Let me preface this trip report with some information about myself. I am an olive complexioned male in mid-20s with a very neutral sounding name. I was worried from the outset that I would be profiled as suspicious, but I never thought it would be this bad.
Saturday morning I received a call bright and early from Delta telling me that my 1pm flight to Atlanta had been cancelled. The only flight operating to Atlanta from the NYC area that day would be the 830pm MD11 from JFK. Since my dad was heading out of JFK on AA as well, I figured it would be a good idea to try for that flight.
We left the hotel in Midtown by cab around 245pm and got to JFK just before 330pm without any hassles. The Air India station manager was waiting for us at Terminal 4 and took us over to AA's Terminal 8. The lines were horrendous and people were experiencing waits in excess of 3 hrs just to GET INTO THE BUILDING. Fortunately, one of the top AA people was waiting for us and escorted us to the front of the check-in counters past the security checkpoints without a hassle. AA had graciously provided my dad a positive space pass on the first flight out to Heathrow so that he could connect to Air India there and get to BOM for a family emergency. He checked in and collected his boarding pass for AA 100 and we then headed out for a cup of coffee before he left.
Once he had passed through security, I headed back to the Delta terminal and attempted to get into the building. Fortunately, I had the foresight to visit their CTO earlier that morning and collect an E-ticket itinerary, so I breezed through the first level of door checks and metal detectors pretty easily. I was heading over to the domestic check-in lines which had about 200 people patiently waiting, when I spotted a Medallion check-in line with only a handful of folks. I turned towards that and immediately felt a hand gripping my arm. A Border Patrol agent had spotted me turn away from the main check-in lines and was eyeing me very suspiciously. "Where do you think you are going?". "To check-in". "The line starts over there". "Yes, but the Medallion line is over there". "What's wrong with this line?". "Nothing, its much longer though, so I'd rather use the other one". "Hey, don't get an attitude with me. Lets see some ID." I presented my passport, E-Ticket receipt and Medallion card for scrutiny. He examined them for a minute and finally said "Ok, but you need to check-in at this line". "No, I'm a Medallion member and I'm entitled to priority check-in unless you can give me a reason why I can't use it". At this time, a Delta redcoat standing nearby came over and examined my documents. He pointedly looked at the Border Patrol agent and told me to go ahead and use the Medallion line. The Border Patrol agent just shrugged and began looking for someone else else to pick on.
Check-in was smooth enough and I was given an upgraded seat 12A in BizElite despite being on a U fare. I wasn't in the mood to argue, so I just thanked the agent and walked towards the gate. All payphones in the airport had been turned off for some reason and it was impossible to communicate with the outside world. Even the Crown Room Clubs were closed. Ah well, I'll survive. I headed off to the bar for a beer, but found it packed. I finally found myself some counter space and sipped on a Sam Adams while chatting with a guy from Birmingham who was trying to head out via Paris.
Headed out to my gate around 7pm for the 830pm departure. As I walked down the concourse, I was stopped by a Delta employee who asked to see my ticket and ID. I presented those for his perusal and was quickly approved with a "Thank you for choosing Delta". That's class. Some people have it, and some people don't.
As we waited in the gate area, I began chatting with some Delta pilots who were also trying to get down to Atlanta. As we chatted, I saw a couple of Border Patrol Agents and PANYNJ police walk up to the gate accompanied by a K9 Unit. They spoke among themselves for a while and then began to approach me. Suddenly one of them began shouting "Everyone out of the gate area, NOW!". I picked up my bag and began to walk away, but two of them grabbed me by each arm and said "Not you. Everyone else." I was made to remove my jacket and place it on the floor and then one them kicked over my carry-on bag and made the dog sniff it over. "What the hell is going on? What did I do?". "Don't give me an attitude buddy, or else you will regret it?". "Why am I being singled out for this?". "Because someone said you were a suspicious person". "Oh, ok. Can you say profiling?". "Hey hey, I won't say this again. Watch your mouth. Lets see some ID". I provided the required documentation. "Where are you going to today?". "Atlanta". "Why Atlanta?". "Thats where I live". "So why are you going there?". "Because I want to go home." This roundabout questioning continued for a minute or two while the dog sniffed all over my jacket and bag.
