Thursday, December 27, 2012

Will the airlines please provide the media with a list of unplanned events?

Ah Winter travel. For all of our rambling about man-made climate change an other what-not it's humbling when we're reminded that we don't have the level of weather control we think we do.

Case in point, Winter snow-storms caused thousands of flights to be delayed and hundreds to be cancelled.  These events have caused the media to revert to "Those mean ol' airlines" mode which has meant that you can read tales of people "trapped" in airplanes (although they could de-plane at their own risk) and self-styled legal experts cautioning against possible violations of the passenger bill of rights, although we are only hearing one side of the story.

It sounds like, in the case of DFW anyway, those stuck in the airport were taken care of in the best way possible by the airport, although there's not much that would make having to sleep at the gate be all that much fun.  Judging by the tone of the passengers the feeling is that the airlines didn't do "enough" to make their flight experience enjoyable and stress-free, even though there's nothing the airlines can do about the weather.

Delayed flights are no fun, I can promise you that.  In 2012 the wife and I were on the bad end of a mechanical cancellation (the airline's fault, so they had to provide accommodations, food etc.) and a weather delay (not the airlines fault, so there wasn't a whole lot they were willing to do for me, nor should there have been).  I can assure you that each case was equally as stressful, but life is life and, through some clever and proactive action on our part, we made ends meet and eventually got to our final destination.

While I feel for the travelers I also feel for the airlines who, based on my observations, are constantly having to deal with a sizable portion of customers whose brains go into shut-down mode once they hit the airport.  It's our collective belief that we are wards of the airlines that gets us into this mess, and our inability to take proactive steps are what drives our frustration. 

What the airlines are asked to do today is closer to adult babysitting than it is customer service.  People whose flights are delayed or cancelled typically walk up to a customer service desk, plop their boarding pass on the counter and say "My flight was (delayed/cancelled)" and then.......crickets.  I've seen people stare at the gate agents for almost five minutes without saying another word. I've also seen people who walk up shouting, and don't stop shouting until they've received the same offer everyone else got but with a drink voucher or something that makes them feel they've being dealt with in a special manner.  I've seen some world-class fits thrown as well, including one gentleman who (honestly) kept saying "passenger bill of rights, I know my rights" over and over again.

I've seen gate agents berated for a thunderstorm in Chicago, heavy fog in London, and flight delays due to Air Force 1.  I've also seen people just give up at the first sign of trouble, or go into "do you know who I am?" mode.  The latter is my favorite, especially when that person is holding some type of elite status. (it's usually the lowest level elites who try this)  Now granted, if you have Elite status there are certain things that you should "expect".  Shorter times in the check-in line for one (unless you're flying UA out of HNL, which has the WORST Premier check-in line of them all), better boarding for two.  What you shouldn't expect is for the clouds to part and flights to take off with you in Business/First.  When it comes to flights being delayed/cancelled, you have exactly the same status as everyone else, although you might have more options to salvage the situation should you decide to act in a proactive manner.

Most people don't act proactively however so, during irregular operations, the affected airports more closely resemble day care centers for the chronically needy than they do transportation hubs.  Look on the bright side however, when you're delayed at an airport either the airport itself or the airlines (depending on the circumstance) is probably going to go to some lengths to make your ordeal a little more manageable.  Compare this to say Houston Metro whose de facto wait policy is "oh well".

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