This is the story of our return flight from Washington DC last weekend. For the post title
I borrowed a phrase from the Colbert Report that sums up nicely how angry I am with the experience. This was the worst travel I have ever experienced and that is a catagory with lots of competition.
We started off with a nice morning / early afternoon in Baltimore and headed out driving to Washington National with what we thought was plenty of time. We got a bit messed up in the directions and made it to the airport with no time to spare- luckily Kat was able to do a web check-in on her phone and we ran through the terminal, picked up the paper tickets at the desk and ran to our gate just as they were calling final boarding.
Unfortunately we are delayed on the ground about 5 minutes because ATC has some radar outage. In theory this shouldnt be a big deal, but I check the tickets and apparently they only gave us 35 minutes to make our connections at Dallas (to be clear these were booked directly with American Airlines). DFW is a huge airport and American has gates spread out over 4 terminals there now. We arrive in Dallas, but then get held up another 10 minutes because another airplane is still at our arrival gate. A bunch of the passengers start to get tense since we all have tight connections and its especially frustrating looking out the window at all the adjacent gates that are empty. Why dont they just park us at the next one? Eventually they move the airplane in, and again Im surprised that they flight attendants arent making any special effort to help people with tight connections- no announcement about waiting to get off if you dont have a close one or anything.
Our connecting flight is across the airport- we landed in C and needed to get to D. There is this skylink train thing but it loops around the outside and would have been 20 minutes easily. There is a ramp across the road between the terminals so I decide to run for it and Kat and Fen will follow as quickly as they can. On my way out I ask a guy at the counter to call over to the other gate and tell them they have 3 passengers on the way. I dash down the terminal, up the escalator, across the ramp, down the escalator, and arrive at the destination gate, looking at my watch- 2 minutes before the scheduled time. Right as I get there the gate attendant announces to me that the flight as left and closes the door in my face and heads down the ramp.
Ill have to admit that at this point I got quite irate and was yelling. I had just been running for 10 minutes straight and it tends to ramp up the adrenalin + the frustration levels. My anger was increased by the gate attendants non-communicativeness. I pictured them shutting the door on an airplane with 3 empty seats just because they wouldnt hold up the airplane for an extra 2 minutes (to be clear- the door of the airplane wasnt closed yet, the guy was going off to go do that).
At this point the remaining woman at the desk (or the guy who closed the door in my face) could have probably defused the situation by saying quite simply “we put some last minute people on the airplane so your seats are full and its not like we can go on the airplane and drag them off. There is another flight to Seattle tonight and we will make sure you get on it.” I know dealing with upset travelers is probably the worst part about those jobs, but its still part of the job and doing it right with honest clear communication is important. Instead they took the approach of “maybe if I ignore you then you will go away” which when one is in a complex travel situation just makes you more upset.
Eventually the supervisor came out from the gate and he did seem to understand the basics of the above. He explained that American Airlines was basically having so many delayed flights that they were just assuming that tons of people would miss every connection. They were aggressively giving away seats for people who hadnt shown up 10 minutes before the fight since they always had a huge crowd of people to push to the next one.
The next problem though was that he chose to exact a bit of revenge on me for being upset at the gate. He got Kat and Fen on the next flight but only put me on “standby, which gives you an excellent chance to get on”. Calmer now we went to the next gate and waited. I figured that since I had gold status with American Airlines that was supposed to put me at the front of the standby list, so no problem.
Two hours later the next flight boarded, they called some standby passengers and Im still waiting. Its 10 minutes before the fight and the gate attendants are looking over the folks that are going to get screwed on this connection- look, there are 3 coming from Costa Rica, no way they are going to make it on time. They are giving away their seats, and at the last minute (10 minutes before the time on all the screens and all the tickets) one person does make it. They tell me Im out of luck and they will get me on the morning flight.
At this point Im pretty much in shell-shock. Three minutes later a woman runs up and goes through the same thing I did at the previous gate. She starts out screaming “I cant believe this, it says Ive still got time, Im going to be fucking fired if Im not in Seattle for work tomorrow morning”. She manages to stop screaming but her voice is still not normal. The three people from the Costa Rica flight show up and are pretty annoyed but are still on vacation-mellow. They are all really confused about how this happened to them and the woman behind the counter isnt giving an honest explanation so I tell them what the guy at the other gate told me. Now she is pissed at me and accuses me of trying to start a riot (and to be clear at this point Im very calm and just matter of fact explaining what I just witnessed happen to them). Again its the “maybe if the passengers just don’t know the system they will go along like sheep” attitude. Luckly we now have things like blogs to get the word out.
So she sticks me with a middle seat on the morning flight and wont help me with a hotel room and says I need to talk to the supervisor. He takes about 15 minutes to finish up helping someone with some unrelated flight and then looks at my info. At this point he comes out and says that they intentionally screwed me on getting on this evenings flight because I had been upset at the other gate, hooks me up with a voucher for the Clarion inn, and sends me off.
The shuttle to the hotel takes about an hour to pick me up. Its actually really cold in Dallas- about 40 degrees. When the shuttle does come Im the first to get on but at the next terminal there is such a big line for the Clarion shuttle (all of whom had been waiting over an hour) that they all cant get on and we have to turn away others. I speak with the shuttle drive who says that its just been crazy for the past two weeks- something changed two weeks ago and American is bumping way more people all the time.
The morning flight was pretty normal and uneventful other than again overcrowded shuttles- I wound up sharing a taxi with some others rather than waiting another 20 minutes. They had no problem switching my center seat to an aisle.
To sum it up, there were a whole host of things that are totally wrong here. First of all, American Airlines has pushed their hub thing beyond its limits- trying to schedule 35 minute connections (which a flight attended for another airline described as an illegal connection), and by policy showing inflexibility in helping people make those connections is just a really bad way to run things. But I suspect the problem is deeper since this approach gives them plenty of people who are bumped by accident- which lets the airline overbook and avoid having to ask for volunteers that can cost them $200-$400/seat to get. Intentionally causing your passengers to mess up their itineraries in order to deal with your overbooking situation is just an evil way to treat people.
Then, given that situation, the way your staff deals with people is just not ok. Ive heard a few things about the unhealthy airlines lately and I wonder how much of what I saw was a symptom of the dysfunctional labor/management thing going on at American. The non-communicative attitude and the staffs need to show customers whos boss by screwing my getting on the next flight is not going to get the airline healthy again. At this point I cant imagine any destination that I need to get to so badly that I would make another connection at DFW and in general Im all set to avoid American whenever possible (although sadly that is not 100% possible).
Finally, the situation with the official departure times is just wacky and I don’t think this is unique to American Airlines. Why print 7:28pm on a ticket and show it on the displays when this time is completely useless to your passengers. If I have to show up at 7:18pm before the doors close, why not put that as the departure time? If 7:28pm had some use to me that would be one thing, but as far as I can tell its just one more gimmick that lets them schdule crazy-tight connections, “accidentally” bump more people and avoid having to pay for over-booking.