Diversions, Delays, and Mechanicals All to Fly 213 Miles

Last week I got to visit the American Airlines Flagship Lounge at JFK for two different meals. Which is never what I’m looking to do. Especially when it means that travel is taking a bit longer than it’s supposed to, and which is uniquely inconvenient when you’re doing what’s supposed to be an out-and-back trip.

But spending a delay in a first class lounge, even a domestic one, is a pretty good way to while away a delay. It’s easy to stay productive, there’s snacks available, and relative quiet. Plus in a domestic lounge I’m always uncomfortable leaving backs behind or personal items strewn about while using the facilities, in a first class lounge I generally have no such concerns.

Turning back the clock a day, though, I was heading up to New York last week for Conde’ Nast Traveler‘s 25th anniversary gala. I’ll share a write up of that shortly.

It was a busy week at the office, and I was cutting my travel a bit close — a plan that would allow for a 60 or 90 minute delay and still making it comfortably to the event, but I wasn’t going to get myself in any earlier than that.

Boarding was on time, but we taxied out across the runway and then learned we’d be sitting for about half an hour due to an air traffic backup into New York. That’s an inherent travel risk heading up to Manhattan, but I rather figured that a 1pm flight on a Tuesday wouldn’t experience much in the way of delays. Still, New York schedules are so padded as a result of regular air traffic delays that we were still expecting an on-time or even early arrival.

I was headed into JFK because it was a personal trip and — even factoring transportation cost — much cheaper. So I was flying American Eagle, a regional jet and I was sitting in the wider first class seat, and the captain was fine for us to use our phones during the ground delay.

We took off a few minutes before our originally slotted time, made a quick trip to the New York area, and then we started to circle. The pilot came on to tell us that she had learned we’d be in a holding pattern for at least 40 minutes — but that we didn’t have enough fuel to do it. And we’d have to divert.

The original plan was to head up to Boston but then they realized that Hartford would be closer. We peeled off and headed that way, made a quick landing, and waited to get refueled. Getting in and out of Hardford was certainly quicker than Boston, though it still took about 50 minutes from touchdown to taking off again.

Thinking back on it, this was actually only the second diversion I’ve ever experienced.

The first was twelve years ago, I was flying back from Sydney and my connection out of Los Angeles — a United 777 to Washington Dulles — faced terrible weather across the middle of the country. We flew south, all the way across to Florida and then up the East Coast. By the time we hit DC, though, the weather had made its way there and the runways were closed due to the thunderstorms. So we circled, hoping that the storm would pass and we could land. We circled until we approached fuel minimums, and then diverted to Richmond.

It turned out that the Richmond airport didn’t have the equipment to reach high enough to refuel a 777. The fire department had to get involved. We were on the ground for several hours, while passengers were not allowed off the plane. Everyone had a party in the galleys though and the flight attendants comped every mini bottle on the plane to passengers regardless of their cabin of service. We were all in it together and made the best of the delay.

We finally took off for DC, made it up there quickly, and it was after midnight before I made it home. Having started off in Sydney, and without any sleep along the way, I was as jetlagged as I’d ever been. I couldn’t sleep, finally gave up around 5 am and went into work. By the end of the day I was in rough shape!

This diversion, clearly, could have been much worse than it was!

I haven’t researched the cause of the delay we faced into New York airspace, when we returned after gassing up there were no more delays at all. My guess while we were inflight was that New York airspace was frozen for the President’s arrival, he would be taping the Letterman show a couple of hours later.

My 1pm departure from Washington’s National airport turned into a 5pm arrival at JFK. I had hoped to make a 5:45pm pre-event reception I’d been invited to, but that wasn’t looking likely — I considered a quick change into my suit in the lounge and heading straight to the event, but then I’d have my rollaboard and laptop with me at Lincoln Center so I decided against.

