United Airlines has received a hefty penalty for keeping passengers waiting on airplanes for hours on end while their flights were delayed. The Department of Transportation fined the carrier $1.1 million-the biggest fine of its kind so far-for tarmac delays that happened at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport last year.
Rules that were put in place in 2010 state that airlines will be penalized if they keep passengers waiting around on the tarmac for more than three hours. In United’s case, all the rule breaking happened on one particularly stormy day when 13 separate United flights were delayed because of thunder and lighting. According to the rules, United was meant to give passengers the chance to get off the plane as it was obvious flights would be held up. But the carrier didn’t. And to top it off, bathrooms on the some of the delayed planes weren’t working, leaving passengers in the lurch.The Department of Transportation says United didn’t do a very good job handling the situation and didn’t reach out to other airport personnel for help. The Department of Transportation also slammed the airline for not having a good plan in place to deal with weather-related problems in general. Some of the money from the fine will go to passengers affected by the delays, while another portion will go towards creating a tracking system at O’Hare so United can better monitor its planes.
It was not yet 6 a.m., but I had a bad feeling about how the day was going to go. The stone faced desk clerk had no interest in checking me in here in Vienna, not to mention through to my final destination, Seattle.
“No. Different booking.”
“But it’s with the same airlines…”
“Different booking. No.”
“So I’ll have to…”
“You’ll need to collect your bag in Amsterdam, and then check in again when you get there. Take your bag to the departures desk.”
“I don’t understand. These flights are on the same airlines. Can you check me in, at least, so I can drop my bag…”
“No. Different booking.”
I gave up. Priority club, my ass.I accepted the boarding pass for my flight from Vienna to Amsterdam and headed through security. I told myself to chill, my stop was six hours and I had a lounge pass tucked into my wallet. I’d recheck in Amsterdam and then spend the morning napping in the KLM lounge.
At the check-in desk in Amsterdam, I asked the clerk what the problem was, why I couldn’t check in, why I couldn’t get my bag through.
“It’s terrible,” she said, “but they’re responsible for your luggage. If they lose it, they have to pay to have it shipped. They don’t want to do that.”
“But it’s with the same airline, both of my flights are KLM/Delta.”
“I know,” she admitted. “It makes no sense.” She shook her head.
I felt somewhat placated. It wasn’t a huge annoyance, but I wanted someone to agree that it was ridiculous. Off I went to clear security again and to breathe the rarified air of the frequent flier lounge.
“No. This pass is no good here.”
“But it says on the website that …”
“Yes, but not for day passes. We don’t take the day pass here. Delta doesn’t pay for the use of the lounge, so we don’t take their passes.”
I thought I’d understood the rules; I’d read them before buying my pass. I couldn’t bring a guest, but I only wanted to bring… myself. Obviously I had not studied the small print with enough detail. And I’d made the mistake of asking the KLM Twitter account, not the Delta Twitter account, about access. What I don’t understand about airline partnerships could fill a book.
“You can buy a pass for 45 Euros.”
I’d spent 50 dollars to buy the lounge pass. It’s not so much money, but I was getting crankier and crankier. I was trying not to get angry. I was tired. I’d been up since 4:30 that morning. I knew I’d be tired; I rarely sleep well before a long flight.
“But you’re partners,” I said. “You give me partner status everywhere else.”
“Let me see what I can do,” said the desk clerk, who then called a supervisor, a cool woman in uniform who offered to sell me a pass for 45 Euros. I looked at the KLM agent, angry at her and at myself for not making sure I’d understood the small print.
I told myself to chill. Again. Schiphol is a nice airport. There are worse places to spend a few hours drinking coffee and people watching and dozing in lounge chairs. There’s good food, and Wi-Fi that’s not great, but is fast enough for complaining on Twitter about how you’re angry at your airlines.
“Get more coffee,” I thought. “You’re just tired. This isn’t a big deal.”
I got coffee and juice and a sandwich on good brown bread with very fresh mozzarella. I opened my laptop and complained. I drank my juice. I drank my coffee. I hammered away on my keyboard, the picture of a crabby, tired traveler on a stopover.
This business with my lounge pass was the last act in a comedy of errors in my travels to Europe and back. Thanks to a cargo problem on my outbound flight two weeks earlier, my connection in Schiphol to Frankfurt was airtight. I was the last passenger to board the plane – my luggage would not make it. I was not particularly worried. I’d seen a series of flights to Frankfurt following mine. Worst case? My bag would show up while I was sleeping. I could chill.
