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Nina In New York: Inside The Flight Delay Fishbowl

Travelers at New York's LaGuardia airport wait for their flights (credit: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

Travelers at New York’s LaGuardia airport wait for their flights (credit: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

Best NYC Eats

A lighthearted look at news, events, culture and everyday life in New York.
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By Nina Pajak

I spent the weekend in Pittsburgh with my in-laws to celebrate Father’s Day. On our way to the airport to return home, we started talking about various experiences being trapped on the tarmac, delayed, circling, missing flights, etcetera. My husband remarked that he’s always had a very good experience with the airline we were flying home on. Naturally, this entire conversation was a gigantic mistake.

We raced through security with only twenty minutes before boarding, tapping our feet at slowpokes and glaring down overly-chatty TSA officers who had no consideration for our poor timing. We got to the gate with exactly enough time to buy a couple of waters and board. Perfect! Phew. As the plane began to taxi, I looked at my watch and thought how lovely it would be to arrive ahead of schedule, seeing as we were taking off exactly on time. I began to doze off as the plane picked up speed and I felt myself tip backwards ever so slightly. That’s when we came to an abrupt stop.

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“This is your pilot speaking. Dashboard light came on. Anti-skid something something brakes yadda yadda. Nothing to worry about. Won’t take long, but have to get you back to the gate so you can de-plane.”

I’d like to pause for a moment here to express my distaste for the word “de-plane.” Where did that come from? When did they start using it? Why can’t we say “disembark” or “get off?” We don’t say “de-boat” or “de-bus.” Okay, game on.

When we got back to the gate, my husband immediately set about catching up on work he’d planned to do when we got home. I played Angry Birds and pretended not to stare at everyone around me. I realized that the waiting area during an air travel delay is like a sociological experiment. How do people deal with frustration, lack of information, loss of control, and general impatience? The answer is varied.

There were the poor Japanese businessmen who had been seated in First Class and who were the last off the plane due to the fact that they obviously had no idea why we were all “de-planing” all of a sudden, and the flight attendant procrastinated having that conversation. They mostly wandered around buying sodas and looking jolly.

There was a guy with a little floofy dog who disappeared very quickly despite staff requests that we remain close to the gate. Ostensibly, it was more important that he figure out where he could discreetly convince little FiFi to make a doody without going outside.

A bizarrely out-of-touch European man with a sweater tied around his shoulders, who, with his wife, appeared to be making a game out of being as underfoot and in the way as possible. As the baggage handler was cursing and sweating to get our gate-checked luggage back to us, he insisted on poking his head through the door, laughing and yelling, “be careful!” He buzzed around the gate area asking people pesty questions and attempting to speak to the gate agent by walking behind the counter. Amazingly, his face remained un-punched.

My personal favorite, an enormous white guy with a cutoff tee, denim shorts and a crazy, early-90’s fade haircut sleeping under a row of seats, splayed out like a dead body. Or perhaps just a severely hung over one.

Two French businessmen pretending to get work done but instead obviously talking smack about everyone at the gate, because French people always assume that no one in America speaks enough French to understand. (They were right. I really tried).

A shockingly calm group of teenagers traveling with a youth group or sports team, headed up by an obviously intimidating adult. I heard him direct them to call their parents and inform them of the delay. He was so convincing, I nearly picked up the phone to call my mother.

And there were several people like myself who sat twiddling their thumbs for five minutes before deciding that we were probably going to be at Gate A83 for the duration and who went to stock up on food rations as though we were trapped forever instead of waiting for an hour. But when else can you feel okay about buying a massive, $8 bag of trail mix and Doritos? You can’t. Carpe diem, right?

As the news grew worse and the gate agent went from telling us “it shouldn’t be long” to “you should call customer service,” the scene darkened considerably. Some people calmly picked up their phones. Most decided waiting in line for in-person service would be more advantageous (they were wrong). Some of us paced about furiously, checking the departures board and waiting in line for other NYC-bound flights with phones tucked under our ears. The Japanese men clutched white paper vouchers with looks of utter confusion and dread on their faces. A few girls began to cry. A lot.

My favorite part was when a customer service agent informed me that, “I can get you to Memphis, but I can’t get you out of Memphis.” Perhaps he misinterpreted my intense desire to depart PIT for the desire to be anywhere but here. My least favorite part was when he told me an early morning flight had plenty of availability and to hang up and wait, and six minutes later it was booked solid.

I felt the tears begin to burn behind my eyes, but I quickly channeled them into a more productive rage when I saw the pitiful girls bawling in various corners. I couldn’t be that person. Not today. Plus, Mr. Pajak put it in perspective when he reminded me that we could either be stuck in Pittsburgh for another night or have taken off and landed at JFK without working brakes.

Ultimately, we were defeated. There’s nothing quite like being forced to leave an airport without ever having gone anywhere. The sense of powerlessness and of generally being a sucker is oppressive. We hung our heads as my father-in-law rounded the bend to pick us up pretty much where he’d dropped us off five hours earlier. “Happy Father’s Day!” we said, meekly.

The only moral of the story I can divine is never, ever, ever make a single hopeful or positive statement regarding air travel within twenty-four to forty-eight hours prior to a flight.

Best not to even think it, else you anger the Commercial Sky Deities. They are a vengeful lot.

Dear Readers: While I am rarely at a loss for words, I’m always grateful for column ideas. Please feel free to e-mail me your suggestions.

Nina Pajak is a writer and publishing professional living with her husband on the Upper West Side.

The Nina In New York Archives:

Apparently, We’re All Covered In Germs – And That’s Not Terrifying

Bacon! It’s Not Just For Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Snack Time, And Drunkfood Anymore!

Sleep Yourself Thin? And Other Deliberate Misinterpretations Of A Scientific Study

Body Waxing: The New Pre-Teen, Pre-Camp Ritual?