I note a large number of folks arriving on this article from various airline industry forums.
Dear Airline People, as noted down in the comments section below this post, in conversation with an industry First Officer, I’m a writer – not a travel critic. This article is intended as biting humor, opinion, a travelogue of my recent experience through the bowels of your industry. It was not intended as a personal attack on any particular individual, with the specific exception of those in the ivory towers who set policy. I would point out that I intentionally did not name the airline in question so as not to make it a personal attack. I do understand that many of you are just as frustrated with your industry as are the flying public. I do actually understand that you have to follow the rules, that you can’t just slap a hunk of duct tape over the problem and take off anyway. I get that, I really, really do. I’ve had command of a Navy Cruiser’s bridge during flight operations under extremely hazardous conditions. I’m not a pilot but I do indeed understand the rules. That said, some portion of the text below is deliberate hyperbole, because again it was intended as humor. I’ve laughed at the ridiculousness of my chosen profession, surely you can do the same. I understand that many of you, from the folks in the cockpit to those who have to face the public in the back of the aircraft, love your jobs – or at least got into the business because you loved the job once upon a time, before the mergers and the bankruptcies and the chiseling away of your benefits and the erosion of all the things that make your profession a joy. I get that, maybe more than you know. And I loved flying too. For me, once upon a time it was an adventure, a voyage to far distant shores. The following article reflects to some extent my bitterness that it should no longer be so. //Jim
If you’re going through hell, keep going.
- Winston Churchill
There’s this scene in the movie Catch Me If You Can that always makes me laugh.
Catch Me is set against the fabulous backdrop of the late 1960’s Jet Age.
It was the glorious gilded heyday of commercial air travel, a time of Juan Trippe and his fabled Pan American World Airways, of tall handsome pilots with steel in their eyes and silver in their hair and golden wings upon the breasts of their spotlessly pressed crisp blue uniforms, of young winsome stewardesses in high heels and pillbox hats, of shining chrome-steel jets built by the very pinnacle of American industry, machines that would take you across the oceans and the continents in wide comfortable seats with impeccable service to Rome and Paris and Rio de Janeiro flying from fantastic jetports like New York’s JFK Worldport and Washington’s art deco National in the very shadow of America’s capitol – places that were works of art and destinations in and of themselves.
Leonardo DiCaprio portrays legendary confidence man, Frank Abagnale Jr. – who, as an 18 year old teenager, was pretending to be a pilot and cashing millions of dollars worth of fake Pan Am checks and traveling all over the world solely on the unquestionable reputation and fabulous mystique of the commercial airline pilot.
One day while dressed in a Pan Am uniform, in the lobby of some swank 5-Star hotel, Abagnale is approached by a young boy who goggles wide-eyed at the tall handsome figure.
In a voice full of youthful hero worship the child asks, “Gee, Mister, are you a pilot?”
“Co-pilot,” replies DiCaprio in a confident yet humble aw shucks voice. “Would you like an autograph?”
Star-struck the kid nods and holds out his Pan Am travel book as his well-heeled parents look on in grateful appreciation…
That’s when I start laughing.
Say, would you like an autograph?
Fast forward a five decades, an autograph? No, Jackass, I’d like you to get on the goddamned plane and get us out of the gate approximately on time, and by approximately I mean, oh, heck, let’s be generous and say within three or four hours of our scheduled departure.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The missing co-pilot comes at the end of the story, not the beginning.
The Trip Through Hell started like all other travel adventures in this shabby and over-booked age. We intended to fly from our home in South Central Alaska down to Michigan and spend Christmas with my family. A week later we’d fly to Florida’s Panhandle to visit my wife’s family over the New Year. Finally we’d head back to Alaska and, after a relaxing weekend to settle in, a return to school for my son and back to work for my wife and myself.
Now, like all military families and nearly all Alaskans, we are extremely experienced travelers. Car, bus, boat, ship, train, plane, you name it, we’ve traveled on it, tens of thousands of miles around the world. So, of course, we knew the flying part would be miserable, because, really, when isn’t it nowadays? I haven’t been on a flight that wasn’t miserable since, hell, Pan Am went under. And over the Christmas holiday? Right. So, we planned accordingly. We spent significantly more than we normally would for upgraded seats and direct flights on a reputable airline – one that wasn’t currently in the midst of a bankruptcy, a hostile takeover, or a labor dispute (and trust me, that doesn’t leave much). We made sure our itinerary included several hours of layover at each stop in order to allow for reasonable delays or problems. We made our reservations far in advance and checked on them regularly – including reading all the fine print on the airline and the Transportation Security Administration’s websites and we made sure to carefully comply with all the regulations and guidelines for a “safe and delay-free” trip.
And we resigned ourselves to the over-crowded chaotic flatulent sticky horror of holiday travel through America’s major airports – and in particular O’Hare International, or as we call it: The Inner Circle of Hell.
We were prepared, dammit, we were.
But the fickle and vindictive Gods of Travel are not so easily placated and they, like Lucy of Peanuts fame, delight in building up your hopes (what? No, no, this time it’ll be different. Trust us) only to yank away the football at the very last second (Sucker!). Then they cackle in gleeful mockery as you somersault into the air while screaming “Rats!” yet again.
Things began going pear-shaped several hours before we were scheduled to fly out of Anchorage. Snow and lots of it. Now, there’s nothing particularly unusual about snow in Anchorage in December. Truth be told, Alaska is somewhat known for that sort of thing. It’s not like it’s a big surprise. And Ted Stevens International Airport normally keeps the planes flying despite blizzard conditions.
