In Washington, DC this past week for an annual transit legislative conference—my third trip to our nation’s capital in the past 12 months—I flew again to Washington Reagan Airport via American Airlines. It’s just a 45-minute hop of about 300 miles from RDU to DCA, and AA has the most frequencies at the cheapest fares. The flights up and back should be quick and painless, right? Getting there wasn’t too bad on Sunday, but AA did its best—for the third time in a row—to make the return flight as ugly an experience as could be imagined. The airline seems determined to prove once again that it has no pride and no shame.
Since the big nor’easter snowstorm (dubbed “Stella” by The Weather Channel) was forecast to blow through Washington on Tuesday, I changed my return to RDU from Tuesday afternoon—smack in the middle of the storm’s fury—to a Monday evening 7:29 PM departure (AA4378) to ensure not being stuck in DC for several days. Fearing transportation and transit options would begin to shut down before the storm hit at eight o’clock, with all-too-predictable slowdowns, I left the hotel at 4:00 PM by cab and arrived at the airport before 4:30, three hours before the flight. The notifications I’d set up at AA.com chirped at me continuously on my smartphone with assurances that AA4378 was on time.
The text messages also told me that my flight, an Embraer EMB-145 commuter jet, was departing from Gate 35X. That gave me pause, since my two previous flights on AA back to RDU from Reagan had also been from 35X and both miserable experiences (see this post from June, 2016) After the security screen ordeal, I had plenty of time to grab some Chinese food before wandering back to the claustrophobic chaos that characterizes AA operations at Gates 35 and 35X even on a good day.
Gate 35 is at the concourse level, while 35X is a basement area directly beneath 35. Both are always crowded with passengers waiting to be called to the sub-level to board shuttle bus transfers to their respective airplanes, which are parked remotely on the ramp. Typically, neither area contains sufficient seating for the hundreds of customers, and the number of people standing makes it impossible to move quickly through the throng to get to the buses when the garbled announcements are made.
Luckily I don’t have to travel to Washington, DC very often, because there is no “least worst” way to make the journey from Raleigh. If I drive, it’s on the nightmarish I-95 corridor, with chronic creeping congestion north of Richmond that makes me want to shoot myself. If I take Amtrak, it’s great when it works, but trains are often delayed for hours, or even canceled, due to never-ending CSX track congestion south of DC. If I fly, I have to endure the protracted delays and cancellations of services into Washington Reagan Airport, not to mention the extremely disagreeable experience of flying out of DCA’s gate 35X. No option is ideal, but I most often fly because, when things run smoothly, it’s faster than by rail or car.
Misery at 35X is well-known. Here’s what the local business journal had to say in June, 2015 when it announced improvements were on the way:
“A timetable has not been announced, but one of the first contracts as part of a $1 billion construction program at Reagan National Airport has been awarded that will, among other things, address the airport’s unpleasant Gate 35X.
“That’s the Terminal B gate where passengers are herded down escalators and onto shuttle busses that take them to small commuter planes parked outside several hundred yards away.
“DCA’s Gate 35X will go away as part of a major construction project.
“Architectural and engineering firm AIR Alliance, a joint venture between AECOM and PGAL, has been awarded a contract worth up to $75 million for design and program management of a new pier that will replace the 14 outdoor boarding positions with indoor gate access.
“More than 5,000 passengers a day go through Gate 35X.”
Almost two years on, there is no discernable progress being made to achieve those promises.
The happy chirps kept coming from AA on my phone reassuring an on-time departure of AA4378, but it was all a lie. I watched the board for news of our flight, and I asked several AA working the gates when we would board. They all said 30 minutes ahead and confirmed the plane was on time.
But at 7:15 when no call had come, I knew the flight was not leaving at 7:29. I again asked a staffer, and this time discovered from a passing supervisor that the inbound aircraft was coming from CVG and was still circling. Armed with the inbound flight number, I was able to track its status on FlightAware.com. It was agonizing to watch the updates come in, especially when the plane had to circle for 15 minutes before being given the okay to land.
