My Day in Airline Hell Last Week

Last week was one of the worst in US air travel history with over 100,000 passengers affected by the cancellation of over 3,000 American Airlines flights, various airline bankruptcies, and tornadoes in the midwest. This post has the story of my own travel hell last week, followed by a handful of links to interesting articles and posts on air travel.

On Thursday, I attempted to fly from Kearney, Nebraska, where I gave a speech, to Ontario, California, which is 15 minutes away from Claremont, on Great Lakes Airlines which serves a bunch of small towns in the midwest by flying from the small town (like Kearney) to Denver airport, a United and Frontier Airlines hub.

I was on a 7am flight out of Kearney to Denver. It started with the airport. One-gate, small airports present unique challenges. Thanks to the new TSA regulations which don’t allow you to bring water through the security checkpoint, most of us water-guzzlers-to-the-point-of-being-almost-diabetic have to buy new water bottles after security. Really small airports, however, don’t usually have stores after security. Nor bathrooms. Nor food. So you better pray to Jesus that you take off soon after clearing security, or else you’ll be waiting with a parched throat and bloated gladder.

After clearing security, we waited to board. 15 minutes later the gate agent comes over and tells us that poor weather in Denver means we’re not taking off. The agent makes it clear that if we choose to leave secure area and reenter the more spacious lobby where there’s a vending machine of drinks and many-year-old bags of chips, we will (emphasis his) have to go through security again.Greatlakes22 (photo credit)

I leave the secure area, buy water, start reading. Our delay is indefinite, we are given no ETD. One guy decides he’s had enough already (it’s only 7:30 AM!), and rents a car to drive to Denver Airport, five hours away by car. Most of us laugh at him. He looks at us, rental car keys in hand. He says nothing. His eyes say: you sorry looking sons-of-bitches. He leaves. Naturally, he turned out to be the smart one.

Weather delays are not uncommon. From Kearney you can only fly to Denver (one hour flight) on a small, regional jet that has propellers. Smaller jets require good weather to land safely. The midwest has some sketchy weather. Hence, small jets often get hosed by weather that doesn’t affect large planes.

About an hour and a half later the agent announces that Denver weather has improved and we’ll be taking off. Ha, I say to myself, we’ll beat the rental car guy by at least four hours. We go back through security checkpoint. Then the agent announces that we must wait for the plane to be fueled. Then they open the terminal door and let us loose. To board, you must fast-walk across on the tarmac, climb the stairs, and crouch into the plane. The rain was really coming down, and the stairs into the plane were rickety, so the gate agent advised us, "One at a time." When I ran across the tarmac, braving Mother Nature, I felt like Hillary Clinton running across the tarmac in Bosnia.

An hour later, in the air, we approached Denver airport. And approached. And approached. 20 minutes after the pilot announced an imminent landing, I turned to the guy sitting behind me. "We’re not, ahem, circling are we?" I didn’t want to hear the answer. I knew what we were doing. It made me sick. We circled for a full hour. Pilot comes on: "Guys, weather has deteriorated, we’re going to Pueblo." Huh? Pueblo? The flight attendant comes by each of our seats and explains we’re going to land in Pueblo, Colorado, re-fuel, and then try Denver again. We land in Pueblo 20 minutes later. We sit on the runway for 30 minutes. We don’t de-plane because we want to be prepared to take off again for Denver the moment conditions improve.

People are getting anxious. It’s stuffy. The lavatory is almost full, the flight attendant announces, and Pubelo airport (where we were) doesn’t have the capability to "service it." Someone says, "Let us off!" I yell out, "Is there a restaurant in there?" The attendant consults with the pilot and they decide to let passengers off but not our checked luggage.

I suppose we fared better than the more famous incidents of people spending more than nine hours in the plane on a runway. Every time I read these stories it always amazes me that the passengers don’t punch out the flight attendant and barge open the door. I mean, nine hours on a runway – are you fucking kidding me?

We wait around the Pueblo airport hoping for a good word on Denver weather. I do two sets of 20 push-ups. I must admit, in my ceaseless quest for the silver lining in shitty situations, the camaraderie that emerges among fellow stranded passengers is always good fun. Taking turns sharing our stories. Trying to one-up each other in the horrible, horrible consequences of our delays. Calling our loved ones after we hear the latest update, "No, honey, I’m in Pueblo. Yes, it’s been four hours. No, I haven’t left yet. No, I’m not joking." Common goals bring together uncommon people.

Yes! Better Denver weather! We have to go back through TSA security. The agent puts every other person through extra screening, which is ridiculous. She’s acting as if she hasn’t had anything to do for at least 24 hours. Half the group, from another re-directed plane, gets back on their plane. About to take off. They don’t move. The other half of us sit in the post-security lounge – no water, no bathroom, no food – and watch the idle plane. They don’t move. 20 minutes. 30 minutes. 40 minutes. Finally, they deplane again. They’re pissed.

