This is not the post I wanted to make. This is not the outcome I wanted to share. This post essentially becomes an offshoot of the last I wrote about airline travel, but it is not a story that is the same kind and lighthearted storytelling as that previous post. I never want to post something in this blog that is disappointing or disheartening.
Then I again, none of this is what I wanted.
Last Thursday, I was scheduled to present at a Graduate Seminar at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, MI. The seminar, based on spaceflight & quality assurance, would be the chance to build up the accumulation of my career and speak to professors and students at my alma mater of the critical areas of expertise and passion. In many ways, it felt like a validation that what my college experience was still put out an active person working in a great field.
It didn’t happen.
This seminar and the day long of meetings with different people at MTU didn’t happen.
It didn’t happen, because a connecting flight was 10 minutes late, and United Airlines maintained their on-time departure for the next.
Typically when I share stories of airline trouble, I leave company names out of it. I am not, because in this case, they don’t deserve to be left anonymous.
My history with United tends to be unlucky, but then again, travel with most airlines for me tends to be unlucky. Trouble is, United does not have much room for bad luck. They tend to schedule tight connection times in big airports. While I know people that swear by United, there are times I can see why and there are times I don’t. Some things, like communicating with their customers, they do really well – but when you have multiple delays and multiple situations where customers needed to be communicated too, they need it. Others tell me that upgrading for leg room is a good thing with United — well, I’m short, so I don’t care as much as legroom, but I can tell you that upgrade gets you the same leg room on other airlines without paying $50 a flight extra. I find their in-flight experience lacking and their equipment outdated, but those are just little things. My main problem is what exactly happened on this trip.
Let me start by saying that this was going to be a troubling trip regardless. The closest airport to the school is Houghton County Airport, located just short of a half-hour from the school. By small airport standards, this even smaller than you think. Currently, it has two commercial flights a day – which comes into play later in this story. United Airlines is the only airline that services the airport. Now, there are other options further away like Marquette, Duluth, or even Green Bay; but that was not what was selected for this trip. Because I was invited by the school at the school’s expense, they set the travel. While I offered options, I don’t know what they were given from their travel service or United Airlines. Yet there is a critical moment in the itinerary that was risky at best and doomed the event in the plan at worst.
There were actually six planned flights. I would depart from Burbank to Denver, connect from Denver to Chicago O’Hare, then O’Hare to Houghton. Return is similar but went through San Francisco instead of Denver. The hangup was the 2nd connection.
It actually started in Denver. About twenty minutes before we were to board, the pilot got on the PA at the gate. Now, it’s usually a bad sign when your pilot is talking to you before you get on the plane … and he actually said those exact words. He followed it with promises that we would leave on time and arrive on time. It’s just we didn’t have a plane. Two gates side by side had planes departing with mechanical issues. Since they couldn’t park the incoming, we were on an unknown delay. This was odd to me since, if you ever been to Denver International Airport you might have seen this (and even if you heard of the city of Denver and can guess what their airport might look like), they have more than two gates. We didn’t in-fact depart on time, and we didn’t in-fact arrive on time. We left Denver 20 minutes late and arrived at our gate 10 minutes late into O’Hare. Now you might think “10 minutes isn’t bad”.
Well … My layover in Chicago was scheduled to be 39 minutes.
By procedure, United can book a connection that is 35 minutes or greater. There are no caveats to that, just the 35 minutes. This is odd to me because United starts boarding 35 minutes before departure and states they can close the plane door at 15 minutes to go. I received notice that my flight was boarding while still sitting on my inbound Denver plane. So the assumption is that I can transfer from one plane to another in 20 minutes (or by schedule 24 minutes … or by my exact condition 14 minutes). What this time span does not consider is:
- Time to de-plane. Thinking ahead, I did buy one of those upgrades, so I was sitting in the 2nd row. You do need someone to move the jetbridge, though, but that doesn’t count towards any delays – especially if it takes 5 minutes for someone to arrive.
- Distance between gates. For instance, I had to transfer from Gate C28 in Terminal 1 to Gate E7 in Terminal 2. So yeah, I had to switch terminals. Assuming you don’t know O’Hare well, let me explain what this really means. Start at one end of one hallway walk about 200 yards, take a slow escalator down two flights, cross a quarter mile on a moving walkway, take a slow escalator up two flights, head down a new hallway about 150 yards, turn a corner, go down another 100 yard hallway, duck around some corners in another 100 yard dash, turn a corner, make it down the last stretch to the gate.
