By Dan Kraemer
(CBS) — New York — the city that doesn’t sleep.
Except for the LaGuardia Airport in Queens.
Passengers onboard a United Airlines flight from Chicago to New York City got diverted to another airport in another state after a series of delays.
LaGuardia was essentially closed by curfew and not allowing planes to land.
I received my first word of trouble at 4:56 p.m. on Friday, when United alerted me that the flight scheduled to depart at 8:11 p.m. would instead take off at 8:45 p.m. The reason? “An earlier delay impacted your plane’s arrival,” according to the text. Yet a check of United Flight 474 — which used the same plane — shows it arrived eight minutes late. So how does an eight minute delay lead to an hours long frustration? A United spokesperson tells me that even though the plane arrived from Mexico close to on-time, customs took longer than expected to release the plane.
Lesson 1: Customs can delay domestic flights. Even though my flight was not leaving the United States, the plane I would travel on came from Mexico. So United must have known about an upcoming customs delay when it sent that text to customers three hours prior to departure. Because yes, the second reason for the delay we would hear throughout the night was that the flight was held up by customs.
Later we’d hear air traffic control and tarmac delays as contributing factors. The United spokesperson explained that’s because the plane had to be towed from Terminal 5 (International) to Terminal 1 (where United is located). We would finally board sometime after 9 p.m., an hour after the original scheduled departure. Then we sat on the ground at O’Hare for quite awhile.
At one point the crew blamed a catering cart issue. Sure enough, we saw a man with an official looking yellow vest board the plane and depart with a catering cart. (United would tell me later the first cart was broken, so the decision was made to wait for a new one). Once that was resolved, a new matter appeared: the pilots announced we had to wait for the computers to update with a whole new route to avoid some weather that developed.
Lesson 2: Beware of night flights to LaGuardia. We took off some 90 minutes to two hours late. Well into the flight, the pilot explained a first for me: the airport was closed!
LaGuardia, in New York City, employs a curfew. Apparently it has to do with noise control and construction, depending on the time of the year. It sounded like the midnight bewitching hour is sometimes enforced yet sometimes planes are allowed to land late.
United basically rolled the dice in this case and lost.
So what happens when the airport tells a plane to basically “Go away, we’re closed”? Other airlines would divert to the nearest airport: Kennedy, about 10 miles away from LaGuardia.
But not United.
You see, it made the strategic decision to pull out of JFK a few years ago in favor of its growing hub in Newark, New Jersey. It’s some 30 miles from LaGuardia. So, we finally land at Newark. United lists the arrival time as 12:41 a.m. (remember, 90 minutes late and at the wrong place).
But we didn’t get to the gate until much later. Why? Because of the lateness, no one was around to work the flight and bring it safely to the gate. Translation: It was so late, the employees went home.
Lesson 3: Cabs are expensive in New York & New Jersey. United gave us a voucher to get to our final destinations. Trouble is, that final destination was 30+ miles away, so the cab voucher for $80 didn’t cover the cost. The voucher proudly exclaims: “Customer is responsible for any additional charges exceeding the value of this voucher.”
That United spokesperson told me both the issue of customs impacting a domestic flight and a flight diversion are “both very rare circumstances.”
He also said that sometimes a decision is made to get passengers to the nearest airport as opposed to canceling a flight and delaying passengers overnight, perhaps stranding some at the airport. And he pointed out United’s on-time arrival record.
All fair points, except when you’re the lucky one on the flight landing 30 miles away and arrive at your destination some three hours late.
Dan Kraemer is executive producer of the CBS Morning Insiders.