I was flying back to Haiti again with well-known independent journalist Georgianne Nienaber, who has been covering the Haiti beat as well as anyone since the great earthquake of January 12th last year that killed perhaps over 300,000 thousand Haitians while rendering homeless over another million and a half, figures hard to totally validate, but solid surmises nonetheless. Georgianne had also begun exposing the lies and ineptitude surrounding the cholera epidemic that began sweeping through Haiti last October, exacerbated by bureaucracy, callousness, coverups and ineptitude.
I had gone with Georgianne last May to, among other thing, investigate the earthquake refugee camps in a four-day whirlwind tour of Port-au-Prince and outlaying areas. It had been a colorful and exciting experience, and I had learned firsthand why so many travelers fall in love with the Haitian people despite it all, despite the poverty, overcrowding, hunger, corruption and chaos. And I was eager to return.
Now, as my wife dropped me off at the Norfolk International Airport around 3 PM for my American Airlines flight, I was less than 24 hours away from said return, an easy flight, a night in Miami and on into Port-au-Prince by Noon the next day. Or so I thought.
My first inkling that something might be wrong came when I tried to scan my online print-out barcode at the AA expedited boarding Self-Service Machine. Nothing was happening. A ticket agent, noticing how flummoxed I certainly looked, came over to show me how to do it. Now we were getting a message, but not a very reassuring one, to paraphrase: You are 24 hours early, come back tomorrow. Huh?
Quicker than you can say "the airports of America are disfunctional", the ticket agent was back at her computer terminal looking for answers. "Ahh, your flight has been canceled, but you can still catch it tomorrow."
The long and icy fingers of the snow blizzards sweeping through Chicago and now the northeast had apparently affected me too, but I was too busy explaining to the ticket agent WHY I had to be in Haiti tomorrow afteroon, not recycling myself through Norfolk International again. Finally the light bulb went off and she began searching for some way to get me to Miami tonight. After one failed attempt to send me, via US Airways, to, gasp, LaGuardia, where the rats are purported to carry switchblades, to catch an evening flight from NYC to Miami, a plan that fell through because the flight to LaGuardia had been delayed, she came back with a connecting flight via Delta to another direct flight from the Big Apple to Miami, this time through, whew, Kennedy International.
Good old Delta I smiled as I trekked over to their terminal to catch Flight 6090 leaving at 5:09 and arriving at 7, plenty of time to catch AA Flight 1687 departing NYC at 8. Or, again, so I thought.
About an hour and a half later than scheduled, thrice-delayed Delta 6090 finally took off into the frigid night. No, I wasn't nervous, I kept telling myself as I slouched in my plane seat across from another cat in the same boat as myself - forgot his name, but he had to catch a deep-sea fishing boat in Miami at 7:00 AM and he WAS nervous, already cussing under his breath and rolling his eyes. He had dark forebodings.
It is amazing how a pilot can shrink an almost two hour flight into less than an hour by pushing on those throttles, because the pilot still planned to get us to Kennedy by 7:15 or so, and damned if he wasn't doing it! Closer and closer we flew; hope was springing eternally within me as I kept telling my vexed friend that we really would make it. And THEN the magic carpet aerial tour of the bright lights of New York/New Jersey began.
The Kennedy Flight Control Tower had a bit of a traffic jam it seemed. Please commence holding pattern, Delta 6090. Now I am getting worried, despite those big, luxurious sweeping 180 degree turns that take in such a grand view of, in turn as the plane rolls, first the panoramas of multitudinous roof tops, lamp posts and thousands of cars driving along the snow-inundated streets below, then the endless blackness and grayness of the night sky above as your window suddenly tilts toward Venus.
After two complete holding patterns costing us another ten minutes, now the Tower told us we could proceed to land, but from the opposite approach than was normally authorized for our flight, in other words the "long way", which afforded yet another languid, splendid view of the city from the rarefied heights (God New York is BIG). Finally after what seemed a full length Francis Ford Coppola movie, we were touching down on the tarmac, and, a few bounces later, rolling along at a slow, slow taxi headed toward what?
I looked out the window while my friend looked as happy as a man who had just been visited by Greek Harpies. I could see snow a foot deep just beyond the tarmac, disappearing past fences into the darkness. From another window across from me I could see glimpses of terminals and parked planes in the distant glow of airport lights.
Slowly the plane taxied on in search of a terminal parking space. The two of us had already been forewarned that getting into Kennedy was only half the battle. The other half would be getting to American Airlines Concourse 8. Take the Air Train we had been told.
It was 15 minutes to 8 when the plane finally parked and the passengers began offloading. This was one of those smaller planes that was too small to even hold larger carry-on luggage, so I told my friend to reconnoiter ahead while I waited for the ground crew to dig out my bag. Catching up to him we now both, like a two-wolf pack, hunted for the Air Train and someone who could call American to tell them to hold our flight. "We can't call another airline on our phone", an airline employee grimaced as we begged him.
Lost in transition in Kennedy International Airport (all photos by Mac McKinney)
Beginning to feel really despondent now, we still raced on, up and down stairwells, escalators and through corridors, finally find ourselves on the platform for the Air Train. "It's still not 8:00!" I shouted, yeah, more like 7:55. "What concourse are we at?" I asked someone. "One," came the reply. Damn