Wednesday, August 03, 2016

The unfriendly skies


Cliche as it may be, I have to rant about a recent experience trying to fly home from a business trip to Washington D.C. (and boy are my arms tired).

I could reasonably expect delays if I were flying during the winter. But this was the last week in July. I was a direct flight leaving at 3:17 p.m. EDT from Dulles Airport. It was hot in D.C. Temperature was hovering around 95 degrees. I arrived at the airport about an hour and a half early. I was giddy because I got a random TSA PreChk boarding pass and didn't have to strip down before going through security.

At the gate I was waiting patiently in my boarding group 3 line when the gate agent called my name. She asked me if I was ok with changing seats to an exit row. It offered more legroom so I felt like I was on a roll. We boarded.

That's when my apparent good luck started fading. I had the window seat, but a customer of size wedged himself into the center seat next to me. There went the armrest. Still, I had legroom.

The airplane pushed away from the gate and we began taxing toward the runway. We proceeded for awhile and then the airplane pulled over and ominously stopped (never a good sign).  A few minutes later, someone from the flight crew in the cockpit came onto the PA systems and announced that they had received notice from ATC (which I assumed was air traffic control) that they needed to program an alternate flight path to avoid a storm pattern.
We waited. They moved the airplane a little bit and then pulled over again. Some time went by. Another announcement asking for us to be patient as they plotted yet another flight plan to avoid inclement weather.

We sat. It got hot and stuffy. The customer of size seated next to me began fidgeting sweating. The airplane moved. It taxied for awhile and then quite some time began heading back to the gate. The announcement came that we were going to wait it out at the gate for the storm to pass and then try again.

A collective groan went up. We were told we could get off the plane while we waited.  I didn't relish sitting on the sweltering airplane so I grabbed my carry on and got off the plane.  Besides, I needed to use the rest room. And a soda sounded good to me. As we entered the airport, the gate agent scanned our boarding passes and advised us not to wander more than 10 minutes away.

I used the restroom and bought a soda and sat near the gate to wait.

I have always been quite amazed at how busy gate agents can look and yet still inform you that they haven't got an update. The guy must of traveled left the desk about 20 times and wandered down the ramp to the airplane presumeably to check with the pilots. And each time he'd come back, check his monitor, talk on the phone and then announce that we would board as soon as they were advised we could.

After about two hours the gate agent suddenly grabbed the microphone and announced that we were boarding immediately. Hell with the boarding groups, I just went up to the gate and he scanned my boarding pass and motioned me on board. I quickly made my way to my seat past clusters of passengers who had remained on board for whatever reason.

I sat down and soon the customer of sized wedged himself back in the center seat. But he had spent the past couple of hours perched on a bar stool downing tequila. So he was quite happy and loud.  He kept spouting witticisms about, "here we go again," and "how are you doing," as he fist bumped me and the guy on the aisle seat.

We sat through the safety briefing for the second time. The guy from the cockpit apologized and said they couldn't help the weather (which by the way looked fine the entire time). The plane pushed away from the gate and then stopped. There was some revving of the engines, some bumps and then it just sat there. A few minutes later, it began pulling back to the gate and the guy in the cockpit announced that the flight crew had timed out the amount of time they were allowed be on duty.

We were told we would have to deplane and the operations office was looking for a fresh flight crew.

By this time the gate agent had been replaced by two new people. They began staring at monitors and talking on the phone and ignoring the angry passengers streaming out of the same airplane for the second time. An irate women shouting obscenities stormed off toward customer service. The customer of size headed for the bar.

I sat and waited. The gate agents stared at their monitors, talked on phones and ignored the confused passengers milling about. It was a bit like a scene from the Walking Dead. A disturbance cropped up in the waiting area as a father of what looked like twin babies started yelling at another passenger. It looked like a fight would break out, but one of the gate agents started waving his hands and gesturing. Nothing happened.

A few announcements were made that operations was still looking for a flight crew. I wondered briefly whether they had put an ad in Craig's List.

Another gate agent announced that they were printing out food vouchers for $10 (which if you've ever eaten in an airport you'll know will get you a bag of chips). For some reason they were printing them out with each passenger's name and they asked us to line up to get them as they sorted through. A large line formed. Then they abandoned trying to distribute the vouchers by name and just started passing them out.

I snatched mine like an extra in the Hunger Games and scurried off. The only place I could find was a burger place. I ordered a burger with some stupid name like "the Samuraii" and tried to get it with a turkey burger instead of beef like the menu offered. I was informed it would take an extra 10 minutes. I gave in and had beef. This was the first hamburger I've eaten in well over a year. I grabbed my bag when my number was called and slunk off to find a space to eat it in shame.

I gagged down the burger and tried to ignore the fat dripping off it onto my carry on bag. The gate agent announced that a crew had been found (hopefully not in the bar) and that they would arrive sometime around 9:30 p.m. Meanwhile I kept getting texts from the airline informing me my flight had been delayed.

I sat. The customer of size was still at the bar.

The flight crew arrived and tried to slip unobserved onto the airplane. I swear one of them was wearing one of those plastic wing pins the flight attendants give to kids. At 10 p.m. they told us we could board. They went through the whole "boarding by groups" nonsense again. My boarding pass was just a crumpled mess by this time.

I boarded for the third time. Customer of size squeezed in next to me muttering about getting an upgrade to first class. I silently prayed he would. My prayer was answered. The gate agent came down the aisle and whisked him away.

We sat on the airplane another hour waiting for clearance. Someone from the new flight crew came on the PA and thanked us for our patience but added that there was nothing they could do about the weather (which still seemed fine). He said we were waiting for clearance because there were several flights ahead of us. We finally took off at 11 p.m.

The flight attendants made one pass through the airplane with drinks (but no food...the airplane had been sitting there for 8 hours and they hadn't been restocked to provide any). Then the flight attendants disappeared for most of the five and a half hours it took to get to Seattle.

The only bright spot at that point was that there was free WiFi and I was able to watch free movies on my iPad. Word of advice, don't bother with the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie film, By the Sea. It was the most boring crap I've seen in some time. And the airline fuzzed out the little bit of nudity in the film that would have made it worthwhile. The Revenant with Leonardo DiCaprio was pretty good. The airline didn't see fit to block most of the violence because it didn't involve nudity for the most part.

I landed in Seattle at 1:30 a.m. By the time I got my luggage and caught a shuttle home (which dropped five other people off before me) it was about 3:30 a.m.

I realize this blog post is about as long as the 8-hour delayed flight so I'll wrap it up. But I will do my very best never to fly this unnamed airline (United) again.

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