I went to report the missing luggage at the Delta counter in Frankfurt.
“You need KLM,” said the man at the desk.
“But I checked in on Delta… and there’s nobody there.”
“There HAS to be somebody there,” he said, clearly exasperated, and then, walked me back to the KLM desk. There was nobody there. I walked out into arrivals and asked at the information desk, and then, was directed back into the baggage hall.
The clerk had materialized, removed the “Closed” sign, and was taking missing baggage reports from two impatient Israelis who’d boarded just before I did. It was my turn.
“Here’s your claim number and the website where you can find out when your bags will arrive.”
I stowed the printout with my documents and headed to the hotel. It took me 15 minutes to get there. My luggage was reported on the ground and ready for delivery not long after I’d had lunch. At about 12 hours, I asked for help in calling the number given to me by the clerk at the baggage desk.
“Oh, lord, don’t call that number! They’ll charge you by the minute!”
“Wait, I have to pay them to tell me where my stuff is? That’s crazy.”
I checked with customer service online. “Your luggage is on the ground and ready for delivery,” they said.
“Well, I KNOW that,” I replied. “I’ve know that for 24 hours now.” My bag did finally appear, nearly 36 hours after I’d arrived.
“We’re sorry for the delay,” said the note from KLM. “We hope you understand.”
I’d had it with ground services by the time I returned to Schiphol two weeks later. Any one of these events in isolation I’d have written off as bad luck, a bad day, or general travel mishaps. But the aggregation was making me irritable. The Delta KLM partnership began to feel like a an embittered marriage, kept together for the sake of the kids. I imagined them bickering after the little airplanes had gone to bed. “You said you would…”
I gazed past the plastic chairs and iPad-using Germans and families of bleary Americans in sweatshirts, breakfasting in various states of disconnection with their surroundings. Just on the edge there was the pale purple glow of the Yotel, a pod hotel that offers hourly cabins with showers. I looked at my crumpled, useless lounge pass, at my overpriced juice, at my angry typing on the weak Wi-Fi and then, I checked in for three and a half hours of attitude adjustment.
It cost me 46 Euros for the stay. For that, I got a tiny, clean, super efficient cabin with a comfortable single bunk, a shower and toilet, a TV (which I did not turn on), a powerful Wi-Fi connection, unlimited non-alcoholic drinks (which I did not take sufficient advantage of) and some much needed private space in which to reset my state of mind.
It was money well spent. When I checked out of my cabin after a short nap and some silent lethargy, I felt human again.
Airline partner terms are unclear, delays happen, the mystery of why you can check in here and not there – these things are all part of the process. The follies of transit are a critical part of travel and often, they are unavoidable. As a seasoned traveler, it’s rare that I let this stuff get under my skin.
But sometimes, when patience wears thin, you can throw a few bucks at a problem and not make it go away, but at least make it better. Upgrade your seat to Economy Plus, spring for a taxi and get an airport hotel the night before the early flight. Don’t buy the Day Pass, that way lies madness, but get yourself something nice. Travel is totally glam, but sometimes, it’s wearing and takes a toll. Give yourself a break. Book the pod for a few hours and make yourself human again.
Plus, you can use that refreshed energy for complaint letters to the airlines on the long flight home.
1. Book wisely. If you need to be somewhere really important, it’s probably not a good idea to book your flights with less than an hour between them. Even an hour is pushing it. An hour and a half is good. Two hours, even better. Whatever you do, don’t take the last flight out! Delays happen. So do cancelations.
2. Pay the extra fee. If you’re the anxious type and travel is stressful, pay the extra fee to sit closer to the front of the airplane and be done with it. Why start your trip out on the wrong foot and the risk a snowball effect. Because once something goes wrong, everything seems to follow suit. Better to be out a few bucks than to miss a flight! It’s worth it just to relax.
3. Check your boarding pass. Many airlines print the boarding time, not the departure time, on the boarding pass. Depending on the equipment type (smaller vs. larger aircraft), you can usually tag on another 30 to 40 minutes to your connection time. Read the fine print.
