After writing my JFK-LHR trip report, I figured that I shouldn’t leave this trip undocumented. If any of you are familiar with the Stern School of Business or with NYU in general, then you’ve probably heard of the various Scholars programs at each school. Basically, it’s an honors program that involves community service, cultural events, etc. with the big perk (the reason that everyone tries so hard to keep up their GPA) being the free annual trip. Last year, our group visited Madrid (see my New York-Madrid on Iberia report) for a week during winter break. This year, we were scheduled to go to Athens; but after September 11, the school administration imposed a university-wide ban on international group travel, making the Scholars groups scramble to find new domestic destinations. While some groups decided to do week-long Habitat for Humanity house-building in Long Beach, CA or New Orleans, our group (remember, we’re in business school) decided to go to the only viable domestic destination where the drinking and gambling age is 18: sunny Puerto Rico. How we managed to write this trip off as “an introduction to the business climate and culture of Puerto Rico” still amazes me- we stayed at a five-star beach front resort and did nothing but lay in the sun and drink till we dropped. Our only “mandatory business event” was a tour of the Bacardi distillery outside San Juan!
Anyway, I digress. Because of the size of our group, we were split among four flights- all aboard American with three leaving from JFK and one from Newark. Since my permanent home is in central Jersey, I requested to be assigned to the Newark flight for convenience. Our departure was scheduled for Friday, January 11 at 7:00 AM. The school was providing free transportation from campus to EWR, but I decided to drive to the airport instead.
As always- this caveat: this is an extremely long report as you can tell by my “introduction”. Proceed only if you have the patience or stamina to put up with my capricious writing style.
Being the aviation fanatic that I am, I always do my research before leaving on a trip. A few facts about my itinerary were a little unsettling, however: we were flying on an American A300 to a Caribbean destination (just like the plane that crashed in Queens), we were flying out in the early morning on the 11th from an airport where one of the hijacked planes took off. Call it superstition I guess, but there were moments when I felt like not going at all.
Luckily, my more reasonable side was in control that morning. I woke up at 3:30 AM and left the house with my mom at 4:00. I figured this should get me to EWR way before 5:00 since the highways are completely deserted at this hour. We pulled up to EWR’s Terminal A at quarter to 6:00. To my surprise, the entire group had already arrived and were waiting to be checked in. American had a number of flights departing around 7:00 AM as their check-in area was busy with activity. I called my friend (who was assigned to one of the JFK flights) to see how they were progressing. When it was my turn to check-in, I promptly requested a window seat in either a bulkhead row or an emergency exit row and got what I wanted (I don’t remember the seat number, but it was a window seat on the right side of the A300 in an emergency exit row). I then proceeded through security and down that long corridor between the terminal and the gate area. I love the feeling of flying in the early morning, when the world is waking up and the earliest rays of sunlight begin to light up the tarmac.
For the next hour or so, I sat around the departure area trying to get some rest in those horribly designed seats (they’re curvy and friction-less, so every time you try to get comfortable, you end up sliding out of the seat!). When I glanced up to the gate, I noticed a sign saying “Beverage Service Only in Main Cabin”. I knew that there had been cut-backs after 9/11, but this was a four-hour flight. I wrongly assumed that the sign was left over from whatever previous flight was using the gate.
I boarded around 6:45. AA uses a boarding-by-group method now and you are called up according to group number. The interior of the A300 was a little drab and worn, the seats were upholstered in an ugly light blue with yellow spots pattern. I took my seat next to the emergency exit door and immediately reviewed the safety card and door operation instructions (the facts I mentioned above were still circling in the back of my mind). A light rain started to fall and dawn was upon the airport. The purser began the welcome aboard announcement in English and Spanish. Pushback was on time and our taxi to the runway was very brief.
There was already a huge line at the end of runway 22 (R or L? – the one closer to the terminals), 7:00 is a busy departure time at EWR. It was strange that five minutes ago, the place was completely dead and void of any ground or air movement. Suddenly, the entire airport had come alive with aircraft departing, arriving, and taxiing. Still a little uncomfortable with the circumstances of this flight, I nervously noted the airplanes that were ahead of us for take off (the evidence at this point still said that the A300 in Queens was brought down by wake turbulence). A couple of Continental 737s, a 757, nothing too big seemed to be in front of us. Of course, I still couldn’t see who was exactly before us. Finally, we rounded the end of the runway and I strained to see who was taking off. In the distance, a tiny Continental Express turboprop lifts off, the light whirring noise from its propellers mocking my now groundless concerns. I chuckled as we turned onto the runway.
Our take off roll was brief and we ascended into the morning sky over Staten Island. Our flight plan, according to the captain, was simple: out over New York Bay and then a straight line over the ocean to SJU. After we leveled off at cruising altitude, the cabin service began with drinks and a package of granola mix. Headsets were offered for a price and most of the passengers declined. The load factor was nearly 100% on this flight, though it may have been helped by the presence of our group. After this initial round of service, I dozed off for about two hours and awaken by bright morning daylight over the Atlantic. It’s amazing how much our biological clocks are dependent on the sun. Even though I had only gotten three hours of total sleep that day, the mere sight of sunlight had a strange invigorating effect. The crew, who had disappeared after the first round of service, reappeared with more drinks and granola. Looks like that sign in the terminal was right.
