Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Bad (Air Travel) Luck Comes In Threes…At Least Last Week

Generally I don’t believe in adages like bad luck coming in threes, but America’s airlines and air travel system handed me a trio of nasty experiences this past week. My score in three trials? Tied one (Monday, June 4), won one (Thursday, June 7), and lost one (Friday, June 8).

You can read about how I overcame my Monday, June 4th, bad luck and arrived just over an hour late by reading the previous blog post just below. I’ll call that one a TIE against the system.

I thought it was time for the pendulum to swing the other way for my trip home from Columbus to Raleigh on Thursday evening, June 7th. But it was not to be—or at least it would have been another disaster had I not done some more quick maneuvering to avoid one.

On Thursday I was scheduled to fly American Airlines home again, using AA4322 Columbus to O’Hare, which connected to AA1490 ORD to RDU. If all had gone as planned, I would have arrived Raleigh Durham at 11:15 PM. I had an ample 2 hour layover at O’Hare between flights, a nice pad against a late flight from Columbus to Chicago.

However, I received the dreaded automated call telling me that the first flight was two hours late, and I knew at once that I wasn’t going to make my connection, EVEN WITH A TWO HOUR LAYOVER.

I was just returning my rental car to Hertz at the Columbus airport when the call came, so I rushed through security and scanned the departures board, remembering that there was a nonstop Columbus-Raleigh flight in about 15 minutes. (I had not booked myself on the nonstop because I was uncertain that I could make a 3:55 PM departure after lengthy afternoon client meetings. It was also $400 more expensive.)

Sure enough, the board showed the RDU flight on time at 3:55 PM and boarding. I rushed to the gate and inquired whether I could put myself on the standby list. The flight was overbooked by one (what flights aren’t overbooked these days?), but there were two no-shows.

The American Eagle gate agent handed me a boarding pass two minutes before the door closed. We arrived RDU on schedule, a minor miracle in itself. I could not believe my good luck in even making it to the gate in time, as I had left my client’s building at 3:15 PM.

Not only did I get home much sooner than planned, but the two flights I was scheduled to fly did indeed become disasters. The CMH/ORD flight arrived almost two hours late to Chicago, and my connection limped into Raleigh at 1:23 AM Friday morning, over two hours behind schedule.

Once again I beat the odds by knowing my options and then acting nimbly. I’ll call that one a definite WIN against the system.

On Friday, June 8, I was due to take my family on two Northwest Airlines legs from Raleigh through Minneapolis to Billings, Montana, where we spend a week each summer with my in-laws in the Beartooth Mountains just north of Yellowstone. Having been the victim of bad travel experiences Monday and Thursday, I just couldn’t believe that I would be victimized a third time in five days!

How naïve of me to think there might be justice or some sense of balance in the air travel system.

As it turned out, Friday afternoon at Raleigh-Durham Airport was surreal when we arrived. Even in the worst of disruptions, I have never seen RDU so full of people, and especially families with young children, who weren’t going anywhere fast. Both the nice Delta Crown Room staff (whom I’ve known for years) and the NWA gate personnel warned of very long delays and possible cancellations due to an unstipulated ATC problem compounded by strong Midwest and Northeast winds. However, our RDU/MSP airplane managed to land at RDU, albeit late, and we arrived about an hour late to the Twin Cities.

Minneapolis/St. Paul was also chaotic once we finally got there. I was not overly concerned with our late arrival, though, because we had almost two hours of connection time.

But when I consulted the nearest Northwest info board to gate C10 once off our flight, our Billings flight was one of many cancellations. And I could NOT get through to NW’s 800 lines. There was a recording saying that “due to unusually high call volumes, we are unable to answer the phone.” Callers were given the option of using NW’s automated flight-line or being disconnected. No mention was made of what we were supposed to do if our flight was cancelled.