We weren’t worried.
Because, like Charlie Brown, we are stupidly optimistic that this time it will be different, Blockhead.
We were scheduled to catch the redeye into Chicago. Throughout the day we checked and rechecked and checked again, the airline’s online app said the flight was on time and ready to go. But of course we should have known better. Of course we should have.
We loaded up the luggage and just as we prepared to leave the driveway for the airport, sure enough, our phones started beeping.
The flight was delayed.
Nothing major, just a slight delay.
But as the wizard said, that’s how it always begins. Very small.
Nothing to worry about, it’s just a slight delay.
We were talking about whether or not we should just go ahead and leave, since it was only a minor delay…
… when we got another alert via phone.
The slight delay was going to be slightly longer than expected.
They never tell you why. Weather, crew, terrorists, fire, plague, exploding engines, terrifying space monkeys, rampaging Nazis, don’t worry about it we’ll have you on your way in no time.
There’s just going to be a slight a delay.
Just long enough for us to miss our connection in Chicago. By about twenty minutes.
Funny how it always works out that way, isn’t it? It’s almost like they do it on purpose (Sucker!).
Again, we’re experienced travelers. My wife got on the phone immediately and called the airline. Being a professional service that specializes in moving large groups of people around the world, they were ready for us and had our new itinerary all ready to go … oh, wait, no, sorry that’s not what happened, I’m thinking of the 1960’s. No, what happened is my wife got to talk to a nice young chap from India who was still learning English and who, for some reason, Praise be to Shiva, kept trying to change our flight between Grand Rapids and Pensacola scheduled for a week later. After twenty minutes of shouting “NO NO NO! We need you to fix today’s flight. Today. Not next week. Please don’t… no, stop, don’t change next week. No, wait, stop, listen…” my wife gave me the eye, thanked the nice man for his time, and we headed to the airport in order to square it away in person.
But seriously, if we ever need to fly to Bangladesh, we’ll be sure to give that kid a call.
By the time we got to the airport the snow was falling thick and heavy and our phones were flashing “you’re screwed” over and over.
We got in line like good little Bolsheviks hoping for shoes or cabbages and shuffled along until we reached the counter. Curious, I asked what the problem was, why the delay? Headwinds, says the agent. Headwinds? Like four hours of headwinds? Like it’s 1914 and we don’t have satellite weather predication and realtime on the ground sensors along the route headwinds? Like that? Yep. The plane had to divert to Seattle and take on fuel. But don’t worry, it’s the same plane, it’ll just be a little late.
And there was nothing for it, the plane was going to be late, there wasn’t another one, and that was that. We would miss our connection in Chicago. And the next flight from Chicago to Grand Rapids wasn’t for 12 hours after our projected arrival, meaning despite careful planning we were going to lose an entire day of our short vacation stuck in the 9th Circle of Hell. Awesome.
The agent shrugged, too bad, take it or leave it.
Right. Seriously, what are you gonna do?
The agent handed us new boarding passes.
And I noticed something right away.
A small blank space.
Where there should have been a seat assignment.
“Um, excuse me,” says I…
… and that’s when the Travel Gods yanked away the football (Sucker!).
You’ll need to see the agent at the gate for a seat assignment, you’re on standby…
“Now just hold the hell on. We’ve got seats. We’ve had seats for two months.”
Okay, here’s the problem …
“No, stop right there. You said the plane was just diverted to Seattle for fuel. It’s the same plane you said. So what’s this nonsense?”
The plane is oversold…
Oversold? How is that possible? The plane wasn’t oversold when we left the house an hour ago. We had seats then. In fact we paid for upgraded seats, so we could all sit together as a family. The guy wasn’t making any sense – probably because the son of a bitch was lying through his artificially whitened teeth.
You know, over the last ten years, I’ve been on more flights that were oversold than weren’t.
Overbooking every flight is now standard practice.
When I stated on social media my opinion that if ever there was an industry that needed iron-fisted regulation it’s this one, some wit asked me how “regulation” would fix anything.
Well, for starters, we can put an end to the routine practice of overselling and overbooking airplanes.
Look, it’s simple, you’ve got 300 seats, you sell 300 tickets and not one more. Period. If you’ve got more than 300 passengers, you need another airplane, go get one out of the hanger. Frankly, it concerns me that airlines can’t seem to do basic math – maybe that’s why the plane had to unexpectedly divert to Seattle for gas … saaaaay, wait, how much fuel did we put in the tank?
Look, I realize that it’s more complicated than that, but let’s be frank here: in no other industry is it legal to sell more product than you have. Honestly, where else would you put up with this bullshit? Hi, I’d like two cheeseburgers and a large order of fries. Okay, that’ll be $12.50 … here’s your order. Wait, there’s only one burger in here and a small order of cold fries, this isn’t what I paid for! Oopsy, looks like we oversold the burgers. But I paid for two burgers and a large order of hot fries, I’m hungry, dammit! Okay, stand over there and if somebody else doesn’t want their burger, you can have it. But I paid for two burgers and an order of fries! Sorry, we sold the same burger to two people, but only one gets it, so either you take one burger or you get out of line and pray that somebody else gives up their order, those are your only two options, because screw you. That’s bullshit! Give me my money back! Nope, sorry, take it or leave, Sucker…
So, the plane was overbooked.
Sorry, can’t help you. See the gate agent. Take it or leave it.
