Air Travel, It’s Not Always Perfect

I recently had an air travel experience, and it pointed out a whole bunch of human behavior.  My itinerary was to fly from Kalamazoo (ie: little connector airport) to Detroit, and from Detroit to Tampa.  My flight left K-zoo at 5:30, and I was scheduled to land in Tampa just before 11pm.

So I got to the airport in Kalamazoo at about 3:30 pm, turned in my rental and went to the counter to check my bag…and there were people with no bags at the counter.  I thought it odd, but dismissed it.  I checked my bag and went through security to the gates…

…where there was a cluster of people around Gate 2. (there were only 5 gates at the airport)  I plugged in my laptop and plinked around on the internet, listening over my shoulder.  Seems there was a flight to Detroit that was supposed to have left at 3:30pm, and it hadn’t.  It hadn’t even arrived in Kalamazoo yet — about an hour’s flight time from gate to gate.  In fact, it hadn’t even left Detroit yet.  As I listened, I heard about computer glitches in the airport…and then about a “ground stop” in Detroit.  Apparently a thunderstorm was pounding the airport and closed it down — nothing was taking off or landing in Detroit.  But my 5:30 flight was still listed as on time…still, I worried a bit.

So I packed up my laptop and wandered to Gate 3, where my flight was to be…and there was no airplane at that gate either.  It was about 4:30, and I was supposed to start boarding in 15 minutes or so.  I waited in line behind several people trying to find other connections or get on the later flight (mine).  And I asked if everything was fine with my flight, because, you know, I’d heard all of the stuff with the 3:30 flight.  I was assured all was well, and that my flight had pushed away from the gate in Detroit over a half-hour ago.  So, I sat down in the super-comfortable (roll eyes) chairs at the gate, and watched the runway out the window.  It was sunny in Kalamazoo, by the way, 112 miles west of Detroit and their thunderstorms.

While I sat, I listened to the people behind me complaining.  Some left to get rental cars and drive to Detroit.  Others were on the phone with travel agents to get different flights through Chicago — not that there was much available in little Kalamazoo.

I pulled out my laptop again, and searched for “flight status,” and found a really great website — Flight Aware.  This website was amazing.  I put in my flight number and got a map of the area, with the weather overlaid, and the airports, and my flight, AND its flight path — they were weaving between the lines of storms, and it said it had another 8 minutes in the air.  I looked up the 3:30 flight and it said it was taxiing in Detroit, still hadn’t left.  It was after 5pm at this point.  I was skeptical of the website at first — you know the old “I saw it on the internet, it must be true” thing.

And then, as the website said “landing shortly,” I looked up the runway, and there was a plane on final approach…and as it taxied to Gate 3 it proved to be my flight.  It was about 5:30 when the plane docked at the gate, incidentally.  And all of the people on the 3:30 flight started gabbling like turkeys and swarmed the ticket counter.  The gate agent quickly hit the PA:  “attention, this is NOT flight 1234, but is flight 4321…this is the 5:30 flight.  All 3:30 passengers back the heck off.”  Or something to that effect.

So, I heard the people behind me.  “I don’t care, I’m getting on that plane.”  “How can they do that?  We’ve been waiting longer.”  And so on.  And then the gate agent announced another “ground stop” in Detroit, with an update in a half-hour, at 6:00 pm.  I did the math…if we left at 6pm, we’d reach Detroit at 7pm.  My flight out of Detroit left at 8pm, and started boarding at something like 7:20.  It would be tight…but I reasoned that if nothing could land or take off from Detroit, my next flight would likely be delayed as well.

The crowd at the gate was impressive at this point.  Not so much a line as a cluster.

I looked at the Flight Aware site again, and was relieved to find that Flight 5678 to Tampa had been delayed by an hour, as the inbound flight had been delayed.  I called my wife to let her know I’d be late.

Whereupon she started worrying about paying for new tickets that we couldn’t afford, if I missed a flight because of the weather, and how I would get home.  She wouldn’t be reassured, even though I tried.  I was honestly not worried about it — I know the airlines’ goal is to move passengers to their destination, not to piss people off, even if they are frequently very good at that, too.  I talked to the guy next to me, who apparently travels all the time, and he was no paragon of virtue, either.

“As soon as I hear the word ‘delayed,’ I’m on the phone to my travel agent,” he said.  “I have three tickets booked on different flights, and just cancel the two I don’t use.”  I wondered to myself if that didn’t help keep seats unavailable to other people, and drive ticket prices up as the airlines try to cover the cost of seats canceled at the last minute.

The people behind me were talking loudly about renting cars, and not paying for it, and driving, and leaving…but did none of these things…they just complained.

