There might be some bigger lessons to be learned here about the declining state of the airline industry, the complete absurdity of airport security measures, and some other "issues" that affect everyone who flies, but, as per usual, I am here to stand still and let the rest of the earth revolve around me.
6 of 8 of my last flying experiences have involved the sort of delays that people have nightmares about. Let’s review:
1. Amsterdam – London (City) (Nov 2006), KLM Airlines: This one can be blamed upon either myself or Edward (the boyfriend, who was studying in Nijmegen at the time) for not checking train times on a Sunday, and not on the good people of that fair country, who had trains that were so accurately timed that I arrived exactly (EXACTLY) when the man in the Nijmegen train station said I would: 5 minutes after my flight took off (and it took off exactly on time). Then I had to spend the night on the floor of Schipol and fly on a commuter jet to London City Airport at 6:45 am.
2. London (Heathrow) – Denver (Dec 2006), United Airlines: This was an AWESOME time. My flight in London got cancelled due to mechanical problems, but it got cancelled after we had waited around for two hours for them to fix it. Cue a running, shoving match down the halls of Heathrow to get onto another flight. Cue me getting put into, no joke, the middle seat of the very last row of a 777. Behind a woman who kept her seat reclined for the entire flight, including takeoff and landing. Cue this 777 sitting at the gate for two and a half additional hours while they transferred the luggage from my cancelled flight into it. Cue it then taking another hour sitting on the runway to finally depart. Cue me standing in Dulles at 10:30 pm EST, after having left Oxford at 8 am GMT, being told by an extremely surly United Airlines employee that I was going to get to stay the night in a hotel that was an hour away, somewhere in the wilds of Virginia. And then adding that I was booked in for a 6 am flight to Denver. Yeah, that was totally sweet. Oh, and the vouchers they gave me for food at the hotel: did not cover the cost of a meal.
3. Denver – London (Heathrow) (Jan 2007), United Airlines (DEN-ORD), Air India (ORD-LHR): Ok, so sure I booked onto Air India against a lot of warnings from friends. They were totally cheap! Also five hours late. Luckily they were the last leg of connections for me, so it didn’t domino into hellish pain. Just pain that was sort of heckish as I mouldered in a terminal in O’Hare that had no services whatsoever except a closed newspaper cart. The onboard food was awesome, though, and the in-flight entertainment a real cultural education.
4. London (Stansted) – Limoges (March 2007) Ryanair: Aside from the deathwhores who rule Stansted (who made me pay a £10 fee to check my baggage -- when I placed it into the size measurement box one of the straps touched the floor – it’s a hiking backpack), this flight was great. And French customs were totally awesome. They had to find a guy to stamp my non-EU passport, and then when I realised that I had to pick up my bag after walking out of security, I just walked straight back in through big doors marked “NON” and no one with a gun shot me. In fact, I didn’t see anyone even carrying a gun.
5. Limoges – London (Stansted) (April 2007) Ryanair: So easy! So delightful! And on Ryanair! Maybe low cost airlines really are the future.
6. London (Gatwick) – Denver (June 2007) Zoom Airlines (GAT-JFK), JetBlue Airlines (JFK-DEN): Yet another glorious journey. On low-cost airline Zoom! Wait, maybe low-cost airlines really AREN’T the future. Or maybe the future is just like the present. Or something. This was Zoom’s first shot (literally – day one!) of flying to New York. The flight connected through Bermuda. It also cost £79, so screw all ya’ll who are shaking your heads at me. My ticket said that my flight would take nine hours. Fair enough. I booked it so that my connection to Denver was 4 and a half hours after Zoom’s scheduled landing. This seemed like a very safe amount of time to leave myself, and I figured that, with my luck, I would wind up getting to NYC EARLY and then having to sit around for ages. But no! That was not to be! As of right now, Zoom only has one plane for its Gatwick – JFK route, a very nice but very lonely Boeing 767, which they have to turn around fast – and they weren’t turning it around at all that day, so we took off 2 hours late. Turns out that Zoom took some ridiculous Great Circle route to Bermuda (hint: Great Circle over Canada from London to Bermuda: not geometrically a good idea. Just sayin’.) that meant the flight took longer than they said it would take when I booked it. Then, when we got to Bermuda, they told us to stay on the plane, apparently unaware that US security procedures meant that we had to all disembark while the plane was checked for security in Bermuda (before it could fly into the US). They didn’t figure that out until an hour after we had been sitting on the plane in Bermuda, and we all had to troop off while they inspected it. By the time we got to New York, we were five and a half hours late. I got in, and discovered that my JetBlue flight was delayed and hadn’t taken off yet! I was REALLY excited by this and RAN through customs, like, full out ran, ran out to get my baggage, ran out of the international terminal, ran onto the train, ran off the train, ran into the JetBlue terminal – and skidded to a halt in front of the milling mob that was the entire terminal. A few seconds later I realised that the power was out. Yes, JFK airport was blacked out for an hour, which caused such horrific chaos that I got onto my airplane (scheduled to leave at 7:00 pm EST originally) at midnight exactly. The resulting air traffic backup sentenced us to sit on the runway for an additional two hours. I landed in Denver at 4:30 in the morning MST, to be greeted by my exceptionally dedicated, bleary-eyed parents.*
7. Denver – London (Gatwick) (July 2007) United (DEN-JFK), Zoom (JFK-GAT): Not a big deal, just delayed in NYC for three hours. Whatevs. Old hat.