So I went back to the gate agent at MSP C10 where we had arrived and begged for help. She very kindly tried to call the internal (employees-only) NWA Revenue Management line but was on hold for 30 minutes. She reported that her computer screen was showing all the Billings flights over the weekend were full and overbooked. She was trying to overbook one for us because I am a Continental/Northwest Platinum. Complicating this was the fact that there are four of us in my family traveling, and getting four seats is four times as hard as getting a single seat.

Unable to get through to her own Revenue Management people, NOT EVEN ABLE TO GET ANYONE ON THE PHONE AFTER 30 MINUTES, the C10 gate agent offered some desperate alternatives: flights that were going in the general vicinity of Billings. She feared if we didn’t take one of the Friday night alternatives that we would not get to Billings until Monday.

So, gnashing my teeth over the extra $523 it would cost me for a rental car and a Friday night hotel room, I opted for Bozeman, and we made a very late flight Friday night. Once there (after 11:00 PM local time) we piled into our fire engine red Hertz Ford Explorer with 278 miles on the odometer and flew east on the Interstate until we ran out of steam in the wee hours.

We finally stopped in the tiny town of Big Timber at a Super 8 Hotel and ponied up $84 for a room. I’d already seen two fresh deer kills between Bozeman and Big Timber, with literal sheets of blood on the Interstate and the carcasses dismembered by some hapless souls making the legal Montana 75 MPH. I was exhausted and couldn’t risk killing me and my family. We made the rest of our drive Saturday morning.

Totaling the extra costs looks like this:

I had a free rental car lined up using my Hertz points at Billings—a reservation made six months in advance—but the Bozeman Hertz location is a licensee and refused to honor my free rental. Thus I had to pay for a week instead (about $440 including tax). Ka-ching!

Then there was the hotel cost at a Super 8: $84, including tax. We were supposed to be staying with my wife’s uncle and aunt in Billings, not in a hotel. Ka-ching!

$84?? I gasped at the desk clerk How could that be? Super 8 got its name from offering $8 rooms long ago! And this is Big Timber, Montana, a tank town on the Interstate, not Chicago or even Billings. Can’t you give me break?

The Super 8 desk clerk informed me that she’d already given me a break. The regular rate was $93 plus tax, and she had just two rooms left thanks to a late night cancellation. I could have it for $84 or pound sand. Either way she was going back to sleep.

Shocked that a Super 8 ANYWHERE could be routinely getting $93 for a room, I took it and shut up. I even thanked her nicely for the discount. She didn’t have to give me one, after all. Next morning there was a typical Hampton Inn-type breakfast with nice people (guests and employees), and our kids enjoyed it.

Small consolation for the extra cost and stress and uncertainty. Clearly I have to call this one a LOSS against the system.

It might have been worse: We could have been delayed in the Twin Cities for a day or two, but incurring an extra $523 in costs is definitely not a win. Nor is having to drive an extra couple of hundred miles to and from Bozeman instead of Billings.

Friday’s misery, delay, extra cost, and weariness was due in large part to our government’s inability to commit to modernizing an antiquated 1960s ATC system that was never meant to handle the volumes of today’s crowded American skies. The balance of responsibility lies, as usual, at the feet of every airline, thanks to over-scheduling their hubs.

At any rate, one win, one loss, and a draw. I hope that this string of bad luck is over with three consecutive experiences within just five days. We will see what this week brings when we return to Bozeman for our flights home…


Blogger Steve said...

Bad luck does tend to travel in packs, but sometimes it works out alright. In fact, sometimes the airlines are actually helpful. (It doesn't hurt if you're Platinum.)

Last week AA called to tell me that my flight out of Austin was being cancelled, but they could get me a seat on another flight if I could make it to AUS 1.5 hours earlier than my originally scheduled departure. I accepted the offer and caught the flight, though it turned my 2 hour layover into a 3.5 hour layover. (OK, 4 hours, because my connection was delayed.) Still, AA did their best to help and I did make it home that night.

I'm calling that one a WIN against the system - especially since I recently got a Priority Pass. Being able to use a lounge at DFW made the long layover much more productive. (Extra credit goes to Joe Brancatelli for recommending Priority Pass.)

6/23/2007 10:39 PM  

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