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.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Tahiti Trip Commentaries, Part 2
Getting To Los Angeles

Same Misery, Different Day

Sometimes when traveling in the U.S. air system these past three decades, I thought misery stalked me like hunter in the woods. On wider reflection I realized that misery by air travel was committed to the principle of equal opportunity: Virtually everyone I knew received their share, and few stories had a happy ending.

The past six months have seen me at home more and on the road flying less, by choice. It's given me time to heal my wounds and develop a more sanguine attitude to flying. So when my family and I set off from Raleigh-Durham International Airport on Friday morning, December 19th, it was with a renewed spiritual strength that I could face whatever happened.

Good thing I hadn't drunk the poison for awhile, because I was force-fed a large dose of it on our trip RDU/LAX. We should have landed at L.A. International before noon after two flights of 9 hours total duration, but instead we hit the LAX tarmac in darkness 17 hours after leaving our home and having endured three flights and a four-hour layover in San Francisco (no, SFO was not on our original routing).

Our day began at 4:00 AM when we arose to rush to RDU Airport. My voicemail buzzed as soon as I powered on my cell with a message that our American Eagle flight 5331 to St. Louis was delayed 25 minutes due to crew rest. So much for our one hour connection. Worried from experience with many a crew rest issue that this would develop into a creeping delay and cause us to miss our connection, I immediately phoned AA as my wife and kids frantically loaded the car.

The AA agent kept me on my cell for 40 minutes while she tried to get through to Northwest Airlines to rebook us (she agreed we probably now would not make our STL connection). She promised to phone back when I had to go through security at Raleigh/Durham International Airport. When she did call, she had to leave a voice message because cell service in the new RDU concourse is marginal or nonexistent on most places (how could this happen in a brand-new terminal?), and my phone never rang. Her message wasn't reassuring in any case, as NW never answered their phone--an internal line specially for inter-airline agent calls.

RDU only recently opened its new terminal, and this was my first time experiencing it. I'd heard the security screens were improved, but my first impression in the elite line was that the old terminal scheme was better. We had to wait for 10 minutes while the TSA agent ignored the elite queue and allowed the multitudes to get by instead. It didn't matter to me since we now had loads of time thanks to our delayed flight, but if I had been traveling on business, well, I would have been miffed.

The new RDU Admirals Club was also a disappointment, being up three floors on a slow elevator and unlikely to win any manner of architectural or interior decorating competition. It's hard to tell if the square footage is diminished from the old Admirals Club at RDU, but it feels that way, and I was glad to leave. The best part was the presence of Margaret Hutchens, who has been a leader and fixture at the RDU club for ages. Margaret was kind enough to keep up with out tight connection, and thank God she did. Later, her swift actions were all that got us to LAX at all on Friday.

Once back downstairs I walked the entire length of the new, sweeping concourse with interest. I was happy to spot and speak to Kim at Delta, the sole remaining "old Delta" employee at RDU. She informed me that the Delta Crown Room was "coming" but even she was uncertain when it might open in the new concourse. Too bad for Raleigh-area Crown Room members.

Otherwise I was happy to see some new restaurant selections in the new concourse (e.g., 42nd Street Oyster Bar; an eastern North Carolina barbecue joint; and Brueggers Bagels) as we made our way to delayed AA (Eagle) 5133, an Embraer RJ, spotted at gate 22, the very end of the new concourse. There I ran into another old friend who used to work at Delta but now is an AA gate agent. He knew of our impending close connection and tried mightily to get the flight out right on the 7:05 AM departure delay re-post.

Alas, he failed, thanks to our flight attendant. She gave him the wrong count on children in seats (as opposed to lap babies), forcing recalculation of the weight-and-balance. Our plane pushed back at 7:20 AM, now forty minutes behind schedule, leaving us a mere 20-minute connection window.

Further delays waiting for ATC takeoff clearance and strong headwinds ensured more creep in our delay. I go into such detail here because such cascading delays happen so frequently that it's worth documenting how it happens--frequent flyers will be familiar with the scenario. We finally blocked into our gate at 8:40 AM CT. Our connecting flight to Los Angeles was scheduled to leave at 8:50 AM.

Originally our flight was to arrive STL at gate C21, just across the hall from our C24 connection to LAX. As we approached St. Louis, the captain announced our arrival gate had changed to C17, which still wasn't a long walk from C24. However, contrary to both earlier gate announcements, we pulled into gate C1, a VERY long walk from C24, and then had to wait for our planeside checked bags (as with every RJ flight). I sent my wife and two kids running up to C24 to let them know we were here and to wait for us.

After running as fast as I could from C1 to C24 with all the bags, I arrived at 8:47 AM for our 8:50 AM departure to LAX, elated that we'd actually made it! But the bastards at American Airlines had already pushed back 4 minutes early, despite the protests of my wife and kids standing at tha gate (my five year old was actually crying in disappointment).

Seems the captain had wanted an early start due to the strong headwinds he expected getting to Los Angeles--the same headwinds we'd encountered, no doubt, getting to STL. And he didn't care how miserable his passengers left behind might be, even though we were at the gate BEFORE scheduled departure and he KNEW we were there. I have some unprintable Christmas greetings for the man. Apparently AA rewards him for being on time regardless of the misery he inflicts on the people who pay his salary--me and you.

