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.

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