Over The Big Pond At Last

Hello again! We were supposed to fly back to the UK from Newark, New Jersey, on Friday evening. “Supposed to” being the operative expression. But you never know when you’re flying.

We’d never had this happen before. We were on British Airways as usual. We fly so much with them, we are in the Executive Club, and often fly Club World (Business Class) not because we’re “rich” (we certainly aren’t), but because we pile up so many miles we cash them in for “free” upgrades regularly.

We were told by the woman at the bag drop there would be a two-hour delay. No problem, we thought. We’ll be in the lounge.

Two hours became “four.” Finally, it was announced the flight would be “delayed overnight.” There was some sort of mechanical issue with the Boeing 777 – a plane I absolutely HATE, LOATHE and UTTERLY DESPISE. (BA has now replaced some of them on this route with the Dreamliner 787, but wasn’t flying one of those gorgeous new planes this time.)

Everyone on the flight was put up in nearby hotels. We ended up at a Holiday Inn. At the check-in there, as the receptionist booked us rooms, the sound system was, at that very instant, playing – I kid you not – “Leaving on A Jet Plane.” One of the other receptionists and I fell into a fit of laughter as we heard it. “We aren’t playing that deliberately,” he roared. “I swear!”

We went to sleep without knowing when the flight would be going on Saturday – but earlier, the harried BA staff at Newark, dealing with a couple of hundred passengers who’d had to recollect their luggage and spend the night wherever, had said we would be informed early on Saturday if we called BA, or we checked the web site, or we’d be emailed or texted….

BA Email to me.
BA Email to me.

We returned to the airport just after 12 noon on Saturday because the hotel checkout was that time. However, naturally BA’s bag drop didn’t reopen until 3:30pm. With nowhere to go until then, we suddenly recalled a “Priority Club” lounge we could visit: we were paid members of that. It wasn’t BA, but we could wait there for a while at least. Much better than sitting on the floor.

That lounge, though, didn’t open (of course!) until 1:30pm on Saturdays. By now we knew this was turning into one of those trips. After we’d gotten in there, we still had hours to kill, and not really enough time to do anything like go into Manhattan; and we still had all of our luggage.

BA reopened the bag drop a little early to accommodate everyone. We handed them our bags again, readying for the flight’s new departure time of 9pm. We’d already decided after we did we’d head off to the Mills Mall nearby to spend a couple of hours and get some fresh air.

We got back to the airport about 6pm and, bags dropped already and boarding passes in hand, headed straight for Security. The TSA guy who looked at our boarding passes harrumphed and curtly sent us away (they are charmers, aren’t they?) declaring our flight was going from a different set of gates. (Not according to the passes it wasn’t.) Hmm. We walked down to those. There, a similar TSA guy doing the same job sitting at a similar desk said we were going from the previous set of gates and had to go back there and he didn’t care what the first guy had told us.

We were now learning kinda how Tom Hanks must’ve felt like in that film The Terminal. We had spent over 24 hours involved with this airport, including the hotel time, and meandering around, and had gone absolutely nowhere yet. We were getting to know the place almost too well: we even directed one lost man and his kids – who had landed from somewhere – to the less than obvious entrance to the monorail.

Back at the first set of departure gates now, yet another TSA guy this time let us through, saying nothing. We eventually got upstairs to the BA lounge. Made it….

Well, we thought we’d made it. By coincidence, the same BA woman we’d seen when we first arrived at the BA bag drop back on Friday evening (which now seemed so long ago) happened to be staffing the lounge’s reception desk. She remembered us. “Haven’t you heard?….” she added after saying hello.

Oh, God. “Haven’t you heard?” Not words you usually want to hear.

No we hadn’t heard that the flight was no longer “delayed” but had been outright canceled. The engineers weren’t satisfied with the repair, she said, so it was a no go. (That was fine, of course. No one wants to fly on a dangerous plane.) But we had not been rebooked yet on anything else. “Let me call downstairs,” she said hurriedly, as we took seats and waited yet again….

We’re screwed now, we thought. We’ll never get out of this airport. We’ll spend the rest of our lives in New Jersey.

I was also thinking that I’ve got to get something decent to write about amidst all of this.

