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.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Getting Home on Delta Wasn't Easy

Last week I detailed how Delta Air Lines compounded their early morning error into a long day of travel uncertainty, stress, and misery.  However, I didn't quite finish that story.  I flew to Houston and back from Raleigh for a ninety minute business meeting.  Sounds simple, but my day began at 4:15 AM, and I got home almost 20 hours later just before midnight.  

At the close of my previous post I had finally managed to get boarding passes straightened out for the two return flights (IAH/ATL and ATL/RDU).  I was prepared to collapse into my seat on the first flight and take a much-needed snooze after imbibing an adult beverage, maybe more than one.

After all, the airplane and crew were in Houston on time and seemed ready to go on time, and we boarded on time.  Just before the door was closed, though, the captain announced there was very rainy weather in Atlanta and a ceiling of 700 feet.  He predicted a "few minutes delay getting to our gate, at worst." 

I didn't believe him for a minute.  Just as my Bombay Sapphire G&T had been served, I tensed up for the umpteenth time that day. My connection time in ATL was less than an hour at best, and I knew from many similar experiences that lots could go wrong and probably would.  I decided to have only the one pre-flight drink and to stay alert.

The ride got extremely bumpy soon after we reached altitude and stayed that way, which didn't surprise me based on the captain's description of the weather.  The flight attendants were told to stay strapped in, so no one got another drink.  Once close to ATL, it took a lot longer to get slotted into the landing sequence than the pilot had been told.  

The ceiling was low all right, almost to the ground by the time we hit the tarmac, giving me my first view of where we were: way, way on the far south side of the airport on the most distant of the new runways.  I knew it would be a long taxi to our gate, and it was, a good 15 minutes of stop-and-go shimmying to cross active runways and to avoid the conga lines of planes queued up all over the rain-drenched airport.

Thank God for  As we shuffled along, I inquired via smartphone about our arrival gate (Delta no longer announces the arrival gate or connecting flight gates as they used to): A9, not too bad a location.  But I groaned upon seeing that my connecting flight was E1, a darn long hike from A9.  And it showed my connecting flight posted on time, too.

By the time we arrived at the gate, I had 15 minutes to make my flight.  I ran all the way down the A concourse to the escalator, dodging the large, lethargic crowds (people wandering around airports always seem to be either confused or in no hurry), then brushed past everyone standing on the down escalator (Americans are notoriously reluctant to walk down escalators even when unburdened by bags), and barely made the "Plane Train" (you'd think the ATL airport authority could have come up with a more clever name).  

Once off the train at E, I bounded up the escalator (causing many heads to turn--no doubt few Americans are ever seen walking, let alone running, UP an escalator unless the law is after them), then sprinted the length of the concourse to the very end to reach E1, arriving just about one minute prior to departure time.  

There, to my astonishment, I found the gate open and welcoming.  They seemed to be holding the plane for me.  Could it be?  Out of breath, but grateful, I profusely thanked the gate agent taking boarding passes for waiting for me.  

"Oh, we are not waiting just for YOU," she drawled, "We're waiting for a LOT of people."  

I should have reaffirmed my gratitude, but I was having trouble recalling many Delta flight connections in the last three decades that have waited on anybody.  Sure, this was the last flight to RDU that night, but that never stopped Delta from leaving me behind before.  

Mainly, though, I felt foolish that I had run like a madman from one end of the airport to the other, only to find that I could have lollygagged along and made my flight without penalty.  Nothing on the Delta screens indicated the plane would wait.  I sullenly boarded in silence.

Oh well, I thought.  I took my seat and kept my trap shut, deciding I was lucky that I made it and should lower my expectations.  I imbibed another Bombay Sapphire G&T and nodded off.  After a bone-shaking ride all the way from Atlanta due to the bad weather, we arrived RDU only about a half hour late, and I got home by midnight.  Despite the manifold trials of travel, I was grateful to have made it out and back again and still be in one piece.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Delta Air Lines Comedy of Errors

It was just a one-day trip to Houston and back from Raleigh.  Four flight legs, outbound connecting to IAH through Memphis, with the returning connection through ATL.  On a darned expensive fare, too. How much could go wrong, really?  Yet Delta Air Lines put me through a day of hell.

Everything appeared to begin well.  Figuring that a busy Monday morning at RDU right after the federal government “Sequester” had kicked in would probably back up the security lines, I arrived almost two hours early at 4:45 AM for my 6:40 AM departure. 

