I don’t know if this counts as a “Flight From Hell” – it might be better placed on a website called “Vacations From Hell.” But since every one of the problems was caused by American Airlines, I think it is relevant. Please note that I am not making any of this up. I know it sounds too crazy to be real, but it all happened.
My family (myself, my wife, our 5-year-old daughter, our 3-year-old son and our two-month old daughter) left on a trip from our home in Portland, Oregon headed for Wichita, Kansas on Thursday, December 21st, 2006. Because Wichita has a small airport, it is expensive to fly into. My wife and I had attended college in Oklahoma City and driven from there to Wichita many times, so we got cheaper tickets into OKC with plans to rent a car and make the two-hour drive to my parents’ house.
We got up at 4:30 a.m. on the 21st, busted our butts to load up our stuff (and kids) in freezing cold, and got to the airport at 5:45 – approximately 2 hours before our flight was scheduled to go. Our flight was delayed by 1 hour and 45 minutes, then another 50 minutes once we were in the airplane. That should have been my first clue to get out and run away screaming…
On the way to Chicago (who sends you to Chicago to get you to Oklahoma City?! – American Airlines, that’s who), I asked the flight attendant for news on our OKC flight. She had an updated list and she said “I’m sorry, but your flight is leaving on schedule at 2:30. And it’s 2:25 now, so we won’t make it.”
But luckily for us, when we landed we found out that our connecting flight had also been delayed and it was now scheduled to leave in about 45 minutes. We took off through the airport and got to the gate with enough time to spare. The flight was now supposed to leave at 4:50, but of course that didn’t happen. It got pushed back to 5:15, then to 5:25, then to 5:30 and then to 6:00. Finally they cancelled the flight entirely because of a “mechanical” problem.
I waited in line to talk to the ticket agent and he had bad news: since it was just a few days before Christmas, there were NO flights available on ANY airline for three days. None to OKC, none to Dallas, none to Tulsa, none to Kansas City, none to Wichita, none to Omaha, Nebraska – zip, zilch, nada.
“So you’re telling me that you can’t get me anywhere near home for three days?” I asked.
“We can put you on standby,” he replied.
“Standby!? There are four of us (not counting the newborn)! There’s no way we’ll get on a standby flight together!”
“I agree. But there’s nothing else I can do for you. Here’s a hotel voucher.”
“Where can I get my luggage? If you can’t get me home, I’ll get a rental car.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but you can’t have your luggage. It is secured and will be going to Oklahoma City tomorrow morning as scheduled.”
I discussed this further with the man, but to no avail. We were stuck in Chicago with no transportation and no luggage. We had been up since 4:30 and we were travelling with three small kids.
We decided to try standby for a flight to Kansas City that was leaving in an hour, so we all plopped down on the floor of the terminal and waited. After seeing four or five people get called up for standby, the lady called our name!
“We have some space. Would you be willing to split up?”
Assuming she wanted us to sit in different parts of the plane, I said “Sure!” Then I realized what she really meant: would we be willing to send 2 or 3 of us on this flight and leave the rest of us stuck in the airport. No thanks. Remember, this flight would only take us to Kansas City, which is still a three-and-a-half-hour drive to Wichita.
So we grudgingly picked up our carry-on bags and I started calling rental car places. But since it was the holidays, nobody was willing to give me a one-way rental – especially not to Kansas.
I finally gave up and waited for someone I recognized from our flight to get done at the baggage counter, then followed them and asked them what the status of our luggage was. “They said we can probably get our luggage, but we’ll have to fill out a form and come back in two hours, and even then there is no guarantee.”
Looking at my watch, I saw that it was 9:30 p.m. If we waited 2 hours, we wouldn’t get our stuff until about midnight (if we got it at all). This sounded like a bad idea, given our situation, so we forced our way through the maze of the airport and caught a shuttle to the hotel the voucher was for. By the time we got there and got to our room, it was after 11:00. The kids and I took quick showers, then put back on our dirty clothes since we didn’t have our luggage.
We put the kids in bed and tried to figure out what to do as the clock neared 11:30.
