Some Thoughts on the Utter Hell of Air Travel – with a particular shout-out to Delta

If you do not believe in hell, you have little experience with air travel.  Unfortunately, I have such experience, lots of it.  I know painfully, horribly well the cycle of disappointment, frustration, anger, and extreme physical and mental exhaustion that is the stuff of air travel.

My most recent trip with Delta Airlines (January 10 — Flight 5100 from Atlanta to Vermont, in case you wonder), is a perfect example.  As my first packed-to-the-gills flight arrived in to the Atlanta airport under clear skies and weather, I received a text notification that Flight 5100 had been delayed from its scheduled 7:30pm departure time to 8:45pm.  There was no explanation given.  No worries, I thought.  That will give me some extra time to get dinner and to walk off some steps on the ol’ Fit Bit.

Then, as I waited at the gate for the boarding calls to begin, I received another text message informing me that the departure time was being pushed back, again, to 9:20pm.  Again, no explanation was even attempted.  At this point, I am getting more than a little annoyed knowing that I still have a fairly long flight ahead of me and a need for sleep before the important business that was necessitating the trip in the first place.  But what could I do?  Nothing, other than sit back in that same uncomfortable airport chair and hunker down for my second hour of wait time.

I did ask the gate attendants what the problem was.  There was conflicting information, but a common theme was that there was initially an unspecified “equipment issue” that necessitated bringing in a different plane from an airport in North Carolina.  I found it hard to believe that Atlanta-based Delta did not already have a spare plane or two available at the Hartsfield-Jackson airport, but so they said.

Then came the real kicker.  The new plane had arrived some time ago (Asheville to Atlanta is a pretty fast flight, after all), but Delta was now having to search for pilots to fly us.  It was another head scratcher.  After all, didn’t a pilot fly the plane into Atlanta?  What happened to him?  And what, by the way, happened to the pilots who were scheduled to fly us in the first place?  The agents couldn’t answer that question.  (One of them did, to her credit, admit to me that she was embarrassed by what she saw unfolding.)

So I sat down, more than a little angry now.  Eyes weary, back and rump sore, and knowing I had more time to kill, I tried to make it constructive by calling Delta’s customer service number to lodge a complaint.  Bad idea.  After dancing my way through the various prompts and options, I finally received a recorded voice telling me that I would have to wait an estimated 45 minutes to one hour thirteen minutes before my call could be taken.  I guess there were other complaints being made; call it a hunch.

Next, at 9:15pm, I received my next text message advising — you got it — of another delay, with a new estimated departure time of 10pm.  At this point I was just about to let loose, but, finally, a pleasant surprise was announced as pilots were found and we were shoehorned on to the plane before 10pm after all!  The bad news was that the replacement plane was a smaller “jet,” one too small for the originally promised job.  It necessitated soliciting “volunteers,” folks who would agree to postpone their trip in exchange for some goody like a price break on a future flight.  What a deal!  Just wave the white flag, give up on this flight once and for all, and you will get to go through it all again later!  And even with those volunteer adjustments, the plane was still packed, with far too little room to hold even the supposed allowance of one bag and one carry on item.

To top it all off, as I ducked my head and stumbled down this sardine can of a plane, what did I see (and hear) right across the aisle but a screaming baby — one far too young to be on a plane, let alone at that hour, (but, then again, the parents had no idea the flight would just be starting at this hour.)

I am still simmering over that night of hell.  Last night, in fact, I made use of Delta’s website to submit the complaint that I could not get through on the phone.   I typed up my frustrations and sent them on.  I then received a nice auto-reply that thanked me for the message and advised that letters and emails are answered in the order received and that responses rarely take more than 30 days.  Wow – way to go Delta!  Only 30 days to respond to a complaint.  That’s service you can be proud of.

The above is just my latest experience, mind you.  It is hardly unusual.  More often than not there is at least one unanticipated delay, and the planes are ALWAYS, without exception or reprieve, booked solid and far too small for the task.  Granted, I am 6’4″ in height, taller than average, but hardly rare in size.  The rarity of men over six feet pretty much passed with the turn of the twentieth century, you know.  Nonetheless, I now expect to walk down the aisle with my head ducked and to have to sit with one leg in the aisle as passers-by bang into my shoulder with their bags and butts.  My only alternatives are to contort my body into a sideways fetal position or to piss off the person in front of me by stuffing my knees into the back of his seat.  But the multi-billion dollar airlines have no choice, you see.  They have to squeeze every dollar of profit out of every flight.  What is it to them if they stuff you into absurdly cramped quarters, leaving you in hours of physical discomfort and with the need for chiropractic adjustments for the next six weeks, as long as they net an additional fifty bucks profit on the flight?

As a veteran, litigation attorney by trade, I endure my share of difficult and unpleasant professional duties.  But NOTHING is as consistently painful to me as flying.  Nothing.  Put me in a heated deposition, a week long trial before a jerk judge, anything — just spare me the torture of a flight.

Adding to the pain and outrage is the fact that the airlines do not care, at all.  They do not give one iota of a damn.  The whole game, you see, is fixed for them.  The moment you walk through that airport security zone, you enter the Twilight Zone.  You leave fairness and accountability on the other side.  The airline has booked your money, and it will fly you at whatever time on whatever plane it wishes.  If the pilots want to take an extended dinner break, yap on the phone, flirt with the stewardesses, or pleasure themselves in the pilots’ lounge, so be it.  If the ground crew wants to watch the second half of a basketball game before throwing the cargo into the hull, they shall.  You will sit there in your gate/holding area, like the herded animal that you are, and wait.  Sure, you can go to one of the restaurants and try to drown your sorrow in a beer — just expect to pay a price twice the going rate since you are a captive with no access to free markets.  Pay the airport profiteers or just sit there in your state of learned helplessness.  Try doing anything more about it and you will get an hour or so wait on the phone or an automated reply telling you to wait for your email response some time in the next month.

Why should they care, really?  You have precious few options, and they all, quite frankly, suck.  What am I to do next time?  Choose USAir?  I stopped using them when I was forced to check a small bag because of this carrier’s pathetically undersized plane size only to have the contents stolen.

Well, we need to do something about it, and that’s what my next several posts will be about.  Tune in as I provide more details of what these evil companies known as air carriers are doing and what you can — and should — do about it.

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One Response to Some Thoughts on the Utter Hell of Air Travel – with a particular shout-out to Delta

  1. Anthony Wade says:

    I think I’ve just been lucky. I love air travel, and I always love Delta. I guess you can’t truly say you love an airline until something unfortunate happens, affecting your travel. Fingers crossed nothing too major happens to me!

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