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Flakes on a Plane -- The next time I buy tickets on a US Air flight, someone slap me

By Andrew Pollack on 11/17/2006 at 03:29 PM EST

I hate this airline. I hate it more every single time I have the miserable misfortune of flying on it. Sure, all airlines have trouble from weather. The way you handle it, however, makes you a good or bad airline. As always, US Air handled it badly. I should have driven.
All I wanted to do was fly home from Philadelphia yesterday. I was earlier than I'd planned, so the night before I'd forked over their $100 extortion fee for changing tickets -- itself more than a ticket on some airlines would have cost -- and booked a 4:55 flight from PHL to PWM. I was at the airport by 1:30. Had I kept the rental car and driven home, I'd have made it by 9pm or so. Instead, I tried to suffer through the nightmare of a 1970's airline that they run.

At 2:30, things were already backing up. My 4:55 was scheduled to go out at 5:30, but a 1:30 flight was still on the ground and getting ready to leave. I got to that gate at 3:00 and asked the gate agent if I could grab a seat on it. I was told no, absolutely not, you can't separate from your luggage. I took her name, and explained that given the weather, it looked unlikely the later flights would make it, and I'd be happy to pick up my bag at the airport the next day. I was quite rudely told that it "wasn't going to happen, not any way.".

By 3:30 that flight still hadn't left, and my 4:55 one was cancelled. A few minutes later so was the earlier one. I was in line already (having some experience with this) and was able to beg, plead, and simper enough to be granted permission to change to another flight. I asked for "Anything north of here. Just get me closer. Bangor, Boston, Manchester, Hartford, all are closer and I'll drive from there." I was given a 4:30 flight to Boston. The 4:30 flight to Boston was listed as "on-time" at gate B4. The 4pm flight to Chicago was listed as 4:15 at gate B4. Does anyone else see immediately the likelihood of this happening? Meanwhile, the weather is getting worse, and worse, and worse.

It was at this point that I realized I did not know if my luggage was going to Boston now, or to Portland. So, I asked a gate agent. Without looking at anything, she told me that I'd have to ask in Boston. There was no way she could tell. I explained that it could mean the difference in making the 7:25 bus to Portland versus the 8:25 but she didn't care and made that clear. I sat down and called the "customer service" number. I think they mean "service" in the same way a horse breeder might use the term. Anyway, I called them and waited 25 minutes to get through. I was transferred to the department that was to help me, at which point the connection dropped. I called back. After 25 minutes I asked not to be transferred and was told I had no choice, she couldn't help me at all. I was transferred to a busy signal, then the call dropped. I called back. After 25 minutes the hold music stopped for 10 seconds, then went back to playing. That happened twice. I used to work in a phone queue and know exactly what that means. It means it rang at someone's desk and they didn't pick it up so I went back to the queue. After 58 minutes (I checked) I got someone on the line. I took his name, and said he did not have permission to transfer me or to put me on hold. I told him that I'd fallen for that twice already. I then explained that I just wanted to know if the bag was rerouted with me or not. In 5 seconds he checked and said it was. To find that out, had taken me an hour and a half. By the time I had the answer, we had boarded the plane and they were about to call for cell phones to be put away.

The whole time I was on hold (a total of 158 minutes), they played a 4 second announcement once every 15 seconds. The same announcement. "The TSA has relaxed some restrictions on carry on items. Please see your ticket agent for more information." I heard that announcement 632 times.

Finally, at around 5:30 we boarded out of gate B6 -- most outbound flights were not yet listed as cancelled, however there were very few planes because you couldn't land in this weather now. You could, apparently, take off if you had a plane. After a long wait on the runway for a storm cell to pass, we took off in 40 mile per hour cross winds. The plane was swerving as it went down the runway before it even got in the air. Fortunately, the one thing that went right was that we had an excellent flight crew who handled the plane magnificently. It could have been one of the worst rides ever, and wasn't that bad. You could feel them manipulating the throttle to work with the gusts and so on. The pilot gave us a virtuoso performance. We landed safely in Boston.

By the time I got to the baggage claim, all the bags were off. It took only 3 minutes because they only had 1200 pounds of baggage. Apparently, the 5+ hours I spent in the airport was not enough time for my suitcase to evolve a pair of legs and a brain so as to load itself onto the aircraft.

