Preface: Long time readers know I fly often, more than 2.5 million miles overall. Long time readers also know I used to love flying but now, thanks to the airline monopoly of American, Delta, Southwest and United, flying has become a dreaded experience with each passenger treated as a ‘necessary inconvenience. I have flown more than 50 legs so far this year and have experienced some flights on time but delays due to maintenance and other issues more than 1/3rd of the time. What follows is my experience on what should have been a simple direct flight from Los Angeles to St. Louis:
AIRLINE RANT, AMERICAN AIRLINES, JUNE 16, 2016, LAX
I’m writing this sitting in the International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport because it is better to write than to take out my frustration on the hapless American Airline employees: They are probably a nice group of people individually but a class in communications and service would make a difference … then again, maybe not.
Specifically, I was booked on American Airlines Flight 1258 from LAX to St. Louis, a direct flight.
I live just a few minutes from Ontario International Airport but was ‘forced’ to suffer the 2 hour early morning LA traffic because the airline monopoly has allowed the airlines to discontinue flights and fares that might be convenient to people like me in order to force us to their hubs; more efficient for them, horrible for passengers … but we have little choice.
The fare to fly from Ontario to St. Louis – no direct flight available – was double what it would cost from LAX. Since flights are paid for by the company that retains me to speak I accepted the ugliness of commuting to LAX to help the bottom line.
My flight was scheduled for 9:50 a.m.
I left my home at 6:30 a.m. for the 45 mile journey of stop and go misery to LAX. (Normally, flying from Ontario I would have left my house at 8:38 a.m.)
I arrived at LAX, found parking, and entered the terminal at about 8:45 a.m. American is spread out and I learned the St. Louis flight would depart from the very last gate at the end of the International terminal, a journey through security, then a connecting tunnel, then the full length of the International terminal.
I have TSA PreChek so I arrived at the gate a little after 9:00 a.m., the airplane was there, the crew onboard and the schedule showed the flight on time.
At 9:20, the normal boarding time, the flight board flashed ‘boarding’ but the gate agent made no attempt to begin boarding and did not make an announcement.
Having flown over 900,000 miles with American I knew this was not good.
About 5 minutes later my phone rang with a call from American telling me the flight had been delayed until 10:30. I knew this was a lie. A lie, not a mistake, a lie. Whenever this happens, the time is arbitrary and designed, in my opinion, to keep passengers from leaving the gate and looking for another carrier. (I normally call this the ’10 minute game’ in which a new call arrives from American every 10 minutes moving the flight back another 10 minutes.)
A few minutes later a gate agent announced the airplane had a ‘maintenance issue’ and was being taken out of service. That was it, nothing else. He told everyone to wait in the gate for further information. Normally, this means the airline will find another plane, but not so this time.
I immediately called American because I know waiting for info at the gate just compounds the misery.
The telephone contact told me the flight had been cancelled and that American was ‘automatically’ re-booking passengers and already had me on a flight leaving more than 8 hours later and arriving way after midnight. (At this point, the passengers in the departure lounge had not been told anything; a nasty surprise in the offing!)
American was telling me to wait in the airport for the eight hours. And they also told me that was the last flight of the day to St. Louis. What would I do if it was cancelled?
As it was, I had a two hour drive from St. Louis to the city my morning meeting was in so arriving after midnight was not a choice; this was precisely why I booked the flight I did.
Since this was not my first American Airline ‘rodeo’ I told the phone person the later flight was not acceptable and finally settled on a flight leaving more than 3 hours later, connecting in Chicago and scheduled into St. Louis more than five hours after my scheduled time.
It is instructive to note American did not offer any flight credits, miles or accommodations of any sort because of the delay.
Then again, if you have total disdain for your customers as American does, this makes perfect sense.
My new reservation included middle seats near the back of the plane because the priority seats on the earlier flight, seats I normally receive as a Platinum traveler, were already filled; again, no accommodation offered.
Nearly fifteen minutes after I got off the phone with American the gate agent told the passengers the flight was formally cancelled and they would have to return to the other terminal – a very long walk – and go to the ‘service’ desk to see what they could do.
American banks on the fact many are infrequent travelers and will tolerate this kind of abuse.
There are a number of issues here:
- American knew there was a maintenance issue because the plane was already at the gate, but they didn’t want passengers to know because many would go home or look for another carrier.
- The best connection they were offering premium passengers, like me, was a flight leaving 8 hours later. I can only imagine what terrible alternatives were offered to those who rarely travel and don’t know how to play the airline game.
- There is no advantage being a premium passenger with American when you end up with a rotten alternative and terrible seats.
- As I walked through the International Terminal on my way to my new connection I happened to look up at the schedule of flights posts throughout the terminal; American showed Flight 1258 “closed” which meant people would believe the flight had loaded and successfully departed on time; what a whopper!
