... essays

rand's ramblings on this and that


Air Raged:
How Delta and American Airlines Turned Me Into a Greyhound Passenger

I have a friend, Sean, who is an artist and scenic designer. He lives in Calgary and constantly has travel around the US working on theater productions. I noticed a few years ago that he never flies to these locations -- he drives, he takes the train, or even hops on a bus.

" I hate to fly," he said.

I've asked Sean a few times why he prefers slower modes of transportation and he always got this glassy look in his eyes, like I'm dredging up some long-repressed traumas. He didn't relate some blown engine or near death experience, just a simple "I hate to fly".

Now, I understand. Boy, oh, boy, do I ever understand.

I had looked forward to my vacation. Work was more than intense over the past few months and hadn't had a full week away from the grind since Christmas. My friend Stuart had moved away from Greensboro about a year ago, giving up the suburban life in the Triad metropolis and going into semi-retirement on ten acres of land in the mountains of rural New Mexico. He lives in a dome now. I really wanted to see that dome. And I had never seen a cactus in the wild before.

Being the aspiring writer, I had been so involved in my day job, that I hadn't had a chance to get any good writing done over the past few months. Oh, how I longed for that week away from email, pagers, phone calls, meetings and late nights working on reports and calls for proposals. I had planned for my week away from work for weeks, dutifully packing my bags the day before, charging up my laptop, and prepping my digital camera.

I was ready for a vacation. I needed a vacation.

Bright and early Sunday morning, I promptly arrived at Raleigh-Durham, checked in, and made it through the long line at the security checkpoint with no problem, ready for my 7:15 flight to Dallas to connect to my eventual destination, Albuquerque. The plan was that my friend Stuart would drive the three hours from rural New Mexico, meet me at the airport when my flight arrived at about 10:30 his time and I'd be off enjoying a week with sagebrush, cactus and a few reptiles.

We got on the plane on time and I heard the big "clunk" that signaled that the plane was ready to start backing up and heading off for the runway.

But we just sat there.

And sat there.

After about twenty minutes, the captain came on the intercom.

" Well, folks, " he said with a Texan drawl (why do all the pilots speak with a drawl), "They're tellin' us that the whole computer system that schedules the traffic flow for American went down. It'll take'em about twenty minutes to get things goin' again and we should be on our way. "

Not a problem, or so I thought. So we'll be twenty minutes late. Big deal.
About a half-hour later, it appeared that the situation was more serious than we thought. They let us get off the plane and wait in the concourse. Of course, we should stay close "in case something changed".

So, we all poured out into the airport, draped over chairs, plugging in our laptops or just sitting there yawning. And waiting.

" Hey," I heard one passenger say, "We're on TV!"

Sure enough, CNN for Airports was on the tube (Why, I must ask, is there a special version of CNN for airports? Couldn't we have like HBO for Airports or something?) Turns out that the database system used for American Airlines entire flight plan system went down. The emergency plan was, according to the PR from American (and from the helpful ticket agents at RDU) was to delay all the flights in the system -- the entire schedule would be run, but about two hours late. Why an entire multi-million dollar network of airplanes, personnel, and ground crew were tenuously connected to one database that didn't have an emergency backup system seemed to be one little detail that no one mentioned.

I faced a decision -- by this time, Stuart was probably on the road or getting ready to go. He had about a three hour drive from his home in the rural wilds of New Mexico to get to the airport at Albuquerque. I decided not to give him a call -- I was assured by the ticket agents that, since everything in American's system was delayed, I wouldn't have a problem with my connecting flight.

Eventually, we did get on the airplane and made it to DFW without incident, landing at about 11:30 am. However -- surprise, surprise -- my precious flight to Albuquerque was history. It was either cancelled or had taken off without me and many other passengers ready for the hot dry New Mexico air.

The earliest flight they could get me on was the 10:30 pm flight that, according to the current schedule, would be taking off around midnight.

I called Stuart. He was waiting in the airport, fully expecting me to be on that flight. He thought I'd just be a couple of hours late, hearing about the computer glitch on the news while he was driving to the airport and talking with the ticket agents.

There was another flight at 1:30 I was on standby for, along with a multitude of other folks who were similarly displaced in the morning's screw-ups. We decided to regroup at that time to see if I actually got on that flight.

