Friday, June 20, 2008

Should travel really be this hard?

The "hard" part of the title does not refer to the picture. This is sunset over the West Bay of Grand Traverse Bay, from my hotel window in Traverse City, Mich. I think it turned out pretty good. Traverse City is a lovely town and has a great bookstore, Horizon Books. I was there last week for a conference and enjoyed it.

No, the hard part was getting there and getting home. We were supposed to fly out of Kansas City at about 11 a.m. on Sunday, June 8 (United Flight 682). We were to change planes in Chicago (O'Hare) and arrive in Traverse City around 3:30 that afternoon.

Unfortunately, June 8 was the day that Chicago was pummeled with severe thunderstorms and we weren't even allowed to take off. I was fine with that. After a short while, our plane pulled back up to a gate and we were allowed to get on and off. It became considerably more tiresome, though, as hours passed and we still weren't able to leave Kansas City. The gate areas at KCI have sandwich kiosks and restrooms, so it's not like we were stuck on a plane with no food or drink or clean restrooms. But by mid-afternoon, the sandwich kiosk was getting pretty empty. Our pilot gave us updates as he had information, but it wasn't much. Finally, a little after 4 p.m. they said we could take off and our plane taxied out to the runway and we were first in line. And then our pilot came on again and said "You won't believe this, but an indicator light just came on." He said it was something that needed to be fixed and we headed back to the gate. And then, after probably another 20 or 30 minutes, we were told the crew had worked as long as they were able to legally do so and they couldn't find another crew and we were all getting off the plane. That's when the fun really began.

Let me be clear -- I don't want to fly into a thunderstorm on a plane with a dicey engine. I can understand weather and mechanical delays. Up to this point, I think most of us on the plane recognized this and knew it was beyond our control and mostly beyond the airline's control. There were families with small children and even a little dog and nobody was going ballistic or crying.

But when we got off the plane, the communication from airline folks mostly stopped. There seemed to be poor communication between the crew on the plane and the employees at the ticket counter. We got our luggage back and got in line to find out what was going to happen next. And we stood in that line, barely moving for long stretches, for 2 1/2 hours. At first we were told that it was a weather-related delay and we were on our own. Then they said that since we were told it was mechanical the airline would provide hotel vouchers and we would be automatically booked on the earliest flight out in the morning. We got this information pretty quickly, but then all communication stopped and we just stood there in the really long, non-moving line and wondered why on earth it was taking so long to issue hotel vouchers. Some of the slowness was people trying to change arrangements because the morning flight wouldn't work. Some of it was short-staffing. (Sunday in KCI is not a day with full staffing, believe me.) Of course they had to take care of passengers for other flights that evening. But I was not impressed with the quality of United's customer service.

I have a lot of sympathy for people with thankless jobs, but a few things could have helped, such as:
Asking us to wait in a separate area.
Opening up another line or two as soon as possible (some people did go to other lines eventually, which forced the ticket agents to take care of them).
Maybe dividing us up into our boarding groups to deal with the situation.
They could have asked the people who needed to make different arrangements to get in a different line so they could handle them separately, instead of slowing everyone's progress.

Keeping 200 people standing in line for 2 1/2 hours is not good public relations.

Eventually, we did get our hotel vouchers (it was after 7:30 when I got mine) -- a lot of us ended up at the Howard Johnson's. Our van driver told us all about his hangover and how he wasn't supposed to be at work that day but he got called in. Some of us ate in the little restaurant, which had one surly waitress. Then we got up at 3 a.m. to take the hotel van (at 4) back to the airport. The ticket counter doesn't open until 4:45, and it couldn't have been plainer that the morning crew had no idea what was waiting for them. Again, I think it could have been handled in a more organized fashion. It's a wonder we all made the 5:45 a.m. flight because it was getting kind of chaotic at the counter. United has check-in kiosks, but they're right beside the counters and the lines get all mixed up and traffic does not flow smoothly at all.

Once we got through the check-in, though, the trip got better. We made it to Chicago in time, they let the Traverse City passengers off first since we had about 30 minutes to change planes, we made it to our next flight and made it to Traverse City just fine. My luggage all arrived with me, but quite a few people didn't get theirs until the next day.

Lots of people at the conference had travel troubles because of the Chicago weather. But even when the weather in Chicago is fine, O'Hare is prone to delays, as I discovered on my way home last Sunday. Once again, United didn't distinguish itself in the customer service department. The Traverse City airport is small and the airlines don't have a large staff there. Earlier in the afternon, some flights had been canceled and the ticket agents spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with the problems while the line backed up. I stood in line for an hour because of that. (I think one more staff person, or a better division of staff efforts, could have helped.) But I did get through and got on my 6 p.m. flight fine. But when I got to Chicago, my 9 p.m. flight was delayed until 11 p.m. so I didn't get back to Kansas City until 12:45 a.m. It made for a very long day.

Maybe I've just been really lucky, or maybe I don't fly that much, but this is the first time I've had anything like this happen to me. But the whole situation makes me wonder if it's really worth it to fly. I'll think twice before I fly with United again, and probably think three times before I get a flight that routes through O'Hare.

Maybe travel isn't supposed to be easy; maybe we were spoiled during that brief era when air travel was comfortable and easy. If it's uncomfortable and expensive and unreliable, maybe we won't fly so much. For most of history, travel was dangerous and left to adventurers. Now, at least in most developed nations, we think of easy travel as a right and get upset when it's hard. But I wonder if at some point the inconveniences of air travel will outweigh the benefits. I don't know -- I'm just thinking on the page. What I do know is that later this year I have to take a couple of trips -- one to Colorado and one to Atlanta -- and I'm thinking about driving instead of flying.

1 comment:

Julia Gaughan said...

i drove to atlanta once - it's not worth it... just fly.

colorado on the other hand - probably about the same amount of time considering your trip to the airport.