We got through security in short order, a quick scan, a cheerful “Merry Christmas and have a good trip!” from the TSA agent, and we headed for the gate.
Naturally there was no agent at the desk.
A couple of hundred people desperate for seats, all told to see the agent … and there’s no agent.
Because screw you, that’s why.
So, as long as we’re on the subject of regulation: enough of this “see the agent at the gate” crap. Assign me a seat, assign me a seat at the ticket counter. You know how many people bought tickets. You know how many seats are on the airplane. Assign me a goddamned seat right now. And if for some bizarre reason seat assignment can only be done by the guy at the gate, then require that guy to be at the gate. Period. At the gate and nowhere else. If you don’t have enough people to man the gate, then either hire more people or stop sending people to the gate and take care of it at the ticket counter.
There is no reason, repeat no damned reason, why people who paid good money in advance and followed the rules laid down by the airline industry should have to stand in yet another line and beg for seats like Oliver Twist asking for another helping of gruel.
Please, Sir, may I have some more?
It’s ridiculous and yet it happens all the time – as you shall see.
We bought our tickets months in advance. We got to the airport early. We followed all of the rules. We did what the airlines required us to do. They’re already wasting hours of my time without any type of compensation, but that’s not enough, instead of at least being able to eat dinner in the airport restaurant with my family, I’ve got to stand in line with 300 other desperate people waiting for a seat assignment – and then I’m made to feel exactly like the aforementioned urchin because, please sir, I’d like my family to be seated together and I’d like it to be in the upgraded seats we actually paid for.
So, the counter was unmanned.
However, the screen behind the empty counter helpfully informed us that our departure time had slipped yet another hour.
And then another hour after that.
Fully three hours later, an agent came ambling along and mooched up to the counter. Naturally people jumped up expectantly. The agent assumed a pained look. Please, let me get logged in and get set up, just be patient. Seriously? Lady, we’ve been patient. More than patient, where the hell do you get off looking like you’re being put upon? Honestly, if this was any venue rather than air travel, people would have started lighting the chairs on fire and eating each other hours ago. So, snap to it.
The woman looks at me and says, just have a seat, I’ll call you. I look behind me, there are 300 hundred frustrated and angry Christmas travelers waiting on a seat assignment, if you think I’m getting out of line, you’re insane.
Eventually she quits fooling with her keyboard and looks up, “so, what can I do for you?”
Seriously? What the hell do you think I’ve been standing in line for for the last five hours?
She looks at my tickets and says, “I can route you through Denver instead of Chicago. You’ll only have a two hour layover that way.”
Really? Why didn’t the guy at the ticket counter tell me about that option? I mean they all have access to the same information don’t they? Back there behind the counter, they’re all looking at the same computer system. I mean they have to be, by definition, right? The guy at the ticket counter already changed my flight, that’s why I’ve been standing here for five hours, so why didn’t he put me on the Denver flight and just issue us the appropriate seat assignments then so I could go eat dinner with my family instead of standing here waiting for you? The agent shrugged, beats me, you want Denver or not?
So I opted for Denver. It was supposed to take off in the next hour. She handed me the boarding passes.
And I noticed something right away.
A small blank space.
Where there should have been a seat assignment.
“Um, excuse me,” says I…
Yeah, she says like a cat licking up cream, you’ll need to see the gate agent for a seat assignment.
And now you know why they have armed guards in airports.
For the third time that night, I changed lines.
Eventually the agent for our new flight showed up. I eventually got two economy seats together and one elsewhere. Best they could do, take it or leave it. Because, screw you, that’s why.
Fully six hours after we should have left, we boarded the plane.
I Skyped my mom, who was supposed to meet us at the Grand Rapids airport and gave her the new arrival time. Instead of going to breakfast together, we figured we’d get dinner.
We sat on the plane, waiting, the pilot came on and announced they had some kind of issue, somebody had to bring them a clipboard of some kind, but we’d be on our way “real soon now.”
Because, apparently, six hours wasn’t enough time to find the goddamned clipboard and have it ready. Right?
By the time we pushed back from the ramp more than six inches of snow had accumulated on the wing outside my window. It took nearly 45 minutes to de-ice the plane. Eventually it was done and the de-icing crews pulled away and disappeared into the blizzard. We waited for the engines to start…
…and waited some more.
The pilot came on the intercom and announced that we had to return to the gate.
Medical emergency. A guy up front had started vomiting uncontrollably.
While they were dealing with him, suddenly the smell of burning marijuana permeated the air. That’s right, somebody, somewhere, was smoking weed. I thought it might in the cockpit.
Somewhere, through the blinding snow, you could hear the faint giggling laughter of the Travel Gods yucking it up.
Despite the fact that it was now 1AM in the middle of an Alaskan blizzard and there were no other planes in evidence, we couldn’t return to the gate we’d just left. So we waited for a plane-tractor to tow us around the airport like OJ fleeing the LA cops at two miles per hour. Forty-five minutes later we tied up, and they unloaded the sicko and poked around for the phantom toker and I sat there and watched another six inches of snow accumulate on the wing.
Eventually we pushed back again, and de-iced again, and finally, eight hours after we should have left we were finally airborne.
But the Travel Gods hadn’t gotten to the punchline just yet.