- There is no assistant given to non-disabled travelers to help make short connections. Even though the airport was mostly empty and folks had carts available, assistance is not available.
- Any choices made by the gate crew to close boarding early. Which, in fact, happens.
I stepped off my Denver plane at 8:52pm, 24 minutes before my departure time. I arrived at Gate E7 at 9:06, 9 minutes before departure time. The gate agent closing the plane up was down there for 4 minutes ignoring knocks at the door or calls from other staff. At 9:10, 5 minutes before departure time, the gate agent arrived. The conversation went:
Me: “I am on this flight, my connection was delayed.”
Agent: “The door is closed.”
Me: “It hasn’t departed.”
Agent: “I can’t open it back up.”
Me: “So what happens now?”
Agent: “Have you spoken to customer service.”
Agent: “Speak to customer service.”
By this time two others from my flight were by my side. So, at least three of us missed this flight.
Minutes later, I was told the devastating news — the next flight with available seats would arrive just before Midnight the next day after the graduate seminar was over. In fact, I would arrive on the same that would fly me back the next morning. I was given no choice but to cancel the whole trip.
The cold response from the gate agent was one of someone who gets yelled at daily for this kind of thing. He, in response, followed procedure. A procedure that does not make him question why so many people failed to board a plane. A procedure that does not communicate between connecting flights that things did not go as plan. A procedure that finds that re-routing passengers is preferred over the best interests of those passengers.
You might ask yourself, why United wouldn’t hold the plane when three people were coming in on a late flight. Well, first I would say ‘Good Question,’ because the better the question, the dumber the answer. Likely, the United team was following policy. Probably their top priority was on-time aircraft. While I came in on a late plane, while holding the outgoing plane by 5 to 10 minutes might have been enough to have all their passengers on board, and while there was a chance they still could have had an on-time departure just to give that little bit of waiting — clearly an on-time departure was more important than ensuring people get where they bought a ticket to go to.
I fly American, and one thing they do that sticks out to me (especially when flying through DFW) is they wait for late arrivals. There’s been more than once that I am sitting in a small commuter flight when it is late in the date and we are all itching to get to our last stop – when a pilot or flight attendant comes on and says they are waiting for a couple of people. In that moment, you don’t think about that late arrival by a couple minutes – you think of “if it was me, what would I want other passengers to do?”
Well … United in Chicago doesn’t think like that.
By the time I spoke to customer service, there were about 15 people from the Denver flight who missed connections across Terminal 2. Customer service told me that because mechanical issues were the cause, they would give me:
- Re-route back to my destination. Because I guess if it was weather delays, I would have to walk to Burbank.
- A hotel … off the airport … good distance away … perfect for an early morning flight back.
- Vouchers for meals, which at 9:30pm in a vacant airport didn’t really get me anything. Did get me a disgusting bagel sandwich in the morning that I couldn’t eat (because I was still kind of shaken up) … so basically $3 worth of food and a bottle of orange juice.
- Someone who had the nerve to say “Sorry for your inconvenience.”
I don’t yell at customer service. It gets you nowhere. She was following the procedure as well, probably. That’s the thing though.
I wanted to yell. I wanted to scream. My inconvenience. A delay getting home after a long week is an inconvenience. Having to change routes or airlines is an inconvenience. Flying standby in a middle seat is an inconvenience. Getting sick from a disgusting bagel is an inconvenience.
I missed what I was sure would be one of the great moment in years for me. I had the opportunity to meet with young minds, old minds, and caring minds. I was there to talk about the future of space flight in a small school and small organization that needs every leg up it can take. I was giving back to my past.
Of all the times I have air travel problems, and of all the times I’ve been ‘inconvenienced,’ this was the first time that I broke down. The agent was helping me with the route home, and I had to stop – I nearly had to take a knee. I wasn’t inconvenienced, I was wrecked. As I pushed my shaking hands to rid the tears out of my eyes, I nearly choked “just get me home.”
I am considering making a formal complaint. It wasn’t out of my pocket, so I don’t really think a refund is in order. I believe that if 10 people read this, and they tell 10 friends, and even if every one of them never flies United again – it won’t even add up to one plane of the thousands that ‘fly the friendly skies’ daily. Most of all, I don’t want to complain because their likely retribution would be a flight voucher … and if I can’t trust someone to fulfill my expectations at full cost, why could I trust them to do it for free. Then again, I may submit a complaint out of a sense of duty.
I just need to heal for a bit.
So, that’s why this post wasn’t what I hoped it to be. Thanks for hearing me out anyway.