We began our descent soon after and broke through the cloud cover over the ocean. After a few banks and turns, I spotted lush green land from my window. We turned again and our final approach took us right along Puerto Rico’s northern coast and directly over downtown San Juan. Touchdown was about ten minutes ahead of schedule, a point the crew stressed during their arrival announcement. SJU seemed to be dominated by AA, with company 757s, A300s, and American Eagle turboprops everywhere. We pulled up to the gate and quickly deplaned.
SJU Luis Munoz Airport is relatively modern, though I could already feel the subtropical humidity in the terminal. Puerto Rico reminded me of Taiwan climate-wise for those of you that have been to that island paradise. We ran into one of our JFK groups at the baggage claim. We were then met by our tour group leaders and were quickly shuttled to our hotel. Forgive my ignorance, but it was weird seeing road signs like “stop” and “yield” in Spanish. Our hotel, the Caribe Hilton was truly heaven on earth with its private beach and poolside bar…but that’s a whole other story.
I have to say that this trip to Puerto Rico was the best week of my college years so far. But six days and several bottles of Bacardi later, we had to face the harsh cold reality of heading back to New York and back to school. I truly didn’t want to leave this place- the new friendships, the shared experiences, the embarrassing moments of drunken stupidity. But this place was all a fantasy, reality was forty degrees colder and only four short hours away by plane. Even still, I had my souvenirs: skin color twice as dark as before, a head of hair that had completely turned brown, and of course…the memories.
We left the hotel in shifts that morning as we were again divided into four different groups on four different flights. SJU was only fifteen to twenty minutes from our hotel and there was no congestion on the highways at all. When we arrived at the terminal, our tour guides told us to gather all our luggage together since they needed to go through the USDA Agricultural Inspection. The check in line was horrendous since our entire group was assigned to a special area staffed by only two agents. The JFK flight before was had just started to check in, so we had a long wait before it was our turn. As usual, I requested a bulkhead seat and got 9D, the first aisle seat in economy.
We went through security and strolled through the concourse. There were AA flights departure for destination all along the eastern seaboard: Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Washington, etc. The very end of the concourse was for American Eagle flights to nearby Caribbean islands. Once again, a sign near the gate said that no food would be served in economy. I wasn’t hungry anyway, so I didn’t really care. Boarding began twenty-minutes prior to departure and went by quickly thanks to the new group boarding system.
The 757 interior was more modern-looking than that of the A300. The long, pencil-like fuselage was very noticeable when you look back from the front of the plane. I didn’t really notice AA’s more room in coach since I had bulkhead or exit row seats on both flights (the extra room is really noticeable, as I found out on my JFK-LHR trip report). I took my seat 9D and settled in.
Pushback was on time and the captain announced that we were first in line for take off. The flight attendants pulled out their seats, what they called the “ironing board” from the wall, and sat down for take off. Our taxi was quick and the engines revved up soon after. The take off roll was quick and the 757 ascended rapidly and steeply over San Juan. We continued to climb, leaving the deep blue waters and sunny beaches of San Juan behind us, quickly settling into our cruising altitude after breaking through the cloud cover. Our captain came on the intercom to welcome us aboard. He explained their our flight plan would be a straight shot from SJU to the east coast, making landfall near the Virginia/North Carolina border and then heading up past Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia into EWR.
One of the flight attendants, Amy, asked me if we what kind of group we were. I explained that we were a honors group from NYU on our annual trip. She then began the cabin service, which consisted of drinks and cheddar snack mix. The post 9/11 policy of leaving the curtains between classes open allowed me to see into that once shrouded world of first class luxury. The attendants were taking drink and meal orders while explaining what choices they had for lunch (I think it was either chicken or salmon).
Forty-five minutes into the flight, the first class lunch service began with tablecloths and real china. Of course, I’m looking at all this while fumbling for that last cheddar pretzel in my snack mix. “One day,” I though to myself. Headsets were offered, and once again nobody took them. The flight itself was uneventful and very enjoyable. Amy came around a second time with drinks and snack mix, giving me an extra bag with a wink and a smile.
Halfway through the flight, I strolled up to the first class galley near the cockpit to ask for some playing cards. I was surprised that no one stopped me from entering first class or approaching the cockpit. The chief purser was more than happy to locate some cards for me and in fact, gave me three decks to “give to my friends”. The crew on this flight really went beyond my expectations for a domestic flight!
Without Airshow, I was forced to guess our position. From what I could make it, I looked like we were circling over Passaic or Bergen county by the time after our initial descent. This meant that approach into EWR was from the north today. We followed the turnpike down, passing the Meadowlands and Giants Stadium. The Newark skyline appeared briefly through the windows as well. We touched down on time at EWR and quickly taxiied to the gate.
I said goodbye to Amy and grabbed my carry-on. The jetway seemed to be freezing and I shivered when I got off the plane. This seemed to really amuse the maintenance crew in the jetway, knowing this plane had just arrived from Puerto Rico. I walked through that same long corridor back toward the terminal and into the baggage claim.
After getting my bags, I said goodbye to some friends and hopped on the monorail to the new Newark Airport rail station. The monorail is great for some quick spotting, though I was too tired to give the planes a serious glance (what kind of aviation fanatic am I?). I got off at the rail station and transferred to New Jersey Transit. The new rail link to EWR is really convenient for heading into the suburbs. Heading into Manhattan is another story though, since the price and travel time is really comparable to the Olympic Trails bus to the Port Authority. The bus however, has a place to store luggage while the train has virtually no space at all.
Anyway, thanks for taking the time to read this. I’d recommend AA for Puerto Rico flights but Continental is the only airline that serves food on these routes now. Puerto Rico itself was amazing, I definitely hope to return there one day.