Sure enough, even at that ungodly hour, the regular lines behind the TSA portals were horrendously long.  I went through the Elite line and still had to wait a few minutes, but nothing like the poor folks in the other rope lines.  Right on the opening time of 5:00 AM I was walking into the Delta Sky Club.

First thing I did, as has been my decades-long habit, was to ask the agents if there were any earlier flight options to Houston Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH).  Nope, they reported, every alternate connection was full. 

Then I verified that my flight, DL 5332, to Memphis was on time.  Everything was perfect, they said, smiling.  Having taken the usual precautions, I settled in to read the paper over a bagel and orange juice.

At 6:00 AM I walked the short distance from the Sky Club to my gate to prepare for boarding.  I chatted up the gate agent.  She was chirpy and nice, and said she expected to begin the boarding process as soon as she checked out the aircraft to ensure the crew was ready.

To her surprise, however, the crew wasn’t anywhere to be found.  She made a call and was told they were late getting to the airport from their hotel and were now snarled up in the long security line.  This was frustrating to those of us waiting, as we had had the foresight to get there early in order to be at the gate on time.  Why couldn’t the airline crew do the same?  After all, this wasn’t their first flight (we hoped), and this was their job

We Delta Elite flyers grumbled amongst ourselves and waited.  As precious minutes ticked by, I felt the familiar anxiety growing that I’d miss my connection.  The gate agent continued to make the same excuse for the still-missing crew up until 6:30 AM.  They were stuck at security, she said.  We all wondered why the heck the crew didn’t simply cut the queue as airline crews are entitled to do?

The gate agent was still saying the crew was lost at security when she got a call from Delta Operations with news that the crew was in Atlanta and would not be arriving RDU until about 9:00 AM.  This meant, of course, that I’d miss my Memphis connection by about three hours.  The gate agent sheepishly made that announcement, and then she literally threw a bunch of Delta disruption cards up on her counter for anyone to grab so they could call and rebook themselves.

What the hell?  How could the gate agent not have been informed until 10 minutes before flight time that the crew was hundreds of miles away?  How could the Delta Sky Club staff not have known from their screens that the flight was going to be three hours late when I asked at 5:00 AM?

This one-day trip was for a 90 minute business meeting in Houston at 1:00 PM.  Getting there late would have negated the entire purpose of the trip, and I knew I had to work hard to make an alternate plan that would get me to IAH by about 11:00 AM, or else the trip was moot.  Therefore I rushed back to the Delta Sky Club to obtain the assistance of the two Delta agents there.  By now it was closing in on 7:00 AM, and I knew I didn’t have much time.

Turns out another Delta flight also had problems (a cancellation to Baltimore), and there was a line of Elites waiting to be helped.  Luckily, one of the Sky Club agents, the one I’d inquired with at 5:00 AM, recognized my plight, and she felt Delta owed me for making such a mess of things, particularly because I’d made the point with her earlier that you can’t be too careful these days when flying to make sure the flights were operating on time.  She took me ahead of two other passengers, but then couldn’t find anything on her screens on Delta or any other airline that would get me to Houston in time.

As archaic as a printed schedule may seem in the all-digital age, sometimes a hard copy can be a lifesaver.  I grabbed the March edition of the American Express Skyguide from my briefcase, which I continue to subscribe to.  Sure enough it showed a nonstop flight RDU/IAH on United (formerly Continental), UA 701, leaving at 7:30 AM.  I showed this to the Delta agent, and she promptly phoned UA and found they had plenty of seats available.  Within a few minutes she had printed my “Involuntary Reroute” documentation to put me on the United flight, and I rushed down the hall to their gate.

But before I left the Sky Club, I asked the gate agent to check that my return reservations that afternoon IAH/RDU were intact and unaffected by the outbound Involuntary Reroute.  She confidently assured me everything was fine, including upgrades on both flights home, IAH/ATL and ATL/RDU.  Breathing a sigh of relief, I ran for my United flight and just made boarding with the last group.

Since I had only my briefcase with me, I had no trouble finding overhead space on the 737, and I was delighted that my assigned seat 24F was in a row with no one in the center seat.  Unlike my recent flights on DL and AA, all of which have been full, I was surprised to look around and see that there were 20 or so empty seats on UA 701.

Before they closed the door, I phoned the Delta Elite line to inquire one more time that my return reservation was still there.  Why was I worried?  Because an Involuntary Reroute is like heart bypass surgery on your itinerary:  Sometimes there are unintended consequences.  In the hands of an inexperienced rez agent, an Involuntary Reroute can result in the cancellation of the rest of your trip.  The Delta Elite agent, however, said everything was OK, so I stopped fretting.  Jangled but relieved of my anxiety that Delta’s screw-up hadn’t ruined the important business meeting I had set up almost three months earlier, I dozed off.

