July 24, 2010

United And Delta Ruined Pioneer Day

July 24th is Pioneer Day, the Utah state holiday commemorating the arrival of Mormon pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley. A typical celebration involves a parade of fire trucks and homemade floats pulled by ATV, with EMS workers and be-bonneted churchgoers, respectively, throwing candy at the urchins lining Main Street.

In our case, we decided to honor the suffering, persecution and hardship our forebears endured on their grueling trek across the plains by flying on United, then Delta Airlines. Or at least trying to.

The kids and I were set to fly out of DC to SLC this morning through Chicago. At our gate, we got a notice that our flight would leave an hour late, which would kill our connection. No sweat, no need to stand in that heinous customer service line when I can just call and get us on the next flight out of O'Hare. D'oh, which I'm told is Sunday, through San Francisco, getting in just in time for bed.

So instead, we waited in the heinous line, where an agent spotted a dad traveling alone with two kids--It's a situation that really evokes outsized sympathy, but I wasn't complaining--and rebooked us on a direct flight to SLC in the afternoon. But on Delta, and at National Airport, not Dulles. The only downside: we waited for an extra hour+ for them to pull our luggage, only to be told they couldn't do it, it'll have to catch up to us.

So we came home, hung out, and went to National, which is really a much easier airport to travel from anyway. We had seats together, everything was great, I called just before we pushed back to say we're on our way. And we sat. For two hours, A/C straining until the Delta plane rolled back to a gate. Then we got off. Then we sat.

Three hours and fifty minutes later, the gate agent announces the flight's not technically being canceled, it's just not going anywhere. And since the airport's closing, it can't, and they can't fix it. And this has been really hard for the staff there, who have a lot of other stuff to do before their shift is over.

The 150 people who didn't bail and rebook earlier now all queue up for the one agent to help them--assuming she was going to be staying that long. I got on the phone to Delta and found out we'd been rebooked already. On United, through San Francisco, arriving tomorrow night into Salt Lake.

And me and my total rock star kids, who didn't complain or melt down once during the whole "adventure," hardly had it the worst. We still had a house to come home to. Unlike the family of six [including two just-crawling twins] trying to get home to Boise. Or the weary-looking mamacita with the two tiny kids. And except for the D-bag on the intercom at the end, every person we dealt with at both airlines was nice, apologetic, sympathetic, and as helpful as possible.

But this strikes me as nothing short of a systemic failure of both airlines, but especially United. Their flight network is so full and brittle that a one-hour delay in a shuttle between two hubs results in a cascading collapse. There were people in line losing a day or two to get to Hawaii; one couple was going to miss a cruise leaving from Vancouver. All for a 1-hour delay.

The killer, though, is that as we were driving back into DC this morning from our first aborted takeoff, I got a text message alerting me that our connecting flight from Chicago would be departing two hours late. When we had a fine solution--direct flight on a more reliable-seeming airline--that was so clearly superior to the downside of getting stuck in Chicago for a day, this seemed like no big deal.

But after the Delta debacle, I can't help feeling double or triple screwed. Especially when my mom calls to say she's at the airport picking up the cousins, and oh, she just got our bags, too, they were waiting by the baggage claim. If we had done absolutely nothing, we would have made it to Salt Lake with barely a two-hour delay. But I've replayed the day and every decision point, and there's just no way or time that doing absolutely nothing ever felt like a viable option. Especially traveling with two kids.

8 Comments

You may have seen the news lately about the severe weather impacting Ohare and the Midwest. I'm not sure of the actual specifics in your travel adventure, but to say that a couple of airlines "ruined" something is over the top. There have been weather delays and many cancelations over the last few days due to thunderstorms, and the airlines do what they can to operate given the constraints presented to them.
I am an ATC coordinator and dispatcher at a major airline, and while it is extremely frustrating to have delays and cancelations, sometimes it is simply not feasible to operate a full schedule with thunderstorms impacting hubs day after day.
A one hour delay does not cause "collapse", and one missed connection will not be the end of the world. As you said, had you remained on the original flight you would have made your delayed connection. All airlines schedule flights this way, it's nothing new. And Delta's inability to leave? Likely the result of enroute (or most likely local) ATC constraints. I have worked days where every westbound departure from the DC metro required a phone call to ATC to release them. Delta was ready; ATC was not.

Good luck on your future travels.

I sympathize, Greg. I travel a lot and have grown increasingly cynical about the airline industry and the TSA and everything about air travel. In the last 5 years or so I've decided the only way I can keep my blood pressure down is to completely surrender myself to the system as soon as I enter the airport. Might be a cop-out strategy, but really, my expectations can't get any lower.

