Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Night in the American Airlines Holiday Inn

The first time I flew on an airplane, I was in 7th grade, and we flew from Little Rock back home to Ohio. I was beside myself with excitement. I sat in the window seat next to a stockbroker from New Orleans who good-humoredly entertained an aggressively verbal 12-year-old. We were served a full meal on china, and I remember looking down on lighted swimming pools like aquamarines set into the dark landscape.

Since then the flying experience has, shall we say, deteriorated. I’ve learned to keep a weather eye when I fly to the east coast. The east coast air traffic grid is like a delicate sand sculpture that dissolves to mud whenever it rains.

Recently I flew to New York for a meeting. It was meant to be a quick trip—I took an obscenely early flight on Thursday morning, with a return flight 8 p.m. Friday night. It began raining mid afternoon on Friday, and umbrellas bloomed along Fifth Avenue like black mushrooms. I arrived at the airport two hours early. A few minutes before our scheduled departure time we were told our plane and crew were stranded elsewhere. For the next three hours we shuffled like refugees from gate to gate on Concourse C in response to announced gate changes. Finally, it seemed we might actually depart at 11 p.m. The plane was there, the crew was there—all except the captain, who didn’t show up. They couldn’t find a new captain. The dreaded announcement came over the speaker. Our flight was canceled, and we were instructed to approach the podium to reschedule.

The savvy among us leapt forward to be first in line. The mood grew ugly as the podium staff denied passenger requests for vouchers for a hotel room or even cab fare. We were told that because the cancellation was due to weather, we were on our own. No, we said. The delay occurred because of weather. The cancellation happened because the captain didn’t show. American Airlines was unmoved.

They said the soonest they could fly me out was 5 p.m. the next day. I vigorously objected. Finally, they booked me and three other women on a Delta flight to Atlanta that left the next morning at 6 a.m., with a connection to Cleveland.

I joined up with Sharon, a sales manager from the Cleveland area, and we made our way over to the Delta terminal together. The ticket counters were deserted, the walls lined with sleeping bodies, bundles and bags like the homeless on some desolate urban street. I went to the Delta office to see if I could score some of those plush airline blankets. “How many would you like?” the clerk said. “Oh!” I said, so beaten down I was expecting abuse. “You mean it? I can have more than one? I’ll have two, please.” The clerk handed over two blankets and said, “Would you like some crackers, too?”

“Crackers? I can have crackers?” Tears sprang to my eyes and I nodded mutely. It was the nicest thing that had happened to me since I left Manhattan.

Back in the gate area, Sharon and I rolled baggage carts into a corner and spread blankets over them. We joked about our slumber party hosted by American Airlines. I worried that we could be rolled away during the night by white slavers. Nevertheless, I curled up on my side, still in my skirt and jacket from my long-ago lunch, and sought sleep.

It was long in coming. Loud music blared over the overhead speakers. Cleaning staff relentlessly circled our small camp with floor polishers. Some intrepid passenger was snoring, and a child fussed nearby. I maybe slept an hour and a half.

At 4:30 a.m. the Delta ticket counter opened and we checked in. When we went back through security for the second time in two days, we were in for a rude surprise. As a last minute booking, we were flagged for “special” treatment and shuffled over into the “special” line. Our carry-on baggage was opened and searched and run through a special x-ray. We all spread our legs and raised our arms and submitted to pat-downs, thus completing the full contemporary airline experience.

By the way, this is the third time in three flights on American Airlines that my flight was canceled and rebooked for the next day. Two flights were to the east coast, and one was to Wyoming.

So what is the airlines’ responsibility to the stricken victims of flight delays and cancellations? True, the airlines don’t control the weather. But it doesn’t make sense to have a system so fragile that the slightest perturbation destroys it.

1 comment:

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