And that’s when my phone rang. It was my brother. He was calling to say (thank goodness!) that he had tracked down a rental car for us if we wanted it. I explained that we would need to rent car seats for the kids and we would also need a place that lets you use a debit card for the rental, and he double-checked and confirmed that Avis (my new favorite car rental place) could do both. Not only that, but they would also rent us a GPS system for $11 that would tell us how to get home.
I ran downstairs and just barely made the midnight shuttle back to the airport. Once there, I figured out where the rental shuttles arrived, then proceeded to wait outside in the freezing cold in a t-shirt for about 15 minutes (my coat was in my suitcase, silly me!). By the time I got the car and got back to the hotel it was 1:15 a.m. We loaded up the kids in the car – still asleep – and started off on a 700-mile road trip.
The GPS system took some getting used to, but after 20 minutes or so I found myself on the right interstate with a big can of energy drink, and I was good to go. Except for the fog.
The fog was the densest stuff I’ve ever driven through. I estimated that I could see approximately 30 feet in front of me. I knew that the more miles I drove at night, the less miles I’d have to drive with cranky awake kids, so I took off as fast as I dared and prayed for safety. Luckily the GPS system I had rented showed me when curves would be coming up, so I was able to safely and successfully drive through the fog after about two hours.
I kept on going and made it until about 8:00 (almost 26 hours after leaving for this hellish trip) before I finally pulled over and let my wife drive. She drove for an hour before I woke up and demanded control again, so at 9:00 I started driving and I drove the rest of the way into Wichita. We got there about 2:00 p.m.
But that’s not the end of the story – not by far.
On the way to Wichita, I called the airline and demanded that they send our bags to Kansas from the Oklahoma City airport. The lady on the phone was rude, but she said she’d do it and they would arrive via a ground courier. I asked her how long it would take and she said “Call back later today and we’ll have that information.”
So after sleeping a couple of hours in Wichita, I tried calling: “Your wait time will be 65 minutes.”
“Your wait time will be 74 minutes.”
“Your wait time will be 78 minutes.”
Dejected, I decided to try again the next morning.
“Your wait time will be 86 minutes.”
I decided to wait it out. I kept one phone on speakerphone and a second backup phone off the hook. And I waited. And waited. Forever. Finally after 1 hour and 51 minutes, someone came on.
“Hi, I need to check on my bags. The tag number is XXXXXX.”
“Yes, sir, your bags are in Oklahoma City.”
“What?! They’re supposed to be in Kansas today! What’s going on?!”
“We’re sending them to Dallas later today, then to Kansas after that. That’s what you wanted, right?”
My rage started to bubble over, and I finally gave up on this crappy airline’s crappy service. “Just leave my bags alone. Don’t send them ANYwhere! I’m going to get them!” I said.
So my dad and brother and I got in the car and drove the 140 miles to Oklahoma City to get our luggage, then immediately drove back.
That was the trip in December. Now fast-forward two months. My grandpa passed away (he was almost 94, so it was expected) and I knew it was time for me to fly back to Kansas – this time without my wife and kids. My dad offered to buy the plane tickets for me, and he unfortunately chose to purchase American Airline tickets again.
I learned one important lesson on the previous trip: if you don’t have to check bags, things are simpler. Taking full advantage of this new-found knowledge, I crammed all of my stuff into one small suitcase and a carry-on bag. Logging on to the airline’s website, I saw that my flight had been delayed by 40 minutes. I knew that I only had 70 minutes of layover, so I was concerned about making my connection flight from Dallas to Wichita. I decided to get to the airport 2 hours before my scheduled departure time and figure out what to do from there.
When I got to the automatic ticket kiosks, one of the agents was taping signs to them that said “Flight 656 to Dallas is delayed. If you have a connecting flight in Dallas, please do not use the kiosk. Come to the counter via the international line.”
Annoyed, I got in the line marked “International Departures and First Class.” I was the only one in line and I waited… and waited… Finally one of the agents at the desk who wasn’t doing anything at all said “Excuse me, you should use our kiosk there.” I explained to her that the sign said to get in the “international” line but she didn’t really believe me. I repeated this information and said “Your co-worker just hung up these signs.” She looked at the signs, looked at me, then said “Oh. I guess you should talk to us then.”
Here’s the rest of the conversation.
Her: “You’ll still have 30 minutes of layover, so you’ll be fine.”
