As I read about the passengers who were trapped on JetBlue planes at JFK for over ten hours due to the weather on Wednesday, or heard Joe Scarborough describe his own nine-hour ordeal on a Delta aircraft, trapped between a man, a woman and a dog, I couldn't help but reflect on my most memorable flight-delay experience.
It was the last day of 2000. The final Christmas season before "everything changed" and irony temporarily died. Back when you didn't have to worry whether you were wearing holey socks as you approached airport security, and you could lug gallons of hair gel in your carry-on without raising an eyebrow.
My flight out of Madison, Wisconsin, had been canceled on two consecutive days due to the complete shutdown of O'Hare. The helpful American Airlines ticket agent who rebooked me thought she was doing me a favor by routing me through temperate Dallas instead of snowbound Chicago. So, naturally, at roughly the moment my flight touched down at DFW, a snowstorm arrived, driven by winds so wicked that the flakes seemed to be traveling parallel to the ground. Still, the monitors listed my connecting flight to Los Angeles as "on time" and I'd been bumped to first class, supposedly to make up for my two-day delay but undoubtedly because there were no empty seats left in coach.
We boarded uneventfully. The door closed. The plane taxied from the gate.
And we sat. And sat. Waiting in line for the plane to be de-iced.
The pilot announced to his dismayed and groaning passengers that it would take us two or three hours to reach the front of the de-icing line. Little did we realize that he was being optimistic.
We would remain on the tarmac for four hours.
To keep the grumblers happy, or at least to fill their mouths so they couldn't grumble as much or as loudly, our meal was served while we sat motionless on the runway. Being in first class didn't make much difference -- we got the same crappy cold sandwiches as those losers back in coach. But at least our seats were bigger and more comfy, and some of us took liberal advantage of the complimentary alcohol.
The plane had no video screens or audio jacks, and the indispensable yet isolating iPod was still nearly a year away, so the delay created something of a New Year's miracle: the passengers actually began to talk to each other.
It turned out that the couple seated ahead of me had been concocting a last-minute scheme to get married in Las Vegas at midnight, since 01-01-01 only comes around once every hundred years and they didn't really want to wait for the next one. But their plan was in danger as we remained stationary in Dallas with no indication when we'd eventually reach L.A., so all of us in first class began to cook up contingency plans for an in-flight wedding if we were still airborne when the clock struck 12. I pointed out that it would be even cooler for them to get married at 1:01:01 am, but we all hoped we wouldn't be on the plane THAT long.
We had it all figured out. The pilot would conduct the ceremony. (Hey, if Captain Stubing could do it on the Love Boat, why couldn't a pilot do it on a plane?). If the pilot was too busy doing something inessential, like flying the plane, one of the first-class passengers could step in, as he was an ordained minister in one of those bogus religions that advertise in the want ads at the back of Rolling Stone. The bride would walk down the aisle of the plane, preceded by a young passenger scattering torn-up bits of paper napkin -- our closest equivalent to flower petals. The shar-pei which the phony minister had brought on board would act as ring bearer. The gay Argentinian first-class flight attendant would be the best man. Some folks in coach volunteered to videotape the ceremony. We'd throw honey-roasted peanuts instead of rice. Unfortunately, the couple's initials were not "AA", so we couldn't pass off the American Airlines silverware as a monogrammed gift. (Those last details sure date this story. Free peanuts and actual silverware? "Yes, you whippersnappers, in my day, meals on planes were free - not like nowadays when they charge you five bucks for a cardboard box full of cheese crackers and gorp.")
Sadly, our plane reached LAX at 8:30pm, so our brilliant wedding planning was in vain. We couldn't even pass it off as being New Year's in New York. As soon as the cabin door opened, our confined-space camaraderie dissipated. We all drifted back into our own separate lives with our own separate agendas.
In retrospect, I feel like that experience was a preview of what would happen eight months later, after September 11. No matter who we were, we found ourselves stuck in a predicament together, unified in our mission, cognizant of our neighbors' needs and aware of our common humanity. Then, the urgency faded and we became strangers again. But for that brief moment, the usual frostiness had vanished.
We'd been de-iced.
As far as I know, that couple boarded another flight and got hitched in Vegas at midnight as they'd originally planned. But it couldn't have been nearly as memorable as the extravaganza we'd mapped out. The one that still exists in my memory.