Somewhere over the dark and uninhabited Northwest territory, the guy in the seat directly behind me turned pale and clammy and started clutching his chest. Classic heart attack symptoms. It was just like the movies, the head flight attendant got on the PA and asked if there was a doctor onboard. There wasn’t, but fortunately we did have two nurses – and one was an emergency room RN. The plane had a very well equipped medical kit complete with IV bags and heart meds. The nurses took over while the pilots contacted a doctor on the ground and the flight attendants prepared the cabin for an emergency landing. So much for Denver. The pilot announced that he was looking for a place to land, and he’d let us know. But by that time, the nearest field we could divert to, an airport with full cardiac emergency facilities nearby, was … Denver. The traffic controllers cleared the air-lanes and the pilots firewalled the throttles and we bounced down the runway at Denver International 45 minutes later and made record time getting to a gate. The paramedics were waiting, they were onboard as soon as the door opened and pulled the victim off in a special wheelchair designed to fit down the cramped aisle.
Once the medical emergency was cleared, we were in no particular rush to get off the plane, we figured we’d missed our connecting flight already, so why hurry? We should have missed it by a full hour, but with the expedited emergency landing we’d come in nearly 50 minutes early. Our connection should have been just taking off.
As we got off the plane, I confirmed with the gate agent, yep, we missed our connection. But hey, guess what? We rebooked you, for tomorrow. What? You don’t want to waste another day of your vacation in Denver International? Geez. Fine, go see customer service, down the terminal and thataway. But there’s no plane to Grand Rapids today. So sorry.
Somewhere in this mess I mentioned our situation on social media. A number of folks helpfully suggested we just rent a car and drive to Grand Rapids, after all it’s only about four hours.
Well, four hours from Chicago, which is where we were originally supposed to be – some folks hadn’t seen the update and didn’t realize I was in Denver. And even if we actually were in Chicago as originally scheduled, it’s a four hour drive to Grand Rapids if you don’t happen to be in the middle of a terrible winter storm. Trust me on this, folks, I grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan, you don’t want to be driving I-94 around the lake in the middle of a howling blizzard roaring in off the frozen Great Lakes. And you especially don’t want to do it in some crappy 2-wheel drive rental car without snow tires.
That said, even if we were stranded in Chicago and not Denver, and even if the weather was clear and warm and there wasn’t a storm, we still wouldn’t have driven because see, here’s the thing: the airlines have you coming and going.
First, if we chose to give up our flight and drive, we don’t get our money back. Even though the airline can then sell our seat to somebody else (or, in actual point of fact, already had, since the flight was overbooked) and would still make money on the flight, you don’t get a refund. If you bail out, they just pocket the profit and smile. And we pay not only for three airline tickets we won’t use, but we then also get to fork over for a rental car too. I don’t know about you, but I generally don’t have that kind of money laying around and I don’t see any reason why the airline should get free dough.
Second, and here’s that part where the Travel Gods slip a whoopie cushion under your seat, we were on a multi-legged trip. If you miss any of the segments, for any reason, your confirmation is cancelled for all remaining legs of the trip and you’re put on standby and they give your seats to somebody else.
They’ve got you, and not only are you going to put up with it, you’re going to pay them for screwing you.
So, again, speaking of regulation: Why should the airlines have it all their own way? Why should I be forced to pay for their inability to manage their schedule and assets?
It was weather, you say, can’t be helped.
Yeah, I call Shenanigans.
This isn’t 1968. We’ve got weather predication now. The storm was forecast a full week in advance, and it took another week to build, and let’s be honest here, shall we? You put a major transportation hub at the top of Tornado Alley, at the edge of one of the largest Great Lakes, in the middle of a Midwest winter? And you didn’t see it coming? Seriously?
Folks, I grew up in the Midwest, on the shores of Lake Michigan. Bad weather isn’t exactly a surprise, it’s normal.
Anchorage deals with far, far, far worse weather on a daily basis. Buy the equipment, hire the people, and get the runways cleared.
The airline industry, and the city of Chicago, have had plenty of time, decades in fact, to do something about it. They don’t, because O’Hare is a massive, massive, massive money making machine for the city and the state. And actually having the equipment and the personnel in reserve to deal with a winter storm cuts into their profit, so they keep the bare minimum necessary and the travelling public gets to suffer for it.
Meanwhile and more to the point, in a nation that daily pisses itself blind over individual rights and liberty, why should I be held hostage to a goddamned airline? Why should I be held hostage to business practices designed solely to gild the CEO’s pocket? Why should I have have to pay for the world’s most idiotic location of a major transportation hub?
Why should I have to give away my vacation time and my time with my family just because it might impact some corporate bottom line? Show me where it says in the Constitution that stockholders get to keep my money for services their company failed to deliver on time and in accordance with the contract specified. Go on, show me, I’ll wait while you look it up.
Again, in no other industry would any American put up with this nonsense.
I should be able to demand my money back at any point (excluding any service that I’ve actually used). I should be able to cancel or modify the transaction to at least the same degree as the airline. Why does the law benefit them and not me? I’m paying them, they’re not paying me so why is the deal stacked in their favor? If you can’t get me where I want to go when you said you would, then it should be my right, my goddamned right, to seek alternate transportation without penalty. You’re the one who failed to live up the deal, not me, why do I have to pay for it?
But, yeah, I’m pissing into the wind here and all the raging Americans who hate their government queue right up like good little comrades and sing the praises of unfettered capitalism. Hallelujah!
I Skyped my mom, don’t worry about picking us up. We’ll rent a car when we get to Grand Rapids. No idea when we’ll get there.