The next wrinkle is that I had arranged a Groundlink car from JFK into the city. Using a coupon code it was going to be no more expensive than a taxi. (I generally prefer Uber over Groundlink, but for fixed-price airport runs – at least in New York — Groundlink is cheaper.)

Groundlink’s system interpreted my flight’s landing in Hartford as its arrival, dispatched the car, and when I landed at JFK I had a number of texts indicating that they were waiting for me, that the wait was beginning to incur hefty charges, and that they had finally cancelled the trip. (I e-mailed them, they were very apologetic, and did not ultimately charge me. But they didn’t offer any besides the apology, either.)

Returning was no piece of cake, either. I was on the American Eagle 11:10am flight back to DC. I left the Andaz 5th Avenue shortly after 9am, no traffic and was at the airport quickly. I got the three beeps at Precheck so was through security in a breeze as well. And that’s how I found myself in American’s Flagship lounge (thanks to my British Airways Gold status).

I had already had a nice breakfast at the 5th Avenue Andaz (love that Diamond room service benefit!) so I didn’t partake, but here was what was on offer:

I started experiencing creeping delays on the flight, though, just 30 minutes at a time. And that’s how I finally saw the lunch display in the lounge, I only ever seem to depart JFK in the mornings.

(The full self-serve bar was actually available first-thing, I didn’t partake since I was headed into the office.)

My aircraft was there, the delays were mechanical, and once the new posted departure time was later than the next flight I went up to the lounge attendant. It turns out that the posted departure time was actually decision time, and we wouldn’t be leaving then. So I asked her to waitlist me for the 12:25pm flight and booked it over to the gate. American has two lounges at JFK, the Flagship lounge is a good 10 minute trek from the Eagle gates but I made it in about 4 minutes. The gate agent refused to help me, telling me that boarding was complete and I couldn’t make it onto the flight. I noticed on her desk that my boarding pass had already been printed, she handed that to me and I got onto the aircraft.

Turned out to be a good decision, as while my original flight wasn’t cancelled it was delayed another hour so that it wasn’t leaving much earlier than even the following flight was scheduled for.

But at least I wasn’t on that one as it turned out to be delayed four hours — and not the fault of pilots behaving badly at all, this time it was because the two flight attendants were fighting.

In the end I made it to the bulk of my event in New York City, and my return was delayed less than an hour and a half. So all-in-all within the margin of error. And yet it sure seemed to be worse — through a series of compounding events — than it actually was.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @Southern travel girl – no referral link, just use a discount code from the thread i linked to… note though that if you are logged into your account the codes usually don’t work… usually have to make the reservation without have an account with groundlink to use the discounts

  2. “It turns out that the posted departure time was actually decision time”

    I’ve found that he posted time is always the departure time.. always head to the gate 45 min before (for transcons or 767/777), 30 min before for every other flight

  3. @Jamison — the posted departure time was actually showing in American’s computer as decision time. Which means they wouldn’t even have started boardnig at that point.

    Unless I need to figure for overhead space I don’t like to be at the gate for the very start of boarding, personal preference.

  4. I always try to avoid regionals. Inexperienced ,over worked and underpaid flight crew. To make it worse they have too many lady pilots. I,d like the Capt at least to be 40+, with enough flying hours and years in the sky to handle emergencies in case , believe me, experience does matter .

  5. How about a TXL-LHR flight that diverts to STN? Sat for 5 hours (did have the option to deplane, most who were headed to London did) and then flew STN-LHR. That was cool. 🙂

  6. @Southern travel girl – Please report back afterward on the Westin, specifically any mention/check of the one occupant restriction.

  7. Thanks for clearing up the mystery of all my recent flight delays. Silly me for not realizing it’s lady pilots taking the president to Letterman.

  8. Gary,
    GroundLink is starting $78 for Airport to Hotel. Maybe that’s reasonable in Manhattan, but I checked LAX-to-2.6-miles away and it’s quoting the same thing. Am I missing something? I could rent three cars for that price.

    Ed

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