There were 200+ passengers on flight 479 from Accra, Ghana to Kennedy Airport in New York; I am providing the update on my experience, what I remember, some of it happened very fast and some of it took hours and hours. This account is lengthy and detailed, I am posting for future reference, one day it will be part of a collection of travel stories.
Wednesday March 26th, 2014 ~ Ghana Time Zone
Wake up for the my last day in Kissemah for this visit.
Twelve hours later, I am ready for the trip home. I leave
the Kissemah compound with Kwame and Stefan and Charles.
Arrive at Kotoka International Airport in Accra. Check in area is on the same level where Kwame drops me off, flights are checking in for Rome, London, Amsterdam, Istanbul, New York, Cape Town, needles to say it is busy. Lots of people and lots of luggage. The Detla check in process is easy, I arrive before the crowd.
I clear Ghana Immigration, airport security and head to the snack bar.
I enjoy one STAR Beer; I was going to have a bag of plantain chips, they wanted to charge $4.50 US - I passed on that mark up.
Get clearance for Delta Gate Access; all passengers are screened, carry on luggage is opened and searched and every person is padded down before being admitted to the Delta departure Gate area #4.
I board the plane. Passengers walk down 2 flight of stairs, step outside, walk about 5 yards and get on a bus. Because the aircraft has both the front and back door open -the flight boards quickly.
This flight originated from Monrovia, the capital of Liberia and it was about 20% full when the Accra passengers boarded. Delta also has implemented very strict allowances for carry on luggage, many people had to check - thus speeding up the boarding process since there are few bags to store in overhead bins. I decided on the trip from New York to Accra, to never travel with carry on baggage again, it is simply a hassle. I board with my backpack and have access to the few things I may need while in flight: Tylenol PM, aspirin, cough drops, hand sanitizer, 1 magazine, etc.
It is now 10 minutes before scheduled departure time, we appear to be settling in for take off preparation. Delta Captain surprises everyone with an announcement that a mechanical problem has been cleared and flight route will take longer than the scheduled 10 hours.
No additional details are given, he says we are waiting on "final flight" plan update. This is the first we've heard that we had any problems, passengers are asking questions. Captain provides no additional details. Immediately you hear throughout the cabin, what do you mean the flight route will take longer?
Delta Captain clarifies his earlier comments and now tells us that the aircraft will fly to San Juan, Puerto Rico for 9 hours at lower altitude, expect a bumpy ride and that we will stop to refuel and then fly to Kennedy. He makes the announcement, like it's no big deal. Like we are simply stoping at 7-11 along the way to get a pack of chips and a Slurpy.
The captain explained very quickly and conceptually that there were issues with the ability to calculate the proper fuel needed, so the aircraft was fueled to handle the current weight requirements and that this amount of fuel would only get us to San Juan, Puerto Rico. That is what I understood from that the captain said. Again his announcement was very fast and not detailed. Many passengers are left wondering what is really going on?
I personally thought the captain was trying to be funny. I thought, why would a seasoned Delta captain be joking with a plane full of passengers ? A few moments pass and then the entire passenger community on the flight is upset and anxious, including me. Plane has front and back boarding doors open, we are still in the boarding process mode.
Accra Delta gate agent comes on board and announces that people can get off the plane and their bags will be removed from the baggage compartment. Again a instant mini gasp echoes throughout the plane, everyone is reacting to the announcement, confusion, questions, all you can imagine.
All of the cabins are fully lit, it is bright as day on flight 479, every seat is occupied by a confused, anxious, tired and/or surprised passenger. The gate agent makes it sound like this option to get off the plane will not take long, so everyone hurry up and make up your mind and let's go.
The nice man sitting next to me lets me use his mobile phone so I can call Cindy and provide update. It was a short call, I told her to keep checking the Delta web site for updates. I provided as much information as I could and then the call was disconnected. I am still thinking in the back of my mind, this makes no sense. We are being routed to San Juan, Puerto Rico because we don't have enough fuel to get to New York, because somehow Delta cannot calculate the how much fuel is in the gas tank of the large passenger jet.
