Problems with flying today

Over spring break, I took a nice trip from Stanford over to the East Coast to visit my girlfriend, who is studying at William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. I somehow got lucky when booking and was able to snag the tickets for a fairly inexpensive price, which was good. However, lets just say that the trip went downhill from there. Through my experiences, I now provide us all with an exciting view of what is wrong with the state of travel today, using this story as some form of an anecdote.

March 20, 2008

After my final final exam the next morning, I was supposed to hop on over to San Jose and catch a flight into Chicago O'Hare International Airport. That never wound up happening. Due to the fact that it was supposed to snow tomorrow, United was proactive and cancelled my flight 26 hours in advance. I called them up right away, and changed my itinerary so that I'd fly from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. (my hometown!!) on the redeye and then fly down from D.C. to Richmond, Virginia where I'd meet up with the missus.

March 21, 2008

Me and a friend leave my dorm at 7:30 PM, which gives me plenty of time, as my flight leaves at 10:10 PM. Due to an exciting combination of traffic and other problems, we don't wind up getting to the airport until 9 PM. However, I'm not checking bags, so this shouldn't be a problem. I go over to a self-checkin kiosk, which then tells me, "You cannot check in here," and tells me to go over and see an agent. Thinking to myself about how close it will be, I thankfully got some sympathetic folks who let me go ahead of them. I finally make it to the agent who then says to me cheerfully:

Oh, your flight is at 10:10. It's 10:20! You missed your flight! Sorry!

After pointing out to her that it was very much NOT 10:20, but rather 9:20 she says

Oh, well, I gave your seat away.
Then, she says that my only chance is to stand by for the 11:15 PM redeye. It is going to be a long night.

After a long 2 hours of waiting at the gate, going insane, and making sure that I have some sort of flight tomorrow (San Francisco, Califorina-Las Vegas, Nevada-Washington, D.C.-Richmond, Virginia Whoo hoo!), I am the only person to clear the standby list, and I get the absolute last seat on the plane. I should be at my girlfriend's apartment now, but, at least I'm going towards my destination.

March 22, 2008

Bright and early in the morning, I arrive in Dulles, Virginia, and turn to look at the Departures board. Richmond, Richmond, O flight to Richmond, Where art thoust? Thoust art cancelled? Fie! Fie on you!

I trek on over to customer service, who tell me that my flight was cancelled due to mechanical problems, and rebooked me on the next flight is in 6 hours. Oh well. At least the agent was nice and sympathetic, and got me a confirmed seat on the flight. Although I would have normally used this 6 hour layover to go home, my family is out of town this weekend and there is no real option here except to sit in the airport for 6 hours. Sigh.

Eventually, the flight time rolls around, and we board the plane. Finally in the air to Richmond, Virginia, the flight lasts all of 20 minutes, and I am finally united with my girlfriend, only 16 or so hours late.

March 25, 2008

Today, I travel up to Baltimore, Maryland for a job interview for an internship at SAIC. I'll be flying out of Norfolk International Airport, into LaGuardia Airport, and then down to Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Today and tomorrow are planned to be on US Airways.

The first flight went off without any problems. Upon getting to LaGuardia, I search for food, and find the only McDonalds in the world that only accepts cash for payment. No dice; I don't have any cash on hand. I then found a bagel place and purchased me a bagel, which was better then McDonalds anyways. I board my plane, a small Canadair CRJ, and we leave the gate, 30 minutes behind schedule. Shortly thereafter, the captain gets on the radio and says:

Well, we're in line to takeoff here. Got 24 planes ahead of us... Hopefully, we'll be off the ground in 45 minutes...

At this point, I'm reveling in how ridiculous this is! Planning people! Do you speak it?. After forever, we get going and get down to beautiful Baltimore, Maryland.

March 26, 2008

Now, back down from Baltimore, heading into Patrick Henry Field in Newport News, VA, via Philadelphia International Airport. These two flights went off without a hitch, which was nice, so I actually have no sad news to report here! Youppi!

March 30, 2008

Although class doesn't start until April 1, 2008, I'm scheduled to go back to Stanford today. When I arrive at Harry Byrd International Airport, they tell us that our flight is horrendously oversold, and I offer up my seat, as I can happily spend another day chilling out with the missus. They take my seat, and rebook me for the following day, flying to San Francisco through Chicago, Illinois.

March 31, 2008

Chicago was a bad choice. United Airlines calls me around lunchtime to tell me that my flight in 3 hours is cancelled, and rebooks me on an evening flight into Dulles International Airport, and then a late flight to San Francisco International Airport, which is a routing I'd rather have taken anyways. I like Dulles, and I don't like snow mixed with travel.

I get to the airport an hour or so before my flight, and check in and go to the gate. We're told that we have a half hour delay, which will make my connection tight, but passable. Eventually, half an hour becomes 2 hours, which then becomes 3 hours. The connection just ain't happening. I talk to the gate agent about rebooking my flight, and he says

I'm busy. Go out of security, and talk to the ticketing counter.

Ok. Sadly, that's a solid half mile walk at Richmond, so I take all my bags, and haul on over. They rebook me on the 9:30 AM flight out of Dulles. It will be tight making it to class tomorrow.

I go through security, get back to the gate and the gate agent has convieniently disappeared, with no one to ask questions of. After 3 hours of waiting, me and the 3 other people that stuck out the long wait board the plane, and head to D.C. Luckily, my family could pick me up from the airport, and I'd have a bed to sleep the night in.