At 6:00 pm, the update was that the “ground stop” would be extended to 6:30.  More complaining from the people behind me.  “It’s always another half hour…if it’s going to be all day, just say so,” they complained.  I guess the weather is that completely predictable that they could tell that their runways would stop being pounded at a given time.  At 6:10, we got word that the “ground stop” was lifted, and the gate dispensed with all of the stratified “Diamond and platinum passengers, now special first class, now first class…now business, now zone a, and b, and everyone else” boarding rigamarole, and just boarded everyone.  We were off the ground at 6:30pm.

On the ground in Detroit at 7:30pm, we passed an impressive line of airplanes on the tarmac, waiting to take off.  In the terminal, I looked at the monitor and my flight was delayed to 9:41pm.  I’d be home just after midnight, but I was in no danger of missing my flight, so I relaxed and wandered the terminal to get some dinner.  Every gate I passed looked the same — there was a gaggle of people harassing the gate agent, and the flight was delayed.  Obviously a day the airline employees were earning their pay.  When I got to A30 — my gate — there was a cluster there as well, and I heard words like “cancelled” and — well, that actually was the word that got my attention.

“What flight’s cancelled?” I asked one guy…who ignored me and looked at his phone.  “Is this fli–”  The second woman just turned away.  The third guy I asked, “Is it flight 5678 to Tampa?”  He said, “no, it’s flight 8765 to Washington that’s cancelled.”  I thanked him, and continued on to the end of the terminal, where I got a sandwich, ate it and wandered back to the gate.

It was about 8:30pm, and I had just asked the gate agent if I could switch to a window seat, when the gate for my flight was changed, from A30 to A29.  Next door, not across the airport…maybe a 50-foot change.

“Oh, were back to A29 now” a woman said sarcastically.  I asked her what she meant.  “Oh, that’s where we started.”  I didn’t see the problem.  I just walked to the new gate and asked that gate agent for a window seat, which he was able to get me.  I was happy.  I sat in a little booth and played on my laptop, while across from me was a family from eastern Europe somewhere.  The wife and son got up and went to the window, and I watched a mom with a “stylish” crew cut plop down in her seat and tell her kid to go ahead and have a seat — in the seat right next to the husband.  The kid practically had to kick the wife’s carry-on bag out of the way.  The wife and son came back and looked at her, then at their dad/husband, who threw his hands in the air.  I heard the word “estupido” at least once.

At about 9pm, our flight landed and taxied to the gate.  The crowd formed a huge cluster — people exiting the plane had to weave their way through, and nobody moved out of the way for them.  They serviced our plane as the minutes ticked on.  The pilot had to weave his way through the crowd — He basically pushed his roll-on bag ahead of him, muttering “scuse me, scuse me, scuse me,” and people invarably did NOT move, but looked over their shoulder to say something nasty…saw the stripes on the man’s shoulders, and moved aside.  They pushed our departure back 10 minutes, to 9:50, and started boarding.

This time they DID all of the stratified boarding, and it seemed that nobody had ever flown on an airplane before.  People had to search for boarding passes, passports, etc.  I watched the gate agent pick through a handful of paperwork from one passenger, find the pass and scan it, then hand the mess back to him.  People came back to the gate from the airplane with problems.  They pushed back the departure to 10pm.  First class was starting to board…then they started coach.  Departure had been pushed back to 10:10.  I finally reached my seat and stowed my bag.

The plane was hot.  The stewardess was on the phone to the cockpit, and shortly there was an explanation.

“This is the captain.  The air conditioning is off because the auxiliary power unit on this plane is apparently not working, and the airport hasn’t hooked up an external cart to run the AC, even though we’ve asked several times — they are doing the best they can to service all of the delayed flights today.”  That did not make my fellow passengers happy.  “It’s so hot,” “Oh, this is terrible,” and my favorite, from a mother with children behind me — “It’s frickin’ Singapore weather in here, and I haven’t slept in 24 hours,” she bleated.

We had to wait for the external cart to be brought up to start the plane’s engines, and we finally took off around 10:30pm. The flight itself wasn’t at all bad.  I napped a bit, and kept track of our location and speed (around 540mph, usually) on my Garmin car GPS that I had in my bag.  As an aside…if you have one of those, take it on the plane.  It’s allowed, and it’s really cool to know where you are.

So we landed in Tampa around 1:00am.  I collected my bag and went out to the curb to wait for the shuttle bus to the parking garage.  People weren’t done complaining.  “Don’t tell me that there’s only one shuttle running.”  “You’d think that they’d know that people are waiting.”  “Oh, this is ridiculous!”  Once the shuttle arrived, the people onboard all had nothing but complaints about their day.  I reached my car, and was home around 2am.

At the end of the day, I hadn’t missed any flights, hadn’t gotten hurt, and had gotten home just the same.  I was just a couple of hours late.  I feel that I faced the day’s adversity with some grace and dignity, and didn’t try to make anyone around me any more miserable or stressed-out than they already were.  I don’t know what people achieve by complaining their pitiful way through every wrinkle that life throws at them, but I can’t imagine it’s very much.  Maybe they just want everyone around them to be as goddamn miserable as they are.  Boo to them.

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