The 1:30 flight to Albuquerque took off around 2:30, I believe, without me among the passengers. We talked on the phone and I did some research.
Basically, I had several options. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for Stuart to pick me up for the midnight flight -- we'd be getting to his place in the wee hours of the morning or we'd have to get a hotel. He couldn't easily just leave the airport and come back the next day -- remember, it's a three hour drive.

I could have rented a car in Dallas and driven to his place in New Mexico, returning the car in Gallup (over an hour from his place) or Albuquerque for about $300-$400. Or, I could have flown to Albuquerque, stayed the night, then rented a car for probably $100 or so and returned it to either Gallup or Albuquerque.

My budget was tight for this trip -- no option seemed to work. No matter which way I turned, my $350 ticket to visit Stuart was quickly ballooning to a major investment. The fact they had given me an available seat in First Class for the midnight flight was nice, but didn't solve my problem.

Stuart and I talked and I made the difficult decision to head back home. I talked with the ticket agent and reworked my itinerary, pushing me out on the first available flight back to Raleigh at 4:00 pm.

The airport was really full by this point. There were flights all over the country that were delayed and cancelled -- evidently, that little flight to New Mexico wasn't the only connector that didn't fit into American's master plans. TV cameras were in the baggage area, filming through the big plate glass windows the throngs of wandering wayfarers on the concourse at the American ticket counters. (I don't imagine for one minute that the DFW airport authority or American was about to let the press actually talk to one of the unhappy campers on the other side of that glass.)

I did witness an interesting exchange between an American flight attendant and one of her colleagues during my seemingly endless waiting. She had just emerged from a bookstore in the airport, proudly carrying a copy of one of those "Left Behind" books.

" I'm so happy I finally found this!" she exclaimed. "It's based on Revelations!"

She proceeded to tell him a little about the book. I recalled that the "Left Behind" series, about the impending Apocalypse and how all the good Christians are taken up to heaven, includes descriptions of passengers on airplanes just disappearing, leaving their clothes behind, neatly folded on the seats.

I wondered if this image of a half-empty plane with a pilot who had just disappeared to heaven with row after row of seats containing neatly folded clothes somehow had a special meaning for her.

I had an image of naked people, floating through the clouds to the Final Judgment and wondered if they served pretzels and your choice of beverage on the flight to heaven. I shuddered.

Four o'clock came and went, the flight delayed until 6:00 pm. Bored, I started walking around the concourse, talking to other stranded passengers and noting the departure times and rescheduling. Seems that American, at least with the DFW airport, wasn't exactly leveling with the press on this one -- the flight delays were running anywhere from four to six hours for just about everything. I realized that the midnight Albuquerque flight probably wouldn't take off at it's re-scheduled time, but closer to 2:30, if if left the runway at all. I probably made a good decision to head back to Raleigh.

Sure enough, our flight to Raleigh, which was originally scheduled for 2:30, bumped back to 4:00 due to the computer glitch, finally boarded and got off the ground at 7:30 pm. We actually went out of the international concourse on the other side of the airport, nabbing an airplane and crew that had just returned from Mexico.

I took my seat in the very last row of the airplane, the roar of the engine outside the window so loud that I could barely even think, let alone read or do anything constructive on the two hour flight back home.

As we were landing, I heard the head of the flight attendants on her cell phone. She dialed some kind of automated system to get the crews marching orders for the next day. We landed close to 11:00 pm, Raleigh time, and they were scheduled to report promptly at 5:00 am for a six o'clock flight to DC.

" Isn't that illegal?" one of the attendants said, referring to the fact that their flight to DFW was supposed to be the last one of the day and that they (and the pilot and others in the cabin) would have less than six hours to sleep and get ready to roll.

" Sure, but you know how it is," the other said.

" That can't be right -- when was that entered?"

" Nine thirty when we were in the air. I'm sure it's right."

" That's illegal, you know."

" Oh ... you know how it is ... "

When I arrived at RDU, my luggage didn't make the same trip I did. Judging by the plethora of lost bag stacked around the claim area from Miami, New York, Albuquerque, and even RDU, I wasn't alone. I inquired at the claim desk about my naughty wandering bag and the helpful attendant typed away at the computer for five minutes.

She looked at me when she was finished, seemingly wanting me to go away so she could get the next person in line.

" What do I do next?" I asked.

" We'll call you if it turns up," she said.

" I just come out here and pick it up?"

" Yep."

" And pay the airport parking fee?"

" Yep."

" Well, that doesn't seem quite fair."

" It's the rule," she shrugged, turning to the next person in line.

