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TJ Neely

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Flying Commercial
By TJ Neely
Wednesday, June 25, 2008

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Just a short story and a personal perspective regarding an experience I had flying with American Airlines (AA). Shortly after this AA was grounded for poor maintenance practices, so it seems that AA's poor management practices extended beyond the terminal. Enjoy!


Flying Commercial:  If there were ever an argument for General Aviation (GA), just fly with the commercial airlines today and rely on them to get you where you need to go… on time!  The summer of 2007 seemed to be the worse for delays due to weather, mechanical problems, flight crew shortages, poor scheduling, and other inconveniences, so I decided to capture and share this personal experience while flying commercial.  
     As all the news papers and articles suggest, it is explainable and for good reason too, but I don’t buy that. What I do understand is the yield-management system upon which the airlines operate, and what bad management practices also look like. Nevertheless, there are some glaring issues here with commercial air travel and the relative increase in general aviation aircraft used by corporate and private travelers. The airline industry accusations that GA is the cause of increased congestion in the skies and on the runways, is certainly not one of them. So here is a short story of my latest business trip.
     I travel quite a bit as a DoD Contractor/Consultant to the defense contracting industry and have to rely on commercial air travel to get around the country. My most recent trip was what you can classify as a nightmare experience, as everything went from bad to worse and it seemed like I was never going to get home. 
     I was scheduled to depart Huntsville, Alabama (HSV) on an American Airlines (AA) flight at 7:15 AM. I arrived at the airport at 06:00 AM, turned in my rental car and went right to the automated check-in machine. I punched in my Ticket Locator number and it said that I was now leaving at 3:30 PM on a different flight. My first thought was “why was I not notified,” so I grabbed my cell phone to check for any voice messages. Sure enough, there was one from (late) the night before. It was AA that had called to notify me that my flight had been changed due to a delay, that I had been rescheduled, and sorry for the inconvenience. Now, I was destined to stand in this long line, obviously with all the other passengers that were in the same situation.
     I patiently waited for my turn, as it took about 45 minutes to get to the counter just to see about rescheduling for an earlier flight.   I asked about the delayed flight and I was told “It’s a Crew Rest Issue.” So, I thought to myself, what is the difference between a delayed flight and a cancelled flight, due to an airplane not being able to fly without a crew?  Is this a new strategy by AA to gloss over the fact that they can’t put a scheduled flight in the air because they failed to schedule a crew for an available airplane? Better yet, maybe the airlines won’t have to make amends to the customer unless they declare it a cancellation? Anyway, the AA employee at the ticket counter was very helpful and promptly rescheduled me for the 11:45 AM flight with a 2:20 PM connection in Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW).   
     So I settled down in the terminal to wait out the morning. I made my way to the designated gate in time for boarding and notice that nothing was happening. So I kindly asked about the delay, and the response was “No Crew.” Almost an hour later we started boarding, on the promise that a crew arriving at the gate (next to us) will take us to DFW. The crew finally arrived and we departed HSV for DFW at 12:55 PM.  
     We arrived at DFW at 2:00 PM sharp and the Flight Attendant kindly put out all the connecting gate information… mine was gate C21 and we were arriving at gate A9. I started to breathe a little easier, but was still feeling rushed. Without questioning the AA attendant’s information and because I had to hurry, I made my way smartly to gate C21 by way of the DFW SkyLink system. I arrived at gate C21 only to find out that a flight to El Paso (ELP) was departing from there, but at 3:30 PM, and the other ELP flight (my flight) was actually departing at 2:20 PM from gate A10. After realizing that even though the AA attendant had put out the correct information, it was not for my connecting flight. Yes, there were two possible ELP connections, but it was not the right gate information for my connection. Here’s a lesson learned; never trust what you hear at an airport… always take the time to read the arrival/departure monitors no matter how rushed you are, or even if an airline employee gives you the information. Trust no one!
     At that time I had Eight minutes to get back to gate A10. After arriving there with a well earned sweat and feeling some what ticked off, and with two minutes to spare, the gate attendants would not let me board. They had filled all empty seats with standbys from all the earlier delayed (cancelled) flights and the doors were now closed. Now this group of attendants/employees definitely had a little different attitude. Their perspective was “this is the way that it is, it’s been like this all summer, and if you don’t like, then go fly with someone else, and besides, it’s Labor Day weekend.” Oh and dare I mention “and if you don’t like it, then feel free to fly with someone else, as they are all the same!”
     Now I wasn’t born yesterday, but doesn’t Labor Day occur every year, along with a bunch of other important national holidays? Also, doesn’t bad weather occur with the seasons? Everyone knows that only the good organizations train and staff to perform at their best when times are at their worst. I call it leveraging strengths to overcome weaknesses for the sake of good business and customer satisfaction. So why can’t the airlines plan accordingly to handle the surge? It’s like a chain reaction… it all begins with the first delayed/cancelled flight and then it gets worse from there if you can’t take up the slack. Here’s a novel idea, why not offer some form of reparation to those customers that are significantly inconvenienced to secure their future patronage. Hell, some customers that were flying First Class were downgraded to Coach with the flight change, and do you think they were reimbursed the difference? Do the Airlines not realize that poor flight service will not increase their volume of business regardless of the excuse? These were just a few questions that seemed to perplex those particular airline employees, so I wisely disengaged and moved on with my new ticket in hand.           
     As directed, I made my way back to gate C21 to catch the 3:30 PM flight to ELP.   While I sat there at my new and hopefully final gate, patiently awaiting the call to start boarding, I notice again that nothing was happening. So I inquired again. Just then a man sitting next to me states “look at that, they just changed our gate, and are now boarding at gate C11.”   As if instinctively and with bags in hand, I moved out smartly down to gate C11. I arrive there with all the other frustrated AA travelers only to find out that this flight is also delayed, or was it cancelled, who really knew? So we waited, with our emotions and attitudes in hand! 
     They started boarding us onto the plane 30 minutes later than scheduled, and then we sat there on the plane for another 30 minutes. Then over the intercom, the Captain began his explanation for the delay “… due to some electrical storms in the local area, we had to put the ground crews under cover for safety.” Just as he was finishing his sentence, I looked out my window to see a mass of ground crew personnel working feverishly to transfer all the other baggage from previously missed flights onto our flight.   Hum… go figure!   Well, we eventually departed at about 4:40 PM, and with the one hour time difference, we landed at ELP at about 17:00 PM. It took almost 12 hours of my day to just get from HSV to ELP.  
     What a day I had flying commercial, and did I say that I usually experience this kind of service about two out of every three business trips with AA. What started out as quite frustrating, turned out to be comical at best, as I was forced to just surrender myself to the events and influencing factors of the situation. I think for my next business trip, I’ll give Delta a try, or fly my own…Oh by the way, did I mention that I own a sweet Bonanza F35? It is always nice to have options!
     Additionally, shortly after I wrote this article the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) took a tougher stance with the commercial airline industry regarding safety inspections and compliance standards and grounded all 300 of their MD-80 aircraft. The CEO of AA (Gerard Arpey) accepted blame for the groundings saying, "We were not in technical compliance, and that is our failure.” Being a pilot myself, I know that even minor deviations from technical standards can cause loss of life. So, given all the imposed inconveniences on the ground, does this not also draw into question passenger safety while in the air?   Thank You FAA!
 TJ Neely
El Paso, Texas




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