Confessions of a holiday airline passenger…

My wife and I are spending the holidays with my family in Oregon. We had some unused airline credit from a a trip we cancelled earlier this year and decided to take a brief jaunt to San Francisco from Portland for the few days before Christmas. I have never been to San Francisco and look forward to the journey.

I am currently stuck at Portland International Airport and while I am waiting for my now-three hour late flight, I have some thoughts.

My trip through security was as it usually is: annoying. PDX has this interesting feature: if you hold a first class ticket, you get to go to a different line. That line is short, efficient and features more staff per x-ray machine. This is something I just don’t understand. If this is something that is federalized, why is that you can buy your way through a better experience? I know that the airlines are still largely responsible for security but this seems very strange in the post-9/11 world.

Of course, a trip through a larger airport is likely to provide a few amusing situations at security. The gentleman in front of me has quite the monologue today about the security regime including statements like “I am an American! They can’t do this to me!” Having been in trouble pre-9/11 over a smart ass comment to airport security, I know not to test the system. Amusingly, the disgruntled passenger was pulled out of the line for two items that set off alarms: a “Letherman” tool that had a small blade and a hot burrito that looked like a ball of hot something in the x-ray machine. He was angry at the hand search and then started loudly complaining that the x-ray machine ruined his toupee. It was like something in a movie.

I am now at the gate taking advantage of the free wireless (thank you to any organization, business or entity that provides free wireless :)). The staff of Alaska Air tells us that the flight has been delayed. I fly usually 4 or 5 times a year and my experience is nearly universally the same. Most of my flights are often uneventful but when they are bad, they are really really bad. With few exceptions, it is not the problem itself that annoys, but rather, the total miscommunication by the airline.

At first, there was no information. The information board said that the flight, scheduled for departure at 6:55pm, was going to leave at 7:30pm. No problem. I had spend a lot of the last hour watching the departure time change about every 10 minutes. It was at one point as late at 8:45pm and now it is at 8:30pm. Via the magic of the web, I found out that the plane that we are taking has been delayed in Phoenix. No plane, no flight.

The desk crew just announced that the delay is not a delayed plane, but it is a delay in San Francisco. They have shut down a runway and are limited incoming traffic. They announce that the flight might leave at 8:45pm but that time is not a departure time but rather an announcement time. Huh?

I needed power so I am sitting on the ground near the counter. As people come up to complain, it is interesting to hear the different answers they give people. One person gets the song and dance about the traffic limit. Another gets something about weather. Another person gets no answer. Another person gets treated very nicely. A poor man, who looked to be in his 80s, was confused at why the flight was delayed. His family is going to pick him up and they didn’t bother to give him a good answer at all, including what they purported to be the truth about the stop order from San Francisco. One person was offered an alternative airport, another ask about alternative airports and was told none were available.

This is exactly what makes traveling so difficult. I think we can handle the truth but it seems that many airlines don’t have that message. Why not tell us what is going on?

I do understand that people are not nice. I am sometimes included among those people. I did see a scene today: a woman (with a poodle, no less) was loudly complaining to a ticket agent that she deserved a first class seat and that they were treating her poorly. They, very nicely I might add, explained that she didn’t pay for a first class seat nor did they have space in first class. She wouldn’t accept that. Ugh.

Each time I have had a problem flying it is because that I cannot get a straight answer from the employees at the airline. If the airlines are truly in trouble, perhaps they could make lesson one that consistent, straight answers are always better than something less.

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