As we wait for the passengers to deplane and luggage to be found and removed from aircraft, the mood inside the main cabin shifts to the likes of a friendly cocktail party without the freaking cocktails. Everyone is standing around talking, joking, explaining to others what they think is really going on. Some passengers deplaned immediately, some made phone calls and then decided to deplane. We are waiting for the baggage to be removed from the belly of the plane. I am not sure how they find your luggage in a situation like this, there has to be a system.
All of the passengers immediately around me are calm, they don't seem upset or nervous. I have a nice man sitting next to me, two young people in front who traveled from Monrovia. In the middle section, 3 more people from the Monrovia group. One guy in a red jacket is up in the bulk head seat, he is on his cell phone with Delta checking on his connections in New York. Most everyone is just hanging out. I took a quick video with my iPad that I will post. Interesting as soon as I was done with taking the video two people came over and wanted to know if I was going to post to FB. I said NO, I was taking video so I can send to Delta with my complaint letter. A video camera on a plane seems to have that effect, making people a tiny bit nervous.
Accra Delta gate agent makes the last call for people to get off the plane; probably another 10 move to the front of the plane. So more time for the luggage to be identified and removed.
Can we all say KLM KLM KLM KLM KLM KLM !!!!
My mind is racing, I am tired, hot. I am in seat 16B. I put my head down and try to quiet my mind. I know this about myself, I have a very active mind and I immediately when in situations like this go into full "analysis and contingency mode" of why, how come, options, possible course of action, choices, verifications, how did I get here, where do we go from here, etc. etc.
March 26th was not my original return date. I changed my return date after I was in Ghana for a week and realized that all the action items would be completed, so that came into my head. This is all happening because I changed the flight date, sounds crazy, but I went there.
Then I remember the great advice I got over the past year from two dear friends. One told me that any time I was in a situation where I am afraid or extremely anxious, she suggested that I concentrate and refocus my mind on being grateful. I should think of all the things I am grateful for in life and that is exactly what I did and it worked. I pulled the seat tray out, put my hoodie on, put my head down and covered my ears, closed my eyes and went through several minutes of laser focused gratitude - I took deep breaths and the calm physically moved through my body. I almost forgot I was 2+ hours into sitting on the tarmac at the Kotoka Airport in Accra.
At last ! !
Two Delta flight attendants serve water in the main cabin.
Now it is really a Happy Hour, mini Ham sandwiches are handed out, with a Mars chocolate candy bar. I have to admit I was so nervous and anxious, I ate the mini sandwich. It was OK.
The captain announces the last of bags are off from people who got decided not to stay on the aircraft, we will be leaving soon.
THURSDAY GHANA TIME
Captain announces we are a ready for take off.
Now I am in full prayer mode. I am repeating the Lord's Prayer over and over trying to keep myself calm. For many reasons flying to Puerto Rico did not make any sense, especially knowing that we would then go to New York, miss our connections and have to deal with getting new flights, etc.
The plane begins active taxing, you know the drill, the lights are dimmed, the flight attendants all in their jump seats, we are as ready as we'll ever be.
Maybe 30 or 40 seconds into this before we turn to get on the main take off runway, people in the back start hollering. I promise I am not making any of this up. The hollering grows, 2 or 3 voices become many and heads are turning. All of this was taking place in the mid section of the plane and very fast.
I thought a fight had broken out or someone was having a severe medical problem, it was scary. The lights come back on, two flight attendants get up from the jump seats and quickly head back.
Now that the lights are on everyone can see that one of the ceiling panels or tiles had dislodged. It was hanging loose from the frame. I am thinking this is a plastic type part, surely someone can snap it back into place and we can be on our way.
The flight attendants tried to snap the piece back in place, their effort was not successful.
The tall thin captain came out, he tried and he was not successful.
Then the shorter captain with reddish hair, he tried, he was not successful.
As the captain was making his way back to the front, a female passenger in that immediate area of the plane began shouting something like, "Are we safe? Is this safe, this is serious" And some yelling between passengers starts again, the tone is now much different than 10 minutes earlier. What I heard was someone who was extremely scared, now perhaps wanting to incite others to be scared with her. And people around joined in. It was a verbal mele.