Tired, hungry, and defeated we wandered in the direction of customer service intending to stop at a restroom along the way, maybe find something to eat … when we heard our names being paged!
Wright, family of three, report to gate B-19. Last call.
B-19, completely in the opposite direction of the way we’d been sent.
We sprinted through the terminal, full bladders be damned and arrived at the specified gate just as they were closing the door. The agent literally threw new boarding passes at us and shoved us through the hatch without even confirming that we were indeed Wright, Family of Three. For once, a delayed plane worked in our favor.
I Skyped my mom again, Change 5a to Plan B, meet us at the airport…
We made sure to thank the flight attendant for holding the plane and did our best to hold our bladders until we were airborne and the captain had turned off the fasten seatbelt sign. It was a near thing.
A few hours later we were landing at Gerald Ford Airport in Grand Rapids … in the middle of the worst ice-storm to hit Michigan in 30 years.
We made the most of our short stay. We had hoped it would be longer, but we were already strapped for time. Because of the storm, we didn’t get to do half the things we’d hoped, or see many of the people we’d hoped to see (Sorry Debbie and Dr. Phil, Jeff and June, Steve and Nancy, next time, I swear). We did risk driving halfway across the state, jingle all the way, to Frankenmuth and the world’s largest Christmas store, Bronners, on Christmas Eve. Why? Well, because we love Christmas and Christmas decorations and because Frankenmuth is a beautiful little ersatz Austrian Christmas town. We don’t care if it’s “too commercial,” we think it’s fun. Also, as a child my wife was bitten by a rabid Yuletide elf and infected with incurable Christmas Cooties – so we had to do it, for medical reasons. And it was fun, the store, contrary to expectations wasn’t particularly crowded and the drive through the icy Michigan countryside was like travelling through a beautiful crystalline fairyland. We enjoyed it immensely and came away with a whole bunch of Christmas loot.
After a too short week in rural Michigan, iced in with only intermittent connectivity, amidst falling trees and power-lines, we returned to GRR at 4AM for the trip to Pensacola.
Look, I can function at 4AM, after 20 years in the military I’ve had lots of practice, but if you’re expecting pleasant joviality, you’ve got the wrong guy.
Much of my attitude at that hour depends on one thing and one thing only: coffee and lots of it.
Gerry Ford Airport is a dinky little affair right out of 1979. There’s not a lot of options, food and coffee-wise at 4AM. We figured we’d check in and hope that would give them time to open up.
We arrived at the ticket counter, again without seat assignments (Goddammit), expecting the worst. The reports from Chicago were turning ominous. The huge storm that had pounded Michigan for the last week was just reaching full force there. The agent checked us in and even managed to assign us to actual seats, but cautioned us to get through security promptly because GRR has limited screening capability and the lines, even at 4:30AM were going to be long.
And the lines were long, but again the TSA folks were cheerful and efficient and we got through with 30 minutes to spare.
Naturally the only place to get coffee in B-Terminal was closed.
It was supposed to be open, but it wasn’t.
My son – who is almost as much a coffee addict as I am – and I shook the security gate in front of the little café, hello? Nothing. Lights on, nobody home.
As we were about to walk away, a girl stuck her head out. Sorry, she informed us, the egg guy didn’t show up.
Hey, that’s Okay, we said, we just want coffee.
Sorry, boss says we can’t serve coffee if the egg guy doesn’t arrive.
What? What was that? A muffled chortle from the Travel Gods? Or maybe it was just somebody’s ringtone.
We got on the plane and for the next hour the hyperactive hellion behind me attempted to punt my seat though the forward bulkhead. No coffee (no service on commuter flights), splitting headache, and a kid using the back of my skull as a punching bag? Terrific. I suppose it could be argued that it’s not very Christian of me to visualize opening the door at 20,000 feet and chucking a child through the turbines over Lake Michigan while rubbing my hands together and making the evil MuWahahahahaHAH! laugh – fortunately for me I’m not a Christian, so I spent the flight thinking up increasingly horrible fates for that miserable brat.
We had an hour layover in Chicago, and it was barely enough time to make our way across five terminals through crowds of desperate and stranded holiday passengers. It was early in the storm, so the crowd was restive but hadn’t yet turned to murderous cannibalism, it reminded me of that scene from World War Z were the refugees in Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport are calmly going about their business while outside the zombie horde is pouring unnoticed over the wall like ravenous army ants. It was only a matter of time before they turned on each other, we’d seen the approaching storm, we knew what was coming.
We met our connection, boarded the dinky commuter jet in good order, and for a moment it looked like we were going to make it off the ground on schedule.
The departure time came and went and went and went and went some more.
Eventually the pilot informed us that they had a “loose screw” on an equipment cover in the cockpit. Nothing to worry about, the cover didn’t even actually do anything. But they couldn’t take off with a loose screw, and the rules specified that only the proper technician come and tighten it up. They were waiting for him now.
Shouldn’t be long.
Real soon now.
After a while a shady looking character in a dirty orange vest mooched through the hatch and meandered into the cockpit.
The shady looking guy exited the cockpit. He closed the door firmly behind him, smiled at the flight attendant, and exited the same way he’d come.
The pilot informed us that the technician guy had over-tightened the screw … and had broken the bracket.
So now the little door widget, you know the one that “doesn’t actually do anything,” wouldn’t close at all.
The Travel Gods laughed uproariously in malign mirth at their little joke and slapped their thighs in glee.
