Sunday, September 03, 2006

Is it just Delta, or do all the airlines do this stuff?

I am on the Mass Pike, driving to Logan, when my wife calls. "Your flight's been canceled," she says.

Tropical Storm Ernesto was making a beeline at the North Carolina coast. So Delta Airlines cancels my 6:20 p.m. direct flight to Raleigh and promises me a spot on a flight the next day at 6:00 a.m. It would make a connection in Atlanta and arrive at RDU close to noon.


"Let me call you back when I get to the airport," I say. I had left work in Southborough early because I didn't know how long it would take me to navigate the detour around the I-90 connector. Also, having tracked Ernesto on the Weather Channel web site over the previous two days, I thought something like this might happen. Perhaps I could snag an earlier flight out of Logan.

I call my administrative assistant, alerting her that I might need to book a room close to the airport. What kind of deals could Corporate Travel scare up for me?

After arriving, I was directed to the phone bank. I explain my situation to a polite young lady, who offers me a direct flight at 7:45 a.m. the next day. OK, but wasn't there an eariler flight out of Logan that I could catch today? "Well, there's a 5:00 p.m. that connects at JFK and arrives at RDU after 11:00. Do you want that?"

I let this sink in. "Wait a minute. My direct flight, which would have arrived at RDU around 8, has been canceled because of bad weather. This earlier flight, which connects, arrives at RDU later, when the weather is going to be worse. Aren't I likely to get stranded at JFK if I take this flight?"

Silence on the other end. "I don't know," she finally says.

So I book the 7:45. I'm going to have to get a room. "Can I print my boarding pass now, and check my bag in the morning?" I was going to be barely conscious at 4:00 in the morning, so the fewer details I have to fuss with, the better.

"Oh yes, I'll print your boarding pass at desk 6."

"Now wait a minute..."

But before I knew it, a lady behind desk 6 was calling out "Harvey!"

I quiz the lady at desk 6 about the logic of these flight arrangements. "It seems to me that the weather's going to get worse tonight and not get better until Friday afternoon." She looks at the boarding pass. "You going to Raleigh?" I nod. She types. She picks up the phone, and asks the person on the other end "you still boarding?" She types some more. "OK, I have one more for you."

She looks up and tells me "we got you the last seat on the 4:00, but it's boarding now."

I almost kissed her.

"What about checking my bag?" Too late for that. I throw away 3/4 of the contents of my toiletry bag and follow another lady through security. My cell phone is ringing as it passes through the screening machine. It's my assistant. "Call me now if you need a room!" I call her back and tell her about my stroke of good fortune.

I run to the gate. "I'm here for the 4:00 to Raleigh!" I puff.

"Oh, we're not boarding that flight just yet."

I turn around. A phalanx of disgruntled travelers hovers in a semicircle around the gate. Two of these travelers tell me that they had been booked on the 2:00 direct flight to RDU, but it had been canceled. "Is is just Delta, or do all the airlines do this stuff?" one of them asks me.

So we all wait to board the 4:00 direct to RDU. Until 4:30 or so. Finally we board. I was sitting in a seat! I was going to make it home! I call my wife. "Guess where I am?"

After I turn off my phone, the woman beside me says "I bet the 2:00 and the 6:40 weren't full, so they did this! They have to fill these flights or they don't make money."

Fifteen minutes later, the plane was still on the ground and the hatch was open. "Water?" asks the attendant as he makes his way down the aisle, handing out small bottles. It wasn't looking promising.

Then someone, I think it was the grim reaper, boards the plane and announces that there was "a weight situation." He needs nine volunteers to leave the flight, accept a $400 voucher good for any flight within the continental United States, a free motel room, a free meal, and a promised spot on the 7:45 flight the next day. If there weren't nine volunteers, he'd have to call out names.

Two folks depart immediately. "Folks, I need seven more volunteers." A man behind me mutters "I ain't gettin' off this plane!"

Moments pass.

Finally, we're down to two volunteers needed. Tick tick tick. "OK folks, I really hate to do this." The reaper calls out two passenger names - neither of them mine.

OK, now I'm going home!

Tick tick tick. The hatch is still open. I look out the window. A conference between the reaper and two other flight personnel is underway. They don't look cheerful.

The reaper comes back on the plane. "Folks, I'm sorry but I'm going to need ten more volunteers." What!

I'm beginning to wonder whether the passenger manifest will dwindle down to just me and the guy who declared he "ain't getting off this plane" by the time this weight situation is resolved.

And I'm wondering whether the longer we wait, the more likely this flight will be canceled because of bad weather. Like my original 6:40 flight. I call my wife. "I can understand why you're grumpy" she says.

The reaper comes back to announce that they're going to remove some fuel. They had loaded extra in the event the plane needed to circle RDU to wait for weather to improve. With that and the baggage they'd removed to accomodate the earlier volunteers, we'll be airborne in about 15 minutes.

Thirty minutes later, a truck arrives to remove the fuel.

It's almost 6:00 when the plane finally takes off. There were some bumps during the flight, but nothing as turbulent as I had anticipated, given the approach of a tropical storm.

When I arrive at RDU, it's raining hard, but it's not very windy. Inside the terminal I find a replica of the scene in Boston - anxious passengers, long lines, and a stream of red CANCELED notices next to many flights on the departure screen.

When I get home, morbid curiosity compels me to check the Delta web site.

The 7:45 direct flight from Logan to RDU has been canceled.

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