When Airlines Make Fables

OK, so this morning I am dropping the pretense of a third person.  Yes, this is personal, but it is also systematic and shows how airlines pretend that they are not responsible for their own lack of planning.

My wife and daughter headed out on a trip to Belize (part was a graduation present).  Flight from Denver to Houston, spend the night and catch a morning flight to Belize. And then a line of thunderstorms got in the way.

Their flight was to use a plane already in Houston, a plane that was stuck with dozens of others below the storm.  OK, delays happen.  The plane finally arrived in Denver, the thunderstorm line had moved well south of the airport, and so when they boarded a full flight about four and a half hours late, it seemed like they’d be in Houston before too long.

That was not to be. Instead it was the start of an all-too-common odyssey.

With all the craziness in Houston, United diverted 3 flights from Denver and who knows how many others from other origins.  Some were diverted because of the storms.  But my wife and child’s? It was diverted because of a four hour wait for a gate in Houston. Mind, this was already after there had been a ground hold because they didn’t have gates in Houston. So their plane, four and a half hours late, landed in San Antonio at 1:51 am CDT. They were greeted by an airport empty of any service personnel.  All the bags–including bags checked through to other destinations, finally emerged in baggage claim (so somebody in baggage worked really late).

As they landed, they texted me to get on the phone and try to find out what options existed for getting to Belize.  United only flies to Belize from New York and Houston, so clearly they had to get to Houston.  The trip being the kind of trip where you do this, they had arrangements to be picked up and taken to some fun places well away from the airport.  Catching their 8:45 am flight was the trick.

As my wife is Premier, I called the premier “24 hour” line.  “We are experiencing heavy call volume; your wait will be fifteen to twenty minutes.”  The phone message said to go to their website.  Yeah, right.  Try looking for “rebook” or “diverted flight” on their website.  Try seeing if there is a link from the reservation to some tool to fix this mess. Here’s a clue: there isn’t one.

They were given a card with a phone number for diversions.  They called. I called it. The answer there from the automated system was that the number was currently inactive. Then why bother given out the card?DivertedFlightCard

Meanwhile, knowing there was at least one plane full of people trying to get to Houston, I booked seats on the earliest flight I could for them, figuring that once we could talk to United folks, they would reimburse us. Ha! And once I booked the flight, my wife got an automated message that the San Antonio to Houston flight was late because of airport issues. She would miss the connection.

OK, so savvy travelers probably are saying, hey, why didn’t you just rent a car and drive? Maybe a good idea, but sleep deprived driving may not be an ace idea anyways and it would have taken getting a car from a rental place after 2 am.

After an hour and a half of the same stale muzak, I called the regular number on a cell phone while the muzak played in the background on the landline. Again, just try to navigate the automated system to get to “I need to fix my existing reservation screwed up by a diversion.” No can do; if you give the automated system the reservation info, it just wants to deal with the leg you have not yet flown.  It knows nothing about your first leg that went awry. (I did learn that uttering the f-word to the automated system would get you disconnected.  The thing couldn’t hear me say “Yes” four times but could hear that).

Finally after 3 am MDT I gave up.  Well over two hours on the one line and over 40 minutes on the other made it clear that talking with somebody was going to take forever.

In the morning, wife and daughter went to the San Antonio airport, where the long line for diverted passengers was not moving.  Many had been there for hours. They checked in at the regular desk and were told that no, they could only get a free ride to Houston if they gave up the seats on the totally booked (but more than an hour late) flight I had bought the night before (at a price, by the ways, of $10/mile). He could not book them on a flight that would make ANY connection to Belize that day. But she could plead her case in the “feedback” area on the United website.

Bet that automated system can recognize the f-word too. I’m tempted to find out.

So they are on their way to Belize, amazingly less than two hours late (apparently the system did pick up that their new San Antonio to Houston flight was a connection and that they were not going to make it, or the guy at the counter in San Antonio figured it out).

OK, here’s where we come back to the bigger picture. Dear airlines, when you have a hub in a place with weather (which is to say, you have a hub), then HAVE A PLAN FOR WHEN YOU HAVE WEATHER.  It isn’t like Houston never sees thunderstorms (some of the 2.5 million dollar fine United paid earlier this year had to do with flights to Houston).  That plan should NOT include dropping people off in the wrong city with nobody there to help them.  It should NOT include a phone and web system oblivious to this happening. It should recognize that when the AFTERMATH of storms will result in diverted flights, that you tell the passengers before they get on the plane (remember, this was diverted because there were no gates open in Houston–this was probably a foreseeable issue). If you divert planes, have a backup plan in the places near your hubs where you tend to divert to (many flights ended up in San Antonio, some in Dallas, and others I wasn’t following no doubt ended up elsewhere). This means having staff identified who can be at the airport no matter the hour to help out. Maybe you should have a contract with some local bus companies to simply offer to bus people on to their destination when they land at the wrong place. (Years ago, on a Greyhound bus that ended up being overfull, Greyhound sent a second bus to meet our bus. Yes, Greyhound understands customer service better than United). Hire some people to answer phones in the middle of the night (maybe one should be the company CEO). And when your passengers actually book the connection to get them on their way because you have NOBODY available at three different phone lines–don’t make them pay the hostage-level fares you charge hours before a flight. Smile and say “thank you for meeting the challenge and helping us do our job” and cover the charges.

Above all, ACCEPT THAT THESE EVENTS ARE PART OF YOUR STANDARD CHALLENGE OF RUNNING AN AIRLINE. Pretending this is all a surprise is ridiculous. There are, as I write this, probably dozens if not hundreds or possibly even thousands of passengers still waiting for United to get them on their way or something.  Many have had their vacations ruined more because of the airline’s policies than the original delay itself.

To all those whose stories are far worse (and I bet that covers a lot of folks), my sympathies. You deserved better. I hope you dealt with it better. To any frustrated airline employees who have taken the brunt of the abuse from distressed passengers, make sure your union boss has on the list of grievances for the next contract negotiation that you shouldn’t be taking grief for the bad planning of your employer.  [An aside: Once I was stuck in an airport because the combination of a few hour long snow closure and FAA rules for flight members meant I had to spend the night.  Instead of a voucher for food or lodging, the airline person stuck with dealing with us offered me a card that simply identified me as a “distressed passenger”–“I don’t need a card for that!” I replied “Anybody I meet will know I am a distressed passenger!”].

OK, screed over.  For now.  Enjoy your Memorial Day weekend–provided it isn’t spent in an airport line you never bought a ticket to visit.

P.S.  Actually it turned out they weren’t yet on the way to Belize–their third flight was delayed for mechanical issues.  So that was 4.5 hours delay on flight one, 2 hours on flight 2 (the extra flight), and 2 hours on flight three, for a total of 8.5 hours of flight delays–not to mention getting to visit one extra airport–all within the span of 20 hours.


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