That pilot guy? The tall steely-eyed silver haired test pilot hero from 1968’s Golden Jet Age of Pan Am Clippers? The one who handed out autographs? That guy? That guy would have reached into the technician’s mouth and pulled out a wad of Beemans Pepsin Gum (official chew of hero test pilots like Chuck Yeager) and stuck that damned door shut with a wink at the stewardess and we’d have been on our way to Rio in a jiffy.
But me? I don’t live in the age of hero test pilots, I live in the Ludicrous Age of Air Travel were they’ve never heard of duct tape.
And so we found ourselves shuffling back into the terminal like damned souls in Dante’s Divine Comedy who’d almost, but not quite, managed to climb up the walls of The Inferno and escape to Purgatorio.
But not quite.
An hour passed. The airline informed us that they were going to swap planes.
After a while they informed us that they didn’t have a plane to swap us to.
Some time after that they announced that they’d fixed the first plane.
Somehow, they’d repaired the little door – despite the fact that I sat in front of the gate, next to the window, watching the plane and never saw any maintenance technician come or go the entire time. Must have been magic fairies … or maybe it was a wad of Beemans after all.
Eventually they allowed us back onboard and we were off to Pensacola, Florida.
Now, at this point the Travel Gods have had their little joke.
I mean you have to figure that even if, if, in a previous life I’d bludgeoned a school full of nuns and orphans to death with a pillowcase stuffed with tiny helpless kittens, by now I must have atoned for my sins and used up all my bad karma. Right?
I mean, come on, nuns and kittens, folks, it’s not like I invented Disco and fat-free sour cream.
Surely the Travel Gods must be satisfied by now. Surely.
If you thought that, you’d be wrong.
And don’t call me Shirley.
We spend a week among the rednecked camo-clad denizens of Florida’s Panhandle – which, if you’ve never been there, is exactly how I picture the back-lot of Duck Dynasty (Oh relax, I’m kidding. Sort of. I’ve been married to a Southern Girl for more than twenty years, I love grits and fried okra and ‘gator on a stick. Though I admit that I will never understand the attraction of boiled peanuts, NASCAR, or Lite Beer – or Duck Dynasty for that matter).
As the time to return home neared, we watched the news out of Chicago with growing trepidation.
We kept checking our reservations, but the airlines assured us that we were confirmed and our flights were on-schedule.
Repeat, the airlines assured us that we were confirmed and on schedule.
They assured us of this because they are lying bastards one and all.
When the morning of our scheduled return arrived, we once again checked the reservation. Confirmed. And on time.
We kissed our relatives goodbye and headed for the airport.
Before we turned in the rental car, we checked yet again. Confirmed. And on time.
The first hint that we were once again being toyed with by the Travel Gods was the little pixelated snow flakes drifting down the electronic departure screen inside the terminal door of Pensacola Regional Airport.
It took less than five minutes to return the rental car and reach the check-in counter.
In that time the flight went from being “on time” to “delayed.”
Nothing to worry about, it was just a slight delay.
We’d still have time to make our connection in Chicago back to Alaska – but there wouldn’t be time to get a decent breakfast in a regular sit down restaurant in Chicago as we’d planned.
We checked our luggage, and – since we now had some extra time – decided to get breakfast. I should have recognized the malevolent machinations of the Travel Gods when my omelet arrived complete with onions and green peppers despite my very specific request that it should be devoid of both ingredients (in the South, it’s a matter of faith that tea should come sweetened and eggs should be served with onions and peppers, no matter what the diner wants. The diner is obviously either confused as to his wants or a heretic. I have no proof that this delusion is linked to the large number of Baptist churches, but I have seen no proof that it isn’t either).
We finished breakfast – me cursing and picking around the peppers and onions – and submitted ourselves to the tender mercies of the TSA.
Again, the security screening was painless. The TSA agents were polite and professional and we were through the process in under a minute.
We ambled down to our gate (ok, my wife and son ambled, I limped. I’m not really an ambler), we found a seat, and while I pulled out my tablet and checked to see if Pensacola had improved on their crappy free WiFi since the last time I was here my wife went off to find us some coffee…
…and my phone beeped.
You can see where this is going, can’t you?
The flight was now significantly delayed, hours, and, of course, we would miss our connection in Chicago. Of course we would. Of course.
I checked the airline’s app on my phone, hoping to reschedule online, but ominously it offered us no options. I texted my wife, told her to forget the coffee and get back to the gate, we were screwed yet again and we’d probably have to go back to the ticket counter. We were just gathering up our carry-on luggage to do exactly that when an agent arrived at the gate desk.
He told us that the flight crew was stuck in Chicago and couldn’t get to Pensacola in order to fly our plane. The plane which was sitting outside, at the gate, at that very moment. I resisted the temptation to sarcastically ask happened to the people who’d flown it to Pensacola in the first place. Look, I understand the concept of crew rest, but the plane was covered in frost, it had obviously been sitting there overnight. The crew must have flown it in at least the day before, where the hell where they now? What did they do, just jump out the door and run away? But I digress.
We handed over our boarding passes, explained the situation, and watched while the agent frowned at his computer.
It went on for a long time, the frowning.
A long time.
Eventually the frowning was accompanied by tsking and grimacing.
After a while he said, “I can’t get you on a flight to Anchorage. All the Alaska flights are overbooked. They’re all full, way over full. There’s dozens of people on standby for every plane.”
So, what does that mean, I asked.
“Thursday,” he said.