Me: “But what if the plane is later?”
Her: “It won’t be. We’re just waiting on a late plane to arrive. It’s not a weather problem or anything.”
Me (having learned from my last experience): “Let’s just say what if’ I miss my connection? Is there another flight tonight from Dallas? If not, when is the next flight to Wichita?”
Her: “No, there aren’t any more flights. You’ll arrive in Dallas at 9:10 and that 9:40 flight is the last one. Let’s see… There’s an 8:00 a.m. tomorrow morning.”
Me: “How full is that flight? Is it completely full?”
Her: “No, it’s not very full at all, actually. You’d have no problem.”
Satisfied that I had asked all of the important questions, I went through security, ate some food, and sat down by the gate. And waited… and waited… and waited…
The flight ended up being (surprise!) later than expected. It was supposed to leave at 2:50, but ended up leaving at 3:45. If you do the math, you’ll see that my 70 minute layover had now been decreased to 15 minutes.
Anyway, the first part of my trip ended in tragedy when we finally landed – at 9:30. By the time the plane unloaded and I got off it was 9:35, and when I looked at the departures board I saw that my flight was literally 50 gates away. I grasped my two carry-ons, happy that I hadn’t check them. If I had, where would they be now? I ran outside of security to the American ticket counter and explained that I had just arrived too late for my connection and I needed to get to Wichita to attend a funeral. I asked the agent to put me on the morning flight, but she said “The 8 o’clock has been cancelled. I can get you on the 10:30 that will put you in Wichita at noon…”
I explained (once again) that I was going to attend a funeral that began at 1:00. Getting to town at noon wouldn’t work, so I needed another option. She typed for a bit and told me there weren’t any flights on any airlines, so I was out of luck. She then tried to just say “sorry” and shoo me away. “How about another city?” I asked. “I could go to Kansas City or Oklahoma City…” (sound familiar?)
“We have a flight for Kansas City that was supposed to be leaving right now, but it’s late. You can make it if you hurry,” she said as she printed a boarding pass. I grabbed it, hurried back through security, and called my dad and brother so they could get a rental car to drive from KC to Wichita. I made it to the gate just as boarding started, got in line, and got on the plane. I took my seat, settled back, and prepared for a landing at midnight followed by a three hour drive.
We pulled away from the gate and drove a minute or two, then sat.
“Folks, this is the captain speaking. We seem to be having a problem with our left engine. I’ve got a mechanic coming to look at it, but I don’t think we’ll be able to fly with it. I’ll keep you updated.”
About 20 minutes passed before he said “Well, folks, I was right. We’re not going to be able to fly this plane. And unfortunately, our ground crew has gone home for the night, so I’ll have to find somebody to pull us back to the gate. Once we’re back at gate D17, you’ll all need to go down to D40 to get on a new plane.”
So after another interminable wait, we finally got back to the gate and walked. And walked some more. Going 23 gates in an aiport can be quite a journey, and I was amused to see the large group around me walking in a line through a mostly-closed airport. We looked like a sad parade on a rainy day.
When we got to the new gate, there were no airline employees around to tell us what was going on. We all just sort of sat there, looking around impatiently. And that’s when I noticed him: R. Lee Ermey!
Ermey is best known for his first real movie role – as the drill instructor in “Full Metal Jacket.” But he’s been in tons of movies, including “Willard,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (the remake), “Toy Story” parts 1 and 2 as the voice of the army man, etc.
I talked to him briefly and he was very friendly. I said “I thought I recognized you,” to which he replied “Everyone always does. I can’t rob any banks.”
We finally got on a plane that worked and flew (uneventfully) to Kansas City. We arrived there at 1 a.m. (11 p.m. Portland time), which means I landed over 11 hours after I began my journey in Portland. I got the rental car, chugged some Mountain Dew, and set off on a lonely drive through dark, cold Kansas.
I got to my brother’s place at 5 a.m. and slept for 6 hours before getting up for Grandpa’s funeral. When I got up, I looked outside and saw about 6 inches of snow. If I had taken the flight to Wichita that arrived at noon, we probably couldn’t have landed and I would have been screwed!
Two trips from hell, both caused by the same airline, and both within a couple of months. How nice.