The Travel Day from Hell: Brought to You by American Airlines

24 May

Last weekend, Daniel and I went down to Austin, TX to celebrate my sister’s graduation and birthday with my family. Despite the humidity and rain clouds, we had a great time. It was relaxing and drama free and everything you might desire in a weekend with the fam.

I would have loved to bring this calm and good-feeling home with me. Unfortunately, American Airlines stole that from me.

What follows is a step by step replay of the incredible mismanagement and misinformation they delivered on a massive scale. In other words, a rant of monumental proportions. I will say, however, that I hope to cast no shade on those who we actually spoke to as their involvement in the decisions that were made are most likely pretty minimal.

But if you’re interested, it’s quite a story.

The flight from Austin to Chicago went smoothly. In fact, Daniel and I amused ourselves watching one of the flight attendants because he was so awesome. (Someone on the flight kept trying to pick a fight with him and he so wasn’t having it.)

We arrived at our gate in Chicago just in time to board, however, they informed us that there were some issues with the lavatories that they had to fix before we could leave.

About thirty minutes later, we boarded our plane. (It’s important to take note: this is the first time we  boarded a plane in Chicago.)

After boarding the plane, we had to wait about twenty minutes to allow for the other members of our flight to join us because the lavatory-issue had actually been resolved quicker than they had thought but they had already posted a different time on the info-screens behind the desk.

After we were complete, at about 3:10 (the flight was originally meant to leave around 2:00) we started to taxi to the runway.

At this point, Daniel remembers hearing some large clunking noise. Clearly jaded by my previous travel experiences, I didn’t notice anything outside the norm. After a few minutes, it was announced that our aircraft was having some issues with it’s landing gear and steering controls. So, after pulling back up to the airport, we were de-planed.

At this point, they told us that this new mechanical error would be fixed shortly. All they had to do was:

  1. De-plane
  2. Take off the gate-checked bags
  3. Fix the problem
  4. Test-drive the plane around the gate
  5. Re-check the gate-checked bag
  6. Re-plane

And then we’d be off. Cue continued re-assurances and announcements that this wouldn’t take too long and we’d be in the air for our, get this, 25 minute flight to Kalamazoo. (This might also be a good time to remind you that Kalamazoo is about a 2 hour drive from Chicago, just remember that.)

At this point, I start paying attention to the other flights going out of our gate.

  • A flight to Flint left, carrying two young women who were very sorry for us.
  • One flight was changed from our gate to a gate three doors down only to, three minutes later (literally) be switched back to our gate.
  • A flight to Cedar Rapids was delayed because their plane had not yet left Grand Rapids due to weather.

Cue the rain and hailstorm.

This is when I should’ve known. We should have left the airport, rented a car and driven home. The 25 minute flight had already turned into about three hours of waiting, surely I should have known better.

Instead, as the continual check-in updates over the speakers assured us we would shortly be on our way, despite the fact that a different flight to Kalamazoo went out in front of us, I/we decided to just stick it out.

The Cedar Rapids flight during the next couple of hours was first assured their plane was on the way, ten minutes later they were lining up for pre-boarding, two minutes later (the girl behind the desk cursed loudly and threw some papers in the air and) it was announced that their flight had been cancelled.

While they re-booked many flights at the desk, they asked people standing there to take out their cell phones and call a 1-800 number that would re-book them faster; as this was first come, first serve.

I watched many a person pull out their phone and fervently argue their case, only to leave our gate looking slightly angry and perplexed.

At this point, we then got back on our plane (this is the second time I boarded a plane in Chicago). It should be noted that this was a smaller plane. The kind that has two aisles, one with one seat and the other with two.

As we taxied onto the runway, I was suddenly very confused. Why were we driving out so far?

At this point we were informed that due to the weather, there were 50— nooo 60— noooo 65 planes in front of us. Our lone flight attendant was visibly flustered but did a great job of trying to take care of us as much as possible.

Finally, after around another two hours of sitting on the runway, we were informed that we had to return to the gate to deplane.

This is where the sh*t really hits the fan.

I had officially lost my ability to question anything that was happening.

The way that airlines organize these changes is finely tuned to slowly convince you that you are indeed nothing more than human chattel/cattle (depending on how desperate you feel).

As soon as we de-planed we were given another flight to board, the next concourse over, that was already in the process of boarding.

While in line for our third or fourth set of boarding passes, I saw the news of the tornadoes in Missouri.

My heart sank.