Thursday? Next Thursday? That’s a week from now, I responded incredulously (it was Saturday at that point). What is it? 1914? We could board a steam ship in San Francisco and get to Alaska quicker! Route us through Houston or Seattle or Mexico City. Screw Chicago.
Sorry, he said frowning at his computer, the snowstorm in Chicago caused thousands of cancelled flights. Dozens of flights to Alaska were cancelled, the overflow was shifted to every other airport. All the flights to Alaska, from any origin, are massively overbooked. I can get you to Chicago or Seattle or Houston, but you’ll be on standby at the back of the queue and you’ll probably be stranded there for a week. So, your choice, you can be stranded here in Pensacola or somewhere else. I can get you on a flight out of Phoenix next Thursday for sure. Take it or leave it.
What are you gonna do, right?
Of course we took it.
We’d rather be stranded in Pensacola where we had family and a place to stay than end up sleeping on the floor in Chicago locked in with the zombie cannibal horde in the middle of a snowstorm.
A extra week away from our jobs, my kid out of school, another rental car (at the standard rate, not the cheaper rate you get by reserving in advance, Goddammit). You may, if you like, imagine what this was costing us.
We checked the reservation all week, we were up at 4AM Thursday morning and reported into the airport early like the agent told us.
And so, we arrived on Thursday morning just in time to see the status board update our flight with a flashing “delayed” where the departure time should have been.
What the hell is it this time, I asked the agent behind the ticket counter.
Well, see, the crew is going to be late…
Déjà vu all over again.
Seriously, these people had a week to square this nonsense away. Knowing that Chicago is in the grip of a raging goat-rope, they still continue to route their crews through Chicago and still fail to allow enough leeway in their scheduling. Honestly, why was the crew for this flight not flown down the day before and put up in the airport hotel? Because it would cost the airline money? So what? It was costing me money, great giant gobs of it.
So, we handed over our tickets and watched while the agent frowned at her computer.
It went on for a long time, the frowning.
Eventually the frowning was accompanied by tsking and grimacing.
All the flights to Alaska are full, the agent said, it could be a we…
Just stop right there, I said. It’s been a week. It’s been a long damned week. We’ve been more than patient. We’ve been more than understanding. We’ve been more than accommodating.
Well, see, a lot of people are in the same boat…
I. Don’t. Care, I said. You should have had a plan in place to deal with this. Snow in Chicago isn’t anything new. This has gone from an inconvenience, to aggravating, to idiotic, to ridiculous, to absolutely ludicrous. The storm in Chicago has been over for a week. Your flight crew should be here and ready to go, no excuses. You get us on an airplane to Anchorage and you goddamned well do it right now. And we want the upgraded seats we paid for and we want them all together.
My wife was kicking me in the shin: don’t piss them off, they’ll screw us even worse.
I know, and she was right, and I hate people who make a scene and think their problems are special, but Goddammit, enough is enough.
This is why I snort in derision when people write me about how “if government would just get out of the way, the free market and competition would fix everything.” Bullshit. Obvious bullshit. Provable bullshit. History shows over and over and over and over that if business is allowed to operate unregulated it dumps toxic waste in the rivers, kills its employees or reduces them to indentured serfs, markets deadly products, and robs its customers blind at every opportunity. And you don’t have to look any further than the modern airline industry to see it. It’s no great mystery to me why airlines go out of business or go bankrupt on a regular basis, it for damned sure isn’t for lack of paying travelers, it’s not for lack of revenue, it’s not because of high fuel prices or the unions or retirement funds, it’s not because of competition or lack of it, it’s because they suck at basic asset management, it’s because they can’t do basic math – unless they’re adding up the CEO’s bonus or computing stock dividends that is.
It’s not the guy behind the ticket counter, it’s the airline’s business model.
And they’ve got no incentive to change anything. They lost nothing. The airports lost nothing, and in fact profited from the mass of stranded travelers. But their customers, people like me, we lost – in my case it cost me more than a thousand dollars. Multiply that times the number of people stranded for a week, you do the math.
This entire mess, hundreds of thousands of stranded travelers, this wasn’t caused by a storm.
This was a direct result of overbooking and overselling flights. The storm was just weather, the airlines’ business model and complete lack of contingency planning turned it into a disaster.
And again, in no other industry would Americans put up with this nonsense.
And so the ticket agent, after it became apparent that I wasn’t going to wait another week, managed to find us a flight to Anchorage the very next day. Surprise surprise. She could get us from Chicago to Anchorage on her own airline – in the upgraded seats we paid for and all together, despite the fact that ten minutes before no such accommodation was available – but she had to book us on a different airline and route us through Charlotte to get us to Chicago. Fine, whatever, we’ll take it but I made her build in a five hour layover in Chicago so that we’d have plenty of leeway for the inevitable delay.
The kicker was we had to be at the airport at 4:30AM in order to check in for the flight, so at my insistence, she also coughed up a room for the night at the Hyatt.
The next morning we checked in as directed. Both airlines printed us out their respective boarding passes. We went through security screening again, and again it was quick and painless and easy, and eventually we flew from Pensacola to Charlotte and then to Chicago with only an hour’s delay.
We got to O’Hare and found our gate.
On time, the status board said.
We now had four hours to kill and so we went off to find some lunch. And coffee.
An hour later we were at the gate, ready to go. Now, this tale has gone on long enough, so I’ll spare you a rant about the lack of decent restaurants in O’Hare or the bizarre dearth of seats in the gate waiting area (and outlets, Jesus Haploid Christ, it’s 2014 for crying out loud, put some goddamned outlets in the waiting area).