Thanks for the perspective from the tower, Matt, but besides the general whining about my travel woes--which I readily acknowledge is the second most boring topic in the world to talk or blog about, first if you don't have cat stories--my point rally had nothing to do with weather in Chicago or Delta's maintenance crew leaving early on a Saturday night. And obviously, our ordeal was still not the end of the world, or even the worst of the people we heard and met.

It was that there was no way to make what turned out to be the 'best' choice, i.e., doing absolutely nothing and just getting on our delayed flight and assume it'll work out. If it were possible to know there was storm-related delays that affected all of ohare, maybe. But ual didn't have or didnt share that info with passengers, or, apparently, with their csr team. And airlines give precious little reason to trust them to work it out or make it right, especially for psgrs without status (the reason we flew united anyway was to get our premier status back; ironically, being sent to sfo gave us the extra 1000 mi we needed.)

But from the moment we first called to reroute, the only option ual presented was the worst, which was also the only one, which is what we got stuck with: going to Chicago meant getting stuck for a full day, and then traveling a circuitous route for a second full day. This fact is related to the curtailment of airline capacity, not weather or anything else. The system may not collapse, but it screws more customers.

Absolutely. Ruined.

My husband called me last night from DCA, hours after he was to have taken off--he was on the SLC-DCA flight with our screaming 5-month old daughter that was supposed to have left at 5:30pm. I spoke with four or five different agents, and they gave me more information than the pilot was giving the passengers. AND, when all was said and done, there still wasn't a explanation. AND to top it off, they weren't willing to go out of their way to try and remedy the situation.

This morning when we went to the airport, we got a call that said the flight was delayed--good, at least he wasn't going to miss the flight. I got a special pass to accompany him and our daughter to the gate in case something happened. Surprise, surprise... delayed. Again. Until 8:30? 9:30? No, they didn't leave until 10:30am! And while waiting, I spoke with a few people about their experiences. The 'mamacita' didn't speak English, so my husband translated for her, the woman we sat next to had given her husband her bag on a different flight, so she had no clothes. Yet, another couple had no A/C and cockroaches in their hotel room, a young, 16-year-old girl stranded alone in DCA trying to get home. But the worst was the crying mother with a baby last night that my husband spoke with and gave baby food to because she had run out waiting for something--ANYTHING--to happen.

To say I am disappointed with Delta is an understatement. It wasn't the weather, it was mechanical. If it was mechanical, get a new plane. Did they get a new plane? No? Did feel a sense of urgency and switch things up to get their passengers (who should have been at their destinations more than 12 hours ago) to Salt Lake? No. That's what ticks me off--they had already burned the bridges with 150 customers, so they figured they couldn't really do any more harm, so why bother other flights?

Oh, and did I mention that they told us at the desk that the flight was completely booked? LIE. They may not have realized I wasn't going to board; guess how many people I watched board the plane (including the darling family with twins)? Maybe 40. I wasn't born yesterday, and my math skills may be lacking, but I'm pretty sure that 40 people doesn't fill a commercial airliner.

Have I said too much? Maybe, maybe not.

My plan is to never fly on a commercial airplane again. It's loss of control and flagrant abuse at high cost.

I'm driving 13 hours one way for my summer vacation this year: control of my own schedule, a hundred bucks in gas. My seven-year-old will enjoy it and have plenty of opportunity for energy-burning breaks outdoors along the way. And given my recent flight experiences plus thousands of stories like Greg's, a planned 6-8 hour day of flying (travel time to airport, connection time) could easily surpass the 13 hours I'll spend in my car.

Matt, airlines will have to start flying better, which includes treating me a LOT better, or hella cheaper to get a customer like me back.

That's my plan, too. I am only $500 million and a million tons of carbon offsets/year shy of achieving it, too. Then I will buy my green G5 and hit the skies.

I'll have to second Matt, the ATC guy. While I'm sympathetic with passenger horror stories (and I've been there myself), it's not exactly an easy task to haul a whole bunch of people across the country via metal cans with wings full of kerosene. And while I'm also sympathetic to the problems caused by the airlines flying at peak capacity, none of them would be in business today if they weren't running at peak capacity. It hasn't been a money-making industry for years. And even though people complain about high prices, the tickets are still much cheaper than in the 1970s-80s once you factor for inflation. Instead of complaining -- and I'm not pointing fingers at anyone here since Greg's story was actually very matter of fact and fair to all parties -- I just tend to marvel at the sheer complexity of it all from the standpoint of physics, logistics, safety, and personnel issues. And I thank the stars that it's still much safer to travel by plane than car anywhere in the US. I think the 4yo kids marveling at the airplanes through the windows of the terminal have the best attitude of all.

JetBlue still remains much better than those 2

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