A tale of getting stuck on the runway

An Air Canada plane is viewed on the tarmac at La Guardia Airport during a snow storm on February 26, 2010 in the Queens borough of New York City.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Bob Moon: You know that old saying: "Getting there is half the fun"? Well, maybe not -- when getting there
involves being stranded at the airport. Around 7,000 flights have been canceled since the big weekend storm hit the eastern U.S. But that number doesn't tell the whole story.

Matthew Bishop's journey from London to JFK took around 11 hours, most of that staring at the snow runway. He's New York bureau chief for The Economist magazine, and is on the line with us now. Matthew Bishop, welcome.

Matthew Bishop: Hi, good to be with you.

MOON: Yeah, it is good to have you here. Walk us through what happened once you landed in New York last night.

BISHOP: Well we got in to New York on a British Airways flight at about 10:20 in the evening, and the pilot came on and said, 'We're going to have to taxi quite slowly because the conditions are still so bad.' And then he came on about an hour later and said, 'It's going to be a bit of a while before we get to the gate; there are six planes in front of us in a queue.' And then a bit later he said, 'It won't be for a while longer.' And eventually it went until 6 A.M. before they managed to get to the gate. So we were about 7.5 hours just sitting on the runway.

MOON: Did the crew have any explanation as to why it took so long?

BISHOP: They were just saying, 'adverse conditions' and then they started to speculate that the immigration and customs staff had all gone home and therefore they couldn't let a foreign plane that had come from abroad to get through the gates, because that would mean there would be a lot of passengers and nobody to process them.

MOON: I heard there was an AeroMexico flight that came into JFK from Mexico City a couple hours behind schedule and then passengers waited six hours to get off that flight. One passenger reported that even when the plane did pull up at the gate, that the doors didn't open until 7 A.M. So that would suggest that maybe it was a back-up with the customs agents. He had heard they just went home at 1 A.M.

BISHOP: Yeah. So once we got to the gate, it was 35 minutes waiting for the customs people to allow us off the plane, which is pretty frustrating once you've actually finally made it to the gate.

MOON: I have to ask you: how did the passengers handle this ordeal?

BISHOP: Surprisingly well, I suppose that fact that it was the middle of the night meant that a lot of people just kind of went to sleep. Actually, a lot of people were obviously very relieved to even have made it to American soil even if we hadn't been able to actually get out of the plane.

MOON: You were tweeting while you were on the plane. Did having that outlet help you out a little bit?

BISHOP: It does certainly get the frustration out of your system a bit when you can sort of shout out to the world that you're stuck on this runway and no one seems to know about it. I'm not sure it had any effect on anyone in town to actually do anything to get us out of the plane quicker.

MOON: Based on your experience, just in terms of the business aspect of this for the airlines, any thoughts on what they could do differently to avoid this kind of situation? Or at least make it easier to get through for the passengers, for their customers?

BISHOP: I think one of the things that's happened in the last few years has been the airlines has pushed a lot more of the costs back onto the passenger. Rather than have excess capacity and a bit of slack in the system, they've actually just cut everything to the bone so the passengers bear the pain when things go wrong. I do feel it's profit sometimes at the expense of the customer. In the end, I think more and more people are going to question whether they really want to make some of the journeys that they make.

MOON: We understand that you have to leave to catch a flight to Miami this afternoon, good luck with that.

BISHOP: Yeah, allegedly it's still going to fly, but I probably won't find out it's canceled until I get the airport.

MOON: Well I hope you don't have to spend too much more time at airports. Matthew Bishop, New York bureau chief for The Economist magazine, thank you for joining us.

BISHOP: Thank you.

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