Monday, March 19, 2007

There's No Place Like Home

I made it home. 2:00 Sunday morning. Several thousand people remain in Atlanta, at least three or four hundred of whom are trying to get to Regional Airport. And I actually got up and read the dissertation that is due at Inter Library Loan today. A miracle, since I was so tired I could hardly speak. (All the words frequently came out in the wrong order. "Oh," I thought, "This is what it will be like to have a little stroke!" since in my mind I knew what I was saying, but N would look at me as if I had said "abba dabba yabba doo.")

The details of my successful departure were surreal, since in my effort to get on an earlier flight Saturday I plodded from gate to gate, assured by the Delta attendants at the previous gates that trying to get on a flight standby was a good idea. It was not. The heights of this absurdity were reached on the 5:30 flight, which was oversold by 40 seats (four-oh) and had sixty people on the standby list. After that, I went to TGI Fridays and settled in with a cold one (or three) to watch basketball for four hours.

Part of what was happening, as far as I can tell, was that some of the Delta clerks were really trying to help people. Much as the lady on Friday night actually got me on a plane by designating me as a warrior for Bush, people were showing up with boarding passes that "confirmed" a seat on the flight - but with no actual seat number. Hence the growing number of excessive people booked for the flight were really just people from cancelled flights who were now eligible to be compensated under the airlines' policies: a $400 travel voucher, dinner and a motel room for the night. If you just have a flight cancelled for weather, you get bupkus.

I understand that there are many things I don't know about how to run an airline, but it is also true that if Delta had just replaced one of its smaller planes with a 747 to Regional, they could have cleared the entire backlog in one flight. But some combination of their own lousy economics plus (I suspect) a draconian financial regimen imposed by their lenders which allows them to keep their airline going means that either they are operating with precisely the number of planes (or fewer) than they need, and the smallest number of seats possible. So that jumbo jet doesn't exist, or it's sitting in San Juan waiting for the next cruise to come in. Worse, the airlines have stopped honoring each others' tickets like they used to do. So up until Saturday noon, it was possible to buy a ticket on another airline and get to Hartford (I acually ran into a Zenith colleague who did this) but not get your Delta ticket transferred to another airline.

So before I stop writing about the airlines (aren't you relieved I haven't permanently turned into the Travel Radical?) here are my closing thoughts.

1. It is time for Congress to hold hearings on the airlines. Every penny that they are saving by these idiotic policies is being offloaded on consumers and business. And as long as Republicans care about business, the hearings could be bipartisan: many hundreds of thousands of work hours are being lost this week as executives of various kinds who tried to go home Friday try to get home now.

2. During a weather crisis, what you do in the first six hours is crucial: work hard on getting out that day or decide to get a hotel and relax until they can get you out. And forget the telephone. You have to go to the airport and stand in those lines because even if you can get to someone over the phone, unless you are physically present they have no interest in doing something positive that will result in getting rid of you. When you are standing in front of them, and they tell you they can't do anything for four or five days, say calmly and reasonably, "I'm sorry, that's not good enough." Try to rebook to an airport from which you can rent a car or take another mode of transportation home, even if that flight cancels. Even though I didn't get to Baltimore, it was my multiple cancellations that helped me get the final clerk to jiggle the system to get me home. And my physical presence (as well as some expression of sympathy for her situation) persuaded her to do her best to get me a real seat on a real plane. Airline clerks have a ton of discretion, even in a bad situation: the key is getting them to use it on your behalf.

3. In a huge transportation crisis, the clerks will tell you that you have a chance for standby when you don't. If you don't actually have a confirmed seat, you are not getting on a plane: the two or three seats that do exist will go to people with small children (the poor blighters!), the elderly and the sick. There are many people who would have been better served by getting a hotel room and taking a little vacation in Atlanta than they are currently being served living at the airport, trying to fly standby and getting six hours of sleep a night.

4. Always take your computer when you travel. My internet connection consistently allowed me to get good information when many other people were getting poor information just so the airline clerks could move them away from the desk. It also allowed me to find a hotel to stay in when those hotels linked up to the courtesy telephones in the airport were completely full.

5. Take a very long book whenever you travel. I ripped through all of John Steinbeck's "East of Eden," which I had never read, and is definitely one of the cheesiest novels I have ever read by a great American writer. It was made for an airport -- not the Pulitzer prize, which it actually won for reasons that are mysterious to me.


undine said...

Thanks for the tips on how to manage (if not avoid) this hideous travel scenario and for writing it up in such an interesting way.

Flavia said...

Me too! (Well, except for the Atlanta part.)

I had my own flights from/to different Eastern Seaboard cities cancelled Sat morning & spent 6.5 hours in line to rebook for the next available flight. . . which was on Tuesday night. Returned today and after more time in line, I managed to get re-rebooked and get home.

(And in re: that Amtrak seat you booked? YOU'RE the reason that my helpful advice to all the people in line around me to just take the damn train--since to my sorrow I think I know every stupid train & regional rail system between DC and Canada--resulted in nothing. Made me look bad!)

Here's to being home.

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