The United flight went smoothly and landed me at IAH almost an hour earlier than my Delta flights would have.  As I made my way to the remote rental car facility, I called the Delta Elite line one more time.  Ok, call me paranoid, and you’d be right, but I wanted to be absolutely certain that my return flights on Delta were still intact.  The agent said everything looked fine.

I successfully made my business engagement at 1:00 PM and headed back to Houston Bush Airport, arriving three hours early for a 6:00 PM departure to Atlanta, with an onward connection to Raleigh.  My fare was high enough that, in conjunction with my Platinum status, I had been upgraded several days in advance.  I had printed one return boarding pass the night before and so went to the Delta check-in counter in Terminal A to obtain the connection flight boarding pass.

That’s when everything went sideways again.  The Delta agent looked at his screen, hesitated, looked at my first boarding pass (seat 1B, IAH/ATL), and then back at his screen.  I knew something was wrong when he called his Red Coat supervisor over.  They then asked me in an accusing voice, “When were you in Los Angeles?”

“Huh!??!” I answered.  I explained that I had come that morning from RDU, nowhere near L.A.  They said the record showed that a Delta reservation in Los Angeles had cancelled my returned flights.  I explained the involuntary reroute of the morning SNAFU and a brief summary of the entire mess that Delta created for me.  After some wrangling the Red Coat said he had managed to reinstate my flights, and he handed me two boarding passes. 

I was about to thank him when I noticed both seats were in coach.  Angrily I returned the boarding passes to him and asked that my seats, 1B on both flights, be reinstated.  No, he said, not first class.  I then showed him my itinerary which I had printed the previous night when I checked in, along with the boarding pass for seat 1B on the IAH/ATL flight.  On my itinerary were my two upgrade seat assignments: 1B, IAH/ATL and 1B, ATL/RDU.  The Red Coat studied my printed itinerary and audibly groaned.  More heated discussion ensued, at the end of which I was assigned 1D and 1B on the respective flights. 

The Red Coat’s face had by then turned as red as his jacket, and he said in a testy tone, “You know I had to take these out of full fare First Class inventory, don’t you?” 

To which I answered, “No offense, but I don’t care where you got the seats.  Delta owed them to me because it was entirely Delta’s screw-up, not mine. Delta upgraded me days in advance because of the fare I paid and because of my Elite status.  Thank you for fixing it, but you put me through a lot of grief considering I’m entirely blameless and took every prudent precaution to protect my backside against just such an airline error.”  After which I reached into my briefcase and handed over a bunch of the Delta “A Job Well Done” vouchers and headed off for security.  He was smiling last time I looked, grateful to have received the vouchers.

Once at the gate I started piecing together the weird series of events.  As I looked through my itineraries and boarding passes, I realized that on the IAH/ATL flight (DL 54) I had been assigned 11D (my original coach seat), then upgraded several days before my flight to 1B, then downgraded to 15F by some nameless, faceless Delta agent somewhere in Los Angeles, then finally upgraded again by the Houston Red Coat to 1D.  Good grief, I wondered.  What else could go wrong?

Pretty soon I found out.  When I asked the Delta agent at Gate A15 if there were any aisle seats in First Class, she checked her records and asked me accusingly where I’d gotten my boarding pass for seat 1D.  She was in an obvious bad mood and didn’t seem to care that her insinuation was insulting and rude.  How could any customer obtain a boarding pass fraudulently?  When I told her the Red Coat gave it to me, she shrieked: “Well, he shouldn’t have given you this seat because you are double-booked!”  As if I had anything to do with it.

She was so mad that I thought I was going to have to return to the Red Coat for justice, but she finally handed back my 1D boarding pass and spit out:  “I FIXED IT!”

Good for you, I thought.  You are a real credit to Delta Air Lines.  I have no idea what you “fixed” and don’t care. 

Getting home to Raleigh yet proved to be a hardship, which I’ll explain next week, but I at least managed to retain my two first class upgrades.  Small comfort. 

My takeaway from this one day nightmare is that, well, I wasn’t surprised at any of it.  I could rail against Delta Air Lines, and while it’s true that they own this cock-up lock, stock, and barrel, the fact is it could just as easily have been any other airline.  What a sad state of affairs.