Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Travel Excitement

Yesterday, I left the summer meeting of the American Astronomical Society behind to come home. The meeting is still going on through tomorrow, but I finished my contribution on Monday and had work to catch up on at home. My intent was to get home in the mid-afternoon, catch up on the Tuesday news from the meeting, and then write a little blurb on that. But my airline (which shall remain nameless to protect the guilty, but let's pretend it was called "Shamerican") had other plans. My flight was supposed to leave Saint Louis at 2:05pm, which came and went uneventfully, meaning I was sitting in the gate area not hearing a peep. First we were told that the plane was being clean (which I believed, since it arrived late), but after twenty minutes, I stopped believing that. I've never been on a plane that clean. At 2:20pm, we got word that maintenance was still working on the plane, and that we'd be boarding no later than 2:45. At 2:45, we were told that maintenance was about done. In the meantime, I was called to the desk and given a new seat because my original seat (an emergency exit seat) was broken. So I assumed that the mechanical problems had to do with the seat, and that they'd decided they couldn't fix it. Wrong.

Finally, at about 3pm, we boarded. It was one of the regional jets operated by Shamerican's partner, Shamerican Shconnection, so it didn't take long to board. It was hot in the airplane, though, because the A/C was off. I assumed it would get cold once the engines were on, as this has happened to me many times before. We pushed off from the gate and took off.

Shortly after takeoff, I suspected something wasn't right, because my ears were popping much more than normal. But these partner airlines often seem to have trouble getting the airplane pressure dialed in, so I figured they'd get it right and all would be well. Wrong again.

We turned to the south to head to Austin and levelled off at 5,000 feet or so (again, common until air traffic control says we can go up to the cruising altitude). But we didn't go up, and then we turned back to the east. And the pilot came on, apologized, and said the cabin was unpressurized, and we had to go back to St. Louis and get it fixed. He hoped that the maintenance had just forgotten to connect some hose after their earlier work.

I wasn't worried at this point. The plane was flying just fine, and we were at a low enough altitude that the unpressurized cabin was not dangerous. We had to dive down to the runway, but we landed fine and taxied to a new gate. (Meanwhile, the A/C was still not working, and it was really hot and stuffy on the plane.)

After we were at the gate 15 minutes or so, we were told that they couldn't fix it right away, and we had to get off. The pilot ominously said to stay in the gate area, and that they hadn't cancelled our flight "yet."

Thankfully, at this point, the story improves. The airline gave us a different plane, and we all boarded and took off for Austin at about 5pm (only one hour after we were already supposed to be back). Two hours later, we were in Austin, where we had to wait 15 minutes for our gate to clear. No matter that the neighboring gate was open with no incoming flight. Whatever. We were happy to be back safely.

Our pilots, flight attendant, and the in-airport gate crews at St. Louis were all very polite and helpful, and I know these problems weren't their fault. I am a little miffed that the maintenance had been working on the plane and didn't get it right. I'm more miffed that I know that I won't get a word of apology from the airline. I know these things happen, I know we were never in mortal danger, and I know that I got home eventually. I can accept that. But rather than forcing the pilot and gate crew to give out apologies for things that are not their personal fault, I'd like an apology from the party with the ultimate responsibility, the airline. Southwest Airlines follows up incidents like ours with personal, written apologies.

I don't care about getting some additional compensation or free food or extra frequent flier miles. I would just like some admission from the larger corporation that we, the customers, mean more to them than just dollar signs. At a time when the airline business is suffering, such an acknowledgement might make me more amenable to their situation and more willing to put up with increased fares or inane new charges like bag-checking fees. But the deafening silence the customers get from the truly responsible party (the airline, not their employees who have no fault in the issue) when problems arise makes me less happy to put up with their shenanigans.

I'm not asking an airline to cater to my every whim or to offer unreasonable compensation levels. A simple, honest "we know this happened, it shouldn't have, and we're working to keep it from happening again" would be enough. Yet I know I won't get it, though I will be asked to fork out even more cash for even worse service in the future. And that angers me.

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