I didn’t take many videos of my little sojourn in JFK during the blizzard, partly because I was busy strategizing a way out of there, and mostly because AT&T made uploading anything except the simplest tweet or photo such an impossibility. I got one video, the McDonald’s one, out (which was good for Fox News, which played it ad nauseam as I spoke on Neil Cavuto’s show, while I tried to explain it was a flare-up and not the norm).
What I didn’t get to tell Fox News was that the McDonald’s fracas happened in part because just before I started shooting, a posse of JFK ground crew had cut the line and bought up lots of food. Mind you, JFK was closed at the time, and would be for another 8 hours or so. But passengers who had been waiting for two hours on line were summarily told to go away, and they didn’t like it.
JFK employees were part of the disaster during the snow-in. They commandeered buses — one American Airlines pilot, trying to get to his base at Terminal 8, never got there because they forced the driver to go somewhere else. They also didn’t clean anything — hours-old puddles of vomit, all paper out in the bathrooms. But they did get my plane out, although I’m not convinced that wasn’t partly because the news channels had selected me as the spokesman for all of us, and I was aboard it. This next video happened 13 hours later when the surly and uncommunicative Virgin Atlantic crew, who had never delivered on a single promise nor been plain about what the real situation was (and in fact kept hiding in closets and behind doors to talk to each other), got on the P.A. system at gate 28B and told us there would be another two-hour delay. Rather than commiserate with us, they treated What should have been simple, and perhaps even welcome news (after all, we weren’t cancelled) turned into an explosive situation. Passengers, who had felt lied to and strung along for 32 hours and who resented being dragged to the airport at all, combusted in fury. Port Authority police officers were on hand to make sure they didn’t rush the desk and hurt these stone-faced, incompetent Redcoats.
The discord went on for ten minutes. I didn’t catch it all because CBS Radio called me and wanted a live update on the air, and besides, I couldn’t upload what I already had. (And for the record, I didn’t make first contact with a single news organization; every one of them found me once I started tweeting about what was going on.) Josie, the head gate crew woman, did manage to talk in depth to one passenger, who seemed calmed, but she seemed to avoid addressing everyone with the same extensive frankness. The head of the ground crew came inside and tried his ham hand at calming us down: Obviously, after 30 hours of feeling diddled and lied to, the passengers weren’t having it anymore, and some British passengers even offered to come out and help shovel. When this grounds crewman said something I didn’t hear and fled out the door, one of the Brits threatened to burst through the door after him.
Finally, a flight attendant emerged. It was Vincent, who was in charge of first class. Vincent, as someone who lives on the front lines of customer service and crowd control, was the first airline or airport employee who knew how to talk to us. As someone who derived his interaction skills somewhere other than a training manual, he knew that what we needed was to be spoken to like equals, off the prescribed script. He put himself on our level, saying frankly that even the crew was so weary of this situation that they had volunteered to go on “minimum hours” so we could get out of there faster. He said he saw a light at the end of the tunnel and that although it was hard, we all had to be patient if we were going to reach it.
Most crucially, he told us to stop talking to Josie and her stone-faced gate crew, whom the passengers had by then nicknamed “The Rottweilers.” If we had questions, he said, we should ask him directly, and he’d be honest. I’m convinced that by not trying to pawn us off the way the robotic and mistrustful gate crew had done, Vincent defused, or at least lengthened the fuse on, this powder keg.
We did indeed leave two hours later, Vincent aboard with us. Here he is, with fellow flight attendant Tina, as we got on. He’s holding her gingerly because he’d just been coughing into his hand.
I recognize that 32 hours in an airport is not, in the scheme of things, a serious problem. It was reversible and ultimately, perfectly safe. I’ve been through worse in my life, and there’s worse to come. But I am a consumer reporter, and finding myself in the middle of a big unfolding story about unwise corporate decisions, I covered the story, and because of my reach as a reporter, the new channels picked up on it. Across the same airport, there were hundreds of stories that were just as messed up, but they went untold. And ultimately, very few of our stories were much more than intense annoyances. The battle to get what we paid for may be an unwinnable one, but at least it’s not grave.
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