Regular readers know I comment often on how much airline service has diminished since American, Delta, Southwest and United were allowed to form a monopoly; these four airlines control 80% of the gates in America. Although they don’t admit it, the airlines agree on service form various airports, have eliminated many competing connections, and now force passengers like me to make expensive, inconvenient journeys to hub cities to travel. (And, if you want to do a fun experiment, go to Kayak.com or any other generic airline booking site, pick a departure and airport destination and you will ‘discover’ the lowest price for each airline is exactly the same, usually to the dollar. But they say they don’t price fix!)
It is the absolute disdain for passengers and their schedules that is the greatest irritant. The airlines treat passengers as a ‘necessary inconvenience’ and have no concern whatsoever for the results of their delays and cancellations.
All of us agree a healthy bottom line is good for any industry but the airlines have proven they are incapable of satisfying both the bean counters and the passengers: they have sided with the bean counters.
The truth is the only time you know your flight is going is when you are on board and it lifts off the ground.
The biggest surprise to me is that more passengers don’t go ‘postal’ at the airports as a result of the never ending abuse.
People like me who travel on business have no choice but to suffer the mistreatment. The only plus side is we know and expect abuse, know we can call the airline direct and get quick, if ugly, alternatives, and we never show up at the airport expecting a good experience.
But American got my paid fare so they are happy!
POSTSCRIPT: As I write this the pilot just finished announcing ‘We are leveling off at 37,000 feet.” And apologizing for ‘being just a little bit late.” He then noted we would arrive at the gate in Chicago at 7:45 instead of the scheduled 7:11 … just a ‘little bit’ late.
This is the flight that replaced my cancelled earlier flight and, if this flight does not illustrate the absolute disdain airlines have for the human ‘cargo’ nothing will: Just before boarding the gate agent announced, “We are oversold and will need some of you to take a later flight. We are offering a $300 voucher for those willing to take a later flight.”
Only a few people were naïve enough to settle for this.
A few minutes later the gate agent announced, “We have to have 34 passengers take a different flight because of a weight limitation due to cargo.” This time she offered a $500 voucher and several people accepted.
This was a flight of approximately 100 people so this means they had 33% more cargo than would be allowed with this number of passengers.
DID THEY KNOW ABOUT THIS IN ADVANCE? Of course they did, they already had their cargo and the checked baggage accounted for. And then they made a decision:
CARGO IN THE HOLD IS MORE VALUABLE THAN CARGO IN THE PASSENGER SECTION EVEN IF THOSE PASSENGERS BOOKED AND PAID FOR THEIR FLIGHTS MONTHS IN ADVANCE!
In other words, boxes of ‘stuff’ are worth more to the airline than you and I.
Not one bit surprising.
The delay for this flight, by the way, had something to do with ‘A brake issue maintenance is working on.’
POSTSCRIPT 2: I’m writing this as I sit waiting for a ‘maintenance issue’ to be corrected on my 35 minute connection from Chicago to St. Louis on the flight that replaced my cancelled flight. At this moment I am six full hours late for my arrival into St. Louis. I have been on the road since 6:30 this morning, a total of 15 hours for what should have been a 3 hour flight to St. Louis.
Once again we boarded the flight with American knowing full well we were not going anywhere. . the pilot said he ‘hopes’ another 30 minutes. Nobody on this flight has an alternative; the only option would be to leave the flight, get a hotel and try to find something tomorrow. Since I’m on a business trip – with a two hour drive after I arrive in St. Louis – I have no option.
The problem, according to the pilot, was a ‘faulty navigation instrument’ maintenance was ‘working on‘.
We finally left the gate and took off a full hour after our scheduled departure. Think about this: we were one hour late for a 35 minute flight!
POSTCRIPT 3: My scheduled arrival into St. Louis was 3:41 in the afternoon; I arrived a minute before 11 p.m., nearly 8 hours late for a 3 hour flight.
SO, THREE FLIGHTS, THREE MAINTENANCE DELAYS!
If this was an isolated incident you wouldn’t be reading this now but, for example, in April I had a 4 hour connection from Dallas to San Juan that was delayed more than 3 hours because the flight was nearly two hours late arriving from Miami due to maintenance and then another hour in Dallas due to maintenance.
It would appear part of American’s record profits come by saving money on airplane repair.
When you add this to the fact airline seats and legroom have diminished dramatically to pack more ‘cargo’ in the seats, well, ‘fun’ and ‘airlines’ do not fit in the same sentence.
FINAL POSTCRIPT: The return flight the following evening was delayed nearly an hour for reasons we never learned, but at least it went directly to LAX.
If you ran your household or your business like American runs their airline you would have no customers.
But, thanks to the airline monopoly American has no worries.
Maybe the airport signs should read like this:
In five days I’ll once again suffer the drive to LAX – no reasonably priced alternatives from Ontario – for a scheduled direct flight. American actually lists a departure time; just their little attempt at humor!
And the expectations will continue ….