Now get this, while I am missing the 7:25 bus, the woman at US Air's baggage claim had the nerve to tell me that the suitcase "was not lost yet." It may be on the 9:30 flight or it may be going to Portland. She declared it was clearly going to Portland because she looked at my ticket jacket and that's the sticker it had. The fact that the sticker had been placed on the jacket some 6 hours prior and that the flights to Portland had all been cancelled didn't help. I told her there was no way I was waiting two hours and missing the last bus on the off chance my suitcase climbed onto the next plane by itself. I said very carefully "I am here. The suitcase is not here. It is, by definition, lost." She replied, no, not yet. You can go to Portland and look for it, then fill out the paperwork there. I said, "No, that isn't going to happen. Once again, let me be clear. I am here. The suitcase is not here. I did not fill out and sign a voluntary separation from baggage form today. Therefore, this bag is lost." About 10 minutes later we agreed that the bag was lost. I filled out the form, and am told the suitcase will get to me here at home. Someday.

So far, no bag.

I did still have to look forward to a bus ride, a cab ride, and finally my car once I got to Portland. I finally got home just after 11pm. Had I just kept the car, I would have been home with my bag two hours prior. It would have been worth whatever Avis charged for the drop off in another state.

If US Air buys out Delta, it will set the airline industry back 40 years. They can call the new airline "Aeroflot".


There are  - loading -  comments....

Here's how their Baggage service helps.By US Airways Baggage Response on 11/17/2006 at 04:53 PM EST
The slip of paper indicates I can track my baggage claim case 24 hours a day
via their website or on the phone.

Once I found a place on the web site, I filled out a form and the reward was
"we'll call you within a couple of days."

Now I've gotten this email:

Baggage Resolution wrote on 11/17/2006
04:46:44 PM:

> Your Question has been Submitted.
>
> Thank you for your email. The reference number for your question is
> 2338155
>
> We appreciate your business and we will respond to your request within
> 48 hours.
>
> Thank you for choosing US Airways!
>
> ** This is an automatic response to your request- please do not reply to
> this message.
re: The next time I buy tickets on a US Air flight, someone slap meBy Roberto Boccador on 11/17/2006 at 06:09 PM EST
Gee..... and I complain about Alitalia.
RoB
Update - 10pm the next dayBy US Airways Baggage Response on 11/17/2006 at 10:10 PM EST
I got the suitcase.

Just for fun, I called the baggage number and entered my tag to see what it
says. "As of 10:03pm your luggage has not yet been located."

Good luck with that. Man, talk about "Flakes on a Plane"
Northworst, US Scareways, and Air France -- the three I'll never flyBy Ed Brill on 11/18/2006 at 11:34 AM EST
I had a US Air experience somewhat similar to yours a few years back, and it's
the last time I flew time. It didn't involve baggage, but it did involve a
multi-hour weather delay out of IAD and how poorly they handled it. I had the
same excessive delay on the call centre line when I called to rebook the
flight... eventually, I hung up and dialed back in -- this time, choosing the
menu options as if I was going to buy a new ticket. Wow surprise, surprise,
that line was answered in about three minutes! If they don't have a way to
dynamically shift available call centre resources, then I don't have time for
them.

Northworst and Air France are the only others I've blacklisted forever. United
used to be on that list, but they are just hard to avoid out of Chicago and,
amazingly, they've been the best domestic airline for me in the last few years
after they went into chapter 11.

Glad you got your luggage back.
Just had a couple of weeks of flightsBy Greg Walrath on 11/20/2006 at 01:59 PM EST
I just went through KC and NYC for various systems training (Serena Dimensions
and Websphere Message Broker). Getting to KC was fine, getting home was
interesting as my flight got cancelled by AA before I arrived at the airport. I
could wait until the next day (which was also pretty dicey), or I could beg and
plead at the counter. Apparently option 2 was the best. My original flight had
me leaving KC at 6:00, routing through Chicago, then getting home to Seattle
around midnight. My new flight, no extra charge, was through Frontier Airlines,
leaving at 4:30, and getting me to Seattle at 7:45 local time. W00t, as the
kids would say.

