How Delta and American Airlines Turned Me Into a Greyhound Passenger
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.
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".
I understand. Boy, oh, boy, do I ever understand.
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.
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.
was ready for a vacation. I needed a vacation.
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.
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.
we just sat there.
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
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".
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!"
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 ... "
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.
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?"
And pay the airport parking fee?"
Well, that doesn't seem quite fair."
It's the rule," she shrugged, turning to the next person in line.
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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
vacation. And I had to pay $10 just for the parking.
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.
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.
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.
of course, that flight was delayed. Then, it was delayed again.
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
scurried to the gate and, voila, the gate was closed. Deserted. The flight
had been cancelled an hour ago.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
the flight was called shortly before three and we boarded the airplane.
It slowly crept towards the runway, then slowly crept around another runway.
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."
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
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.
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.
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
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.
longs for the days of regulated airlines.
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.
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 ..." )
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.
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.
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
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
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 ..."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
all, if God had intended man to fly, She would have given us regulated
airlines, wouldn't She?
A. Riddle is a writer and filmmaker living in Mebane, North Carolina.
And, did I mention, he hates to fly?
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)
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)
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)