Not only did this mean another round of horrible storms that were bound to devastate so many people; (I had no idea how right I was about those poor people) I also knew my likelihood of getting home that night was growing smaller and smaller by the minute.

Having no time to question the rationale that the new flight would be able to leave in this kind of weather, we ran over and boarded our third plane since we had been in Chicago.

The flight was full of a mixture of very angry/tired people; as well as a few airline personnel (pilots etc. from other flights) and showed all signs that this was a plane they were determined was going to get off the ground.

After the first hour of waiting, I quickly lost all hope that this was true.

At that point, another storm system moved in and while it was illegal for them to have anyone even connect the tunnel for us to de-plane again, it is apparently perfectly legal for us to sit aboard the plane for another 2 hours waiting for the storm to pass, lighting all around us.

When we finally de-planed, it was creeping up on midnight. The airport stores and restaurants were closing all around us and there was only one flight attendant/customer service individual behind the desk, who didn’t look too keen on talking to any us.

Maybe this is where the sh*t actually hit the fan, it’s hard to compare sh*t storm to clusterf*ck afterall… if you know what I mean.

Watching the people in front of me getting re-scheduled to flights that were for the next day, at 9:00 P.M., I finally accepted we weren’t getting home that night.

I also determined that I would not be getting on another plane that day or the next, period.

After hours, by this time around 10 hours, of them assuring us we would soon be on a plane that would leave; I knew I had simply been made a fool of, toyed with and left for these poor people to disappoint yet again. Not only did the airline’s mismanagement and misinformation feel demeaning, it began to feel abusive and de-humanizing.

I reached my threshold and, like I usually do when I’m this angry, started to cry.

As calmly as possible, I asked the girl at the desk what my options were and informed her that after three trips to the runway, sitting for hours on each plane, I was not interested in getting on another plane that night. Her response was that the flight was still not technically cancelled and that when it was, she would surely offer me a complimentary hotel room or something to make up for this. If she could.

(I genuinely feel for her as well, she was forced into a crappy position, knew little more than I did, and hoped the best for all of us.)

Then she left the desk. And our flight disappeared from all TV screens and apparently out of existence without ever officially being cancelled.

Then all of the flight attendants behind the desk left.

The threat of riot was in the air. A small crowd of middle-aged persons crowded the desk chanting “what about our checked bags?” when all I wanted to know was if they were going to help us out of this situation they had slowly cornered us into.

We were alone until our lovely Austrailian (or British?) pilot finally left the plane and was greeted by this scene. He made some calls and waited until there was a supervisor to talk to us before he left, not without saying a few more kind words.

Finally, I heard the woman in-line in front of me say that her friend just found out that all of the rental cars were sold-out.

Because the situation had been drawn out for so long, we had slowly let all of our other options expire.

Then, I heard the new woman behind the desk (the supervisor who had taken another hour or so to get there) say that they have “run-out” of hotel rooms; that we would not be comped anything but could call a 1-800 number later on to argue our case; however, we were informed that they were not offering many comps because it was all the fault of the weather.

Oh yeah, we could sleep on some cots the airport had set-up for us if we wanted.

At that moment, the moment that ten hours of waiting full of false hopes had lead up to, that (the gracious offer of airport cots) felt like the ultimate power-play and humiliation.

So we left.

We left the gate and walked toward the airport exit, hoping that we could somehow resolve all the time we had lost to the mismanagement and empty-promises of American Airlines.

After a few calls, we quickly realized that the hotels that had information posted in the airport were booked.

The only room we could find was a suite at a nice hotel, which meant spending over $200 for a hotel room we were in for less than 8 hours. Because Daniel had to be back in time for work on Monday, we then spent more money (about $75) for a relatively uneventful trip back to Kalamazoo on the Amtrak. (I love trains.)

That, my friends, is where this almost two full days of travel ends.

If at any point they had cancelled our flight, even the first flight at 2:00, Daniel and I would have probably decided to rent a car and just head home earlier. They probably wouldn’t have run out yet and we were that close. However, they never gave us that option to consider. Instead, they lead us on for over 10 hours.

The faceless “They” that frustrated passengers and employees alike while they plotted forward and forward, with only backward glances toward safety that only exacerbated the problem, all the while only concerning themselves with how they could lose the least amount of money.

Having seen the weather that we were facing after the fact, I don’t understand how anyone could have sincerely thought that we were going to make it home. I don’t understand how they, in good conscience, shuffled us around from plane to plane and gate to gate, knowing there was no way our small flight was going to be leaving for what was only a 25 minute flight.

