Today I am grateful for the scientific advancement of airline travel. I really am. Living in Alaska, it would be impossible to visit family (or tropical places )without it.
But when it goes wrong, it is so, so hard. And this holiday season it went so, so wrong.
I dropped off Clark and the kids for their red eye flight on the Friday before Thanksgiving. They were en route to Nebraska for the Thanksgiving holiday. I planned to join them after a conference in Minneapolis.
Scheduled departure: 11:53 PM
When the pilot tried to fire up the engines, the big old jet airliner just said no. Apparently someone had left a light on, and the battery was dead.
And so began the chronic series of delays.
How long does it take to charge a battery, swap a battery, or find a new battery? Apparently a long time.
Around 3:30 AM the gate agent told passengers to hustle onto the plane, because they needed to leave soon or the crew would be placed on a mandatory rest period. People complied, and the plane pushed away from the gate around 4 AM. Unfortunately, the de-icing process took too long. The pilots taxied to the runway, but then turned around and rolled right back to the gate. The crew’s minutes had expired.
Now I had been home since about 11 PM, but couldn’t sleep. This was the first time the kids were flying without me, and the thought of my family hovering 30,000 feet in the air was nerve wracking. Plus the house was too quiet. Thank God for the dog.
So I lay in bed and stalked their progress. Google said they had departed. The United web site said they were still in “taxi to runway” status. Clark had quit texting, so my only reliable source had probably fallen asleep.
Around 5 AM he finally texted. They were heading back to the gate, and all passengers were instructed to pick up luggage. No United agents were available to rebook flights at the airport.
I should have immediately picked them up, but we decided he would deal with luggage while I called United’s customer service line about rebooking. We still had a shred of hope they could get out of Anchorage on the next flight. Silly us.
After nearly an hour on hold, Gladys @ United answered the phone. And that, my friends, is when I entered the Twilight Zone.
Gladys spent the next 10 minutes trying to convince me that my family safely landed in Denver. Their boarding passes were used and – wouldn’t you know it? – they actually arrived *early*! As such, she could only assist in rebooking the Denver to Omaha portion of their flight.
I explained that I was in communication with my husband, who was still in Anchorage. She insisted he was in Denver.
Wait. What if Gladys was right? Google still said they departed at 3:15. And doesn’t Google know everything?
What was going on? I literally started shaking. The roads in Anchorage were glare ice, and my drive home from the airport was terrifying. Maybe I had actually crashed my car, died, and this was some alternate universe?
Or what if this was like Lost? Clark and I loved that old show, where a bunch of people mysteriously survive a plane crash.
The mind works in mysterious ways when it is sleep deprived.
I reached out to Clark while I was on hold:
As you can see, Clark is not prone to drama. I calmed down, and finally Gladys returned from hold and apologized for her mistake. She was ready to assist with the rebooking process.
Depart Twilight Zone. Enter padded cell.
Would my family be interested in criss-crossing the country on multi stop flights for the next 48 hours? Veto. Would they like to fly “through” lovely Houston on their way to Omaha? Veto, and hold my tongue on the geography lesson.
“Why can’t we stick to our original itinerary and route them through Denver?” I asked.
“Well, we don’t really like to send people through Denver. There can be a lot of snow there,” replied Gladys.
“Isn’t Denver one of your %$#*!@& hubs??????” I thought. (Note my maturity. I thought it, but did not actually say it. I did, however, later confirm it.)
Instead, I slightly-less-than-calmly replied, “Well, we have snow here and that is not the problem. The problem, in this case, is one of the employees LEFT A DOOR OPEN, which LEFT A LIGHT ON, which DRAINED THE BATTERY! I’m not too worried about a winter airport like Denver handling a little snow!”
And maybe then she started to hear my frustration.
In the end, I drove to the airport and picked up my weary family, who had stayed awake all night for nothing.
Gladys rebooked them through Denver two days later.
It was frustrating at the time, but it worked out fine after all. Clark and the kids ended up on a giant new jet airliner with a mere 30 other passengers. Solo rows for everyone!
The fact is, even the worst airlines almost always get us there safely.
It’s too easy to lose that perspective. Most delays are all about safety: airline maintenance, crew health, inclement weather.
So while I can’t say I’m thankful for United Airlines (0-2) just yet , I am thankful for Gladys. She has a thankless job dealing with tired, cranky, delayed customers who are at the height of frustration.
And most of all, I’m grateful to live in a country where plane tickets are affordable, safety standards are rigorous, and – most of all – airline travel is still safe.