The sun had yet to rise over the control tower at New York’s JFK Airport on the cold December morning, but the party at Terminal 8 was already well underway. This was no ordinary day at JFK. For the ninth consecutive year, American Airlines was beginning a long day of charter flights, celebration, and remembrance with the Snowball Express program.
Since 2006, Snowball Express has partnered with American Airlines to provide a weekend of fun for families that have lost a family member in active military duty since September 11, 2001. American Airlines provides the flights from around the country free of charge for all families, and the scope of the operation is absolutely massive.
Throughout the day, flights operate from their origins and converge on Dallas while picking up additional passengers at 62 cities. This year, American utilized ten aircraft to support Snowball Express flights, ranging from regional jets to Boeing 757s and Airbus A321s. In total, over 150 American Airlines pilots and flight attendants donated their time to the charter flights. The Snowball Express operation is larger than that of some entire airlines.
The Snowball flight out of New York, operated by a Boeing 737-800, made two stops along the way to Dallas – Norfolk, Virginia, and Atlanta, Georgia. Before departing JFK, the day kicked off with an upbeat party adjacent to the Admirals Club, complete with DJ, photo booth, and emotional support dogs dressed up like Santa. Before long, it was time to depart for Norfolk, but not before a touching send off from the NYPD, FDNY, Port Authority Police Department, TSA, and JFK employees. Once on board, however, the real fun began.
As we pushed back from the gate, our aircraft was given a ceremonial shower from JFK’s Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting team, the first of five we experienced that day. Finally in the air, with callsign Snowball 2 (and a few shortcuts granted to us by ATC), we climbed off runway 31L and the party started.
Keeping a plane load of children happy for a six-hour flight with two stops along the way isn’t easy, but our flight attendants made sure fun was had the whole way. There was singing, dancing, and even an impromptu talent contest.
I would tell you more, but this group has a saying: “What happens on Snowball Express stays on Snowball Express.” I wish I could detail some of the fun that was had, but I was sworn to secrecy.
Dressed as Santa, characters from the Disney movie Frozen, and everything else in between, the greeting was incredible. This was one of the most uplifting things I had ever witnessed, and it did wonders for the spirits of the children on the flight.
At our stop in Norfolk, Virginia, I was lucky enough to witness something that would make even the most cynical person teary-eyed. As passengers from the first leg of the flight from New York gathered at the gate in Norfolk, one incoming passenger spotted her friend from across the terminal. After a fair bit of screaming, a running hug ensued, and the tears started flowing. These two friends only see each other once a year on this Snowball Express flight.
Once finally at Dallas, our now completely full 737 received yet another ceremonial shower to signal the end of the journey. During the first few Snowball flight arrivals, even American Airlines CEO Doug Parker himself was present at the gate to welcome the families.
The arrivals were the beginning of a weekend of fun for over 2,000 families. After the weekend, American gets the families home with another round of charter flights. As for me, I returned home that evening on a brand new Boeing 737 after one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had the privilege of witnessing.