Thursday, January 22, 2015

A New York Christmas Miracle

I'm a bit late in relaying this anecdote, but I think it's a fitting epitaph of my stint in New York as my time here draws to an end this month. On one hand I really enjoy flying out of "The World's Greatest City." The crews based here are great, the chief pilots notably laid-back, and I even like the passengers: I prefer New Yorkers' brusque frankness to the oblique passive-aggressiveness that we Minnesotans have elevated to an artform. On the other hand, absolutely nothing here comes easy. Just getting to work on time can feel like an epic battle. I'm almost always commuting in the night before, often on the jumpseat of an oversold flight, waiting for the crashpad van, finding an open bunk, speaking Spanish while shopping at the corner tienda, reserving a shower time, trying to sleep as roommates snore, waking with a jolt to silence my alarm, trying to gather my belongings in the dark without waking anyone, hunting down the missing iron, waiting for the Q33 bus in the rain, schlepping my bags through crowded Roosevelt station to catch the E-train, running to make the JFK Airtrain, walking half a mile down Terminal 4's B concourse to the crew room. After all that, the ATC reroutes, ground metering, congested frequencies, bewildering taxi routes, and last-minute runway changes are a piece of cake!

Which is why I was dreading the trip that ended on Christmas Eve. When I originally bid it, I looked for an early release but failed to consult the flight schedules. It turned out they were greatly reduced for the holiday: my airline's last flight out of JFK left at noon, and the last flight out of LGA left at 4:25pm. My trip was scheduled to end at JFK at 3:25pm; a one-hour connection between airports during rush hour seemed very iffy. The one other option to get home late that night was trying to jumpseat on a full Sun Country flight at 9pm. Fortunately I was flying with a captain who was in the same boat, and we resolved to get out of Orlando early and fly fast on our last leg. The week prior I had ended a trip with a 45-minute-early arrival from Orlando and a repeat performance seemed my best chance of going home for Christmas.

It started out so promising: the gate agents were gung-ho to get us out early, our dispatcher agreed, and a Mad Dog load of merry passengers showed up at the gate on time. We were loaded and ready to go at 12 minutes prior to departure. Unfortunately the ramp was understaffed, so it took forever to load the bags; we pushed back several minutes late. Then ATC switched our runway from to 18L due to a birdstrike on 17R, and for possibly the first time ever, Southwest was taxiing at a snail's pace - right ahead of us! Once off the ground, ATC was slow to turn us onto our route over the water, and we weren't even to cruise altitude when they slowed us to 250 kts for in-trail separation to New York. Halfway up the eastern seaboard, the vectors started. At one point ATC offered normal speed - if we were willing to turn 80 degrees off course! I thought he was joking, but he wasn't. On descent into JFK, we were switched to Runway 4L (we usually get 4R from the CAMRN arrival), requiring a hasty re-brief, reconfiguration, and running the checklist again. No sooner was that accomplished than the visibility dropped below minimums for 4L and we were switched back to 4R. As soon as we set up for that, the vis came back up and we were again sent to 4L! This all took place while being vectored through a maze of cells with pelting rain and moderate turbulence at minimum approach airspeed. We broke out a couple hundred feet above minimums, the captain made a beautiful landing, and the taxi to the gate was mercifully short. We parked at 3:40pm, only 15 minutes late in spite of everything - and 45 minutes before my flight was scheduled to depart from LaGuardia.

After that flight from hell, the last thing I wanted to do was hang around JFK for 5 hours to finagle a jumpseat. I decided to go for broke. I ran outside to the taxi rank and (for the first time in my life) jumped the queue to tell the marshaller that I had a tight connection to LGA; she waved me to the next open cab.

"Hey bud, how's traffic looking on the Van Wyck?" I asked the cabbie.

He grimaced. "The usual. Not good."

"Well, there's a plane leaving LaGuardia in 40 minutes and it might be my only shot to get home tonight. Think it's doable?"

He thought for a short second and then nodded determinedly. "Get in, I'll get you there!"

God bless New York cabbies; this guy was a pro among pros, flying like the wind, shifting lanes, slithering through snarled traffic, tapping the horn every time a hapless motorist contemplated getting in his way, jumping off the Van Wyck at one point to leapfrog a mess of brake lights in a single bound down a surface street. Ten minutes in he looked back, grinned, and said "You'll make it, no problem!" Sure enough, we pulled up to terminal C at 4:08pm, only 23 minutes after leaving JFK during rush hour! I thanked the guy profusely, wished him a Merry Christmas, and gave him $50 for my $23 fare. I walked up to the gate just as the gate agent called my name with a seat to Minneapolis, and had just enough time to stow my bags, sit down, and text Dawn that I was coming home. We had a lovely Christmas Eve together, and early the next morning we headed to my folks' place for a really nice family Christmas with all five of my siblings and their kids and significant others.

I'll look back on my time in New York fondly, and there's probably a good chance that I'll be back at some point. In the meantime, I'm really going to enjoy my much improved commute to and from work - 25 minutes down US-212 and I-494, maybe as much as an hour in bad traffic!


Huthaushenhouse said...

Welcome to the East Coast...and farewell! Great story, Sam. Glad you got to spend Christmas with your family. So many take that for granted.

Anonymous said...

Excellent story. Way to hustle!

Andrew William said...

Recently, I attended couple of fashion events in NYC with my friends and it was awesome. I saw so many famous models performing together. That was my first fashion event which I have seen live.

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