It was not the good kind of adventure, oh no. It was a succession of epic fuck-ups.
I was at an arachnology conference at Washington and Lee University that ended on Thursday. The plan was that I’d catch a flight home from Roanoke that evening, and with a layover in Charlotte, get home to Minnesota in the early hours of Friday morning. It wasn’t ideal, but I accepted the compromise of a redeye flight for a cheaper airfare.
Unfortunately, American Airlines abruptly cancelled my Roanoke flight half an hour before departure time. They can do this. I can understand how mechanical problems or weather issues mean that transportation plans can go awry. What I don’t understand is how the airlines can be so poorly prepared for the inevitable chaos their willingness to disrupt the travel plans of a few hundred people. They had no backup plan in place, other than to tell everyone to figure it out for themselves.
They were willing to dump all these people onto a market that, by design, was saturated — they’d squeeze us one by one onto any open seats that might be available, never mind that they had just made hundreds of seats vanish. They were not going to reschedule the plane, they were going to reschedule us, and damn our constraints. So I was told that the next earliest available seat was two days away. Are you going to cover my hotel costs for two nights, I asked? Oh no, they bear absolutely no responsibility for that. Not that I wanted to stay an extra two days.
We made a ridiculous compromise that would cost American Airlines nothing. They would let me fly from Charlotte to Minneapolis the next day, 24 hours after my scheduled departure. All I had to do was rent a car (would they pay for that? Don’t be absurd) and drive to Charlotte. That’s their backup plan for failure to meet a commitment: their ‘passengers’ will drive themselves at their own expense to a different airport.
I also had to spend an extra night in Roanoke, which is another cost for a motel room. I got the cheapest I could find, which was my mistake. I didn’t get much sleep, because of the clanging racket of a fleet of garbage trucks outside my window, and because the brief moment of silence I got meant I heard the scratching, rustling stirring of the rodents nesting in the box spring. Hot tip: always spring for the room that costs an extra $50 if it comes with no rats. That’s not American Airlines’ fault, at least.
I drove 3 hours to Charlotte, bright and early in the morning, driven out at 4am by the charms of a cheap hotel room. That meant I arrived very early for the earliest flight I could get, which was scheduled to depart at about 8:45 pm. “Scheduled” is a word that is flexible in its meaning to American Airlines, because no, it didn’t leave on time. As the moment of departure approached, time retreated as necessary, with the departure time moving away from us in 10 or 20 minute increments. It was almost amusing — as the moment of departure approached, the sign announcing that time would shift predictably. Oh, the sign says 9:10 departure? At 9:09, it would suddenly read 9:30. We all learned not to trust anything the official declarations said.
The plane finally opened its doors to us at something like 11:30. I think. I was a bit bleary from exhaustion by then. We trooped aboard, finally thinking the nightmare was over.
Then the pilot announced that there would be a brief departure delay — a minor maintenance issue, nothing serious, they’ll get it fixed right away. We waited patiently. Maintenance crews kept visiting the cockpit, mumbling over clipboards. Later the stewardess announces they just need to sign off on some paperwork and we’ll be off. More clipboards, more yellow-vested people visit.
We’re told we all need to get off the plane.
We’re dumped into the gate area of an empty airport. We get an occasional announcement that they just have to find a replacement part, then that they think they can build a replacement part, then that they’ll get us a new plane. The electronic departure time begins its incremental flight forward through time again. We wait. We’re going to get out of here at 1am. At 1:10am. At 1:30am. At 1:45am. At 2am. Then, the clock surrenders. 9:00am departure time, it declares. Hundreds of people groan simultaneously. There are no further announcements from American Airlines. They have decreed what reality is, and they are done. AA has washed their hands of us.
An airport terminal late at night is not a pleasant environment. Everything is closed. The lights are left on brightly. The TV screens everywhere continue to play CNN, and most importantly, commercials, with Bank of America and Geico Insurance constantly displaying surreal spots begging us to make sure money flows in their direction. The seats all have fixed armrests, so no, you’re not going to stretch out there; the floor is covered with stubbly industrial carpeting, so if you don’t mind a rock-hard surface, you can sort of rest there. The air conditioning is still running. There were no blankets, silly. I saw some people scavenge plastic bags from the garbage cans, which could give you a little cover if you arranged 3 of them just right.
I think it was a vision of a late-stage capitalist utopia.
Meanwhile, in Minneapolis…
Other problems ripple outward. My wife was supposed to pick me up at the airport. The day before, she’d been on her way when my first flight was cancelled, and I’d managed to call her when she’d only come halfway, so she turned around and went back home. This night, all the delays had dragged on with imminent promise of relief, and so she’d come all the way to the Minneapolis airport, and was waiting in baggage claim. And waiting. And waiting. I’d been keeping her hanging, frequently calling to tell her the latest lying promise of American Airlines, until that 2am final announcement, at which point she had nowhere to go, either, so she spent the night sleeping restlessly on the baggage claim floor.
My plane did not take off at 9am. The flight crew did not all arrive until approximately 10:00. The most pathetic thing about that was how all these bedraggled, worn out passengers cheered when the last crew member finally showed up. Remember that: you can treat people like dirt, and when you give them one tiny little promise of belated relief, they will cheer for you. I’m sure that’s the only lesson American Airlines learned.
I did not cheer.
I finally arrived at the Minneapolis airport around 1pm. We drove home to Morris, about 3 hours away. I got home, took a shower, got dressed to go into the lab and take care of the animals, when I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. I went to take a little nap, I thought, and woke up 12 hours later. Mary slept that whole time, too.
I’m still tired and stressed. I’m also aware that American Airlines got our money up front for a promised service, failed to provide it, and because of the way corporate America works, suffered no penalty, made no effort at recompense to any of the people who suffered for their profits, and will continue to thrive while abusing the people who willingly pay them for their bad service, because we’re given no choice. It’s a little thing, a few hundred people experiencing discomfort and having their lives disrupted for just two days, but it’s galling that they will always get away with it.