27 DAYS, 2 HOURS

It’s Thursday, June 13, 2019.

It’s the 1,296th anniversary of the birth of Charles the Bald and the 1,280th anniversary of the birth of Charles the Fat. 

Both ruled parts of France and Italy in the late ninth century, both were directly related to Charlemagne – and both of whom appear to have let history tag them with the brickbats of their times.

On the other hand, it’s also the 87th birthday of Bob McGrath – Bob from “Sesame Street” – and anyone who says a diminutive word about him has to go through me, Big Bird and millions of admiring kids over a half-century.

It takes a long time to get to New York from Asia.

According to Korean Air, Flight 85 from Incheon International Airport in South Korea has a schedule run time of 14 hours, 30 minutes. 

Most reasonable people would agree that’s a long time to spend in an aircraft – even the ample Airbus 380.

Before I go on, just to confirm: This is going to be a rant.

My wife and I boarded the A380 at Incheon just after 7 p.m. Monday local time. Like our boarding experience at Hong Kong International four days prior when we flew Seoul, it was seemless.

Both airports had big, airy terminals with large numbers of gates and big waiting areas at those gates. An ample number of clean restrooms and last-chance stands to get a drink, snack or gift.

Despite the fact that nearly 400 people were on the plane, the flight boarded quickly. The gates were designed for that. The plane left the gate a couple of minutes after the scheduled time – nothing really and the flight left the ground within 20 minutes.

And it made up time as it headed east, despite turbulence all the way through that probably required the pilot to take less of a polar route that normally cuts down a flight’s length.

The plane landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York – whose residents, including myself, crow irritatingly often about living in the greatest city in the world – at 8:37 p.m. EDT, 23 minutes early.

Landing early = good, right? It means that you’re getting to get out of the airport a little sooner than you planned. Once you get your luggage and go through immigration, it might be 45 minutes to an hour. Not ideal, but about par for the course.

That’s usually good news for everyone involved – the weary passengers who have or haven’t (my hand is raised) slept, their loved ones or hired drivers who might save a few bucks on the exorbitant price to park, maybe even a bar or two in the city and suburbs that might get some extra business because it’s still early enough to go out for a little bit.

Don’t worry, the rant is coming is about to start.

Because we didn’t land at Hong Kong International or Incheon International. 

We landed at 8:37 p.m. EDT at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

The A380 taxied for a few minutes. And then it stopped.

A flight attendant announced that there was gate congestion at the airport, that we would be here in the middle of the field for 20 minutes and be off the plane in 30. 

That sounds awful enough. If it were true.

We did move after 20 minutes. We moved to another strip of asphalt in the middle of this reclaimed swamp.

Where we sat for another 30 minutes. Then we moved again. And then we sat. Moved again. Sat.

It took 104 minutes from the time the tires touched supposed-greatest-city-on-earth soil until the guy with the electric flares stopped waving them at, of course, the furthest goddamn gate at Terminal 1.

The flight was about three-quarters full. I’m guessing 375 passengers waiting 104 minutes. That’s 39,000 minutes – a combined 27 days and 2 hours – of waiting on the tarmac after the tease of touching greatest-city-on-earth soil 23 minutes early. 

When you disembark, you’re let out in the dingy underlevel of the terminal. And then, after immigration, comes the next indignity: baggage claim.

In Hong Kong and Seoul, on big honking planes not that much smaller than the A380, we barely waited for our luggage. In Seoul, it was spinning on the carousel.

That wasn’t going to happen at JFK. Why should it? If your baggage handling capacity is stretched to the limit, how can there be anything but a long wait?

Finally, there’s the scene out of a movie about people visiting a beleaguered third-world country that’s the JFK arrival experience. 

Scores of people herded behind barriers in a confined area as passengers emerge. The chaos of taxis and car services and family vehicles all scrambling for limited curb space as hired security guards try to move them along. 

That’s after having paid an additional $16 to $20 in the JFK lots for the privilege of waiting an extra 104 minutes.

It was 11:30 p.m. – nearly three hours after we landed – when we got in the car for the trip home.

It should not take me 752 words to describe landing after a two-week trip to Asia. That should be the least eventful part. And over the next few days, I’ll write lots about the actually interesting parts of the trip.

But one of the trip’s themes comes rushing to the fore in the arrival story.

Flying shouldn’t be dreaded. In Hong Kong and Seoul, it’s not.

The idea of going to JFK as a passenger or someone getting a passenger is groan-worthy. 

And yet, the urgency to do something about this is lacking.

Yes, there’s oodles of construction at JFK and New York’s other airport, the equally infamous LaGuardia. But you look at what’s being done and you can tell that it’s not enough – not nearly enough – to solve the problem. 

These airports need to expand – there’s no room for JFK to do that. These airports need to modernize. They need a sense of organization – why are puddle-jumper flights to Boston and Philadelphia landing at an international airport, clogging runways and gates?

It is preposterous to suffer through this. Why should anyone come to New York if the startout experience is so miserable?

Our driver – an obviously patient man – sympathized with us. But like others, he blamed politicians, because it always seems to be politicians’ fault when someone goes wrong.

And maybe politicians have something to do with the fact that these airports suck. 

But it’s only because their constituents – that would be you and me – are the most to blame.

That’s right, folks. We get the airports we deserve – and that’s what JFK and LaGuardia have devolved to.

We balk at government spending that might find ways to improve and expand these airports. And then we refuse to consider the idea of building a whole new airport somewhere else because we don’t want it near us. We worry about the environmental impact when it could well be that the environmental impact of what we’re doing now is far worse.

And what about the airlines whose business this is? Are they playing any role in improving air travel? Or are they going to cry that they’re in a tight-margin industry and need help more than they can give it?

Most of all, this happens because we tolerate it. We complain and get upset at the time, but then we let it slide. We should be proud of our facilities – instead, we shrug off the substandard and let it get worse.

Other countries seem to have solved these problems. To be fair, they’re working from something akin to scratch – there isn’t a lot of existing infrastructure to get in the way.

But the disgraceful condition of what’s supposed to be this nation’s flagship international airport should be an embarrassment to anyone who wants to sing “Start spreading the news…”

Because the news is that this an unwelcoming, unfriendly, inconvienient place to visit. 

The rest of the world sees that and is acting accordingly. They’re not sitting on the tarmac for 104 minutes.

And, this doesn’t just apply to airports. More in the days to come.

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