One of my friends, Stuart, recalled that People's Express lost his luggage on a flight from Greensboro to San Francisco years ago; they actually sent a courier to his house when his wayward bags were found. People's Express was the "cheap" airline, offering $98 one-way fares to any destination in the US -- heaven forbid airlines should treat someone in such as royal manner today.

Until I sat down this morning, I didn't fully realize what the loss of my baggage actually meant in monetary terms. The items I took were fairly simple for a seven day vacation at a friends house -- seven pairs of socks and underwear, seven nice t-shirts of various and sundry colors, three nice Hawaiian shirts of various and sundry bright colors (one was my favorite - decorated in palm trees, surf boards and classic Woodies), five pairs of blues jeans, a jeans jacket, a pair of shorts, my Harley Davidson ball cap, four packs of Camel Lights cigarettes, a pair of sandals and, most hurtful of all, one pair of $200 Red Wing motorcycle boots, consigned to the checked baggage since silly me thought my cheap $30 sneakers would be easier to manage in today's high security screening areas at the airport.

All told, including the bag and miscellaneous toiletries, American misplaced about $654 of my stuff. (That didn't include the bath towel I always pack, just in case. It was an old towel anyway. You never know when you're going to need a towel, right?) Oh well. Looks like a trip to Walmart to buy blue jeans so I'll have something to wear while I'm lounging around the house during my so-called vacation. (Thank goodness I'm not the type of person that needs to put a stash of marijuana, cocaine, crystal meth, LSD or heroin in my luggage -- today I'd be not only out $684 of stuff, but badly strung out and bummed out as well.)

Trust me -- take a complete inventory of everything in your bag, no matter how inconsequential, the next time you fly. It does add up. (And make you wonder how in the world you fit all that stuff in one piece of luggage.)

After getting up at 4:30 am on Sunday to fly to Albuquerque to spend a week with my friend, I arrived home at about 2:00 am Monday after flying to and from Dallas and spending several hours sitting in the aiport, just waiting.

Some vacation. And I had to pay $10 just for the parking.

All this happened just a few weeks after another flight from hell, that time on Delta. I had to go to Cupertino, California on an unexpected and hectic business trip for a one day meeting in mid June, so the helpful folks at Duke University, where I worked, booked me for a round trip on Delta from Greensboro through Chicago with San Jose as my final destination.

When I arrived at the airport, the flight was delayed due to weather, setting off a chain reaction for my connecting flight in Chicago. The helpful agent booked me on a later flight which, itself, was delayed. I got to San Jose about six hours later than I had planned.

But the flight back was the fun masochistic part. Again, due to weather, the flight from San Jose was delayed by two hours. Even with that, I arrived at Chicago with enough time to catch the connecting flight to Greensboro about 4:00 pm.

But, of course, that flight was delayed. Then, it was delayed again.

Finally, at approximately 10:30 pm, the flight was canceled. Getting in line with a couple hundred other folks in a similar situation, I was immediately booked on a flight leaving around 11:30 to Washington so I could catch a connector home to Greensboro.

" You'll have to hurry," the ticket agent said, "it's leaving right now."

I scurried to the gate and, voila, the gate was closed. Deserted. The flight had been cancelled an hour ago.

I trudged back up to the counter and the not-so-helpful ticket agent was gone, replaced by another drone typing away at the computer. Yep, I had just been given the brush-off by someone going off duty.

Another agent booked me for a 2:00 pm flight to Greensboro the following day, seat 1A in First Class. By this point, it was 1:00 am and, since all the other flights were in a mess, all the hotels were booked. First Class was little compensation for spending a night in the Chicago O'Hare terminal.

I wandered around the place, unable to sleep on the cold hard benches in the place. I ran into one woman who was spending her second night there -- she was trying to get from Chicago to Virginia Beach on Delta and every flight the jokers put her on had been cancelled.

The following day, after drifting off to sleep for a couple of hours on the floor somewhere, I dutifully reported to my appointed gate at 2:00 pm, more than ready for my flight home.

We sat and sat, waiting for the flight to board. By 2:30, an agent barked on the intercom.

" The pilot for your flight is ill. We're trying to find another pilot to take over and we'll take off as soon as we can."

The other poor souls on the flight who had also spent a sleepless night of horror in the Delta concourse began rumbling. I talked with three others -- a couple of business travelers and a Chinese lady who had been visiting relatives -- and we all made a pact that if the flight didn't get called by 3:00 pm we'd all rent a car and take turns driving back to Greensboro. We almost felt like prisoners in Stalag 17 -- "You distract the ticket agent and you dig the tunnel; I'll call for the rental car."

