James Shillinglaw | August 24, 2015 12:54 PM ET
My Last Flight on US Airways
We've all experienced airline delays and cancellations. Indeed, it just seems to come with the territory these days when you are traveling.
But every now and then, an airline experience becomes so egregious that it really must be pointed out. Just possibly the stories told by passengers, myself included, could push a carrier to reexamine its policies and procedures and truly address customer complaints.
My story begins a little more than two weeks ago on a Thursday when I was booked US Airways Flight 660 from Newark to Phoenix at 1:59 p.m. Yes, that US Airways, the carrier that is soon to be completely absorbed under the American Airlines name (though much of the management team is still from US Airways).
We boarded our flight on time and left the gate—and then came to a dead stop on the tarmac. The pilot informed us that an auxiliary power unit was not working, so we'd have to go back to the gate to get it fixed.
Now my first reaction was one of surprise: The aircraft had been sitting in the gate for an hour or more. Why couldn't that problem have been noticed, and addressed, before we left the gate? But I’m all for safety and getting things fixed.
So we sat in our seats for a good hour, as we waited for mechanics to get to the plane. Finally I got up to stretch my legs in the aisle, and just about that time the pilot offered us the option to wait inside the terminal. Bad sign!
Most of us, but not all, disembarked with our carry-on luggage (I had checked one bag). I sat down near the gate to wait. Then a rumor circulated among passengers that the flight would be cancelled, so many of us lined up at the gate counter to get information and possibly get rebooked. Indeed, another US Airways flight left for Phoenix very shortly afterwards, though it had no seats available.
I waited in line for roughly two hours. US Airways had one employee providing information and trying to rebook the entire flight and she was clearly overwhelmed. She frequently left the desk to consult with her supervisor or to address other passenger concerns (one passenger who had remained on the aircraft apparently had taken ill). So the entire rebooking process had slowed to a crawl.
Now I know what you are thinking: Why didn’t I just call my travel agent? Well, that was my mistake. I’ve gotten into the habit of not using an agent when I book domestically because my agent friends simply don’t make much money off me in terms of commissions. Well, I’m now in the market for a good travel agent who is willing to book flights for me, so please contact me if you’re interested!
Back to my story: Rumors swirled again that our luggage had been taken off the flight and was now at a carousel in the baggage claim. One passenger's wife left to check and sure enough, that's exactly what had happened. Not a good sign! But then she reported by cell phone that the luggage was being put back on the flight because it was indeed going to depart.
As I approached the counter after a long wait, rumors surged that yes, the flight would indeed take off by 7:30 p.m., and the US Airways employee confirmed that—at least to some extent, since she didn’t seem to have much information either. I decided to leave the line to get a quick dinner, since by now it was nearly 6:30 p.m.
Returning to the gate area, I sat down to make some phone calls, then suddenly one of the first and only announcements made by US Airways came on the public address system: The flight was indeed cancelled because the replacement part they had installed had not worked.
Rumors swirled that they had to get the part driven up to Newark from Philadelphia, a US Airways hub. I'm not sure that was true, but if so, I'm wondering why the airline could not at least borrow a spare part from another carrier instead of having it driven all the way from another airport.
Those passengers who remained, including me, finally left the gate area and proceeded to ticket counters in the main terminal. After a short wait (there were hardly any passengers left at this point), a rather surly and clearly distraught US Airways employee booked me on a United flight leaving at 7 a.m. the next morning. US Airways, why don’t you support your employees so they don’t get overwhelmed like this?
I went downstairs to baggage claim, and after a 20-minute wait my bag emerged on the carousel. I took a taxi (a whopping $18 fare for a 1.5 mile ride!) to a Renaissance hotel that I had booked nearby.
The next morning, my United flight to Phoenix went without incident. I saw my sister and then took a 45-minute US Airways flight (yes, I actually did fly on the airline during this trip!) to Las Vegas on Saturday to the Virtuoso Travel Week conference.
OK, you might think that’s the end of my saga, but unfortunately, it’s not! After six days in Las Vegas, I had booked a 6:30 a.m. flight on US Airways back to Newark through Phoenix. I arrived on time and proceeded to the gate area without incident.
Then it happened: US Airways announced that my flight would be delayed yet again. An hour passed, and I realized I would miss my connection in Phoenix (even though on my original booking, I was supposed to be on the same aircraft all the way to Newark—something US Airways in their infinite wisdom had changed).
Luckily I had positioned myself at the very start of the line to rebook. A very helpful and efficient US Airways employee suggested I take an American flight an hour later that was going directly to New York JFK. With an hour to spare, she also said my checked bag would be transferred over to the American flight.
The American flight left on time, though my seat was in the last row near the toilets, and I had an uneventful flight. We disembarked at JFK and I went downstairs to baggage claim and waited for nearly an hour. No bag! American said it would be on the next flight in about four hours. I did eventually get the bag a few days later!
So there you have it: In my last flight on US Airways before that airline’s name goes out of existence, I experienced two delays that ultimately led to two cancellations, as well as one lost bag.
On the whole, it was not good track record for a final experience on an airline that soon will be totally branded as American. Let’s hope American’s executive team can address a few of the challenges that I, along with my fellow passengers, faced.
I also was in the middle of the rumor-mill of misinformation that passes for communication in the airline industry today. That’s mostly because airlines simply do not inform or empower their employees, or keep their passengers well informed about flight schedules, delays and cancellations.
I also experienced the frustration that these employees, as well as the airline’s passengers, have when delays and cancellations occur. The airline industry is so tightly scheduled, with no extra aircraft or additional seats on routes, that one or more hiccups can reverberate throughout the system. Safety is, of course, a priority, but customer service should be high on the list as well.
I remain hopeful that American will address these challenges when US Airways is fully integrated into its system.
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