David Cogswell | September 15, 2015 3:30 PM ET
My musician friend Blanche recently took the red-eye to Ireland on United Airlines to do a musical tour. Blanche is not her real name, but it may be a good description of what her face did once or twice when the airline unveiled a series of surprises for the passengers on that memorable flight to Ireland. When she told me the tale I had a sense that this was not an isolated incident.
Boarding is always a little stressful for Blanche and her musical partner because of the tension over finding a place in the overhead bins to store their guitar and mandolin. In order to board as early as possible to be sure of finding space, they use their United credit card to get priority boarding.
“My musical partner and I had a guitar in a soft case and a mandolin in a case too,” said Blanche. “The TSA just passed a new ruling that you can bring instruments onboard. But it’s always a bit nerve-wracking because you never know if there will be room.”
If the overhead bin is full, they have to gate check the instruments.
“If you check a guitar in a soft case, you don’t know what kind of condition it will be in when you see it again,” said Blanche. “It depends on who handles it. You might get someone who’s in a pissed off mood and just throws it. I’ve heard plenty of stories from people I know whose guitars have been broken that way. You know they had to have been mishandled. And that makes me very nervous.”
Even under the best circumstances, a transatlantic overnight flight puts some stress on the system. You have to show up braced for an ordeal even if everything goes perfectly. There's navigating traffic to the airport, checking in, going through security lines, and finding your gate, all while under relentless time pressure. Boarding is the climax of all that, and finally you can relax.
At least that is usually what you expect. But that’s not what happened this time. Just as they got settled in, and an elderly woman in the window seat next to them had removed her shoes and puffed up her pillow for a nice snooze, an announcement came over the PA system.
“The announcement said that some of the batteries of the airplane hadn’t been charged, so everyone had to get off so they could turn off the lights to recharge the batteries,” said Blanche. “We all had to get off.”
The lady in the window seat had to put her shoes back on and get in line with all the other passengers to de-plane. As if the time sequence had been thrown into reverse, the passengers filed back into the boarding area to sit for an unspecified amount of time to wait until the batteries were re-charged.
Back in the boarding area, Blanche was feeling increasingly uncomfortable.
“My instruments were on the plane. Was I ever going to see them again? Were they going to suddenly announce that we were taking another plane? And the fact that it was all about batteries being charged made me uncomfortable. Things were beginning to feel out of control.”
A few moments before the passengers were on the verge of the big moment, the takeoff for their big long-awaited transatlantic voyage. Now they were back in the boarding area, the climactic moment delayed indefinitely. A huge dark cloud of "take-offus interruptus" descended over a very glum group of passengers.
An hour and a half passed in this state of anticipation and ennui, and then an announcement came that the recharging was done and the passengers could now re-board the flight.
“When they made the announcement that we could re-board, everyone just got up and started piling back on the plane,” said Blanche. “The re-boarding process was not nearly as orderly as the original boarding. There was none of that ‘Okay we’re now boarding for rows 18-31.’ It was just get on. Every man for himself.”
As the disorganized mob moved toward the gate, there was an announcement for the last call for the flight to San Francisco.
“Someone behind me asked, ‘Is this the line for San Francisco?’” said Blanche. “I said no, and several people bolted and went running to the next gate. It was all kind of nutty.”
Finally they made it back to their seats on the plane.
“Like apparently everyone else, I was feeling stressed out at this point,” said Blanche. “I was hoping maybe they’d give us a free drink as compensation for the ordeal we just went through, as a customer service gesture, you know, to kick the flight off in a more festive mood. But no….”
No indeed. There were more surprises coming.
“When the flight attendant got to our row, I asked for a gin and tonic,” said Blanche. “She said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry but they forgot to load the drinks cart.’”
Forgot to load the drinks cart? Blanche was understandably having some trouble processing this. She was at this point also getting a little irritated because her TV didn’t work.
“I asked a flight attendant about it and he said he would reset it,” she said.
“I waited a half hour or so, then asked another flight attendant about it. Got the same assurance. Waited a while longer. Then asked another. Finally about three or four hours into the flight someone told us they finally got around to checking on it. And they now had their diagnosis. It doesn’t work.”
No one knew how to fix it. It was just broken.
“At this point I was starting to feel a little anxious,” said Blanche. “This is all basic stuff. I was thinking, 'I hope the person in charge of navigation is paying more attention than the person who forgot the beverage cart, the one who forgot to charge the batteries, or the one who left my TV screen broken.'”
Blanche’s anxiety level was moving from low grade to “a little concerned.” A drink right about now would really have been nice to smooth things over.
“I know many people who have to have that first couple of drinks when they get on a flight,” she said. “That’s how they deal with flight anxiety. It’s more common than you think. Now we had a plane full of people who did not have the option of relaxing with a drink. What kind of flight was this going to be?”
A plane full of people whose stress levels were ratcheted up a couple of notches by the strange delay, and now had no chance of having a drink to release the tension before the overnight flight.
As the flight attendants moved down the aisle telling each row that they could not have drinks, an unruly tension seemed to move through the cabin.
“We started hearing ‘bing bing..” a lot of the signals calling the flight attendants to help.
Then there was another, rather ominous announcement.
“If there is a doctor on board, would you please identify yourself?”
“At this point I thought, ‘Oh my God, what is happening?,” said Blanche. “Are we going to have an emergency landing now?”
But no more was heard about it. There was no emergency landing.
“Later I thought maybe it was someone having a panic attack because they couldn’t have a drink,” said Blanche.
It was probably around the time the final answer came back about the broken TV, but at a certain point, it all passed a critical threshold with Blanche and she lost her cool.
“At that point I made a fuss,” she said. “I called the flight attendant and told her, ‘I’ve been flying United for years. It’s my main airline. I’m a loyal customer. I’ve been pleased with the service in the past. I even have the United credit card. But this is really disturbing, with the batteries, the fact that no one brought the drinks, the broken TV. The fact that you don’t even have alcohol is a really weird oversight. It just seems really amateurish. I feel like I’m on a startup airline and the owner’s nephew was supposed to bring the drinks and he just forgot…”
Blanche was just getting started. But then the flight attendant leaned in closely, lowered her voice and said, “Let me see what I can do. I’ll be right back.”
When she came back she surreptitiously slipped Blanche and her partner two mini bottles of Bombay Sapphire gin, along some baby bottles of tonic water.
“They had it in first class,” she said.
So many issues piled on top of each other on a single flight. This story is not encouraging in regard to the future of air travel. Is this the kind of service we are going to see looking forward? Is this the new normal?
Now that the Big Three airlines control most air traffic in the states and competition has been reduced to a minimum, is this the new standard of service that we are all going to have to get used to? Usually the domestic carriers are more on their toes in the international markets where they have competition from foreign carriers. But Blanche was traveling an international route.
Let's just say Blanche's story is not encouraging.
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