Finally, the flight was called shortly before three and we boarded the airplane. It slowly crept towards the runway, then slowly crept around another runway. Then another.

" Due to the weather," the Captain said, "we're a little backed up here. We're number thirty-two in line. We'll be in the air as soon as we can."

An hour and a half later, there were literally cheers and sighs of relief when the wheels left the ground. Some of us wondered the flight was really going to land us in Atlanta or Columbia, rather than Greensboro, just for spite.

I have one friend, Jason, who grew up a military brat, stationed with his family unit at Okinawa and various other exotic locations. He was a spoiled little child traveller, jet-setting with his parents in coach at a time when deregulated airlines served real, honest to goodness meals and had real, honest to goodness seats that were more than comfortable enough for the average American.

Jason recalled that people actually dressed up to go on a flight in those days; it was a special experience. Now, reflecting how much flying across the country has become so routine and just another commodity, passengers dress like they're showing up in the middle of the night for a pack of cigarettes and a quick six pack at their local convenience store.

When he was a small child, Jason actually thought it would be neat to be a flight attendant. They took center stage, showing passengers the safety procedures. They served meals, soda, liquor and ice cream. They fluffed pillows and helped you with your baggage. They smiled a lot and made people happy.

Now, with unruly kids toted around by parents who really should look into getting a prescription for ritalin for the little brats and air-raged adult business passengers really tired of the whole mess, flight attendants don't make people happy anymore -- they just engage in triage and damage control in the cattle-cars of the skies, putting on a good face for bad management.

Jason longs for the days of regulated airlines.

Even my well-heeled brother, who used to have to fly regularly as part of his job in the banking industry and loves to travel, avoids airports like the plague nowadays. He discovered the simple joy of bopping off to his destinations on a Harley Davidson Electra Glide, no unexpected turbulence, waiting in the lounge or extended delays required.

In fact, if you talk to anyone who files on a regular basis, it's difficult to find someone that doesn't have some kind of horror story. I won't even begin to tell you the story of catching what I thought would be a simple flight to Atlanta for a seminar a couple of years ago via Midway Airlines on the day when they declared bankruptcy. (There's nothing that gives passengers confidence like waiting for your flight and seeing your airline's employees emerging from an office on the concourse with tears in their eyes as they're given a pink slip and hearing a ticket agent on the intercom saying, "Our flight to Atlanta will take off as soon as we can find a pilot ..." )

I don't consider myself a frequent flyer by any means; I'll take perhaps two or three flights a year, some for work and some for pleasure. Mostly, due to pricing and routes available from RDU and GSO, I wind up on American, Delta or United. Ten years ago, when I first started having to fly for business, things were fairly smooth, but, with every trip, the delays just seem to keep getting longer and longer, the seats more and more uncomfortable and the pretzels smaller and smaller.

Been to the FAA's web site lately? They have reports there on all the major airlines and their records of on-time flights and lost luggage. The June 2004 report notes that about 77% of flights in the US were on-time durng May; about 75% of Delta's flights were on schedule and 77% of American's were on the mark. American, for example, scheduled 59,000 flights in May and over 1,200 were cancelled; over 27,000 American Airlines passengers lost their luggage that month.

Think about it: as consumers we're paying for a service at a few hundred dollars a pop that works about three-quarters of the time. It's a track record that's actually worse than the reliability of Microsoft Windows. And that's saying something.

With all of this trauma associated with getting one or persons and their baggage from point a to point b within a reasonable scheduled time (and the likelihood that said persons or baggage won't reach their destinations within a reasonable time), it's remarkable that there hasn't been at least some partial re-regulation of the airlines. I, for one, would be quite gleeful and enthusiastic to see multitudes of dissatisfied passengers lining up at Congressional hearings in front of airline management to give them a good old fashioned tongue lashing.

Heck, it would be immensely more satisfying to line airline management up in public held in stocks, giving every delayed, rerouted and traumatized passenger a good stiff bullwhip to release their rage.


" Take that, you putrid little stock-optioned CEO. That's for my measly little bag of stale pretzels, you ..."


" That's for my lost baggage, you pencil-pushing weasel, you ..."


" That's for my ruined vacation, you penny-pinching little blowhard shareholder lackey, you ..."

