Tuesday, July 25, 2006

United We Sit

I've known more than a few doctors in my life for whom the expression, "Physician, heal thyself" was apt advice.
While admonishing patients to clean up their life styles, they privately endulged in cigar smoking and bourbon drinking that would make a trucker blush. I only mention this by way of admitting that I too am guilty of failing to practice what I preach. Indeed, I didn't heed my own words that appeared on these pages in May predicting that this summer's air travel season would set new records for frustration.
"You don't need to be a genius to see that air travel this summer will amount to squeezing toothpaste into the tube," was the way I phrased it.
I then quoted an airline official as saying, "As load factors have crept up, we have been seeing involuntary denied boardings go up proportionately, and we'll see them go up even more so this summer."
I thought about these words long and hard one recent evening when I found myself stuck in Denver with several thousands of my closest traveling companions, looking for a way out.
Do you remeber the scene in the movie "Dr. Zhivago" where scores of Muscovites crammed the train station hoping to flee their city which was in the throes of a violent Bolshevik revolution? It was something like that.
For reasons that remain unclear, almost every single United Airlines flight into or out of Denver that day was either delayed or cancelled.
This is no small deal. Denver is a major hub for United and the resulting chaos was instantly evident.
It didn't appear to be weather. There was some rain in the area but nothing that would ground a jet. Based on a weather map that United conveniently displayed on a large flat screen near its complaint department, the only bad weather appeared to be over the Dakotas, the land that time forgot. No cause for delays there.
Security breach? Nope. Overbooking and bad management? Probably. My problem was minor compared to most. I had an 8:30 p.m. flight to Burbank that was being delayed to 10 p.m.
I was told I could try standby on a flight to Orange County but I figured I had better odds of winning the lottery. And besides, it would have taken me longer to drive from Orange County to my home in Glendale than it would to fly from Denver to John Wayne airport.
I was right about the standby odds. At a gate for a flight to San Francisco, the attendant announced she already had 125 standbys and that any others should go away.
In the midst of all this, it was remarkable to see the patience and fortitude that most the traveling public shows in the face of this bovine boogie we call air travel.
A woman with three young sons was trying to get to Birmingham, Ala. A United representative said they could get her as close as Miami. She kept her cool as she traveresed the customer service line that stretched almost the length of the terminal to try to work things out.
Another couple walked by, discussing the fact that the next plane to their destination would be three days hence. But they talked as though they were discussing their dinner entree.
Another woman had arrived at O'Hare in Chicago at 6 a.m., finally got a flight into Denver but now as denied a connecting flight to Los Angeles. Bleary eyed and clearly agitated, she nonetheless kept her cool.
Maybe that's the problem. Maybe we, the traveling public, need to raise holy hell with everyone from the Federal Aviation Administration to our congressional representatives to the ticket clerk to the sky cap until the airlines begin to understand that an acceptable level of service is not treating passengers as though they were qued up for a meat packing plant.
Then again, this is an industry where bankruptcy in the norm and employee strikes are commonplace.
As for me, I got out. My 8:30 flight left at 10:30. This was no small concern since there is a nightime curfew at Bob Hope airport. And it was hardly a comfort when, before we left, United employes started passing out blankets so travelers could sleep on the floor.
As air travel horror story goes, however, it doesn't touch one told to me by a friend who used to travel the world for the government.
In a flight over Nigeria one evening, the co-pilot emerged from the cockpit to shake hands with the passengers and wish them a pleasant jounrey. Moments later, with the plane on auto, the pilot emerged to get a drink of water from the galley. Just then, the plane hit some turbulence, slamming the door to the cockpit shut, locking both pilots out.
They had to break down the door with an axe to regain control of the plane.
Happy landings.

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