A blog by Barry Edelson

Flying Blind

You Travel on the Airlines You Have,
Not the Airlines You Wish You Had

On a recent trip to visit family on the other side of our wide and glorious nation, my wife and I had one of those galling airline experiences that makes us regularly vow never to fly again. More important, it makes us wonder how airlines could employ some of the nicest and most patient people on the planet and still be among the most poorly run companies that will ever exist.

Since all infuriating airline stories bear a tedious similarity, I will try to be brief. (If you typically fly in first-class or business class, stop reading now; this article is intended for normal people.) We flew out of New York and had to change planes in Dallas, but our flight never made it to Dallas because of severe thunderstorms that closed the airport for several hours. We were diverted to Houston for refueling, then finally returned to Dallas several hours later only to find that our connecting flight, and the connecting flights of everyone else on the plane, had been cancelled and that we could not get another reservation until the following afternoon. This effectively killed an entire day of everyone's holiday.

Now when I say it like that, it doesn't sound nearly terrible enough, so let me fill in a few of the grim details. Just before boarding in New York, an announcement was made that several people would have to come off the flight in order to lighten the load because of "heavy weather" in Dallas. They asked for volunteers, much the same way they ask for volunteers to give up their seats for passengers on standby. After some delay to accomplish this maneuver, we finally left the gate and promptly found ourselves now about nineteenth in line for takeoff. When asked about this weather thing, the flight attendants laughed. In fact, there didn't seem to be any empty seats on the plane.

Airlines are all fairly good
in the air, and they all
stink on the ground.

As we approached Dallas, we were told by a cheery pilot that we may have "a little turbulence" but no serious weather on the remaining 30 minutes of our descent into the airport. At this point, the flight was only a bit behind schedule and still we had just enough time to make our connection. Then we circled for over an hour above a thick layer of clouds until the pilot informed us that severe storms in Dallas had closed the airport and that we would have to go to our "secondary destination" for refueling. Now, it stretches the credulity of even of the most good-natured passenger to suggest that the flight crew had no idea that any bad weather was in the area when they made that first announcement. But what are you going to do, start a debate? Point out the obvious fact that we should have been on the ground in Dallas already? They're flying the plane and you're stuck in your seat. There's nothing to do but fume.

It normally takes about 30 minutes to fly from Dallas to Houston, but it took more than another hour before we landed there for the aforementioned refueling. It was overcast and raining in Houston, too. The plane taxied to some remote and charming location at the outer fringes of civilization where we sat, for at least another hour, with giant jet fuel hoses attached to the undersides of the plane. We had company out there, as two other aircraft were also being serviced beside us. The three planes stood dejectedly with their noses pointed toward the ground like morose, unemployed teenagers hanging out on the corner with their hands in their pockets and nothing to do.

By this point, there was nothing left to eat or drink on the plane. I neglected to mention that they had run out of the sandwiches that were offered for sale even before all the passengers were served, and so we had had nothing to eat at all on the flight. We had been scheduled to leave New York at 10:30am but had not taken off until closer to 11:30. When we landed in Houston, it was some time after 4:00 local time. Eventually, one of the flight attendants sneaked by with the equivalent of one shopping bag full of beverages, presumably supplied by the nice folks on the ground at Houston. If that was all they could spare, however, it doesn't bode well for the thirsty multitudes of Houston.

With no information forthcoming about connecting flights from our delightful flight crew, we called the airline from our cellphone. Now, I don't know if this situation should make us marvel at the wonders of modern technology or flip out at the magisterial levels of incompetence around us. Here we were sitting on the plane, nominally customers but in actuality temporary prisoners of a system to which we had voluntary submitted ourselves, but in order to find out any information at all about the service we have purchased with our own money we had to resort to ignoring the people who were supposed to be taking care of us and instead calling the people who got us into this mess in the first place. It's sort of like an inmate calling the District Attorney's office to find out why lunch is always cold. The fact that the DA takes your call is not all that reassuring.

The job of airline staff
is to make sure the passengers
behave like cargo.

