By Stephen McKinley
The only thing moving slower than the lines at JFK’s Terminal 4 last Thursday was Aer Lingus itself, grounded by a one-day pilots strike.
Many customers had arrived earlier than normal for check-in, aware that the airline would not be able to accommodate all passengers.
In place of an Aer Lingus aircraft, a Corsair 747 jumbo jet stood at the end of gate A7 to receive the overload of passengers whose travel plans had been thrown into chaos by the strike.
But one jumbo was not large enough to carry the backlog of passengers, so, as waiting passengers confirmed, Aer Lingus had been contacting many customers, and offered alternative plans.
Still, there were plenty of disgruntled passengers in Terminal 4, and a number were not able to get on the flight to Ireland.
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“They called us and told us it was going to be a Swiss plane,” said an Irish woman named Antoinette. “But it’s going to Dublin, not Shannon. We’re going to have to take a bus to Shannon.” Antoinette said she was going home for a relative’s wedding — on what in fact was the Corsair 747, a Spanish airlines plane. Antoinette had booked months in advance, so she was confident of getting her seat.
Outside of the terminal, two women in black were speaking to each other with Irish accents.
“So, it’s a Corsair plane,” one said to the other. Asked by a reporter if they had secured a place on the plane, they paused.
“No, Aer Lingus is on strike. It’s Corsair tonight. Are you with the media? We’re crew. We won’t be saying anything to you, so bye-bye.” They headed back into the terminal at a brisk walk.
In the line for the check-in desks were three young Irish women from County Offaly. They had no idea, they said, if they would be able to get on the flight.
“We read in the Irish Echo that there would be strikes,” said Michelle Kelly of Shannonbridge. “We spent half an hour on hold with Aer Lingus, and we still don’t know if we can get on tonight’s flight or not.”
Her colleagues, Vicky Kenny and Claire Keane, also from Shannonbridge, agreed.
“We spent about half an hour ringing around travel agents,” said Keane. “We’re very disgusted.” Her friends nodded.
“We’re students. We came with enough money for two weeks. If we are stuck here, as they’re saying, for maybe another week, what are we going to do?”
As an alternative, the three had been offered a Saturday flight, but it wasn’t much of an alternative: Newark to Birmingham in England, direct. Then from Birmingham, to the Isle of Man, and only then to Dublin. The three reckoned this would add at least an extra half day’s travel to their journey.
A friend with whom they had been staying in Woodside said he would wait in the terminal to see if they got on the flight.
“No, don’t wait,” Keane said. “If we need you, sure we can call you.” The friend stayed for another 20 minutes, waiting with the three.
And wait they did. Terminal 4’s vast domed roof, long mezzanine and high windows give the space a hushed, calm feeling, in contrast to some of the worried and angry faces in the lines for the Aer Lingus check-in desks. Ten people were assembled at the ticket sales desk. This lineup was not moving. Long after the Corsair plane was ready to depart, they were still at the desk.
Tom O’Sullivan, who is from Dublin, finally gave up and went outside for a cigarette.
“We have been on vacation for two months in America,” he explained, taking the last cigarette out of his pack. “Aer Lingus was trying to contact us at our home phone. Can you believe that? We’re not answering, because we’re on vacation in America.”
The word from the Aer Lingus representative was not hopeful.
“They’re talking about us not leaving until June 6,” continued O’Sullivan. Then he laughed.
“I was talking to an Aer Lingus guy who was an American, not Irish. He had suggested us getting an alternative flight to Heathrow. Then he asked me, ‘Why can’t you take a train from Heathrow to Dublin?’ What a brainwave. I said, ‘Well, there’s the small matter of about 30 miles of Irish Sea in between.’ ” He shook his head in disbelief.
“We have boarding cards from yesterday,” he added. “If they issue boarding cards, then they’ve made a commitment.”
Meanwhile, the three Offaly teenagers were back in the now-dwindling lines.
“It looks like we might get on,” Kelly said. Five minutes later, they were in conversation with an Aer Lingus representative, and suddenly, they were rushing toward the departure lounge, pushing their heap of bags on a trolley. They were last seen entering gate A7.
“That’s a lot of baggage for a two-week trip,” said O’Sullivan of the Offaly travelers, grinning.
He went back to waiting at the ticket sales desk with his wife. They kept on waiting. O’Sullivan took a walk down the mezzanine to stretch his legs. There was still no word on their fate. He sighed.
“If they can hire one plane, why can’t they hire another?” he said.