Flight attendants and baggage clerks alike, empathized, wondering why there was no back up plan, no procedure for such a common event that the airlines themselves had clearly helped in manufacturing. And flight attendants and baggage clerks alike, noted greed as their only imaginable cause.

I bear little ill-will toward the employees of American Airlines that I actually met and spoke to in the Chicago O’Hare airport. However, I know that somewhere there is someone (or a group of someones) who chose to let the airlines profit margins come before the comfort and, frankly, sanity of hundreds of their customers.

As we were reminded throughout the day, the only reason that we only sat on the runway for the amount of time that we did throughout the day was because congress has recently passed a bill that made it illegal for them to keep us on the runway longer than three hours. The consequence would have meant the airline being fined $25,000 per each passenger.

It may be a low-priority issue, because believe me I know how many more important problems there are to be fixed in this country, but I hope that someday they are forced to re-think the way they handle these problems. This will most likely mean government pushed reform on the basis of similar threats of similar fines.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure there’s anything they can do to convince me this time that it’s even worth hoping for.

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8 Responses to “The Travel Day from Hell: Brought to You by American Airlines”

  1. Doug Lance May 24, 2011 at 7:30 pm #

    I’m really sorry you had to go through that. It sounds horrible.

    Lesson of the day: Always take the train.

    • redshana May 24, 2011 at 8:15 pm #

      For real, that’s the plan from now on.

  2. Nikki May 25, 2011 at 5:52 pm #

    This sounds just awful!! I flew American once, and when we had issues, they were not so hot at communication (which wasn’t helped by the late hour and the airport being hard to navigate in the first place).

    I hope that it won’t come to the government having to regulate them, hopefully the market will regulate them! We have changed travel plans, actually, cancelled them, because we were not happy with the conditions of the flight options and we decided driving wasn’t an option. I don’t have plans to fly any time soon because of decisions that have been forced upon air travelers by the government and I likely will fly as little as possible (or not at all) until things are different. I’m a huge fan of letting the market choose and I think that’s something that we’ve gotten away from in this country. We need to get back to it! BOO AMERICAN AIRLINES!!

    • Daniel Harper May 25, 2011 at 10:57 pm #

      Free market solutions are great and all, but when we have an oligopoly situation as with the modern airline industry, we have clearly encountered market failure. The history of air travel is littered with examples of small players quickly failing when trying to compete with the massive economic power held by the major carriers. I’m not enough of an expert on this industry to be able to give specific solutions to the problems presented in this post, but it’s pretty clear that “let the market sort it out” is a bit naive and simplistic.

      A realistic solution to this problem will involve both the collective action of citizens and the working of the incentives of private industry. “Competition” isn’t a magic wand.

      • Nikki May 26, 2011 at 2:03 pm #

        It’s clear that competition won’t fix this, but I can hope that the market will and I will just not fly (or find the money in the budget for my husband to get re-checked and renew his pilot’s license) for now. I realize not flying isn’t a viable option for many, but for me it is.

        What I don’t think is the answer to any question is the government making new regulations and restrictions. Perhaps we as a country are beyond the point of any other solution aside from government intervention, but I hope not. I hope that we the people can solve our own issues without big brother stepping in to take care of us. I’m just tired of being told what is good for me by people who should have never had the opportunity to enforce their idea of what I need in the first place. Those who pay for air travel should have the opportunity to say what they want and need from an airline, and what they are willing to pay and endure for it, rather than congress deciding based on who knows what. That might be a naive and simplistic perspective, but it is the way the market and this country were designed to operate.

        • Poff May 26, 2011 at 5:57 pm #

          While I don’t know if there is actually a good competitive market in the airlines these days, I do know that there are some good carriers who seem to still genuinely care about passengers. I used to fly with the cheapest tickets I could find period, which often put me on Delta, American, and United. I was ‘delayed’ over 50% of the time on all of these carriers. I then started flying using Frontier and Southwest only. I have not been delayed once. This of course means I don’t know how they would have handled your horrible situation since I’ve never had to face it, but the other three certainly didn’t handle it well and obviously seem to set themselves up for such delays often.

          • redshana May 27, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

            I used to only fly Southwest but haven’t had then open as an option for awhile. But you’re right, part of the reason I’m frustrated is because of which airlines I’ve been on recently.

        • redshana May 27, 2011 at 4:02 pm #

          Gotta be honest, the use of buzz words/phrases makes your argument hold less meaning for me.

          I’m obviously a little more inclined to agree with Daniel and Poff here.

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