One Holiday Down, More Headaches to Go
July 29, 2009
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  • Joe Sharkey


    I FIRST checked the flight delay reports early yesterday afternoon. It did not look good. By late afternoon, the following airports were subject to the Federal Aviation Administration’s ground delay programs, defined as a situation where “projected traffic demand is expected to exceed the airport’s acceptance rate for a lengthy period of time”: Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Newark, Kennedy and LaGuardia.

    At 5 p.m., there were more than 6,700 commercial flights in the skies, according to the Air Transport Association. With traffic backed up in the Northeast and in Atlanta, the nation’s busiest airport, a good number of flights were going to be delayed, some of them significantly.

    Welcome to the tail end of the Thanksgiving travel period. All it took was a little bad weather – basically a drizzly, cloudy day in the Northeast – to choke up the system nationwide.

    By 3 p.m. Eastern time, “30 percent of the nation’s top airports had a less than 60 percent on-time arrival rate,” said Meara McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for “Weather and congestion in the Northeast and Atlanta compounded the problems” nationwide, she added. The average on-time rate at the top 25 airports was 80 percent on Saturday and 71 percent on Sunday, said.

    Actually, despite the media hype that the system ran smoothly at the start of the holiday period last week, air traffic has basically lurched along about as badly as usual for the last week. “Airlines were running about 70 percent on time, and suddenly it’s described as a victory?” asked Joe Brancatelli, who publishes the subscription business-travel site

    On the other hand, this week I haven’t heard any major horror stories, like passengers stranded on planes for six or more hours without food amid deteriorating sanitary conditions. Generally good weather until yesterday had something to do with that, of course. But many airlines – worried about the threat of Congressional intervention – have rushed to address at least some of the problems on their own.

    Ian Shakil, who works for a biomedical company in California, said that he and other passengers on a United flight sat on a parked plane for three hours Sunday before it left Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

    “That was frustrating, but I should add that the cabin staff were very conscientious” about keeping passengers informed about the delay, and making sure snacks and water were available, he told me.

    Mr. Shakil, 23, was bound for John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif., with a connection through Denver. He got home five hours later than scheduled, and it could have been worse if he had not gotten on his cellphone once he arrived in Denver, where he had already missed his connection.

    “As soon as we were taxiing I called the United 800 number and I kind of had to fight with them,” he said. He was told that he’d been rebooked on a flight that left late that night. “I knew there were other flights, but they said they were overbooked,” he said. “So I kind of haggled with the customer service people, and finally they gave in. I was able to negotiate an earlier flight.

    Incidentally, haggling on the phone with an airline can sometimes work if you’re persistent.

    For example, my wife was booked on Saturday on a Continental flight from Tucson to Newark, connecting in Houston. When she got to the airport with her boarding pass, an implacable Continental clerk informed her that she had been involuntarily rebooked on a US Airways flight to Newark, connecting in Phoenix

    Furthermore, she was told at the airport, she would not earn elite-status qualifying miles for the trip, which she had been counting on to hit the 25,000-mile minimum requirement to requalify for next year. “That’s because you’re not flying on Continental,” the clerk insisted, as if rebooking on a competitor had been her choice. She worked the phone, to no avail.

    But a phone call to the elite-status desk on Monday – when the A-team was back on the job – promptly fixed the problem, and her miles were reinstated.

    So the airlines are trying, it seems to me – though in a system of their own devising that has no slack to accommodate even minor disruptions.

    Sometimes, though, you just can’t win. Mr. Shakil experienced one of those occasions on a business trip on Delta a few weeks ago.

    “There was an hourlong security line at the airport, so I missed my flight,” he said. “They put me on the next one, which hovered over Atlanta for two hours. When we finally did land in Atlanta, they had lost my luggage. Plus I missed my meeting. And when I finally did get to the hotel, it was overbooked and I didn’t have a room.”

    Source: NEW YORK TIMES
    Date: 2007-11-27