An Initiation into Domestic American Air Travel
By Robin Burton
This is a tale sent to me today about the joys of American air travel. Robin Burton is a seasoned air traveller and an outwardly calm chap who this time had even his even temper tried by events.
The Trip Out
It’s not the despair. I can take the despair. It’s the hope! John Cleese’s character in the film “Clockwise”
17th April 2013: My alarm sounds at 4 a.m. disturbing my dream about becoming a famous singing star. I creep quietly from my bed to avoid waking my wife.
At 5 my driver calls for me. I sleep most of the way to Heathrow. Looking forward to my trip to New Orleans
As I check in at the American Airways desk, I notice that the time on the boarding pass is not what I expected.
“O”, says the agent, “there was a computer problem yesterday and it has delayed your flight. But you ought to get in in time to get your connection”.
I go to a very nice lounge and sit in the cinema watching the original, and best, “Italian Job” right up to the point where Michael Cain says “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”
The plane leaves more or less at the newly advertised time on my boarding pass.
“Don’t worry”, says the flight attendant (who looked as if she really ought to be sat at home in front of a good fire… I wanted to get up and offer to help her… she looked so frail!): “you will still have plenty of time to make your connection”.
Bad weather delays the approach into O Hare airport Chicago. It’s a little bumpy. I sprint for the exit and get through passport control in double quick time. Still 20 minutes till my flight is due.
Am met at the carousel by an agent who tells me that I have been re-booked onto a later flight leaving at 17:15. I get onto the train to get to the next terminal and go and eat a burger whilst I wait for the flight. Ah the sophistication of airport cuisine!
After I have eaten my burger I go and have a look at the screen. My re-booked flight now showing a delay to 19:15. Then a further delay to 21:15. I go to the Admirals club to be told that they don’t take my lounge card… so go over to another terminal to the United Club which does.
I come back around 19:00 to find that this flight has been cancelled. I talk to an agent.
“I can book you onto another flight leaving on Saturday 20”.
“That is three days from now and will result in me missing the conference that I came to the USA to attend” says I.
“I can’t do anything about that”, says she.
“In that case”, says I, “can you send me back to London on the next available plane”.
“You will have to talk to international ticketing” she says.
Her look speaks volumes “Please go away and stop annoying me” is what she is really saying. She also gives the good news that, because my delay has been declared as being due to bad weather, rather than the computer problem that I was told about in London, that they offer no help in terms of food, drink, accommodation etc. I am now cast adrift into the rather arcane world of getting around on domestic American flights… a world with very strange rules indeed. Apparently if I have the magic “Advantage” card I can get access to better treatment and improved odds on actually getting a flight. I do not have one of these so, realising that I am a second class citizen and am indeed lucky that this agent has even deigned to talk to me, I hang my head in shame and slink off.
I leave the secure area to queue up to speak to an international ticket agent. She tells me that, after all, I can get to New Orleans on an 8:30 flight the next morning. Meanwhile she finds a hotel for me… but I have to pay for the cab ride there and for the room. I by now qualify for the “distressed passenger” rate at a hotel.
I queue for a taxi. Around 11 we are cruising around looking for this hotel. It is in an unmarked building and has just been sold to a retirement home developer. The concierge tells me that they regular rate is $10 less than the “distressed passenger” rate that American Airways had given me as a special favour. I sit on the bed and it collapses under me. Get another room. This one has no catch on its window and, anyway, won’t close properly. Move the easy chair over to the window to provide some sort of barrier to any would be burglar.
Now set out to look for a razor, toothbrush etc and some food. Walk half a mile in light rain to a petrol station. By the time I get back I am starting to smell quite badly and look thoroughly dishevelled. I dine magnificently on a packet of petrol station pretzels.
Early next morning head back to the airport. Rain has caused some flooding on the highway and one lane is submerged. Go through the queues for security etc one more time. My o my do they recruit some humourless and miserable security guards! One of them completely blanked me when I said “Good Morning”… just held out her hand for my boarding card. Can’t help thinking that they feel that the need for security gives them licence to treat us all like second class, inferior life forms…
Meanwhile I take the opportunity to grab some breakfast. I fall into conversation with a dentist as we both sit over our artificial looking scrambled eggs served in a polystyrene plastic box.
“Was American air travel always so squalid?” I ask “Was it always so stressful?”
His replied that it wasn’t; that we were suffering the effects of deregulation. Originally this had been hailed as being great for the consumer. Competition would mean better service and lower prices.
The reality, he said, is that there was a race to the bottom to provide the cheapest fares. This has not been entirely good news because it has resulted in airlines trying to improve efficiency by overbooking flights and reducing spare capacity. So anytime that the slightest thing goes wrong, such as a computer glitch or bad weather, it results in a rolling tidal wave of delays and cancellations.
This has meant, he said, that you can no longer rely on getting a flight in the morning, doing business and flying straight home the same day. You have to allow for delays and that considerably adds to the cost of doing business.
It also seems that there is an obsession with metrics. Each department measures its own performance on its own narrow measures. No-one seems to think that, for the whole system to work best, some slack is needed at each interface. He thinks that quite hard headed decisions are taken on the profitability of each flight and flights being cancelled if they don’t meet profitability targets… without regard to the inconvenience to passengers. This all seems to make sense to me and fits it with my experience so far.
