Blow-by-Blow of Airline Hell

On Thursday I attempted to fly from Kearney, Nebraska, where I gave a speech, to Ontario, California, which is 15 minutes away from Claremont. Here’s the blow by blow. I will be posting more analysis and links, etc. on my main blog.

Thursday, April 10, 2008:

5:00 AM (central): I give up on trying to sleep in the hotel, do email for a bit, take a shower, and go to the lobby of my hotel to wait for my ride.

6:00 AM : Picked up and driven to Kearney, NE airport which has only one gate and flies only to Denver. Kearney is serviced by Great Lakes Airlines which flies from a bunch of small towns in Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, and elsewhere, in and out of Denver. Since Denver is a United and Frontier hub, you can get from a small town to almost anywhere in the country with a stop in Denver.

6:45 AM: I check in, get my ticket, and go through TSA security at the Kearney airport. The airport has no food service (just vending machines) and after the security screening, there are not even vending machines. So if you guzzle water like I do, you’re screwed after going through security since you have to throw out water before screening.

7:00 AM: Our small plane is supposed to depart. The gate agent walks over and says that due to bad weather in Denver, we wouldn’t be able to land, so we’re not taking off. What he doesn’t say is that planes are, in fact, going in and out of DEN, but small aircraft with less-sophisticated instruments require better weather conditions to land safely. He gives no estimated time for departure. The locals next to me say that if we don’t take off soon, we might never take off because snow is in the forecast starting mid-day.

7:30 AM: My parched throat can take it no longer, I leave the security area to buy a bottle of water. This means I will have to be re-screened before takeoff. I linger in the lobby.

8:30 AM: At this point half of the people on the flight to DEN are likely to miss our connecting flights. The gate agent starts re-booking us on later flights out of Denver. We still have no idea when we’re departing Kearney, if at all. I haven’t eaten anything substantial all morning. Hunger begins to play a role. I am also almost done with the book I brought, which means my reading material has become perilously thin.

9:07AM: They announce conditions in DEN have improved, we’re going to take off. But first they have to fuel the plane. It’s stunning that in all this time they haven’t even fueled the airplane.

9:30 AM: We depart Kearney, NE bound for Denver airport.

9:30 AM (mountain time): We make our approach to DEN, but have to stop our descent due to sudden worsening of conditions. We start circling the airport.

10:30 AM: After an hour of circling the airport, the pilot informs us we’ll have to land in nearby Pueblo, CO, where the conditions are better and where we can re-fuel.

10:45 AM: We land in Pueblo, CO. We idle on the runway as we re-fuel. We are not allowed to leave the plane due to “security” reasons. We wait for word on better landing conditions in DEN.

11:20 AM: They finally let us off the airplane as conditions in DEN don’t seem to be improving. The Pueblo airport also has just one gate and just one commercial flight a day. Thankfully, there is a small restaurant there, and most of us swarm the place to get some food.

11:45 AM: I call United Airlines to re-book my flight from DEN to ONT (originally scheduled for around 9 AM, then moved to 12:15) to 2:30 PM.

12 noon: They tell us conditions in DEN have improved, so we all go through Pueblo security screening again. The TSA reps put every other person through “additional screening,” probably just to keep them busy. Passengers start getting pissed. I understand there are rules and regs, but it’s amazing how fervently the TSA workers enforce it. The flight attendant tells us that the airport can’t service the airplane lavatory so the lavatory on the plane is basically out of bathroom service and we should use the toilet in the airport (of course there isn’t one after the TSA check-in).

12:30 PM: We wait in the post-TSA lobby area, again, where no bathrooms or food service or water is offered. Another re-routed Great Lakes flight board their plane first. After their plane is loaded, they sit idly for 20 minutes. We watch them in the lobby wondering why they haven’t left and why we’re still sitting. I do two sets of 20 push-ups.

1:00 PM: The plane on the runway unloads. The passengers on that flight are livid for having boarded, then de-planned, and then forced to go back into the main lobby area pre-TSA screening, which means if they board again they’ll have to do MORE screening.

We wait for at least an hour in the post-TSA lobby area.

2:00 PM: Finally a rep comes out and says that high winds in Pueblo mean no planes can take off. It’s not Denver weather, it’s Pueblo weather. By this point, most of us are starting to give up on air travel. I raise the idea of renting a car and just driving to Denver (2 hr 45 min drive). SInce I’m too young to rent, I needed to rent with someone else. A woman sitting across from me in the terminal craftily gets up and sneaks off to the car rental counter.

Another man follows her. I follow him. The Hertz guy (only one rental car company at the airport) says to the lady first in line: “You’re lucky. You got our last car.” The guy in front of me – John – looks horrified. He asks the agent again. No more cars. We both walk off. I come back to the counter five minutes later and press him. He says, well, maybe we’ll have this Mazda car that just got returned, but it’s not clean. John and I commit to getting the car.

2:30 PM: We finish the paper work and are ready to depart by car to DEN. Only problem: our luggage is on the plane. They didn’t let us take it off the plane when we originally de-boarded. A big debate ensues about whether they can take our luggage off. First the attendants spend 20 minutes writing down the physical description of our luggage to pick it out in the luggage compartment — not everyone was driving, some were going to stick it out.

I express genuine surprise at those sticking it out. Apparently, a new airplane was going to fly into Pueblo at 5:20 and they were going to distribute all the passengers across the three planes such that each would be light enough to take off from the shorter runway which was more protected from the wind….or some such bullshit. After all we’d been through, why would you try to rely on these piece of shit airplanes?

3:00 PM: I start speaking sternly to the luggage guy, telling him to do something and not just stand around looking tired. There’s nothing more infuriating than people standing around not trying to solve the identified problem. We finally get our luggage.

3:15 PM: Three other guys and me take off in a rental car and race toward Denver airport. From Colorado Springs onward we hit snow and gusts. Crucially, during this ride, I call United and move my flight to the 6:00 PM. There were only a couple seats left. They try to charge me $50 to change my flight, I protest, they cede.

5:20 PM: I get dropped off at DEN, with 40 mins to check in, go through security, get to gate. It’s a packed flight.

I make it. My flight takes off late and I get back to Ontario around 9:00 PM pacific. About 12 hours late.

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