4. Switch seats. Ask a flight attendant if you can move closer to the front of the cabin on landing. Unfortunately, most flights are full these days and just because there’s an open seat up front doesn’t mean you’ll find a spot in the overhead bin for your bag too. If you’ve booked a tight connection, you might want to make sure your carry-on luggage fits under the seat in front of you.
5. Relax: I know, I know, easier said than done. Just know that while it might feel like it takes forever to disembark, the truth is almost everyone is able to deplane in less than 15 minutes. So take a deep breath and … exhale. Put in your earphones and play the most relaxing music you have. Then get ready to run. Here’s to hoping you wore appropriate shoes to sprint across the airport terminal.6. Call the airline. Don’t wait in a long line of passengers to talk to an agent. By the time it’s your turn to approach the counter, chances are the flight will have already departed. Get on the phone ASAP and call the airline’s reservation desk. Or try tweeting for an even faster response. Most airlines offer immediate feedback.
7. Hold the flight! Airlines don’t hold flights for passengers. On time departures are way too important. That said an airline might hold a flight if it’s the last flight of the day or for a large group of passengers traveling to the same destination. If it is the last flight out, rest assured the airline knows where you are and you’ll probably be booked on another flight before you even land.
8. Go, go, go! Don’t stop to talk to the agent meeting your flight. Run straight to your connecting gate and talk to the agent there, even if it’s past the departure time. Time is precious. Every second counts. Plus you never know if that flight might be delayed.
9. The thing about bad weather. If you’re delayed because you’re flying into an airport experiencing bad weather, chances are your connecting flight may also be delayed. And remember just because your departing aircraft is at the gate, doesn’t mean the outbound crew is on the ground and ready to go. They could still be in the air too. Sounds strange, I know, but we don’t stick with one aircraft all day long.
10. It’s not over until the airplane pushes away from the gate. I can’t tell you how many flights I’ve just missed only to have the airplane return back to the gate to remove a sick passenger or to fix a mechanical. I’ve actually gotten on flights airlines have brought passengers off of due to weight and balance issues that were later lifted after a creeping delay. Miracles do happen.
Back when I used to live in Los Angeles, the 405 was part of my daily commute, that 74 lane wide river of agony flowing across the backbone of urban sprawl. I hated every second of it, the loud, jaunty pickup trucks ambling through the dusty desert, the obnoxious Mercedes Benz with dealer plates. The 405 is a what makes visitors hate the city of angels, and though I wont blame my departure on it, it’s not a stretch to say that it was part of the problem.
From July 15-18th this weekend, the state of California is doing its part to alleviate some of that pressure, closing the thoroughfare to make some long needed repairs. But the travelers are going to suffer. In a city that’s already choked with nonstop traffic, taking one of the main arteries out of the network is going to mean chaos throughout the city, with supporting streets and surrounding highways falling into madness.
Over at Marketplace.org, commentator Kristina Wong has some insight into the whole looming disaster as well as some excellent advice for dealing with the confusion. Take a listen below:
We’re now looking back on a full year of limited tarmac delays. In April 2010, the airline industry seemed like it was begging and pleading with the American public not to accept the insanity that the government was forcing upon them. Mayhem would rule, the industry claimed, as standards for performance would prevent everyone from getting anywhere. It would be ugly … far uglier than the service the airlines had provided so far.
“On the one-year anniversary of the tarmac delay rule, it’s clear that we’ve accomplished our goal of virtually eliminating the number of aircraft leaving travelers stranded without access to food, water, or working lavatories for hours on end,” says U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a statement. “This is a giant step forward for the rights of air travelers.”
And indeed, it is. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, only 20 tarmac delays of more than three hours were reported in the first 12 months the rule was in effect. For the year prior, the total reached an astounding – and severe – 693.
Meanwhile, the number of canceled flights with tarmac delays of at least two hours edged only a tad higher, from 336 in the May 2009-to-April 2010 period to 387 in the 12 months that followed. This indicator is used to gauge flights canceled to avoid the three-hour rule because the DOT believed it’s the most likely set of flights to be cut.
And, this is the metric where airline industry mayhem would be visible. A 15.2 percent increase – in light of a 97.1 percent decline in delays of three hours or longer – pretty much tells the story.
The numbers say it all: airlines can be held to higher standards. And, the threat of heavy fines is incredibly effective. Now, if only we could levy fines for substandard customer service …