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 06, 2007

A Travel Malcontent’s Long Summer Commences Early

American Airlines ushered me in to what promises to be a long, hard summer at the airports when they disrupted my travel plans and productivity on my first June flight this past Monday. With the kids not quite out of school and summer officially still more than two weeks away, I dread schlepping around the country between now and Labor Day.

Welcome to more airline and airport hell. If media reports are to be believed, this will be the worst summer ever. The idiots who run our airlines say that demand has finally recovered from the pre-nine-eleven doldrums after the dot-com bubble burst.

But the airlines are NOT ready to meet the demand. The usual summer surge of vacationers and kids, of course, just adds to the misery. Load factors are topped out, so when disruptions occur, there will be no surfeit of capacity on later flights to rescue stranded passengers. And we can expect delay after long delay, thanks to the airlines scheduling far more flights through major airports than the airports have capacity.

What happened to me Monday is a good example:

Flying again from Raleigh to Columbus (Ohio), I was booked on AA to connect through Chicago O’Hare. I was happy that my first flight didn’t leave until 6:55 AM, since usually I’m on 5:30-6:00 departures on Monday mornings. I could actually sleep in until 5:00 AM and still make my flight.

However, as soon as I dressed and turned on my cell phone, it beeped with a message. I thought: No problem. Just the usual two-hours-in-advance automated call from American’s computers telling me which RDU gate to go to. I was relaxed and at ease because miraculously my upgrade on the Chicago flight had come through. Even we American AAdvantage Executive Platinums don’t get upgraded all that often any more…but that’s another story.

I called my voice mail just to be sure and got the bad news: My flight was going to be 25 minutes late leaving due to “Flight Attendant legality.” I knew that meant whatever flight or flights our cabin crew had arrived RDU on Sunday night had been late, and the Flight Attendants are legally due 8 hours rest by FAA rules before they can go on duty again.

I also instantly grasped that I would miss my 40-minute connection to American Eagle at O’Hare. Best case, my connection was now cut to 15 minutes, and I knew from experience that the RDU/ORD 6:55 AM departure arrived at the very end of the “H” concourse in Chicago. AE flights leave from the “G” concourse at ORD. It’s a loooooong walk from the end of H to any G gate, more than 15 minutes.

So much, I thought, for making my ORD/CMH flight that would have arrived Columbus at 10:50 AM.

All this computed in my brain in a millisecond, and I speed-dialed the Exec Platinum desk to get a re-route. Follow-on AE connections from ORD to Columbus weren’t available until late afternoon thanks to heavy load factors, which would have killed my entire day. I don’t get paid unless I work, so that would have eliminated forever a day of income for me. I pleaded for an alternative.

By now my cab had arrived, and I was on my way to RDU. It was about 5:25 AM.

The Exec Platinum rez agent clicked away on her Sabre screen and found a connection through LGA that arrived at about 2:00 PM. Would I like that one?

No, hell no! I said, emphatically. I connected through La Guardia about 25 weeks in 2006, and it is more unreliable than ever. I’d be trading the devil for the deep blue sea if I opted to connect through LGA—like maybe arriving sometime on Tuesday afternoon.

More clicking came to my ears through the tiny, tinny cell phone speaker. Was I already at the airport? Could I perhaps make a 6:00 AM flight to Dallas/Fort Worth? I admitted that I was still 10-15 minutes from RDU, and she refused to book me through DFW, claiming I couldn’t make it. But if I COULD, the connection would arrive Columbus at noon, just an hour and ten minutes later than my original itinerary.

I thanked her, and asked exactly why the FAs were late the night before. “It appears that their inbound was late due to delays at ORD,” she admitted. Weather delays? I asked. “No,” she said, “Just the usual O’Hare congestion.”

In other words, too many flights scheduled for O’Hare to handle. I was a victim this morning of American’s over-scheduling their flights last night, and there were no better options for re-booking due to maxed-out load factors throughout Monday.

I told the taxi driver to step on it. He did, and after throwing forty bucks his way, I ran into the AA terminal and high-tailed it to the First Class security line. I had, as always, printed my boarding passes the night before, so did not have to stop at the counter. Lucky for me, the line was short, and I made it through security in record time for early Monday morning at Raleigh/Durham.

More running to the RDU Admirals Club, where, out of breath, I explained my plight to the wonderful staff there. Many of them have worked at RDU for 20 years or more. Margaret confirmed that there was one seat remaining on the DFW flight and that it was about to close. She gave me new boarding passes and admonished me to “RUN TO THE GATE! HURRY!” Margaret also told me as I was scurrying out: ”Will, the seats are not pretty—you are NOT going to like them.”

I did as I was told and RAN to the gate. And made it, barely. As I boarded, the last one on, the FA informed me all overhead space was gone and that I’d have to check my bag.

No problem, I said, calmly and evenly. I just won’t be flying on this flight, since I never check my bag. As in NEVER, EVER. She found room in an overhead compartment after all, and I squeezed into middle seat 12E between two large and sullen people for my two and a half hour flight to DFW. With me in place, we now had a triplet of large and sullen passengers in seats 12DEF. Unlike me, however, my seatmates looked as if they would have been at home slurping suds and ogling the strippers at the Bada Bing in The Sopranos. But at least they didn’t talk much.

A well of memories from a lifetime of flying regarding the extreme discomfort of center seats proved, sadly, to be all too accurate and vivid. The flight was sheer misery.

