Thanks to deregulation and mega-mergers, they say that airline customer service has gone down the crapper. And who doesn’t agree? In our travels around the world, George and I have been burned by some pretty frustrating examples of airline incompetence. But our experience at Reagan National Airport as we started our trip to South America was so ridiculously awful it deserves an award.
There we were, hanging out at the American Airlines lounge, waiting for our flight to Miami (to make a connection to Quito, Ecuador). American calls the lounge the Admiral’s Cup Lounge. Really, American? Isn’t that name a little fancy for some worn-out “pleather” couches and free peanuts? You could just as well hang a sign on a restroom that says “Wonderfully Smelling Very Clean Happy Place” but that would not necessarily make it so. And shouldn’t an Admiral be sailing a ship, not flying a plane? I don’t know.
In any case, the lounge was more than adequate for our needs. And all the employees were very nice.
But we got a little nervous when our scheduled boarding time came and went without an update for our flight, so we decided to head downstairs to the gate. As soon as we got down there, we observed several passengers talking frantically on their cell phones. It sounded like most of them were trying to rebook tickets. We heard one guy say, “They just canceled my flight.” Then we saw the gate attendant bring a woman in a wheelchair back up the jetway – from inside the plane. And that’s when we noticed the mass of people standing in a line so long you might have thought the airline was giving away money or wisdom or maybe sexual favors.
Can’t be, we thought. Airlines have no money. Or wisdom. And sexual favors are cheap in Washington, D.C. No one waits in line for them.
So we ask the gate attendant what’s going on. She says the flight has been canceled due to a maintenance issue. As she’s saying this, my eyes can’t help but drift to the enormous video screen behind her, which is proudly declaring that our flight is ON TIME. But ok, she should know.
Obviously we now need to rebook too. But there’s no way we’re queuing up at the back of that line – I mean, the airport will probably shut down for the night before they serve the last of those customers – so we decide to exit security and head back upstairs to American’s ticketing counter. That turns out to be a smart move, because there’s no line up there. We explain the situation to the nice woman behind the counter. She frowns with uncertainty, taps a few buttons on her keyboard, and tells us that the flight is not showing as canceled in her system. We tell her the gate people said it was. She disappears into a back room to check with her supervisor, then returns to tell us the gate people are wrong. The flight is not canceled, she says, it’s only delayed. Whew, we say. That’s good. But just in case, we ask, what would be our options? It turns out there are later flights to Miami, and a later connection from Miami to Quito, so we’re ok either way. Not that it matters, you see. Because OUR FLIGHT IS NOT CANCELED. Have a nice day.
So we go back downstairs and go through security again. While we’re waiting for them to x-ray our belongings a second time, I ask George, have we ever gone through security twice for the same flight? He says, hmm, I don’t think so. Then I wonder aloud if the person watching the x-ray screen might be saying to herself, huh, this stuff looks familiar. But no one in the security area seems to recognize us. No one says, nice to see you again! But why would they? Hundreds, nay thousands, of people pass through this porthole every day. (“Porthole” being a word an Admiral would appreciate. Because she or he would be on a ship, you see, not flying a metal tube through the sky where the thingies you look out of are called windows.)
So we get back to the gate, only to see that the commotion has increased. The flight crew are now standing around mingling with the would-be passengers like it’s a cocktail party. And we hear people utter the word “canceled” more than once. We’re about to approach the gate attendant again, who at this point is being inundated by dozens of people, when she grabs the microphone and announces to everyone at the gate that THE FLIGHT HAS BEEN CANCELED due to a maintenance issue. Just like she told us before, you see. What part of THE FLIGHT HAS BEEN CANCELED did we not understand the first time? I don’t know. But on the other hand, what part of FLIGHT 1533 IS ON TIME still scrolling across that humongous video screen behind her head makes any sense at this point?
So it seems that we do, in fact, need to rebook. And there’s still no way we’re getting on that crazy long line – I mean, I think our vacation will be over before they serve the last of those passengers – so again we exit security, and again we head upstairs. (Did I mention this all happened on February 2nd, also known as Groundhog Day? I am not shitting you.)
But naturally there’s now a line upstairs at the ticketing counter too. Two young women waiting in line are simultaneously calling American’s 800 number to try and rebook. Huh, I say to myself. That’s a smart idea. Why didn’t I think of that?
It turns out not to matter.
“There’s a problem,” the young woman on the phone reports to her friend, and us. “They’re saying the flight is not canceled.”
I catch the eye of the nice woman behind the counter who helped us the first time. She’s now helping someone else but she smiles at me, so across the abyss I shout out to her, “The gate people say the flight is canceled.” She stops what she’s doing and disappears into the back room to check with her supervisor again. (Did I mention it was Groundhog Day?) A moment later she returns to report that, in fact, THE FLIGHT IS NOT CANCELED. IT’S ONLY DELAYED. (Did I mention it was Groundhog Day?)
“But the gate people are saying it’s definitely canceled,” several of us in the line reply.
Did I mention it was Groundhog Day?
Did I mention it was Groundhog Day?
So the woman goes and fetches her supervisor from the back room. The supervisor comes out to the counter looking a bit flustered. She proceeds to pick up a microphone and announces overhead to the entire airport, ATTENTION PASSENGERS ON FLIGHT 1533 TO MIAMI: YOUR FLIGHT IS NOT CANCELED. IT IS ONLY DELAYED. WE WILL HAVE AN UPDATE ON THE DEPARTURE TIME IN THE NEXT 5 TO 10 MINUTES.
The moment the supervisor is finished making her Absolute Declaration of Certainty Regarding the Status of Flight 1533, she is handed a phone by one of the other employees. She listens to someone at the other end for a moment, then hangs up the receiver and lets out a sigh.
“The flight is canceled,” she says.
As a point of fact, she does not get back on the airport-wide microphone to inform anyone else in the airport of this revelation. Those of us in line at the counter are her fortunate minions. The rest? I don’t know. Fuck them, I guess.
Like I said, an award-winning performance! Can we order a trophy?
Fortunately, the story had a wonderfully smelling very clean happy ending. We got to the front of the line, where another very nice American Airlines employee rebooked us on a later flight to Miami and the later connecting flight to Quito. (The American Airlines employees we encountered at Reagan Airport were all very nice. Their operations are a mess, but that’s probably not any one person’s fault.) And we got to go back to the Admiral’s Cup lounge and eat more peanuts.
There’s a side story involving us having to be very persistent to retrieve our checked luggage from the baggage department, in order to make sure it got properly rechecked on our new flights. But that story isn’t funny, it’s just sad. (Employees upstairs at the ticketing counter: go get your bags and bring them to us to recheck, or they might end up on the next NASA mission to Pluto. Employees downstairs in the baggage department: we know what the fuck we’re doing! But fine, you want your bags? Here, we dump them at your unworthy feet!) OK, so not every single American employee was super nice.
We waited 30 minutes for our bags, hauled them upstairs again, waited in line for the nice ladies again, and got the bags rechecked on our new flights. Then we went through security a third time. (Did I mention it was Groundhog Day?) And I asked George, hey George I said, have we ever gone through security THREE times for the same flight? He just shook his head and laughed. Then I wondered if the person watching the x-ray screen was saying to herself, damn, what the hell’s going on here, this shit looks really, really familiar. And then we went to the gate, and lo and behold we actually got on a plane. We said hi to the very nice flight attendants and the Admiral in the cockpit. Then we settled into our seats, enjoyed an uneventful flight to Miami and hoped that when we woke up the next morning we’d be in Quito and it wouldn’t be February 2nd anymore.