NYC worked out well, too. Again, through AA. Our flight left a bit late from
SEA but ended up getting us in to LaGuardia instead of JFK. A bit more cramped,
but closer to Manhattan. The flight back was fairly uneventful, except for the
30-plane backup to get out (left the gate at 6:15, wheels up at 7:30). The
pilot still managed to get us to SEA only about 20 minutes late.

And no lost luggage.
Picking the least worse optionBy Ian Randall on 11/20/2006 at 11:23 PM EST
Over the years I have flown on many different airlines around the world...

Air Fiji, Air Niugini, Australian Airlines, Air New Zealand, Air Vanitu, Air
Tahiti, Ansett, Alitalia, British Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Ethopian Airlines,
Emirates, Japan Airlines, Jetstar, KLM, Lufthansa, Malaysian Airlines, Olympic
Airways, Polynesian, Qantas, Qatar Airlines, SAS, Singapore Airlines, South
African Airlines, SriLankan Airlines, Swiss Air & Virgin..

As well as several US Airlines:

American Airlines, Continental, Delta, United Airlines & US Airways.

I would personally rate the very worst of the overseas and international
airlies that I have used, several orders of magnitude better ANY of the US
Airlines that I have had the misfortune to fly with.

You guys would be better scrapping all of the US airlines and replacing them
with competent carriers. Even Air Vanitu and Ethiopian Airlines make the best
US carriers I have used seem like armatures.
re: Flakes on a Plane -- The next time I buy tickets on a US Air flight, someone slap meBy mike on 11/21/2006 at 11:09 PM EST
not sure how I wound up on this blog but as an air traffic controller of 25
years, having seen countless situations of weather, delays, and all sort of
situations in aviation...

I wouldn't dare make excuses for US Air and I won;t say your writeup isn't
justified...believe me, I've suffered the same type inconveniences. That
said...

Never underestimate the power of weather. On ocassion, you may want to thank
an airline rather than curse it for taking extra caution due to weather. Many
an aircraft has gone down over underestimating mother nature. I'll never
forget an early career experience where I saw the rising smoke a few miles off
from the beginnin/end of a runway where one of the pilots for Delta who wrote
the book on windshear/microbursts was killed along with a few hundred
passengers when he tried to land his aircraft at DFW during bad weather.
Obviously, you can't ever be completely safe flying, but if the weather is
truly bad you're better off being inconvenienced than dead.

On departures being allowed to depart vs arrivals not being allowed to land:
Ocassionally it's a simple matter of "no room at the inn." You can only house
so many aircraft on the ground at an airport. If all the gates are full (as is
often the case) people have to stay in a holding pattern until they get
aircraft off the ground, out of the gates, and into the sky.

Don't mean to rain on your frustration here. Obviously some airlines are more
efficient than others. But efficiency isn't always translated into numbers.
An airline that pushes the envelope to get those great on time figures doesn't
translate into the "best" airline. Think about the bean counters in companies
who are willing to risk a few expendable customer lives for profitable dollar
signs. Is it worth it to you? Depends.

How much emphasis do you want to place on your personal safety? Are you
willing to wait an extra 2 hours to increase your potential for survival to
99%, or do you want to be on time and lower it to 95%? There's an airline
notorious to controllers that absolutely refuses to depart from their preferred
routing based solely on weather data/history on severe turbulence. It costs
them in money and time. While other airlines have cases where passengers wind
up being slammed into the ceiling and being injured by falling luggage, I've
never seen a case where this airline had one of these occurences.

As far as separation from luggage and such...even though the TSA's sometimes
insane procedures seem to ignore sanity and reason, some safety rules have
sanity behind them. Yes, it makes no sense to ignore gaping holes in security
while over focusing on smaller holes. But the common thought process of
america sometimes seems to be, "well, why bother fixing this hole if there's a
million other holes in this fish net?" This isn't an all or nothing
proposition. With a fishing net full of holes, every hole that is fixed or
repaired makes the net more efficient. More fish are caught. No American
deserves the inconvenience that has been heaped on them by outside hostile
entities bent on indiscriminately hurting innocent Americans going about their
daily affairs as they do their best to eek out a daily living.