Minutes later, that helpful BA woman returned. “I’ve got you two seats on a Virgin flight that leaves tonight at 9:10. You have to go back downstairs and reclaim your luggage at the BA desk because they’ve taken all the bags off the plane….” She went on to explain that at the BA desk we would be given a voucher to take to the Virgin desk, where we would check-in and drop off our bags. “Leave your carry on bags here,” she added, “because you’ll have to come back through Security again.” That would make the third time we’d been through Security for this flight(s) in the last 24 hours.

At the BA desk, there were by now even Port Authority police hanging around – because, one suspected, BA was worried about trouble at the counter. Hundreds of people were by now really frustrated and wanted to know how, or when even, they would ever get to London. (One woman – apparently from India – became vocally angry we had “jumped” the queue. We hadn’t: we had gone where we’d been told to stand. She didn’t confront us directly, but spoke to one of the nearby cops, who told her it wasn’t his problem and said she had to speak to BA – which she did when she got to the counter herself moments later. Frankly, she was so aggressive, waving a finger in his face, I stood there thinking she had better step back and pipe down or she’d find herself arrested.)

BA eventually put us all on whatever flights they could manage to find – shipping passengers, it seemed, mostly to JFK. Newark has only 2 or 3 BA flights a day and those were now full. We were lucky, though – we’d apparently drawn the last two Virgin Atlantic seats that night from Newark.

A short while later, after dropping our bags at Virgin and going through Security yet AGAIN, we got back to the BA lounge and had something to eat. We reclaimed our hand luggage, and thanked that BA woman whose timely call from the lounge down to the BA check-in desks had evidently gotten us those last two Virgin seats. After, we thought, we might as well have a look, so we sauntered around into the Virgin lounge – which that BA woman had already suggested we do. “We don’t do Virgin boarding announcements in here,” she snickered.

It’s called the Virgin Clubhouse and is best described as like a “cool bar.” It seems determined to project a “younger” and less “formal” vibe than BA’s next door. By now, we needed drinks, regardless who served them. So pleased we seemed actually about to fly – FINALLY! – I had a Champagne Cocktail, which they drink constantly in Casablanca and which I love to have whenever I get a chance to have one.

We’d never flown Virgin Upper Class before….

Virgin luggage tag. [Photo by me, 2016.]
Virgin luggage tag. [Photo by me, 2016.]

Our verdict? The plane was an A340 Airbus. The entertainment system wasn’t quite as good, we thought, as BA’s. The seating configuration also seemed “odd” too – everyone at an angle, and with the high-sided seat dividers, you couldn’t talk easily to a neighbor (or even to a traveling companion), which was, I felt, a strange set-up given Virgin seemed about “socializing.” For example, next to me, a man propped himself on the footrest for part of the flight, talking to his girlfriend sitting in that seat. (There was no way, uh, she was his wife – unless they were on a honeymoon; they seemed, let’s say, too “romantic” together to be married. ๐Ÿ˜‰ )

On the upside, the Virgin flight attendants, in their now famous bright red outfits, were to a person less “officious” than BA’s and more “approachable.” Virgin apparently aims to be more “hip.” They couldn’t do enough for you either, and usually anticipated what you wanted before you even asked. When we’d explained our mini-travel saga to one of them, she actually talked with us in a truly back and forth manner: she was actually listening.

“Maybe we’ll convert you?” she smiled as we finished chatting. Probably not – we have too much invested in BA’s Executive Club. Still, Virgin was certainly a pleasant flying experience.

So, we’ve made it. We’re back in Britain. On October 4, we were in the process of finding a new house when we had headed off for what we had thought would be an innocuous 2 week visit with my parents in the U.S., and we’d try to see my uncle, too.

That stay, for me, turned into three months. My mother and my uncle are now both dead. Here, we’re visiting for a time with wonderful friends near Bristol, who are putting us up for a while until we figure out what we’re doing. It’s a new world.

Happy Monday, wherever you yourself are in the world. If you are walking in circles, in an airport somewhere, unable to escape, you have my deepest sympathy. Stay strong: you’ll get where you’re going eventually, I’m sure. ๐Ÿ™‚

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Author: โ€œConventions: The Garden At Paris,โ€ โ€œPassports,โ€ โ€œFrontiers,โ€ and โ€œDistances.โ€ British Airways frequent flier. Lover of the Catskill Mountains...and the 1700s. New novel of 1797-1805, "Tomorrow The Grace," due out in 2019.