The agent announces that it’s not Denver weather, now, but Pueblo weather. High winds. Can’t take off. "Christ," I say, "Who wants to rent a car?" Enough with air travel. I’m too young to rent a car, so I needed to find a willing co-conspirator. People swarm the Hertz desk. I’m third in line. Hertz runs out of cars after the second person in line. Shit. We partner up. We fight with the flight agents to get our luggage off the plane. We fight. We fight. Get the luggage. We start the 3 hour drive to Denver airport. (Several people decided to stay in Pueblo and wait it out.)

In the car, I call United and move my flight back to the 6:00 PM flight to ONT (originally I was on the 9:30 AM). My fellow passengers race to the airport and drop me off curbside. I arrive at DEN at 5:20 PM. I raced through security and made the flight, which was delayed but full (lesson: call the airline and get on a later flight if you’re flight is delayed, even if you’re in an airport because desk counters can have long lines).

I arrive at Ontario some 14 hours later than expected. As we taxi on the Ontario airport, the cabin is basically quiet. Then a guy two rows back says in a loud, thuggish voice, These seats are so uncomfortable. Everyone kind of ignores him awkwardly. He says to no one in particular, Seriously – this is like sitting on bleachers. I felt like turning back and telling him to quit his bitchin’, that I had been up for 19 hours trying to move a mere 1,200 miles. I said nothing. It was 70 degrees at night in Southern California. And my throat was parched.


Here are some interesting links on flying:

  • James Fallows has an interesting article in the latest Atlantic about air-taxis. This might be the future for short haul flights if firms like DayJet figure out a business model that makes it affordable for the masses. I hope they expand to California next — there’s a huge opportunity to compete with United Express on all the puddle jumper flights throughout the big state.
  • The Economist has launched a new travel blog called Gulliver.
  • Patrick Smith on why, despite all the problems with airline travel today, we should still be grateful. US commercial aviation is the safest modest of transport in the world; prices are cheaper than they were 20 years ago; route maps are as dense as they’ve ever been.
  • Jeff Jarvis asks, "What if a plane flight were networked and became a social experience with its own economy?" He then proposes The Social Flight.

8 Responses to My Day in Airline Hell Last Week

  1. Andy McKenzie says:

    i almost liked the post on your travel blog better, just because the “i do 2 sets of 20 push-ups” line was even more unexpected. classic.

  2. Frank Lynch says:

    “Every time I read these stories it always amazes me that the passengers don’t punch out the flight attendant and barge open the door. I mean, nine hours on a runway – are you fucking kidding me?”
    “It’s pretty clear that the people who work for the airlines are equally victimized by a) their companies and b) the FAA.”
    link to stanleybing.blogs.fortune.cnn.com
    What I am most cognisant of these days with air travel is the fear of being taser’ed or held in some legal limbo for even appearing the least bit uncooperative, irrational, frustrated or un-calm. It appears to me that once you step up to (and through) *any* airport security checkpoint one has surrendered a great degree of civil liberties and must stay on some Orwellian conveyer belt of obediencecompliance to avoid falling foul within this nebulous environment.
    Weather, safety alerts and airlineairport incompetence I can swallow. The premise that everyone must be treated as a suspect terrorist (passenger) or piece of dirt (flight attendant) until proven otherwise, I may choose to swallow, but not without a sense that the currency of today has been devalued.

  3. Ann Snider says:

    Oh, I am so sorry it took you so long to get home from Kearney. It is so frustrating for us living here in “NO-WHERE” Nebraska to have to rely on Frontier Airlines to get us in and out of Denver. Next time I might suggest what most of us do when we travel…we fly in and out of Omaha or Lincoln. It’s a pain to land somewhere and then drive additional 2-3 hours but it sure beats having to decide if Frontier is going to land in Denver or not. I can’t count the number of times someone in my family or a close friend has had their flight cancelled either in Denver or Kearney. Sometimes it is just not all that great to live in the middle of NO-Where!

    Enjoy a nice warm day at the beach for us!

    Ann

  4. Zoli Erdos says:

    Several years my regular weekly “commute” including taking those small turboprops from London, Ontario to Detroit. The flight regularly got canceled at the first sight of a raindrop or snowflake.
    Funny think is, we actually liked it, the airline put us in a limo which was far more comfortable and reliable than the planes.

  5. Ben,

    I am sorry you had to go through this ordeal. I was following your updates on twitter after each roadblock in trying to get to your destination! To put a positive spin on it…at least you got home safely! :)

  6. young kazuo says:

    MY FINGERS HURT!

  7. Ben,
    Awesome post, haha! Great writing too. I’ve been to Pueblo many a time..a couple in your same situation and then a few while at the Academy and incredibly bored. Like Scott, I followed your updates on Twitter and was routing you on, glad you finally made it!

  8. Traveling is an essential and common part in our life. We use different sources of media for communication. Car is best way among all for daily communication. We prefer it as the best personal communication. We can found several vehicles on road in our country. Most of us want to like have a car with latest features and technology. Beside this we have to posse sufficient knowledge about parts to maintain our car.

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