Recently a trip from Louisville to Dulles on American Airlines inspired a few random thoughts and observations on the current state of air travel.
Let me recount my travel experience as a starting point. My booked flight was scheduled to make a connection in Charlotte. This concerned me because many past experiences for Charlotte connections have not been good. Often the originating flight to Charlotte is delayed in taking off. There is rarely a problem at the first airport. Is Charlotte just too crowded and are traffic controllers stacking up flights at other airports to work in all the planes in tight windows? Sometimes the time is made up, but the margin of error for making connections is diminished. That is how this trip and many others through Charlotte have started. After finally taking off and getting close to Charlotte a pilot’s announcement had us diverting to the Greenville, SC airport. Reason given was that we were running short on fuel because rain in Charlotte precipitated more time in the air thus burning fuel. Rain is an act of God, but this rain had been forecasted for weeks. How you deal with the rain is a human decision, especially given such an advanced forecast. Could more fuel have been taken on in anticipation of potential rain problems? Was this a case of prioritizing cost containment over potential customer service problems? Greenville took on many diverted American Airline flights that night. All the planes seemed larger than mine and they were refueled and on their way before mine – even the ones that arrived later. It seems my plane was beached on the tarmac. The captain was unable to give us any word on our fate because it seemed operations was not getting back with him. After a half hour on the ground the plane toilet pooped out so to speak. After another hour the captain began rotating groups of 5 to the terminal for potty breaks. Did being sequestered on a plane without a bathroom raise legal issues that took precedence in getting us to our destination? Remember grade school when you had to ask for permission to go to the bathroom. At that point I had had enough. I was not going to be an acquiescing accomplice to my own discomfort. I bailed and rented a car and drove home. Basically, I had lost trust in American Airlines to get me home in a safe, timely, and reasonable manner.
• A Charlotte connection is a way station to travel perdition. In addition to the above I have experienced many delays debarking from planes after landing in Charlotte. Often it seems to be a matter of too many planes and too few gates. Missed connections are no fun.
• Size matters. Air travel problems are often inversely proportional to the size of the airport and plane. Do airlines naturally first take care of larger blocks of customers and busier airports? I have had a few flights canceled because the crew had run out of their time allotment. If a crew for a large plane runs out of time, is a crew from a smaller plane rescheduled for the larger plane leading to the cancellation of the smaller flight? Cancelled flights are no fun either.
• Size also matters when it comes to the size of each airline. Airline mergers enhance the power of the remaining carriers vis-à-vis the air travel consumer. Thus, consumers have less clout in dealing with customer service issues.
• The front line airline personnel (crew, gate agents, reservations), in my opinion, is excellent. Despite numerous travel issues I have always been treated with professionalism. Corporate decisions that weight cost and revenue over customer service is what rankles me. It seems the margin of error in flying is kept razor thin to enhance profit. Wider margins for error cost money – back-up crews, more fuel in the tank for travel contingencies, better spacing of flights, etc. In my personal personnel survey airline management does not measure up to its troops. Travelers need to make hard nosed calculations in their travel plans comparable to the ones airline management makes.
I hope this is helpful to my fellow travelers.