Karen and Jeff Hongslo were resigned to riding out Hurricane Irma at their hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, until they got the text from Delta Air Lines at 11 a.m. Wednesday saying their flight was a go.
Unknown to the Chaska couple, the incoming Delta Boeing 737 airliner that would pick them up was attracting attention on Twitter from aviation experts. The Delta jet was slicing through the calm sliver in the outer bands of Irma while two other commercial flights on the radar turned away from Irma’s leading edge to return to Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Jason Rabinowitz, with the handle @airlineflyer, remarked on the action he saw on FlightRadar24, tweeting, “You really want to fly into SJU during a category 5 hurricane, DL431? Everyone else has turned around.” SJU is the official aviation abbreviation for San Juan Airport.
Delta wasn’t just landing. The plan was to touch down, unload the passengers, then load up and return to New York with Irma churning closer and stronger by the minute.
As the jet approached, the Hongslos were anxiously debating in the lobby of the San Juan Marriott. They had arrived Sunday and had planned to stay until Friday for a sunny vacation. But they moved up their return flight because of the grave hurricane warnings. Now the couple had to decide: remain at the hotel and wait out the potential dangers of Irma or race to catch the flight — which had been moved up almost an hour.
“I was actually afraid of dying in the building,” Karen Hongslo said. “My husband had the guts to say, ‘Let’s take it. Let’s go.’ ”
Hotel staff members said the airport was closed. No taxis or shuttles were taking passengers there. Then the general manager came out and quickly confirmed the Delta flight was happening.
He handed keys to his car to a hotel staffer with the directive to take the couple to the airport and wait. “Don’t leave until they text and say they’re on the plane,” Hongslo recalled him saying.
As they moved quickly through the airport, she recalled it being eerily empty. She said her husband said, “This is like being in a scary movie.”
Then they saw passengers ahead, at their gate. Some were leaving; others were waiting to board. Hongslo said no one had any idea what the flight crew had done to get in, but passengers were eager to get out and the crew was pressing hard for a quick boarding. She said flight attendants were stern but professional and calm. Once the cabin door closed, the captain advised on the speaker, “Looks like we’re No. 1 for takeoff.”
It was raining as they lifted off the tarmac, but Hongslo said there was nothing remarkable about the flight, nor was there notable turbulence. Just minutes into the flight, she saw sunshine out the window.
The most remarkable aspect of the flight from her perspective at the time: Everyone got food. “I haven’t had a sandwich on a plane in years,” Hongslo said.
The radar images made more of an impression to onlookers. On departure, the jet tucked through a strip of smooth air between Irma’s outer bands.
When the plane touched down about four hours later in New York, Hongslo said the passengers cheered and clapped. The crew said nothing beyond, “Thank you for flying Delta. We hope to see you again,” she said.
Then she received a text from the hotel manager: “Very happy that you made it.”