8. London (Heathrow) – Denver (Dec 2007) United, United, United!: This brings us to my most recent experience. What a great day it was! I left Oxford on the bus at 6:30 am (GMT). My intended arrival time in Denver was 4:19 pm (MST) – already a pretty long day, but not so awful. In terms of delays, I was only about 4 hours later than expected in the end. However, this day was very special for the delightful customer service I received from United Airlines!
Now, to be fair, up until I got to Chicago, despite my flight from London being delayed two hours for a mechanical issue, all of the United employees that I encountered, bar one, were very nice and helpful. That one extra special employee was the ticket agent I dealt with in London. This was our conversation:
Me: So I see that I only have about an hour to connect in Chicago. This makes me a little nervous because I have had a lot of problems with late flights and missing connections, etc., whenever I fly transatlantically. I know that there are a lot of Chicago-Denver flights every day, would it be possible for you to put me onto a later flight so that I won’t have to worry about missing my connection?
Her: You are ridiculous to fear late flights. I cannot imagine what airline you may have been flying in the past that would have put you onto a late flight but I can assure you that this flight will be on time, as will your connection. Move along.
Me: Well, I am also concerned that, since I have to reclaim my luggage and pass through US customs in Chicago, it will take longer than an hour for me to do that, and then to recheck-in and go through security at a different terminal for my domestic…
Her: It’s not a different terminal.
Me: International flights at O’Hare come into terminal 5. United domestic flights leave from 1 or 2. There’s a train between them but it takes about 10 minutes.
Her: All United flights are in the same building. You have nothing to fear. You will not miss your connection. You are ridiculous. Next, please!
Her: THESE AREN’T THE DROIDS YOU’RE LOOKING FOR. DISMISSED.
Thoroughly trod upon, I went to my flight and queued. For a few glorious seconds, as I sat on the plane at our scheduled takeoff time of exactly 10:25 am and we began to taxi towards one of Heathrow’s runways, I felt like the ticket agent had been right! We were so perfectly on time, I could hardly believe it! But we just kept taxiing. And taxiing. We taxied so hard that we wound up back at our gate with our engines off. Oh. It seems that a valve of some sort had failed to open and that we needed maintenance to look at it. Cue two hours of sitting on the plane. At least I got to watch Ratatouille.
Eventually we made it to Chicago. There, I made it through customs and waited for my baggage. It took AGES, so long in fact, that even if my plane had been on time, I would have missed my connection. Eventually, I got my baggage and went out to the United ticket desk, only to be greeted by CHAOS. Everyone on the London flight who had a missed connection was getting collared by employees and told where their new connection was. People were darting around like mice in a trap, shooting off to various places. Others were milling in confusion. One poor British guy was asking what to do if he had missed his new connection while waiting for his luggage.
First guy: *grabs me, scans my luggage tag* You’re on the 5:15 flight to Denver now!
Second guy: *grabs luggage* GO GO GO!
Me: Umm. *goes to look at departures screen. There is no 5:15* There’s no 5:15!
First girl: Oh, we mean the 4:45.
Me: Oh, ok.
Second girl: You’re on the 5:15. GO GO GO GO!
Me: waaah, I’ll go to the terminal and figure this out there.
At the terminal, I was helpfully put into the “fast line”. I waited 15 minutes for the guy to sort out one customer. 4:45 drew steadily nearer and I started to get quite worried. Finally I saw the guy. He took one look at my ticket, said, “London?” and sent me to a new line. I waited five more minutes. It was 4:25 and I was now REALLY anxious. Then the guy informed me that in fact the flight I was supposed to be on – my missed connection – was 3 hours delayed and was still on the ground and that if I ran, I could catch it. That was the 5:15 of lore! Well, I did run for it – again, at a dead run, through security, then all the way to the end of the terminal and to gate B18. Only to find… 2:57 to Denver, delayed to 5:42. Reason: Aircraft missing. Eventually we got into the air at 6:30 (CST). Somehow, I am certain that the ticket woman in London did all of this prove herself right.
*I should point out that Edward made this exact journey one week later, and fared much worse than I did, because there was no helpful power outage. He had the same problems with Zoom being ass-late, and thus missed his JetBlue connection and had to spend the night on the floor of the JetBlue terminal in JFK, which is a miserable place with no shops of any kind (as he was stuck in front of security). He and some guys from South Carolina wound up whittling chess pieces out of soap and crafting a cardboard game board to pass the time. Then, when he did get to Denver, his girlfriend (me) was in the middle of getting her bridal party manicure/pedicure and so was a half hour late to pick him up. I received a very sad phone call from him as I was pulling into the airport to the effect of “I have come such a very long way please come pick me up now before I cry or go back to Gatwick or make a scene or something equally unfitting for an Englishman.”