With apologies to William Shakespeare for cheapening his famous phrase by using it in the pedestrian context of contemporary air travel, the past is often prologue to the future. Or, to put it in plain and simple terms, every trip to the airport is likely to be like your last worst experience flying…which was probably yesterday.
Or it could be a really GOOD experience, just like the one you had a week ago Sunday.
Sure, bad weather is often the excuse, and an acceptable one sometimes. But all too often the bare naked truth is that if you expect the worst from the airlines as you approach your airport even on a bluebird day, you’ll be mentally prepared for it when the system fails you.
The obvious question is, Why doesn’t flying get better through experience? The airlines continue to let us down routinely because they never seem to learn from their past mistakes.
Or maybe it’s that they just don’t care.
To illustrate what can happen, here are stories of two contrasting real-world flying experiences I had in December. As luck would have it, these were bookends on the same itinerary, Raleigh/Durham to Milan Malpensa (Italy) and return, and on the same airline, American Airlines, with both outbound and return connections through JFK. One was so stressful that it took me a couple of days to shake it off, and the other was TV-commercial perfect.
Outbound was the showstopper. On December 20, I was just leaving a Board meeting at noon to meet my family (four of us traveling together) for our RDU/JFK flight to connect to our JFL/MXP flight. When I got my car at 12:02 PM, I received an automated robo-call from American Airlines saying that our 2:30 PM flight to JFK was canceled. (Flightstats.com later reported that out flight was the sole one canceled all day on December 20.)
Despite having spent $5200 on the 4 tickets and my million miler lifetime Gold status with AA, the airline has done nothing to help us make our flight that evening to Milan by booking us either on an earlier AA flight or on another airline’s flight to JFK. I learned this after spending 15 minutes on hold to reach an international agent. She informed me that AA had automatically canceled our booking to Milan and rebooked us on flights the next day, all without asking me.
Leaving the following day would have ruined our trip, as we had unalterable train reservations the following morning and plans with friends in Italy, all made months in advance. I frantically negotiated with the AA agent via phone while driving to the airport and managed to get us all four on a 12:35 PM departure RDU to LaGuardia. I then ran from the RDU parking deck to the AA ticket counter to get our tickets reissued since, as I said, American had already canceled our reservations on BOTH flights Friday, even though the JFK/Milan flight was still flying.
By the time the counter agents finished reinstating our reservations and reissuing the tickets, it was 12:35 PM–departure time for the RDU/LGA flight–and I had to plead and beg them to hold the flight until my family arrived as they were being dropped off in a second car. While we waited, the counter agents were able to reinstate all our seat assignments on the JFK/MXP flight, prized seats in the Main Cabin Extra compartment which I had selected five months before. We were lucky the seats hadn’t been reassigned yet.
Construction by the RDU airport authority on the entry road delayed my family arriving until 12:45 PM. Unbelievably, AA held the LGA flight for us while they rushed us all through TSA security. The incredibly long gatehold on our behalf was entirely due to the kindness of American Airlines RDU Supervisor Melissa Brown who was determined to help us make our connection to Milan. It was her decision to help us overcome the tyranny of the AA automated system that saved us from a ruined trip. I will be forever grateful to Ms. Brown.
As a result of these cumulative delays, our plane, an ERJ, left the gate 20 minutes late, and we sat on the RDU runway for another 20 minutes waiting for a landing slot at LaGuardia because the flight had lost its scheduled slot when it didn’t leave the gate on time. We finally landed at LGA at 2:42 PM and rushed to the arrival gate podium to arrange for the town car service that AA’s Ms. Brown had assured us was in the record as comped by American, since out itinerary was to JFK, not to LGA.
But the gate agent at LGA was an imbecile who didn’t have a clue how to find the record in the AA computer. Disgusted with his incompetence and bad attitude, and knowing we were running out of time, I decided to make a run for a taxi, but my wife stopped to explain our problem to a passing AA supervisor. She in turn sent us to the AA top guy on duty at another gate, and he quickly sorted out the private limo arranged for us by AA to drive us to JFK and gave us a voucher for the Barona Town Car service.
However, the town car was late arriving to pick us up. Since it was the Friday afternoon before Christmas in New York, the Grand Central and Van Wyck Expressways from LGA to JFK were literally a parking lot. Using my INRIX traffic software app, I directed the inexperienced driver to an alternate route which got us to JFK in time for our flight to Milan. When we arrived just past 4:00 PM at the AA JFK terminal, I thought we were home-free for our 6:00 PM departure to MXP. I was wrong.
After getting our boarding passes, we were told–and we could plainly see–that the lines at security were at least two hours long, and possibly were three hours long. Because I am a registered Global Entry/PRE-CHECK “trusted traveler” with INS/TSA/Homeland Security, I pleaded with the staff guarding the very short PRE line to let my family bypass the interminable line with me on my Global Entry card. They scowled, briefly conferred, saw I was on the verge of a stroke, and then generously bent their rules to let us in. If they hadn’t, we would not have reached the gate by departure time.
Once again, I breathed a sigh of relief too soon. When we got to the AAdmirals Club, I discovered the inbound aircraft to be used for the Milan flight was coming in from Barcelona over 5 hours late. Our flight left 2 hours late as a result, by which time I was mentally and physically drained. Nonetheless, we made it, and the nice ladies manning the AAdmirals Club front desk that evening took pity on me and handed me a huge sheaf of premium drink/food coupons. Ruth and I spent them on a good many splits of Chandon Champagne at the bar and pizza for the kids. I was feeling little pain by the time we boarded, and I slept pretty good on the flight, but I only managed to relax enough to doze off after the plane was actually in the air and en route to Italy.
Returning was a completely different experience. Same airline, same airports, same airplanes, but everything worked. At Milan Malpensa on December 31, we got our boarding passes for AA 199 to New York (with the correct seats I’d reserved in Main Cabin Extra), and we breezed through MXP security and passport control and hoofed it to the gate. AA was offering $500 same day upgrades to Business Class, but spending $2000 was too much, and we declined. I was pleased with our row 13 Main Cabin Extra seats.
Using my Amex Platinum privileges, I briefly visited the Priority Club to check it out. I am still uncertain where my 5 minute examination of the club cost me. They couldn’t tell me when I presented my card.
Though we boarded and departed on time, it was a long nine hour flight due to headwinds, and we arrived JFK a little behind schedule. I was a bit worried about making our connection to RDU, but AA’s Global Connection Service met us at the incoming jet bridge with an orange ticket folder and our connecting boarding passes that allowed us to take the expedited passport line and the expedited security line once past Customs. That orange ticket jacket was like magic! We got through the TSA portal faster even than the PRE folks. As soon as an AA oneworld agent saw the orange jacket, she parted the sea of humanity (more insanely long lines just like when we had left on December 20) and took us straight to the front, ahead of everyone.
We made our connection to RDU with time to spare, even stopping briefly in the AAdmirals Club again. The JFK/RDU flight was on time leaving, and it arrived RDU 15 minutes early.
As I said, the past is prologue to the future when flying: Airline service is as unpredictable as it ever was and not improving. Maybe quoting Shakespeare is too tony for the airlines. I should have instead paraphrased Forrest Gump: Going to the airport is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get.