So where does it begin and where does it end? How much delay over weather is
reasonable? How much delay over luggage or security is reasonable? I can't
answer that. No one can answer that question for the whole nation. It will be
different for each person. But certainly government and private industry will
respond to the outcries of citizens to set those standards. Which is the whole
reason I'm writing this. Understand what it is you scream for. It may be
something you don't really want in the end. Given the proper information, you
may just see that one or two hour delay as a favor or consideration toward
you...as opposed to incompetence and inconvenience. I suppose it's a matter of
priorities.

No bashing here, just feeding a little bit of info to chew on for those who may
not know the system. By the way, next time you land safely, thank God or
whomever may be out there in the ethereal world for that air traffic controller
who dedicates himself/herself to job perfection. It's not easy to work 25 to
35 years in a daily grind where hundreds of split second decisions are made in
a day...any one of which could result in a few hundred deaths. I've seen a lot
of people talk about how they would do the job of controller for the pay
offered in a heartbeat. I don't doubt they would. Reality is, not many people
have that quirky thought process/capability to do the job. Sometimes I've
looked at it as a birth defect because controllers are definitely
different...quirky. Desire to the do the job does not equal competence. The
other side to the job...I was too young, too stupid during my earlier cockier
years as a brave brazen controller to see just how much it "isn't worth the
money." I said to myself on many occasions that it wasn't worth it but didn't
walk away because of the pay. It wasn't till I was in my latter 30's, too old
to re-educate and maintain that mortgage and all the bills that I realized it
really ISN'T worth it. Seen too many friends die of heart attacks, strokes,
cancer, suicides. Seen too many broken marraiges and relationships, too many
people waiting outside the door of the on-site counselors provided by the FAA
(not anymore tho,,,managers don;t think it's needed). If I could go back to my
early 20's, I'd have taken a different route. And I sure as hell wouldn't
recommend the job of air traffic controller to anyone. Especially my own
children. Not for the money the Bush administration has decided they're
worth. Drop pay, better drop expectations. Trust me, this is not good for
america and the public. Don't believe one word of the propoganda the FAA and
administration is feeding you.

Just an average Joe here....
ok, average Joe, but my post is more about the airline than the weatherBy Andrew Pollack on 11/21/2006 at 11:26 PM EST
I know a few ATC types --good people. In this cause the problems I had weren't
the weather. Frankly, I'd have driven or taken a hotel room in a minute if
they'd simple made the call. I have on several occasions refused to board
commuter flights in snow storms, and fully understand the physics of what they
call "wind shear".

None of these were my issue. My issues come down to:

1. The first gate agent that refused to make any attempt to help head off what
we both knew was going to be a problem.

2. The dozen or so USAIR staff who blew me off, argued, stalled, or ignored me
outright.

3. The idiot who I had to argue with to be willing to give me the form to
indicate my luggage was lost.

4. The Airline who while taking new ticket orders with a 2-3 minute delay,
kept me on hold more than 90 minutes to answer a question about one I already
had.

5. The airline that charges me $100 plus the airfare difference to make a
change in a reservation.

By the way, In Philly that night, it wasn't a "no room at the inn issue -- when
we finally took off (to the pilot's credit, as I said) every other gate I could
see out the window was empty.
What makes good customer service?By Ian Randall on 11/22/2006 at 06:57 PM EST
With regard to Mikes comments, I don't think that anyone is suggesting that
airlines should not cancel flights for safety reasons and the flying public
understands that safety takes priority over other considerations. All airlines
around the world take a similar approach to safety.

However, customer service is about "how an Airline treats their customers" and
about "how the customer feels about how they are treated".

Airline company policies that are rigidly enforced regardless of the changing
circumstances, poorly trained ground staff, poorly implemented security
measures, poor communication of alternative arrangements to stranded
passengers, poor handling of customer complaints, poor anger management, an
apparent lack of alternative arrangements etc. all contribute to a perception
by the travelling public of poor customer service by some airlines at some
times.

After all, it's not that cancelled flights due to poor weather conditions,
maintenance issues, scheduling problems, aircrew sickness, delayed flight
connections, passengers missing flights and having to remove their luggage,
security scares, strikes, passenger injuries and other causes are uncommon.
What differentiates a good from a bad airline is how they handle the situation
when it arises.

Sometimes the difference is just a smile and a MacDonald's voucher.


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