Monday, January 07, 2008

Adventures in Travel 

The reputations of US airlines rest on basics -- leaving on time, arriving on time and giving passengers comfortable seats. Forget food and other amenities. These went away a long time ago. Given weather and increased traffic, it is hard to achieve basics regularly, but some airlines do better than others. So, how does one evaluate this adventure in travel?

I made the mistake of booking a flight to California on US Airways. (I won't do it again.) The adventure started when I arrived at the airport in Newark, NJ to find that US Airways had pushed me onto a Continental flight. There was no reason given. The Continental flight left an hour late but still arrived in San Francisco an hour earlier than expected. That was a benefit, but it was curious that US Airways wasn't flying to San Francisco last Wednesday night.

The return trip on US Airways was different. We left 45 minutes late from San Francisco because there was no crew. There was no explanation given why the crew wasn't there. As we were leaving, the plane began to make loud metallic sawing noises, as if it were cutting away the wheel well. We took off anyway for an interim stop in Phoenix, AZ before flying to Newark. In Phoenix, US Airways did a fast turnaround. We were told the pilot would make up the lost time in the air. But, the plane began making loud sawing noises again. The pilot came on the intercom and informed us he couldn't start an engine. So, we waited 45 minutes for maintenance to come and test the "starter." Then, we were deplaned for "45 minutes" while maintenance worked on the starter. We were told by the gate agents that since this was the last flight to Newark, it would almost certainly take off, even though late.

Two hours later, of course, the flight was cancelled, stranding all passengers in Phoenix. The gate agents instructed everyone to go to the booking desk to find other flights to Newark. But, there weren't any that night unless one booked to Las Vegas and tried to reach a "red-eye" before it left. By this time, it was clear US Airways wasn't prepared to handle stranded flights, so I hustled as fast as I could out of security to the booking desks. My hunch was that the booking desks would be understaffed, and there would be 60 people stacked for an hour or two trying to find a flight. The hunch was correct, but I was eighth in line. It was still taking 10 to 15 minutes to re-book each passenger and during the time I was there, US Airways opened only one more station, leaving seven stations empty.

I wasn't about to go to Las Vegas to try again for Newark. I asked them to book me on a Continental flight leaving at 6:45 am Sunday morning from Phoenix to Newark. They did, and they provided the mandated room and meal for the night. As I was leaving, I overheard one agent telling another that the Continental flight I was just booked on was now sold out. How were the others in line going to get home? I didn't know at that point, but I didn't ask either.

The Continental flight was uneventful but for its seats, which are not made for anyone over six feet. My knees were jammed into the seat in front of me. The seat bars dug into my hips. I was in the middle seat between two gentleman, who fortunately were not large. By the end of the flight, I ached in every joint and was exhausted. But, we arrived on time.

So, there you have it. US Airways doesn't fly at all, and Continental flies but lacks comfort. My experience was by no means the worst that people suffered during this last holiday season. The question is when, if ever, passenger abuse will end. It is to the point where passengers expect to be mistreated, and airline employees acquiesce to the abuse they deliver. The employees know they can't fix it, so they do the best they can, but their best only makes the psychological discomfort worse. They promise announcements that don't come. They make statements that are manifestly untrue. When the inevitable happens, they disappear because it is as hard on them as it is on the steaming passengers. The failure is one of leadership. Airline CEOs should be banding together to fix the system. They, instead, point to the government to "to do something." Thus, the situation continues.

I'm old. I remember when it was pleasant to fly. That was a long time ago.

I had a similar bad experience with AirTran on New Year's Day. Someone forgot to put a heater on board the night before and the water pipes froze. We had to deplane and wait in the terminal for 4 hours while it was fixed.

Our flight was supposed to leave at 8 am so we were at the airport at 6 am. We should've been in Florida by 10 am. Instead, we left at noon and got there around 3. It cost us a half day of our long-planned vacation. All because of a stupid human error!

To the airline's credit, the pilot openly admitted to all of us that it was 100% their fault. I appreciated that, but it didn't get our day back.
I had booked two tickets to Las Vegas on April 2, 2007. Unfortunately, my companion had a major stroke and is now confined to a nursing facility (for life). I contacted US Airways by letter informing them of the situation and including a medical letter confirming my friend's condition and requesting a credit mad to my credit card for his ticket. Understanding that my ticket was my problem, I rebooked myself for travel within the required year and paid the $100 booking fee without complaint. I was informed by return letter that the company was very sorry for the reason my friend could not ever use the ticket, but it was too bad and I could rebook (no mention of whether the name on the ticket could be changed) for another $100. Having waited several months in hope that my friend's medical condition might improve (it didn't) I was left with virtually no remaining time to even try to work things out. My question must be: if there is no refund for a passenger who is a vegetable, does he have to die--or is that not reason enough to refund?

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