We thought we were home free, but the Travel Gods had one last trick up their sleeve.
First, a last minute gate change. The flight to Whocutthecheese, Wisconsin was late getting into Chicago, which meant that our departure gate shifted down the terminal at the last minute (or what we thought was the last minute, because Sucker!).
When we got to the new gate, suddenly the flight was delayed.
No worries though, it was just a slight delay.
Then a slightly longer delay.
Strangely, despite the announced delay, the plane arrived right on time. The passengers unloaded. The cleaning crew went onboard. The new flight crew started to show up.
Things were looking good. Just a slight delay and we’d start the boarding process. Any minute now.
Except we didn’t start the boarding process.
The flight crew was milling around, talking to the gate agent, there was a lot of shrugging and frowning.
The agent announced that there was going to be another delay in the boarding process.
Then a longer delay.
Oh, you think you know where this is going, do you? Did you remember that missing co-pilot I mentioned earlier? Yeah, him? Seems they couldn’t find him.
That’s right, the First Officer had gone missing.
He was supposed to have already arrived on a flight from somewhere else.
But he didn’t.
They assured us that he was on an incoming flight. He’d be in Chicago in an hour or so. Then he’d be rushed to our gate and we could take off. Thanks for your patience, Folks.
Except the new flight arrived … and the expected First Officer didn’t. In fact, it eventually emerged that they weren’t even sure if he’d gotten on the plane he was supposed to have arrived on. He wasn’t answering his phone. And they had no idea where he might be or when he might arrive, if ever. For all their assurances, he could have been dead in a ditch somewhere … or signing autographs in the lobby of some swank hotel. The important thing was that he wasn’t at our gate.
And that’s when they told us they might have to cancel the flight.
You know, there comes a point…
We’d been stranded in Pensacola for a week because the airline couldn’t get their flight crews out of Chicago. Now we were in Chicago and they were telling us that they couldn’t find enough of their employees to man the airplane because they were all somewhere else.
Eventually they managed to dig up a replacement First Officer. Called the guy in from home I guess. From the looks of him he could have been just some bum they found outside in the snow and handed a jacket. And, honestly, at that point, none of us cared, a hobo at the controls couldn’t have made the trip any more ridiculous – and it’s not like the co-pilot does anything anyway, just ask Leonardo DiCaprio.
So, they started boarding the plane.
My wife went through the gate, the agent scanned her boarding pass, bip, no problem.
My son went through the gate, the agent scanned his boarding pass, boop, no problem.
I went through the gate, the agent scanned my boarding pass, BLEEP! Buzzzz! There was a problem.
Um, you’re not checked in, said the agent.
Yes. I. Am. I replied.
No, sorry, you don’t have a seat.
You may, if you like, imagine the two word response I was contemplating at that very moment.
Look, pal, I said instead, I’ve got a boarding pass. I’m checked in. Your airline checked me in. In person. And printed me out this boarding pass. This morning. At your airline’s desk in Pensacola. My wife and son who just went through were checked at the same exact time and place.
The agent fiddled with his computer, he frowned.
It went on for a long time, the frowning.
The long line behind me grew ever more restive.
Are there two James Wrights? The agent finally asked. Yes, me and my son. We’ve been through this bullshit before with the names. We have different middle names. Just exactly as it says on the boarding passes, we made sure to use the middle names, so you’d know. Two Jim Wrights, different seats, side by side, next to Becky Wright. As in a family.
Oh, well, uh, two James Wrights, yeah, that’s a problem. The computer doesn’t like two James Wrights.
Right, because I’m the only father in the entire world who’s ever flown on your airline with a son who has a similar name. Right? I’m the only one. Ever. Either that or you people are morons, so which one is it?
Uh, well, see, we gave your seat away by accident.
Morons it is.
You may, if you like, imagine the two word response I was contemplating at that very moment.
Look, Buddy, I said instead, you can just ungive it away.
The guy fiddled with his computer and the machine spit out another boarding pass, middle seat, in the back of economy class.
Nothing doing, Pal, this is your mistake. Fix it.
If you’d care to step over to the desk, so we can board the rest of the passengers …
I don’t think so. I’m not getting out of line. If you gave my seat to somebody else you can just move that guy. It’s your mistake, you go explain it to him. You go right ahead and put him in the middle seat in the back of economy. He gets screwed or I get screwed. I vote him and he doesn’t get a vote. I want the seat I’m confirmed in, that I paid for, next to my family. Period. Or nobody is getting on the plane. Figure it out.
And eventually that’s exactly what happened. I ended up in the seat I paid for, next to my family.
Seven hours later we were in Anchorage.
We were supposed to arrive at 7PM on Friday night, instead we walked out of the Ted Stevens International Airport at 1AM on Saturday morning.
Naturally, after three and a half weeks sitting in the parking lot in Alaska in winter, my truck battery was stone dead and the vehicle was buried under two feet of snow and surrounded by a wall of ice pushed into place by the plow trucks. I was prepared for that however, I had a spare battery in the back and jumper cables and brooms and shovels and it wasn’t long before I had the truck running and dug out – unlike the airlines, I plan ahead for winter.
Gratefully we started for home – the Trip Through Hell was over at long last.
An hour down the dark Glenn Highway headed towards our house in Palmer, I realized something.
The easiest part of our trip? The absolute most hassle free, painless, efficient, and pleasant part of our trip …
… was the TSA security screening.
Make of that what you will.