April 1, 2008

Had I started driving when I was originally supposed to fly, I think I would be in California by now. I wake up at 6 AM, bright and early in the morning, and catch a ride over to the airport with my mother. The ticketing agents send me to multiple ticketing counters, since my itinerary has been changed, but eventually, I get checked in and go through security. I decided to stand by for the flight an hour earlier, and go to that gate. I was, once again, the last person to clear standby, and I got a superb middle seat. Oh well. I was going to have a middle seat on the next flight anyways. This is not going to be fun. I'm 6 foot 3 inches, 230 pounds, and I'm a college athlete, so this is going to be a tiny seat.

I type this from the plane right now. The service has been pretty dismal. They made me pay $5 to buy a plastic fork and knife, and every time I've requested something from one of the flight attendants, he's ignored me and disappeared. Somehow, my laptop's battery didn't charge fully overnight too, so, I might lose entertainment. The one thing I can say that is very good is that my seat is surprisingly roomy, as far as a middle seat in coach goes.


For those of you who read all the way through and somehow didn't pass out, start crying, or just outright pass away, here's a quick little recap of what's happened:

  • First flight out got cancelled
  • Ticketing agent cannot use clock
  • They took my seat away on my second flight
  • 4th flight was cancelled
  • 6th flight was mildly delayed in New York, New York
  • 9th flight was overbooked and I gave up my seat
  • 10th flight was delayed
  • Misconnected in D.C., and had to rebook my 11th flight

All in all, here are the major stats:

  • First trip: Delayed arrival a total of 14 hours
  • Second trip: Delayed arrival a total of 1.5 hours
  • Third trip: No delay
  • Fourth trip: Delayed arrival a total of 1 day, 19 hours, of which 1 day was voluntary
  • Time spent in aiports/airplanes: ~40 hours
  • Itinerary changes: 8

Problems with travel

Now, for the reason you are reading this node: what are the things that need to be fixed with air travel? Although one could easily say that the problems all lie with the airlines, that would be a lie. We'll go through this step by step.


Of course the FAA can't control the weather. However, the FAA can control the amount of flights that occur by giving airlines less departure slots and less arrival slots. They can also try to get airlines to consolidate flights; this is less convenient for the consumer as it gives you fewer options, but it would lead to less planes and less delays. When I was sitting in Richmond, Virginia last night, 4 flights came in from Chicago in the span of an hour. That's not efficient.

The first suggestion for the FAA also comes in handy for airports such as LaGuardia Airport, where my plane was delayed an hour in beautiful weather. There's no way that anyone should schedule 24 planes to depart at the same time from an airport that has just 2 runways!

Also, there need to be some serious upgrades to the air traffic control systems. I was talking to a deadheading flight attendant, who was saying that 75% of the delays he encounters on his flights come from the fact that you have planes with 2000's technology, but the air traffic controllers are using 50's technology, and they just can't keep up.

The Airlines

Domestically, I actually think that airlines should offer less flights, for the reason above, and also for other reasons. Currently, for smaller flights, such as my Dulles International Airport to Richmond International Airport flight, airlines use regional jets. Regional jets are less capable during bad weather, and other irregular operations. By consolidating flights, we'd probably have less mechanical cancellations, and airlines would be able to save money by flying planes that are more full. Many airlines (basically all airlines that aren't named Southwest) lose money on their Domestic operations and make it all on international flights.

Airlines need to also be more robust during irregular operations. It's not really acceptable that I've had to change my travels 8 times because it's snowing in Chicago. It always is snowing in Chicago, Illinois.

Also, it'd be nice if they could cut back a bit on overbooking. This isn't really a good suggestion though, as flights are overbooked because statistically, some number of people miss each flight. it's just a sensible business strategy.

The Consumer

Ah, yes, the consumer! We all play a part in the mess.

First off, just going through the airport and security and all, a large amount of people aren't really prepared. Know what flight you are on. Have your ID and boarding pass ready at all times. Fasten your seat belt. Put up your tray table. Board promptly.

Also, it's important to be an educated traveller. For this trip, I thought I was prepared. I knew all the alternatives that I had on the first leg of the trip. At least, I did, until I got bumped from the flight I was rescheduled on. When I was at the airport on Thursday, and took the bump, I should have checked the weather and seen that it was going to snow in Chicago, and originally routed myself through Dulles. March 31st, I should've known that there was a flight that was leaving for Dulles 15 minutes after I got to the airport, and busted ass and gotten on that. After that, I should've checked out other combinations that would have gotten me into San Francisco before the end of the night, because I later realized that I could've gotten on a JetBlue flight up to New York and jumped on a United flight to San Francisco.

Finally, be civil to those around you.

When I was in Richmond, Virginia, there was a man getting really belligerent with the gate agent, and I stepped in to tell him to calm down and he tells me that I don't know how awful everything is for him and how he is so special and everything. I'm sorry to him, but I don't think he really could have beaten my week of travel. I was supposed to be on the same flight as him earlier that day anyways... Back onto topic. By getting angry at the gate agent, how is he helping himself? I'm sure she's going to do him a big favor now! You can catch many more flies with honey then with vinegar (I would say piss, as it would have described this guy better, but flies like urine.) It is unlikely that anyone will pull a miracle for you, but they're just doing what they can do for you. In the end, if you're dissatisfied, talk to customer service after the fact, and after you've cooled down a bit. They can do a lot to help you (more about that at the end.)

In conclusion...

My last trip turned into a pretty major learning experience, which was surprising, as I'd found myself to be a pretty learned flyer, from the amount of travel that my family does. However, it's given me a new perspective on the improvements that need to be made, which is both useful and troubling. I wish I could go into airline management and bring these changes around, but electrical engineering is my true calling. Someone however, needs to.

So far, I've gotten $600 in compensation for my troubles from United. Although I'd rather have not been hassled so, this trip is paying for half of the rest of the travel I have to complete this year, so I'm cool with that. I'm going to write United about the final flight after I land, and see if I get any vouchers from that.

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