Except for one bright spot: The FA who had confronted me about my carry-on came back from First Class and took my jacket (I was wearing a suit and Hermes tie and looked pretty spiffy). She sincerely apologized for losing her cool with me and explained that she had been under such work stress over the just-ended weekend that she had actually been reduced to tears from exhaustion on her last flight the night before. I told her to forget it, and thanked her sincerely for taking my suit coat.

Later the same FA snuck a biscuit and butter to me from First Class (to the apparent consternation of my dour seatmates, whom she assiduously ignored). I felt sorry for the Flight Attendant, and when I left the plane I gave her my last AA “good job” coupon that American sends periodically to very frequent flyers to reward employees who do a good job. She seemed genuinely grateful for such a small gesture of good will on my part. I certainly appreciated her helpfulness while wedged into 12E.

I had an equally lousy seat on the connecting flight from DFW to Columbus, but lucked out at the gate. I told the agent what had happened to me, and he put me on the upgrade list ten minutes before the flight began boarding. He told me it was useless because every seat was full and the flight overbooked. However, a first class passenger misconnected (Imagine that!), and they gave me his seat at the very last minute. Consequently, from the vantage point of seat 3A, my flight to Columbus was much better than the one from Raleigh had been.

So I flew 2,000 miles to DFW and back to Columbus, and it took 6 hours altogether. It’s 361 miles as the crow flies from Raleigh to Columbus, a one hour flight on the rare nonstop. Ridiculous.

There’s another conundrum: American KNEW Sunday night that its Chicago flight leaving Raleigh at 6:55 AM Monday was going to be late due to the cabin crew mandated rest period. Their computers automatically track misconnects like mine, and there were undoubtedly others who were likewise affected. Why had AA not contacted me Sunday night? I could have made alternate flight plans Sunday night instead of enduring the madcap comedy rush Monday morning early, barely making the RDU/DFW flight.

I made it to Columbus with only a 70 minute delay because of my experiential knowledge of alternatives, because of my persistence and insistence, and thanks to just plain dumb luck. It was NOT because of ANY proactive work on American Airlines’ part, despite the fact that I am one of their top-tier flyers and best customers.

I expect this experience will be repeated with different circumstances and permutations throughout the summer. At least I know what to do when something like this happens, although the outcome is not always so favorable as it was for me on Monday.

But what in God’s name do the less-experienced folk do?


Blogger Judy said...

This is what we did:

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Aloha Airlines
Customer Relations
PO Box 30028
Honolulu, HI 96820

RE: Oakland/HNL 441 on 1 January 2007
PAX: Judith Guffey and William Schadt

After arriving in Alameda on December 23 (off 442 out of HNL) I contacted Aloha Airlines and provided a contact number (including our room number at the Hawthorn Suites). This was to enable Aloha Airlines personnel to alert us to any changes in our scheduled return flight on 441 on 1 January 2007.

To my dismay when we arrived at Oakland International at 0640 on 1/1/07 we were told the flight had been delayed until 1 p.m. We were offered a choice of waiting (with food voucher provided) for the 1 p.m. flight or take a handover to ATA.

We chose the handover….then the trouble started. Estaban (Oakland agent) was swamped helping other agents through this handover process. He was calm and pleasant. We finally!!! Received the necessary paper and walked to the ATA counter. The routing to Maui was OK….but we weren’t in the system from Maui to Honolulu (our final destination and our home.) The ATA agents called the Aloha desk….and we waited and waited and waited….for a reply to them from Aloha (all the while watching the clock….it was nearing 0730)…and knowing we should purchase food before boarding the ATA flight.

After a lengthy wait the ATA agent said we could ‘wait’ for the callback from Aloha or one of us could take the incorrect transfer paper back to Aloha to find out what was wrong. I did just that. Estaban was gracious and helping another misrouted passenger at the time. He took the paper…checked the compute and muttered (under his breath….crap)…thus alerting me to something that had not been input correctly. He changed whatever it was and returned the paper to me. I ran (with camera backpack and purse over my shoulder…I am 71)…back to ATA. Still no input in their system for our Maui/HNL segment. I rushed to buy two bagels, cream cheese (no knives to spread it through security), banana bread and went back to ATA counter where they finally said, “we’ll do it ourselves.” Whatever was needed was done and we had our boarding passes for the ATA flight with 22 minutes to spare.

Alas, we both (?) were ‘selected’ and had to undergo a complete hand check of our carry-ons….4 cameras, iPods, telephones. We were assured by TSA we’d make the flight but as it got to be 0755 and the ATA flight was closed I became very anxious.

Did we make it? Yes, we did….we had Pringles, M&Ms, bagels, and banana bread for breakfast on board. A saving grace…the flight was not full and we had plenty of room to spread out. We had lunch in Maui after going through security a second time because we had to go to the Aloha ticket counter to get the boarding passes for the Maui/HNL flight.

Upon arrival home I checked the departure time for the 441 flight out of Oakland. It left at 1350 approximately….one hour later than we were told it was to have left…so I guess we made a good choice to take the convoluted flight plan and stress. We did, however, miss seeing any of the RoseBowl game.

Long story short: when I take the time to phone in my contact numbers, I expect them to be used. We would not have left for the airport at 0620 if we had been told the flight was delayed. We could have stayed in bed….then phoned our family who would have met us for breakfast and transported us to the airport (eliminating a $35 taxi fare we paid.)


Judy Guffey
(808) 676-1475

6/08/2007 12:42 PM  

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