Perhaps I should be bemused by the smidgen of irony attached to having read, earlier this evening, a Newsweek article about the newfound prosperity of various U.S. airlines -- in spite of increasing late arrivals, lost baggage, and other passenger complaints.
In the article (not easily available on line, it seems), Daniel Gross writes:
For frequent fliers, it is clearly the worst of times. In the first quarter of 2007, only 71.4 percent of flights arrived on time, and 19,260 passengers were involuntarily bumped -- up 13 percent from the year before. In July, 16,988 flights were canceled, up 54 percent from July 2006, according to Flightstats.com.At the moment, I am sitting at gate D11 of Charlotte Douglas International Airport, when I thought I would be home relaxing more than four hours ago. Instead of arriving in Charlottesville at about 5:00 p.m., I am waiting to embark on a flight to Richmond that will -- God willing -- arrive at RIC sometime past 11:15 p.m.
And yet for airline companies, these are the best of times. The industry was laid low by 9/11 and the 2001 recession, as giants like United, US Airways, and Delta filed for Chapter 11. But the airlines' winter of despair has given way to a spring of hope. In a recent conference call, American Airlines CEO Gerard Arpey crowed about "the largest quarterly profit [$317 million] since we launched the turnaround plan more than four years ago." Last week Northwest Airlines, tanned and rested after its sojourn in Club Bankruptcy, reported a healthy pretax quarterly profit of $273 million, despite rising fuel costs. The Amex Airline stock index is up 79 percent since March 2003.
My journey began this morning in New Orleans. I was scheduled to take a flight leaving Louis Armstrong International Airport at 2:20 p.m., but when I arrived at the ticketing desk, I was given the option -- for a $25 fee -- to take an earlier flight that, combined with an earlier connection, would bring me to Charlottesville at 5:05 p.m., instead of my originally-scheduled arrival time of 7:43 p.m.
I gladly accepted the option. This seems to have been the hubris that brought me to my current state.
The earlier flight had a slight delay on the tarmac in New Orleans, so it arrived in Charlotte at 3:45, giving me fewer than 15 minutes to make my connecting flight on another concourse. When I arrived, breathless, the gate had been closed, although I was five minutes earlier than the announced departure time of 4:05 p.m.
When a gate attendant finally arrived back at her post, she explained that the gate is closed 10 minutes prior to departure. If that is the case, I wondered -- that is, if that is the policy -- then why not announce the departure time as 10 minutes earlier? Since passengers would be unable to board later than that time, it is effectively the departure time.
Knowing that my originally scheduled flight to Charlottesville was still in the future, I did not fret. But I thought I might try to obtain a refund of the $25 fee I paid at the New Orleans airport.
No dice. The $25 fee, I was told at the customer service desk, was to pay for the earlier departure. It could only be refunded if the flight it purchased was canceled at the airport of origination. It carried no guarantee of making a connection or arriving early.
This was not explained to me by the computer kiosk on which I had purchased the ticket change. Consequently, I plan to write to US Airways management and explain that, since the restrictions in the implied contract were not indicated at the time of purchase, no implied contract exists other than my understanding that I was purchasing an early arrival as well as an early departure.
Then, it turns out, my 6:43 flight to Charlottesville was delayed until 7:42 for lack of an available crew. Then the crew did not show up at all, leading to the flight's cancellation at about 8:30 p.m.
I was rebooked for a 9:45 flight. At first, I thought, that's not so bad -- I'll only get home about two hours late. Then I read more closely: the ticket was for 9:45 a.m. on August 13, tomorrow. (The US Airways staffer at the gate did not say anything about that, nor did he offer options for hotel accommodations or rebooking to a different airline or airport.)
As soon as I discovered this tiny detail, I headed back to the customer service counter to ask for a hotel voucher. Overhearing another passenger on my CHO flight requesting to be rebooked to Richmond, I asked if that alternative was available to me, as well. It was. So here I am at the passenger waiting area, hoping to arrive home sometime before dawn.
It is with some equanimity that I take to heart one of the points Daniel Gross makes in his Newsweek article:
Customers cut airlines slack in part because they can blame other forces for their misery. The Federal Aviation Administration's creaky, vintage system causes many delays. The Transportation Security Administration oversees the Soviet-like security lines. Weather-related problems can be attributed to a higher power.Keeping that in mind, taking a detour through Richmond seemed the least bad of a list of unsavory alternatives. And American airports are not such bad places as they used to be -- this one, for instance, has free wireless internet access.
The overwhelming majority of Americans lack an efficient alternative to the unfriendly skies. Even if a six-hour flight from New York to Los Angeles turns into an 11-hour Hieronymous Bosch-like ordeal, it's still light-years faster than a cross-country train or car ride.
So, rather than fuming, I am blogging.