A very stern announcement is made for everyone to get back in their seat. The lady who was screaming was asked to sit down, the lady said something like "We can't listen to them they don't know if we are safe" and she repeats this 2 or 3 times. Again this is all happening very fast, it is real and everyone is uncomfortable.
My heart is now pounding and I want to cry. I feel like I am on a school bus with crazy people ...I understand that fear is powerful, but we are in a confined space with little options if this gets out of hand. We had a crew of 10 or so flight attendants and only one was male.
Captain announces again in a very stern, loud voice, "We are going back to the gate for mechanic to come on board, everyone sit down." Now we are in active taxi mode back to the main Accra terminal. Several comments are made by my surrounding passengers, where is the duct tape ? Where is the duct tape ?
While 2 mechanics are on board, we are told we will now clear customs in San Juan and that we will have new flight crew from ATL coming to San Juan to fly us to New York.
And that if flight 479 gets to San Juan earlier than the new flight crew coming out to take over the New York flight, we will have to wait for the crew.
The mechanics snap the panel back into place and everyone seems to have settled down a bit.
Four hours after the initial boarding time, Flight 479 Non-stop to John F. Kennedy is now on its way to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thank GOD the flight was OK.
The other recommendation from a dear friend a few months ago, anytime I am overwhelmed to pray for Peace.
I prayed as we were taking off, I prayed for overwhelming Peace in my heart and mind. I was nervous and trying to quiet my mind. I wanted to rent space in my head to only PEACE and all the Angels that the Mawuvio's children tell me go ahead of me when I travel home. I asked God to guide the pilots and all those who make the flight possible, I prayed for the lady in the back, the one that was indeed more frightened than most of us. I asked God for His cover for me to be able to: Ma Y Mava, Go and Come Back.
We flew at a lower altitude and it was indeed a bumpy ride for about 1/3 of the way. At the same time there where no additional issues, no crying babies, no screaming passengers, most everyone slept. I watched Nebraska as we got close to Puerto Rico.
During the approach to San Juan when the breakfast snack was served, I got to know more about my seat mate, Scott. He and his wife are adopting two boys from an orphanage in Ghana. They boys are cousins to 2 other boys already adopted who live in the US and attend the same church Scott's family attends in Michigan.
We compared notes on many things in Ghana. His boys are in an orphanage and attend a nearby school. He hopes to have all of the adoption paper work completed and have the boys in the US before July 1st of this year. Ghana has put a freeze on all international adoptions, since his was already in process they can continue but have to complete before the July deadline.
Thirteen hours plus hours after boarding the flight in Accra, we land safely in San Juan. It is 6:45am local time.
We taxi to the gate, seat belt light goes off and the race is on to get out of the plane. And imagine this, the jetway and the plane were not getting along, the main forward door could not be opened.
The captain made the announcement, like it was no big deal, no apologies, no empathy, no nothing. We sat on the plane for an hour.
I am not making this up. The captain added a few minutes later that even if the door opened, the customs agents did not report to work until 8am local time. So it was indeed a coincidence that 2 minutes before 8am, the jetway decided to work and we were allowed to get the heck off the plane.
While we were waiting to get off in San Juan, I called Delta and made arrangements to get on a direct flight from San Juan to Atlanta. That was an interesting 18 minute call. I was greeted by the Delta IVR, the system matched my records to my phone # and the greeting is customized with my name, you know the drill.
When the IVR asks me why I am calling, I use the words URGENT and AGENT and the call gets transferred, to Miss Christie. She again greets me by name and when I tell her what I want she transfers me to a ticket re-issue agent.
He is a nice guy, Foy, he picks up my call from an inbound queue and for reasons that make absolutely no FUCKING sense, (excuse my language) my information as a Delta customer does not transfer with the call.
Foy knows nothing about me, does not have my information and CANNOT HELP ME unless I provide my confirmation number. I asked him three times to be sure and he apologized each time, he could not locate any of my information unless I had my travel confirmation number.
I indeed had all my information handy and shared with Foy, he was able to help me. I had to convince him that I was on the ground in San Juan, the Delta computers showed our flight in route to New York. 18 minutes later, Foy got me seat 3A on flight 1386 from San Juan to Atlanta at 11:40am San Juan local time.
