Because of the bad weather just after New Year’s Day, we spent three days trying to get back from Hawaii. The trip to Hawaii was wonderfully restful; the return trip beginning the Friday after New Year’s Day was not a positive experience. Three years ago, bad weather stranded us at Newark airport for two days and we never made it to Hawaii; this time I was wondering when we would get back to New York.
Being stranded in Hawaii can really not be considered a negative. Being stranded in the Portland and Minneapolis airports doesn’t have the same tropical feel. Our return trip from Hawaii had as its only scheduled stop, a change of planes in Portland. Shortly before we arrived in Portland, the connecting flight to New York was canceled because of bad weather airport conditions at JFK. The snow had stopped a day earlier but JFK was having continuing problems which seemed to affect some airlines more than others. Now, we all understand that delays can happen; however, the fact that it took three hours trying to find an airline representative to talk to, including standing on a long line before we could get any rerouting help is not my idea of good customer service. There wasn’t even an airline representative at the gate when we disembarked in Portland, though many passengers were affected.
The initial rerouting had us staying in Portland from late Friday until Tuesday. I followed up with the airline on the phone (an 8 hour experience from start to finish) and we were given an alternative where we would arrive in Philadelphia on Sunday evening. The alternative involved flying from Portland to Minneapolis and subsequently flying from Minneapolis to Philadelphia, at which point I would rent a car to drive back to New York. We made it almost on time to Minneapolis and prepared to embark on the flight to Philadelphia. Minneapolis at the time had a temperature of -10 Fahrenheit and we had no clothes that would keep us warm or semi-warm if we needed to go outside. Somehow a sweatshirt really doesn’t serve the purpose when the climate is in negative numbers.
Getting onto the plane in Minneapolis took 3 hours longer than we expected, and then the surprise happened. The bathroom water lines had frozen and first needed to be thawed before we could take off. It never happened. First we just sat on the plane for an additional hour; then we were asked to leave the plane so that the temperature in the plane could be increased as much as possible. Another two hours later and there was the announcement that this hadn’t worked, and that another plane would soon be available. Two hours later we were able to get onto the replacement plane. And more than seven hours later than originally scheduled, we landed in Philadelphia. Add another 30 minutes waiting for the luggage, and at 12:40 AM we were set to leave the airport. Now, a snow storm is clearly an act of god and not under the control of the airlines; however, letting water lines freeze at -10 degrees is clearly a mistake of the airline. They had to know that subzero temperatures impacts water. And yet there were no consequences for the airline.
Because we landed so late in Philadelphia and it was very foggy besides, we didn’t try to drive to New York in the middle of the night. We rented a car, stopped at a local hotel, and the next morning after breakfast drove to New York.
Safety needs to come first in air travel and I would never argue that a flight should take place if that safety would be compromised. But in a difficult situation, the absence of customer service makes the situation all the worse. The lack of airline agent support in Portland, the lack of proper plane preparation in Minneapolis made a difficult situation much more unpleasant and ultimately more costly and time consuming. Shouldn’t more of this burden be carried by the airlines? And I know that some airlines did better than others. Those that did better, and the airports that did better, should be recognized and those that didn’t should face the consequences. Outcomes assessment has an important role outside as well as inside of education.