By Bill Oakey – July 26, 2016
When I travel by air, I almost always fly Southwest. So, I was horrified to learn about the boarding trap that American Airlines can snare passengers in. I was coming back from Albany to Austin on July 18th. I had to change planes in Charlotte, North Carolina. The flight out of Albany got rerouted because of thunderstorms. This caused a delay of about 45 minutes.
About halfway to North Carolina, I asked a flight attendant about my connecting flight to Austin. I wanted to know if the airline coordinates arriving passengers with departing flights, to ensure that you don’t miss your connection. I would not expect them to hold outgoing flights for half an hour or 45 minutes. But I was hoping that passengers who arrived in the terminal before their connecting flights took off would be allowed to board those flights within a reasonable time frame. In my case, the fight to Austin was the last one of the day. So, delaying it for a few minutes would not cause a chain reaction affecting any subsequent flights.
The flight attendant’s response to my question was brief and blunt. “You are on your own,” she told me. “Connecting flights are not coordinated these days.” She agreed to try to obtain the gate number for my flight to Austin. Then she offered me one positive concession. “If you miss your flight and have to stay overnight, we will give you a free hotel room.”
As our flight to Charlotte neared its end, I nervously started checking my watch. We hovered above the city lights below for what seemed like an eternity. When they finally announced that they were going to make their final descent and land, we were 20 minutes away from my Austin flight’s boarding time. The passenger sitting next to me knew the Charlotte airport well. He said I could make the run to my departing gate in about 5 minutes. I was sitting close to the front of the plane, so I knew I could exit quickly.
I arrived at the departure gate completely out of breath and plunked my boarding pass down on the counter. “Austin is gone,” the man said. Just like that – gone. I could see by my watch that it was precisely three minutes past the scheduled departure time. I could see the gate attendant’s fingers zipping across his computer keyboard. “The next flight to Austin is at 7:00 tomorrow morning,” he announced to me and a couple of other stunned passengers who stood next to me. “I’ll see what kind of accommodations we can arrange,” he explained.
I told him that I had been promised a complimentary hotel room. From that point forward, everything went from bad to worse. They don’t give free hotel rooms if the flight delay is weather-related. I was told that I would get a discounted room, and that “most of the hotels offer free shuttle service.”
I was given a slip of paper with a 1-800 phone number for a third-party “stranded airline passenger service.” After going through several menus and waiting on hold, I was informed that all of the hotels close to the airport were full. The nearest available room was seven miles away at a Holiday Inn. They have no shuttle service, so I would have to pay for a taxi to get there.
This all happened on a Monday night. If it had been a weekend, I hate to think how far away I would have had to go, and at what cost. The Holiday Inn provided me with three and a half hours of sleep for $106.00, including taxes. The cab fare was a fixed rate of $25 each way, not including tips. There was no restaurant open in the hotel for breakfast the next morning. I had to be ready for the cab at 4:30 AM.
As frustrated and furious as I was at American Airlines, the situation could have been even worse. I found out that they have an iron-fisted, arbitrary policy about letting passengers with boarding passes get through the gate and onto a plane. They allow people to board up until 10 minutes before the departure time. Then they shut the door. If any breathless passengers arrive at the gate 2 seconds after the door is shut, they are simply screwed. They get to watch their plane sit for 9 minutes and 58 seconds, and then soar into the clouds without them. A fellow traveler told me that he got stuck exactly that way with 45 other people headed for Austin. Even though all of their seats were available and the plane was still sitting at the gate, American Airlines refused to let any of them board. They were all given the choice of sleeping at the airport or paying for a hotel room and two-way taxi fare.
This policy obviously suits the airline just fine. The more planes that arrive and depart on schedule, the better for their profits. The policy applies to all flights under all circumstances. No consideration is given for good weather conditions that might allow a pilot to make up the lost time. The arriving and departure gates for connecting flights could be right next to each other. Or, the departing flight could be the last one of the day, with no risk of compounding delays. Despite all of the expense and inconvenience to thousands of passengers every week, American’s CEO probably sleeps comfortably every night. He knows that every penny of profit is protected to the maximum extent possible. Including whatever cut they take from the third-party vendors who arrange hotel rooms for the stranded passengers. And sure enough, Bloomberg reported last January that American earned record profits in 2015.
While searching online for more information about American and their despicable policies, I discovered something else equally disgusting. Back in March, the Washington Post reported that passengers can get screwed by another boarding policy, even before the first part of their trip begins. Suppose that you could not download your boarding pass onto a computer or your phone before you arrived at the airport. Maybe you had to leave in a hurry after a meeting. Or maybe you couldn’t get your mobile Internet connection to work. American has a weird policy that no new boarding passes can be generated once the clock reaches 30 minutes before your departure time. So, you could be at the security checkpoint, standing at a boarding pass kiosk. If it’s less than 30 minutes before your departure time, congratulations! You lose your seat and your flight. No one can issue you a boarding pass because “the system” cannot handle it. If it’s late in the evening, you’ll get to spend the night. Won’t that be fun?
At 5:00 AM on Tuesday July 18th, I sat at my gate at the airport in Charlotte. Finally, I would be going home to Austin. In the next row over, I noticed a woman huddled in a blanket, waiting for the same flight as mine. She had spent the entire night sitting upright in her chair. Suddenly, the image of another person in another chair crept across my mind. I was thinking of the CEO of American Airlines. He was probably basking on the beach at one of his vacation homes on the other side of the world. I imagined him sipping a drink while nervously checking his watch, just as I had done the night before as my flight came in to Charlotte. Only the CEO’s anxiety would be a little bit different from mine. He would be stressed by an upcoming decision by the board of directors. Would they or would they not approve his $2 million bonus for delivering another solid year of record profits?
Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Posting:
- “The Biggest Airport In the World” – Moe Bandy,
- “L.A. International Airport” – Susan Raye,
- “The Great Airplane Strike” – Paul Revere & the Raiders
- “Leaving On a Jet Plane” – Peter, Paul & Mary
- “Ebony Eyes” – The Everly Brothers
- “Outbound Plane” – Suzy Bogguss
- “Trains And Boats And Planes” – Dionne Warwick
- “Next Plane Out” – Celine Dion
- “Airplane” – Indigo Girls
- “Come Fly With Me” – Frank Sinatra