“Once a trip starts bad, it goes bad the entire time.”

Joe Brancatelli long ago coined the adage: “Once a trip starts bad, it goes bad the entire time.” Turns out Joe was mostly right! Last week I made a trip to San Francisco from Raleigh that seemed to start well, but quickly took a turn for the worse. And then another. And yet another. And so on, until…well, you get the idea. Here’s what happened:

The best alternative available when I booked RDU/SFO was on AA via LAX. I was curious to sample the RDU/LAX nonstop so took it and ended up in First Class on that leg. Service en route was reminiscent of NYC/West Coast transcons, and it lulled me into a false senses of tranquility and security.

On arrival at LAX, my troubles began when I discovered that the connection to SFO was almost two hours late. I had coordinated to meet up with a buddy flying to SFO from EWR and was going to share his private car into the city, but that killed my plan–or so I thought at the time. Since I was also overnighting at my friend’s pad in Pacific Heights, I figured I would now have to find an alternative place to rest my head.

I went to the LAX Admirals Club and started researching hotels near SFO Airport. To my surprise, everything was booked. I finally started calling individual properties to see if I could snag a last minute room. A front desk staffer at one of the Hyatts told me I wouldn’t find anything because there was some sort of Google convention underway.

He was wrong, though. I found two properties in downtown San Francisco with a few rooms. One was priced at $654 per night, and the other was $832 per night. I figured I would end up sleeping on the floor at SFO rather than pay those rates.

Resigned to a night of misery and discomfort, I boarded my delayed flight. The pilot scooted us up the California coast quickly, and we arrived just past midnight. A text message awaited me saying that my buddy’s flight was even later than mine and would not arrive SFO until 1:03 AM, thus solving my need for a hotel room and ride into the city. But it meant we wouldn’t get into the city until after 2:00 AM.

I decided to wait inside security for my friend’s plane to land and happened to notice that the same AA flight SFO/ORD I was booked on the following Saturday night, an 11:30 PM departure, was boarding and posted to depart at 12L30 AM. When I casually asked the gate agent if this was an anomaly, she said, no, this flight was delayed every night one to two hours due to late inbound airplanes and crew and because SFO was doing nighttime construction on runways which delayed late evening departures.

That prompted me to check the history of that AA flight number on FlightAware.com. Sure enough, it had not been on time in 10 days. Checking AA’s schedules for my ORD/RDU connection, I could see that I wouldn’t make it. I phoned AA reservations and explained my dilemma. They agreed, and said if I missed my connection in Chicago on Sunday morning that it could be Monday before they could get me to Raleigh due to full flights. My only option, they said, was a connection 14 hours earlier on Saturday leaving at 9:30 AM and going through DFW. This would ruin my planned day of leisure in Napa, but having no choice, I took it. I met my friend’s plane shortly after one in the morning, and we went into the city.

My tale of woe with AA was to continue, however. Turns out my return flights were also wrecked. AA called my cell at 3:48 AM Saturday morning (which was plugged in recharging near the bed where I was sleeping) to say the 9:30 AM was more than 2 hours late, causing me to miss my connection in Dallas. I frantically called AA just before 4:00 AM to reschedule yet again and was put on an SFO/DFW flight at 8:10 AM instead. That necessitated me staying up to shower and then paying $65 to a car service at 5:30 AM to get me to the airport by 6:00 AM (my friend has planned to drive me to save money, but not at that hour).

The AA rez agent at the Exec Platinum line that morning at 4:00 AM was on the verge of tears because she said she’d been dealing with similar problems all night. She also commended me for calling immediately to look for other flights because she said almost everyone on the 9:30am flight was going to misconnect. I got one of the last seats on the 8:10am departure. There were no aisle seats available at the last minute, so I opted for a bulkhead window seat.

Thinking I wouldn’t get breakfast in coach, I decided to eat something before the flight. The Admirals Club at SFO wanted $5.41 for a plain bagel. The same bagel was just over three bucks outside the club. Even the bartender advised me not to buy it in the club.

At gate 57 for the 8:10 AM flight to DFW, the agent announced the flight was overbooked (no surprise since many folks on the 9:30 AM flight had been moved, like me, to the earlier flight). Once we boarded, an Executive Platinum flyer plopped down in the center seat next to me. He was fuming mad and acting belligerent. I figured he, like me, had been inconvenienced, and, worse, had had to take a center seat assignment since nothing else was available. Probably he’d lost his First Class upgrade on the later flight, too. But it took me aback when he literally assault me.

