkshakes two days in a row, so lowly Diet Coke had to accompany this meal.  

Final verdict?  The burger was nothing short of phenomenal, absolutely A+, which I attribute to the liberal use of cheese.  But the fries were awful, awful cardboard.  I don't know if I just got an old, dry batch but they were far and away the worst fast food French fries I've ever experienced.  Boo.

Also fun about the In-n-Out location near the airport: It's right under the flight path, so you can spot some gnarly huge planes really close up:

All up I'm going to have to put Shake Shack and In-n-Out in a dead tie.  Either one is a great fast food choice, it just depends on which coast you find yourself on.  But I will forever hold Shake Shack in my heart for keeping me perfectly satiated throughout my eternal infernal cross-country journey.

Miraculously I got out of LAX and into Brisbane on time and with no dramas.  I feel like I've earned a lifetime of drama-free travel after my [rounded up to] six hour ordeal.

I will say this about my traumatic experience: Not once was anybody, passenger or crew, remotely close to losing their shit.  The pilot kept reminding us that they were just as frustrated as we were, and weren't getting any more information than was passed on to us.  The flight attendants did what they could to keep everyone calm.  Even the kids on board had an impressive lack of meltdowns.  Everybody was patient, everybody was kind.  We all suffered through together, as a team, and helped each other out where we could.

This is the America and Americans I know.

We don't need to be great "again", because damn it we have been all along.

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