Outside the sky is black and thunder rolls. But as I wait at the gate the rain stops and the wind dies down. We have a plane. I can see it outside the gate! Surely this is it… I will get there in time for the bulk of the conference after all! We are waiting for the crew, says the agent. An hour later the same agent announces the flight is cancelled due to bad weather.
Queue up again to get another flight booking. Now have a tricky decision to make. Do I feel lucky? If I do I can try to get on as a standby passenger, but if I am unlucky my bag might go on without me. I have ticket number 14 apparently. It doesn’t sound like good odds to me. By now I am out of medication (it’s in my suitcase). I decide to try and get my bag back before I try for the standby.
Spend 5 hours in the well of lost souls… baggage carousel number 9, talking with fellow sufferers. The time for my standby flight comes and goes. I chat for a few hours with a retired man from Chicago who apparently comes to the airport for company each day. We talk about cabbages and kings. We put the world to rights.
By the time my bag arrives, my back is causing me considerable pain. My feeling of goodwill toward my fellow man is starting to run out. I cannot find the milkman of human kindness anywhere in the airport. Conclude that I am no longer fit for human company.
I go to the desk again (another queue) and get offered another flight (with two stops) for the next day. I ask if I now qualify for the “suicidal passenger” rate for a hotel. The agent does not find this funny and stares at me blankly.
Another hotel, this time it is one for truckers which is awaiting refurbishment and therefore has no facilities for food. It has a cracked polystyrene ceiling tile motif with matching unexplained stains. An unloved looking swimming pool adorns the car park together with a phalanx of huge American trucks.
Too tired to change, I set out on another walk in light rain to find something to eat. I get splashed by passing trucks. Now looking very undesirable and smelling rather worse. People edge away from me in the restaurant…
Next day I have a breakthrough. The agent who is taking my bag says he thinks he can get me on a non-stop flight which should get me in earlier. Hoorah! After a gate change and a further 70 minute delay we take off. Arrive in New Orleans just as the conference is ending and all the delegates are going home. Door to door: 63 hours and 45 minutes: a new record time to reach anywhere on the planet.
My wife messages: “surely the most expensive and pointless trip since Scott sailed for the South Pole”. You are not wrong there my love!
A smooth transfer to the hotel makes me feel that my luck is turning. Fool Robin! It seems that, despite the fact that I had paid in advance in full for my hotel room, that my reservation has been cancelled. 90 minutes on the phone to the travel agent not only reverses this but gets me a refund for the second night that I did not use. Hoorah… surely now my luck has changed.
It is very soon time for my flight home but during the night someone starts banging on my door. Then he starts kicking it and now, wide awake, I go to the door. I was about to open it when a small voice inside me warned me to be careful… so I call security. It seems that this is a common ploy to rob people in their rooms. A narrow escape!
“Air Travel is more than just a business. To me it is part of the American personality”: Thomas W Horton, Chairman and CEO American Airlines
I have spent a total of 36 hours in New Orleans. It’s time to go home.
Get to the airport check in passing a long queue of American Airlines passengers whose flight to Miami has just been cancelled. I commiserate with some of them before queuing up to get my boarding pass.
“They treat us like cattle” said one.
“There are rules against giving animals too much stress in transit” said another. “American Airways does not aspire to the same lofty standards.”
I get given a boarding pass for my flight from Dallas to London. They also give me another piece of paper. It seems that I am a standby passenger for my connecting flight to Dallas and have to hope that someone volunteers to fly later. It seems I never had a ticket to fly, just a lottery ticket which, if I was lucky, might result in me flying somewhere. I explain that I am an international traveller with a connecting flight. This seems to cut no ice.
“What happens if I miss my international flight?” I ask the agent.
“Dunno” he replies.
Inwardly I panic, seeing another 48 hours delay or even more. But… this time I am lucky and get to fly! Whoopie!
By now feeling rather mischievous, I go to the American Airlines executive lounge on my arrival in Dallas. I explain to the well-dressed woman guarding the door that she can claw back some lost goodwill by letting me in. I am only likely to drink one or two gins maximum and it will go some way to making me feel better about American Airways. She looks at me as if I am from Mars.
“You will need to see the Customer Relations supervisor” she says.
“How do I get to talk to him?” says I.
“You go out through security and ask around out there” says she.
Realising that I am but a butterfly broken on the wheel of the corporate machine, I give up and go to the Priority Pass lounge.
I would like to report that the flight back to London was also a disaster. That would have added a certain completeness to this tale. But actually it left more or less on time with normal transatlantic levels of discomfort.
Thinking back over this experience in my office with a nice cup of tea in my hand, I realise that it is the impersonal nature of it all that makes me the most angry and which was responsible for most of the stress that I felt. I wanted a genuine human response from someone. Even if someone said “Piss off, I am really stressed as well and there is nothing that I can do to help you” it would have been something. Instead all we got was bland corporate phrases such as “We really value your business” and “We are sorry for the inconvenience”.
To me that did not quite cover the complete waste of a working week and thousands of dollars in air fares, conference fees, bad airport food and worse accommodation. Not to mention considerable stress and discomfort.
It was like dealing with a machine: a machine that just wants your money and otherwise doesn’t care.