I was in 8F, the bulkhead window seat because, as I mentioned, no aisles were available. The guy in the center seat 8E, a very large man, tried to shove my arm off the armrest and to put his hairy legs (he was in shorts) in my already crowded space. When I pushed back to demonstrate that I was going to maintain my half of the miniscule armrest, he took his Bose noise-cancelling headset case and threw it on the floor by his feet as hard as he could. He had a tantrum like a baby. He then tried again to shove not only my arm but my entire body as hard as possible against the bulkhead—-all this while we were at the gate in SFO during the boarding process. He wouldn’t engage me in conversation when I tried to reason with him, so I pushed back until I regained my personal space including my half (the back half) of the armrest. He continued to push against me as hard as he could until the plane pushed back, at which time he fell asleep. I have no idea what his problem was, but it was a miserable 3 hours, 45 minutes to DFW. the jerk never once uttered a syllable.

Our plane left SFO on time but arrived DFW late with no explanation from the crew. We arrived at gate D29. My RDU connection was by then 55 minutes from departure and at C31, as far away from D29 as you can get. I rushed over on the train, stopping only to pick up a turkey sandwich to eat on the next flight. En route via the train my cell phone rang with a message from AA saying the gate had changed to C10, but I had just gotten off the train at the C21-39 gates. I got back on the next train and took it to the C1-20 gates and ran to C10. Just as I got there the gate agent announced the departure had changed gates AGAIN, this time to C37. I ran back upstairs and got the train going the opposite direction back to the stop for gates C21-39 and ran down to C37. Miraculously, despite the lost time, the plane boarded quickly and buttoned up by 2:55 PM, scheduled departure. However, the bags didn’t move as fast as we humans. The had been staged at C31 originally and were then moved to C10. Then they had to be moved again back to C37. We left 30 minutes late for RDU and didn’t make up so much as a minute on the thousand miles en route. Like the first flight, the cockpit crew never made an announcement after explaining that the bags caused the delay.

And to this series of bungled flights, AA provided this little cherry on top: They charged me $30.09 for the Main Cabin Extra seat 8F on the SFO/DFW flight wherein I was cramped, uncomfortable, and set upon by the seething fury of the miscreant in the center seat 8E.

The following day I found the email complaint portal at AA.com under Customer Service and sent them a complaint. Less than a day later they credited my account with 15,000 AAdvantage miles. Frankly, I’d rather their flight operations had gone smoothly. The stress and misery of their bad flights didn’t equate to 15,000 miles.

11 thoughts on ““Once a trip starts bad, it goes bad the entire time.”

  1. I agree with you that Joe Brancatelli is “bang on” – something along the lines with the saying “when it rains, it pours”. Although I sympathize with your experiences and wish you didn’t go through them, it is nonetheless interesting to read about and I admire your writing skills.

    Thank you as always for making the effort to post. I always look forward to reading your stories..

  2. Thank you for your kind remarks. Funny you should say, “When it rain, it pours.” I am currently in an oceanfront beach house at North Topsail Beach just above Wilmington, NC with a ringside seat for Hurricane Arthur. Winds are howling, and the surf is ferocious. Hoping we don’t get overwash at high tide. I am thinking about posting photos of the storm arriving this morning just before 11 Eastern.

    1. I certainly hope you and everyone else weathers the hurricane just fine. Of course if you wish to share your experience, I am sure myself and many others would be pleased to read it. Stay safe.

      1. The edge of the eye of Hurricane Arthur passed over us last night just before 9:00 PM, producing an eerie blue light through the thin clouds and a dead calm with no rain. After that, the winds howled again, and the rain poured, but things dissipated quickly as the storm tracked north. No overwash of the barrier dune, thank goodness, and today is hot and sunny with great surf for swimming. Thanks for your concern.

  3. Will, stay safe during Arthur and keep writing your takes from the road. AA sounds like a hot mess. I fly out of ATL so I am a Delta serf. My experience (except for the Sky Peso program) with DL has been pretty good (knock wood).

    1. We weathered the storm well, and today is gorgeous, thanks.

      Like you, I have lots of miles on Delta (almost five and half million now) and often find myself flying them. My experience.with all domestic airlines, though, is that it’s a crap shoot whether their operation will work or not. I cannot say with any confidence that Delta is better than American or United, though their operation may seem to function better on any given day. My friend’s flight EWR/SFO last week, for instance, the one that was two and a half hours late, was on United. My AA flight was only better by comparison.

  4. I don’t understand why you were charged for the 8F seat if you are Exec Platinum. Simply call your credit card company and challenge the charge.

    1. Allan, my fault for not being clearer. I was an Exec Platinum for years, but am now a mere Gold. However, AA still allows me to phone the Exec Platinum line when I need help.

      As of this spring, AA no longer grants Golds free access to Main Cabin Extra seats (it now costs 50%), but when I made the reservation, they didn’t charge me and were happy to make seat reservations in MCE. Thus when I had to change my flights due to their operational problems, I was shocked that they charged me for the same seats I had on my original reservation (though on different flights) at no charge.

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