11am Ghana Time, 8am San Juan Time
We get off the plane. There is a single file march through some hallways in the San Juan customs terminal. As we turn a sharp corner and are faced with a looming escalator, you can hear the laughter and chuckles, the escalator is NOT WORKING.
We walk the 2 to 3 minutes to the main area of customs, we get in the US Citizens line, we are the only flight in customs so the line moves quickly. I get cleared by Agent Ramos who is very pleasant and even smiles ! !
I then head down to the baggage claim area.
NO DELTA PERSON to be found.
The conveyor belt is so full of baggage it gets stuck and stops working. I see a customs agent, Sra. Colon. I ask her in Spanish if she can help get a DELTA person out to the baggage carousel to help. She informs me that she has already called and that someone should come soon. 15 minutes later people show up and start removing bags, the belt finally starts working again.
NO DELTA OFFICIAL IN SIGHT ANYWHERE.
I get my bags and head towards the exit line with my blue customs declaration form. Again we are the only plane on the ground, it is fairly quiet. The customs dogs, 2 Beagles are getting hits on several suitcases, some passengers are getting lots of attention.
As we clear the customs area NO DELTA AGENT anywhere to tell people what to do with their bags. Some hand over to the recheck counter, with the New York tags. I hang onto mine as I know they have to be retagged for the new flight. I see an airport wheel chair attendant, I ask him for help in Spanish. Where is the DELTA COUNTER ? He is extremely polite and provides me the information I need to get to the right place.
Once at the counter, mass confusion is starting to build again. The kiosk checking in recognized my flight to Atlanta, but would not display the records so I could check in and get a boarding pass. The 2 Delta counter agents tell people that the "system" is not allowing them to recheck our bags.
I go up to the front of the line and talk to the Delta person in Spanish and ask him to stop what he is doing and get more help and get someone who can over ride the system. I turn back and point to the line that is forming and tell him we are all from the Africa flight and we all need help. He makes a call. I don't leave the counter until he finishes the call.
DELTA WAS NOT PREPARED FOR THE RE-ROUTED ACCRA FLIGHT, EVEN THOUGH THEY HAD 10 + HOURS NOTICE. IT WAS INDEED FRUSTRATING. NO ONE FROM DELTA ON THE GROUND IN SAN JUAN SEEMED TO CARE OR HAVE ANY IDEA THAT SO MANY PEOPLE WOULD NEED HELP WITH THEIR CONNECTING FLIGHTS.
Soon 2 ladies came with walkie talkies and they did something and new baggage tags and boarding passes were being handed out to passengers. I happened to end up in the re check line right next to Scott, the man who sat next to me in 16A. Once we both got our bags rechecked, we gave each other HIGH FIVEs and headed to our respective gates.
At the gate area while waiting I had a Ginger Ale and a bag of plantain chips. A man from Lafayette sat next to me and told me all about the helicopters his company supplies to the oil companies in Ghana to fly supplies to and from the oil platforms off the coast of Ghana. Normalcy started to settle in, I was ready to get home.
The flight from San Juan to Atlanta was uneventful. When I turned down the meal, the flight attendant said, you've been on my flights before and you don't take the meals, why. I explain I am coming from Africa and immediately she said "You were on that Africa flight, what happened ? The conversation was interesting and at the end she apologized on behalf of Delta.
I got to my house in Atlanta, SAFE !!!!! at 5pm Atlanta time, which was 10PM Ghana time on Thursday, March 27th.
This morning in my inbox, I had an email from Jason Hausner, Director of Customer Care for Delta. Here is part of the email. As a goodwill gesture, Delta is crediting my account with 30K miles. Interesting that the email comments on the limited customs agents available in San Juan. This was simple not the case. I appreciate the goodwill gesture, I am disappointed at Delta's misinformation.
I'd like to send my personal apology for the mechanical delays from Accra on Flight 479 and for the diversion to San Juan where there were limited customs agents available to assist you. At Delta, we strive to provide professional service, on-time performance and a safe trip to a wide range of destinations. We want to continue to be your first choice when it comes to air travel, and I'm very sorry that you arrived at your destination later than planned.