Taking out my sadistic fantasies on the naked trembling fleshy backsides of high-level managers at American and Delta might not improve the weather in Chicago or American's computer systems, but it would certainly make me feel better.

Despite the corporate feel-good-speak that "Your safety, comfort, and convenience are our most important concerns," as American Airlines puts it, the real deal here is getting the most unsuspecting cattle to buy a $300 to $500 lottery ticket. Perhaps you'll get lucky and have a comfortable flight and make it to your destination on time, give or take five or six hours. Then again, maybe not -- headquarters doesn't give a damn since they never have to actually have any contact with the actual customers who are the victims of this long-standing American scam.

Honestly, I feel for the people who have to actually work for airlines like American and Delta. For them, the actual experience of flying -- waking up in the morning in New York and hopping all around the continental US all day before retiring in Los Angeles that evening -- is still a special experience. How it could still be special is really beyond me, considering all of the decisions they have no control over that turns their job into a series of constant reassurances that, indeed, that $500 ticket you bought actually gets you something in return for your money.

Nope, my friends have got it right. Unless there's some kind of family emergency or a trip for work that I absolutely cannot weasel out of, I refuse to fly anywhere again. If I can't drive there or get there on a bus or train, it's just not worth it. I've been on one long bus trip in my poorer days when I went from Winston-Salem to Lexington, Kentucky to show one of my films at a conference. Sure, the trip went through every little town in two states and included "Quaalude Boy", popping pills and mumbling behind me for the whole trip. But at least he seats were comfortable and I knew with some certainty when I was going to arrive.

Who knows? Perhaps my stepping away from the fast-paced life of the "jet set" will be a good thing. I can relax and enjoy the drive, stopping to get a bite to eat or checking out some interesting little forgotten landmark as I drive along. I'll have some reasonable idea of when I'll be arriving at my location. And, if my PT Cruiser breaks down, at least I can sleep in it -- God knows, it's a lot more comfortable than any seat I've seen in an American Airlines jet or a Delta concourse. And the pretzels are far better, too.

I might consider flying again if I can take Southwest. I've flown on that airline a few times and never had a problem -- the flights are comfortable and every one I've ridden on has been on time. And the flight attendants on Southwest seem a lot more friendly and, well, just happy with doing their job and making sure you have a good journey.

Perhaps there's a reason that Southwest is the online airline in the industry turning a profit right now. Perhaps they actually have upper management that knows what the hell they're doing.

So, just what is it with me and airports? Is there some kind of karmic justice going on? Did I tell Orville and Wilbur Wright to go jump in a lake in a previous life or something?

Well, it doesn't matter. I'm going to do the Buddhist thing and change the things in life I can change and accept the things I can't. No more Friendly Skies for me -- wheels are taking me on my next trip.

After all, if God had intended man to fly, She would have given us regulated airlines, wouldn't She?


Randy A. Riddle is a writer and filmmaker living in Mebane, North Carolina. And, did I mention, he hates to fly?

copyright 8.2.2004

Update: Three days after my aborted vacation flight, I called up American Airlines to find out what could be done about my ticket. Short answer -- the supervisor was only authorized to refund the "unused" portion of the ticket, which they calculated at about $206. I asked to go higher up the food chain and was told I'd have to write a letter to HQ on the matter. I also asked about my lost bag; it had arrived in Raleigh two days after my flight and they didn't call me to let me know it was there. They offered to send it out via courier, but, of course, it would be another "day or two" since they were so backed up from the computer glitch. I decided to take no chances and picked it up myself at the airport (paying the parking fee, by the way). A registered letter to American Airlines is on the way, requesting a refund for the full amount of the ticket. (8.4.2004)

Update 2: After receiving no reply from American's customer service department, I sent a copy of my original letter to them and a copy of this web page to AA's CEO. By this time, I rebooked my flight to New Mexico on Southwest -- the trip came off perfectly. In late October (when I was in New Mexico, ironically), I received a note of apology for my experience with the airline from an assistant to the CEO along with two vouchers -- one covering the total cost of my original flight and another for $150 towards another flight. Don't these people understand that I don't want to fly their airline ever again? Oh well.... (10.31.04)

Update 3: I got the courage to try out the vouchers that American sent, re-booking my trip to New Mexico. The flight went well...except for the two hour delay with the leg from Dallas to Raleigh-Durham. There's always Southwest, I suppose... (7.27.05)