Eventually, even the dog got bored of this and began wandering away, so the other passengers were allowed back into the gate area, taking care to keep away from the corner I was being questioned in. My bag still lay on its side in the middle of the floor, but when I tried to go get it, I was told to "Leave it there for now". By now I was furious and demanded to know what exactly I was doing that made so suspicious "apart from existing with my skin color?". "Well, one of the Delta employees saw you on camera and called you in". "Saw me doing what? Waiting for a flight?". "Some people just aren't comfortable with that". "With me waiting for a flight?". "Yeah, I guess not". "So what do you want me to do to stop being suspicious?". "Well, we could put you in handcuffs for a while. That might give them some peace of mind". "WHAT? Do you have probable cause for this?". "I don't need probable cause". "Ok, do you have reasonable suspicion then?". "You are acting all nervous now, thats suspicious in my book". Enough was enough, and I asked him if I was free to go. He shrugged and said "sure, have a nice flight".
Of course, by now everyone was keeping well away from me and whispering to each other behind my back. So much for innocent until presumed guilty. The agents made an announcement that we were one pilot short and that the pilot would be coming in from Atlanta on a flight arriving at 1032pm, so our departure was now pushed back to 1130pm. Since everyone else was shunning me, I wandered back over to the Delta pilots and chatted with them on various issues for the next hour or so. Finally, the Atlanta flight arrived and the pilots emerged. Now it turned out that our aircraft had been fueled to fly to Tokyo on Tuesday morning, so it was too heavy for a short hop down to ATL and the Port Authority was not giving them permission to de-fuel the plane. Fortunately, the aircraft that just came up from ATL was within acceptable weights. So we trooped over to that gate and set up camp again. A few Border Patrol and Customs agents came over and chatted with us as we waited.
Finally, around 1130pm, boarding began on the MD11. I decided to wait till then end of the boarding process before heading on board. As I was walking down the jetway, I saw Mike, one of the Customs agents we had been talking to, stopping *random* passengers for ID checks. I didn't wait to be stopped but instead just walked right up to him and handed it over. He grinned and said "I'm sorry its gotta be this way. Have a good flight." As I continued down the jetway, an elderly black gentleman tapped me on the shoulder and said, "God bless you son, but for the first time that I can remember, the black people are not a suspect". I was strangely touched by what he said.
As I walked to my seat 12A, there was an off-duty FA seated in 12B. When I put my stuff into 12A, she abrupbtly stood up and took a seat over on the other side of the cabin. Great. Welcome aboard to you too. I looked out of the window across a deserted tarmac and thought back to the last time I had boarded a plane at 840am on Tuesday at Newark. I had looked out my window at that time too and seen two towers standing down by Battery Park. There was no pre-takeoff drink service and we sat at the gate for another hour before we were cleared to push back. There were 41 people in Business Elite today, of which I was the only revenue passenger. There were also 30 off-duty/deadheading flight attendants, 8 pilots and 2 retirees.
We taxied out slowly as I marvelled at how absolutely deserted JFK was. The only other surface traffic was the Cathay Pacific 744 heading for Vancouver and Hong Kong, which took off right ahead of us. We rolled onto the runway and the captain gave us full throttle before releasing the brakes. The PW4000 engines roared as we hurtled down the runway. Then we climbed out, and the city came into view, with a million lights shining brightly. But down at the southern end of Manhattan, there was a different kind of light and a big huge void where two of the brightest lights had once shone.
At that moment, I began to cry. I'm sure many others on board cried too. We cried not out of sadness or out of joy, but we just cried to let it all out. We cried for the city that we remembered before Tuesday and we cried for the city that we now knew. We cried for the loss of innocence that the country had suffered. We cried for the victims and the families and the rescue workers working thousands of feet below us. But most of all we cried because we were back in the air and no matter how hard they knocked us down, we were back up again.
We flew south on a cloudless night with a carpet of lights twinkling below us. As we flew over Virginia, an F16 took position off our left wing for a minute and escorted us in silence. I smiled for the first time since Tuesday. I sipped on a Vodka and watched as Richmond became Raleigh became Charlotte became Atlanta and finally we touched down just before 3am. Everyone applauded, and my smile grew wider. I walked throught the deserted airport to the cab stand in silence. My cab driver was a muslim from Ghana who got us quickly on the road and then asked "So where were you stuck?". "New York", I replied. A moment of silence, followed by "God bless you brother. Welcome home".