Kafka Customer Service

I was outraged, and I've seen so much flying that it takes a great deal to infuriate me any more. But this pilot and his employer, American Airlines, screwed with my family's happiness even though we'd done everything asked of us. The contract of carriage only benefits one side.

My indignance was lost on the AA gate agent, one Sheila Ford, who incredibly just shrugged and told me while standing there in her American uniform that she was "merely an entry-level employee" and thus had "no power, no control, no authority, no nothing" that she could do nothing to help me. She gestured grandly to her right to the American "Customer Service Center" at the unused (and unmanned) adjacent gate and invited me to use one of the several red "courtesy rebooking" phones there to call and get my family rerouted.

How, I asked, was I going to do that? The agents I spoke to in RDU's Admirals Club had checked every STL/LAX flight for the rest of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and couldn't find four seats for us as back-up. Sheila Ford just gave me her well-practiced shrug again, and wished us luck. Somehow I doubted her sincerity. I gave up on getting assistance from her and headed for the red phones.

I picked up the phone on the end of the counter, and sure enough, it rang through to AA reservations. However, when answered, a recording prompted me to press "1" for this and "2" for that, and I obligingly reached to press the appropriate button on the keypad.

But THERE WAS NO KEYPAD! The keypads had all been removed from the red phones! Letting out a deep sigh of frustration, I listened, thinking the AA rez system would eventually put me through to a real person when it detected no selection.

But no. The AA recording merely repeated itself over and over again, asking its hapless listeners to press a nonexistent key on the red phone. I stood there looking for a camera, thinking this must be a joke for one of those TV reality shows that capture ordinary people in impossible, nonsensical situations. If only I had been right. After listening uselessly for another minute or two, I put the phone down, stunned.

Can there be any better example of the depths to which the airlines--in this case, American--have sunk? Kafka would be proud to see the insanities he so often scripted into memorable stories are alive and well in the 21st century airline game. First, AA, through a series of its own missteps, failed to connect my family of four accordng to its own schedule, and then they left me, one of their most elite customers, to my own devices to rebook through their absurdly designed system.

In desperation I phoned Margaret Hutchens back at the RDU Admirals Club. Lucky she gave me her number years ago, and I never lost it. Margaret had been following our plight, even though, technically, she was not encouraged by her employer to help individual customers in such a manner. Margaret had accomplished the impossible: She'd found four seats on a flight to San Francisco, with a connection to LAX from SFO.

Margaret had to book all four of us in First Class SFO/LAX to make it work, but she'd done it anyway. We were protected! This despite AA doing everything in its inept way to keep us from getting to Los Angeles and to make us miserable as possible in the meantime.

Kafka struck again when I next phoned Hertz to revise our arrival time and flight so that my car at LAX would not be cancelled. The Hertz system, like so many airline, hotel, and car rental toll-free lines, has adopted a whizz-bang modern voice-activated system which requires all kinds of information to be given before connecting customers to a real person.

But the fricking geniuses who designed and installed these systems apparently don't travel much, because they never gave a thought to the incessant background noise extant in every airport on earth--the place customers are most likely to be phoning from their cells. So naturally every TV and loud PA in the St. Louis airport, plus all the noise from passengers talking, was mistaken by the Hertz system for requisite data to get me to an agent. When I finally WAS connected to a real warm body, I had to give her all my info again because of the gibberish that the voice system had erroneously collected.

We made it onto the STL/SFO flight, whose captain (also AA) also wanted to leave early due to headwinds, and damn the torpedoes, er, I mean, passengers left behind. Luckily this time it wasn't us. Then we endured a four-hour layover at SFO before our on-time flight to LAX. We landed after dark, 17 hours after leaving Raleigh, more exhausted than from a trans-Pacific flight.

And there's more about our trip coming, including the very average Air Tahiti Nui service LAX to Pape'ete, Tahiti, but as I write this from the beachside bar at the Moorea Pearl Resort on the beautiful Tahitian island of Moorea, my son has just informed me that my wife has broken her toe on a coconut tree and that I must come running.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please....aita pea pea (if I remember correctly)...means...'no problem''re in a great place with (I hope) wonderful weather. I laughed and cried as I read this story of your flight(s)....and I continue to carry AA miles...not sure why! Aloha, Mele Kalikimaka and Hau'oli Makahiki Hou. We're off to see U. Hawai'i beat Notre Dame...sorry...can't remember my correct password to post with my name....

12/24/2008 2:05 PM  
Anonymous finprof said...

What a terrible day in the air!

But, why on earth would you have wasted any time on comedic red phones instead of trooping off immediately to the STL admirals club?

I've been on last flights of the day that were held for connecting pax, but never any morning ones. With so many complex plans in one itinerary, I hope you guys sprang for the trip insurance!

12/25/2008 12:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

3 words, OMG. Screw AA. Get that pilot fired.

12/28/2008 12:02 PM  
Blogger terrypilot said...

I don't know where the airlines are getting the idea of leaving the gate early. When I was in the military flying, we could block out early if 'confirmed load aboard' but in your case they went without ticketed pax. Will be interested in further details.

12/31/2008 2:39 PM  

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