What we find out on the phone is that our connecting flight, and the one after that, have both been cancelled. The sole remaining flight to our destination today is at 7:55pm, now delayed to 8:55pm, but we haven't been booked on that one, either. No, we're confirmed on a flight the following afternoon (actually, my wife and I are confirmed on two separate flights, but that's another story you don't want to hear). Our only option is to go on standby for the evening flight, and, if all else fails, spend a night in a lovely airport hotel at our own expense (you see, the airline isn't responsible for weather-related delays and cancellations). With the help of the relatives who were waiting comfortably at home for our arrival, we made a hotel reservation in Dallas just in case.

At long last the plane nosed into line for take-off back to Dallas. The pilot, cheerful and straight-faced as ever, told us we would have to wait another eight or nine minutes for a slot that would bring us into Dallas in 33 minutes. Another three-quarters of an hour on the rainy tarmac, while any number of other planes skipped the line ahead of us, and nearly another hour-and-a-half in the air, and we were finally in Dallas.

The total flying time from New York to Dallas is usually no more than three and a half hours. We spent nine hours on the plane. Didn't they pass a law to stop this sort of thing? Oh well, I suppose they pass so many laws you can't expect them all to be followed.

Okay, it's been a long story, so let's cut to the chase here: We were numbers 26 and 27 out of a total of 47 on the standby list for the 7:55pm (now 8:55pm) flight. We didn't make it. A night in Dallas beckoned, dirty clothes and all. After many more hours on the phone, the two of us managed to get ourselves confirmed, together, for a flight the next afternoon. But the fun didn't quite end there, because when we attempted to check in at the self-service check-in kiosk the next day (we had no luggage, you see, as our bags were still hostage to "the system"), we were digitally informed that we had already missed the first flight out that morning and would have to stand in line to get a boarding pass. The fact that we were never supposed to be on the earlier flight in the first place made no impression on the self-service check-in kiosk, another marvel of modern technology to which we apparently are supposed to doff our imaginary, old-fashioned caps in wonderment and appreciation.

After another infuriating hour on an old-fashioned check-in line, we finally did get our boarding passes and were on our way, but not without the requisite degree of nail-biting, hand-wringing and imaginary aggravated assault on several insipidly grinning airline personnel who were so helpful helping other customers in need of help that the rest of us in line nearly died of malnutrition and/or dehydration for the second straight day (a woman did in fact faint while standing in line).

Now, please don't send me your worst-of-all-time airline stories. I'm sure you've been through a lot worse. Hell, I've been through a lot worse, too. The point is that from time to time we have all been treated like so much cargo and we have all resented it deeply. We have also all wondered how Fedex and UPS manage to move zillions of pieces of actual cargo every day through the same lousy weather that the passenger airlines have to put up with, but with a vanishingly small rate of delays and errors.

So how do Fedex and
UPS do it?

Two main reasons: competition and scale. While the shipping companies are independent players in a highly competitive industry, the passenger airlines are actually running a highly regulated cartel in which there is far more demand than supply. The incentives for greater efficiency and better service are low, because almost every aspect of their operations is dictated to them by the Federal Aviation Administration, there are fewer carriers than ever before, and the resulting product varies little from one carrier to the next. Then there's the problem of size: like the shipping companies, the airlines need to fill a lot of empty spaces on their planes to make money. The larger the operation, the poorer the service. This is an economic rule that cuts across all industries, but competition is usually a countervailing force against the loss of personal attention. However, when there are only so many ways to get from Point A to Point B, choice is an illusion, and the airlines know it. Hence the absence of food, the cramped seats and the staff whose main job seems to be to make sure the passengers behave like cargo.

All that being said, the airlines have been at this game for more than half a century, so you would think that they've had plenty of time to modernize their creaking leviathan of an operation. It's hard to argue against putting safety first, but however good the airlines may be in the air, they all stink on the ground. No one can reasonably blame them for the weather, and even the occasional mechanical breakdown is to be expected from machines as insanely complex as a modern airliner. But their response to trouble is so pathetic, and their absurdly disconnected systems so evidently inadequate, that one wonders how they survive at all.

Of course we could just stay at home, but what fun would that be?

February 24, 2008

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