The Miami Airport is just a short flight from Puerto Rico. But on Saturday afternoon, at the American Airlines rebooking counter, it felt very far away.
A Boeing 777 scheduled to land at San Juan had seemed poised to take off that morning — passengers seated, luggage loaded, doors closed. But after a few fruitless hours, it unloaded at the gate. Hundreds of passengers were stuck, again, unable to check on their family or make it back home.
Luis Castro has learned to recognize some of the faces lined up waiting to talk to an agent. He gestured at the line, more than 30-people strong. “Those guys, they were here since Wednesday,” he said.
Castro is a short-timer, comparatively. “We started this journey yesterday,” he said. Castro lives in Killeen, Texas, but he’s from San Juan and has family there — “my father-in-law, my mother, my cousins, my aunties, everybody,” he said.
The airport in San Juan is open, but it’s far from running at full capacity. So it’s taking some arrivals and turning others away. That means the waiting travelers aren’t just sitting and waiting for word. They’re booking, boarding and having to back out — “jump in this plane, jump in that plane,” Castro said.
Miguel Bosque said he’s had three flights in a row booked and canceled, including the Saturday morning flight. “They gave me a [ride] around the airport and came back,” he said. “And that’s happened to me before.”
Bosque has had his flight to San Juan planned since July. But it’s more than just an ordinary visit now — he hasn’t heard from his family since the storm hit. “I just continue to hope,” he said. “No contact at all.”
He’d like to see his family for himself, but he can’t wait it out forever. “If I couldn’t make it today, I’d probably go back home. I have to go back to my work … and I don’t want to stay here anymore,” he said with a laugh.
Not all of the stalled passengers had that option. For some, Puerto Rico is home.
Jose Roig was heading home from vacation with his wife and 23-year-old son, who has cerebral palsy, when Maria struck the island.
Their flight on Wednesday was canceled — then flights on Thursday, Friday and Saturday were called off too.
Roig was growing increasingly concerned about his son, Antonio. “He can’t be in a wheelchair all day long,” Roig said. “He has to lie down.”
At the American Airlines help desk, Roig lifted his son out of the airport-issued wheelchair and pulled his diaper down, telling an agent that his son couldn’t stay in that chair any longer. He wanted the agent to track down his son’s usual wheelchair, which had been checked at one of the planes they’d been told to board.
But his frustration ran deeper than that. They want to get out of the airport and back to the island. “We’re running out of money. Running out of Pampers. Running out of medication,” he said. “We need to get him home so his doctor can see him.”
Matt Miller, a spokesman for American Airlines, said they were limited by “the condition of the airport in San Juan.” Problems there were affecting all airlines servicing flights to the island, he said, including issues with power and communications. Miller said that only a few planes were allowed to land each hour, prompting the cancellations.
And the airline is looking at “likely the same scenario tomorrow, Monday and Tuesday.”
Roig and his wife and son don’t have much choice but to wait. And some people who could turn back, like Castro, are giving it another shot.
Castro’s booked on another flight — currently scheduled for 6 a.m. Sunday.