More time passed, and the board, defectively showing parts of two screens on the left screen and the remainder on the right screen, continued to show the flight on time. So did AA.com. I again asked a staff person whether we’d be boarding soon. She did not know, but referred me to the same supervisor I’d spoken to once before, who said the aircraft was waiting for a parking spot on the ramp.
Until I spoke to the supervisor, not a single AA employee at gates 35/35X had a clue where AA4378’s airplane was, whether there was a crew to RDU, why the flight was late, or when the flight might leave. I had by then asked at least seven different staff people on duty (not counting the supervisor), and not one had the slightest idea about our flight.
Perhaps, I mused, this is all emblematic of the disintegration of DC and the loss of pride in efficiency in American business in general. Meantime, it had begun to snow at 8:00 PM, just as predicted. I began to worry that the flight would be canceled or the field closed.
Finally AA posted a new flight departure time: 7:47 PM. By then I had been waiting in the Third World dysfunctional madness of American Airlines’ DCA gates 35/35X for three hours. I stared at the insanity of the busted departure board which showed AA4378 leaving at 7:29, no, then at 7:47, no, wait, it was 7:50 on the clock when I took the photo. Yet the board showed the plane leaving three minutes earlier and never updated again.
Suddenly at 8:18 we were called to board a shuttle bus: no explanation why, and no apologies offered. At 8:25 the bus reached the plane, and by then it was snowing hard, a fact which would require the aircraft to deice—always a lengthy delay. Everyone scampered quickly on board, and people were settled in and ready to go by 8:34, now over an hour late. Outside, the slow was flying furiously.
Unfortunately, AA did not share our sense of urgency, and we sat, and sat, and sat. I was in seat 1A by the door and nearest to the cockpit, so I saw and heard everything being communicated therein. The captain finally announced that, due to the snow and required deicing, he wanted to “top off” the fuel, just in case we needed it. No argument there from anyone on board; we certainly did not care to run out of fuel. He also mentioned that the left engine required “several quarts of oil” and that a certified AA mechanic had been called to fill up with lubricant. “Won’t take long,” he cheerfully promised.
But he lied. At 8:50 we were still waiting on maintenance to bring us oil for the left engine that the captain had first requested when he landed more than an hour previous. The snow was worsening by the second, and I fretted that the flight might be canceled when the field closed while we continued waiting for incompetent AA staff with a few cans of oil. Meantime, I was seated directly by the open door, shivering as snow blew in on my feet.
Another flying nightmare, I thought, and no drink in sight when I needed one, not even a bottle of water. I watched the flight attendant go into the cockpit and begin laughing with the pilots. They don’t give a damn about us paying passengers, I thought.
At some point near half past nine, the maintenance guy finally showed up and filled the left engine’s oil reserves, after which the door was secured (it had snowed on me for an hour), and we began a long taxi to the deicing station near the takeoff point. We held there in a queue before finally getting a double dose of deicing chemicals.
AA4378 was at last in the air out of DCA at 9:56, two and a half hours late. It was a rough climb-out in the huge snowstorm. The plane touched down at RDU at 10:49. As we taxied in, I thought it a miracle that we had finally arrived, no thanks to AA’s shoddy, indifferent operation at Reagan. What a bunch of clueless clowns.
Reflecting on three nearly identical rotten experiences in the past year on AA out of DCA Gate 35X, it’s easy to believe that the carrier has calculated exactly how crummy, spiritually depleting, and inefficient their operations at places like DCA can become before losing many customers forced to ride their planes to and from Washington It sure feels like AA won’t invest a nickel in making things better above that minimalist line in the sand. Maybe AA’s motto should be, “Okay, we are BAD, but, hey, at least we’re not UNITED AIRLINES!”
The truth is probably simpler: American Airlines (which is actually the disreputable America West hiding under the dysfunctional husk of US Airways now hiding under the AA cloak of half-ass respectability–an unsubtle Russian doll of deception) just doesn’t care.