Bringing The Benjamins

Another horror story about the Philadelphia airport is flying around the Web this week. A good bit of it is even true. It goes like this:

A Virgin Atlantic flight from London to New York diverts to Philadelphia when bad weather closes JFK. The plane needs fuel, but the handling company at the airport demands payment before it will lift a finger. Seven hours later, the flight is cancelled because the crew has worked too long. Passengers - cranky after sitting in their plane for 17 hours and watching Chicken Little, "The Simpsons" and "Scrubs" marathons - are told they have to find their own way up to New York.

That's the story that one of the passengers told The Consumerist, the Gawker empire's popular, samurai shopping site. On the site, "Amy B's" unexpected trip to Philadelphia sounds a whole lot worse, but those are the details I could confirm.

Not so sure about her contention that the Philadelphia International Airport tried to stop the plane from landing, that the fuel company demanded cash on the tarmac, that police surrounded the plan so no one slipped customs. I'm taking her word on the Chicken Little etc...

The post is captioned Virgin Atlantic Flight 45. Under the headline, and the "bulletpoints of woe" that lay out the events, the Consumerist has chosen a nice photo of a plane crashing and burning. Just a little added drama.

But much of Amy's tale did happen, according to Mark Pesce, the spokesman for Philadelphia International Airport, who put much of the blame on the airlines. Pesce happened to be at the airport that night because several flights were arriving with Americans fleeing the fighting in Lebanon.

The jet left Heathrow at 1 p.m. local time on July 21 and the crew announced the plane would be two hours late arriving in New York because of a problem with a rear cargo door. "The crew was extremely apologetic about that, and frankly because of their British accents, I didn't care much," Amy writes."

Bad weather rerouted the plane to Philadelphia. The plan was to refuel and turn around quickly.

Amy: Over the next 7 hours, we were told that the Philadelphia airport was bullying the crew and allowing other diverted planes to disembark and refuel over us because Virgin Atlantic had no right to be at that airport. And to add insult to injury, the fuel company was demanding to be paid in cash in full at the time of refueling.

Pesce said by phone yesterday: "The airline didn't have an agreement with a ground handler to fuel the aircraft, so it took time for the pilot to get authorization for the company to arrange for payment.... Virgin Atlantic doesn't have flights in or out of Philadelphia. They (the ground handlers) would need some sort of cash agreement from the company or the crew. It's not that that they would just fuel and then bill the company."

He said that "very rarely" an airline finds itself without an agreement for refueling in Philadelphia.

Amy:  So the pilot was back and forth with Virgin Atlantic in England. Finally around 9:30 or so, we finally began to refuel and were told that we'd be in the air in no time. We started to taxi down the runway and then....stopped. For 45 mintues. I fell asleep and woke up at 10:45 and we were still in the same spot. The flight supervisor came on again and said that if we didn't land within the next 20 minutes, the crew would be over their allowed hours worked, and thus would be illegally operating the plane.

By the time Virgin Atlantic had worked out an arrangement, the crew had been flying longer than Federal Aviation Regulations permit.

Amy: So we had to disembark in Philly, which would be a little difficult seeing as how we still had no gate or way to get through customs. I kind of felt like Tom Hanks in "The Terminal". Unless they brought in a new crew, the plane could never fly, and without customs, we could never enter the US (legally at least). And to make sure that no one tried to escape onto the runway and make a run for it, the Philadelphia PD had been called in and surrounded the plane.

Pesce: "No. That didn't happen. We had police all in the area because of the situation we were in with the Lebanese flights. We had police in customs, police in International Arrivals. I was in the area the whole time. I didn't hear a call for police to surround an aircraft. They may have looked out the window and seen vehicles for the Lebanese flights -- we had EMTs and things like that ... There would be no reason to surround a plane. The jet bridge takes passengers directly to federal inspection anyway."

Without a replacement crew in position, Virgin Atlantic had no way to get the passengers up to New York.

Pesce: "Actually, the airline told the passengers they were on their own to get another airline. We provided information to passengers on types of ground transportation."

Amy shared a cab to 30th Street Station, where she hopped onto an Amtrak train.

She's written  Virgin Atlantic demanding compensation for her cab and train and a refund of the $767 she spent on her flight.

Needless to say, I'm never flying Virgin Atlantic again. The way they take care of their customers is horrible, and maybe I was a little naive in thinking that someone would contact me before I contacted them just to make sure I had actually survived the 3 hours I waited at the train station at 4 in the morning. I'm not really sure where else to go with my complaints, as it seems there is no way to contact the elusive customer relations department besides email. I'm not asking for Richard Branson's number, but if that's what it takes, then so be it.

Commenters on the Consumerist wish her the best, but essentially say, welcome to the modern world. The episode suggests a new slogan for our tourism officials, however:

Philadelphia: You'd Better Bring The Benjamins.

UPDATE: However irritating the experience, it wasn't as bad as this.

ping: Funky Shit Goin’ Down in the City -->
Posted 08/04/2006 01:11:21 AM

In response to the post I made about my flight to Los Angeles, Sherri W. pointed out that theres always someone whos had a worse flight than you. Yeah, Ill say. Like the people on Virgin Atlantic Flight 45 on July 21st. I’...

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