I just got back from the Core Happiness Meetup in Amsterdam and I had a total blast (which I will write about later). The only bad part of the whole trip was the flight(s) back. I thought it might be fun to write up a blog post about it so I can look back on it later and laugh (not there yet ).
I was worried about missing my flight so I decided to get there extra early so I got to the airport around 7:00 am for my 11:15am flight. Once I got there I checked the board to see which gate I needed to go to and next to my flight was the word “geannuleerd” which turned out to be the dutch word for cancelled.
I then made my way to the United customer service desk and talked with someone there who told me that my flight was cancelled and I was rebooked on an earlier flight that was going to Dulles at 10:15am. That gave me just enough time to get a souvenir for my little sister and get to the right gate. My new itinerary would take me from Amsterdam to Washington to Chicago to Sioux Falls. It would add three hours on to my trip but what could I do. On the flight I was sitting next to a kid who has also been headed to Chicago too but was rebooked on this flight when it was cancelled who told me that he has taken the Chicago flight many times since attending school in the Netherlands and it has a history of mechanical problems as it was an older plane. On this flight there was a family sitting across the aisle with a little baby that was so well behaved it was scary. The dad said the secret was an iPad + the Baby Einstein App.
The Amsterdam to Dulles flight was pretty uneventful and I got into Dulles at about 2:00pm. Once there I found a Wendy’s and ate a couple burgers while I waited for my 5:10pm flight to Chicago. The problem was about every 30 minutes the United person would announce that the flight would be delayed another 30 minutes or so and near the end of the night they had delayed it until about 8:30pm and shortly after that they just cancelled the flight all together.
The official reason for the cancellation was “waiting for crew”. The plane was there and ready to go but since the flights from Chicago were not being allowed to take off due to the weather our pilot was stuck in Chicago. On a later flight I was seated next to a United pilot was said that while the problems were technically caused by the summer storms the problems could have been lessened if United wasn’t so cheap and had more reserve pilots. All of my flights that were subsequently cancelled or delayed were due to missing pilots not directly because of the weather. They just didn’t have anyone to fly them.
Once they started canceling flights all hell broke loose. One United employee told me they had to cancel over 20 flights and thousands of people were stuck in D.C. I stood in line for about an hour and was successfully rebooked on a 9:00am flight to Chicago with a 11:15am connection to Sioux Falls. Since I would need to be back in the airport the following morning I just decided to sleep in the airport, which it seems like lots of people decided to do as well. From listening to other passengers it didn’t seem like there were many hotel rooms available anyways and I didn’t really want to spend any money just for a place to hang out for a few hours. That money was better spent on Pretzels and Icees :).
Since my flight was going out of gate D1 the following morning I decided that it was the best place to try and get some sleep. There were some other people there as well and from reading the sleeping in airports message boards I guess section D is one of the better sections to sleep in as the chairs don’t have arm rests. So I stuck my laptop inside my other bag and used it as a pillow. I didn’t get much sleep but I got some studying done and thought up a few different ideas for support docs that I hope to run by the team after the bar exam.
I felt especially bad for the people who were stuck there with kids. Sleeping across the gate from me was a mother and her five kids who were stuck there on their way to Saudia Arabia. I decided to get up around 5:00am to check the flight board and to my horror I saw that my flight has already been delayed until 11:03am which meant I would definitely miss my connection to Sioux Falls. I talked with the United staff who told me there was nothing to do but get to Chicago and once there try and get on a standby flight. I tried to go through another airport such as Minneapolis or Omaha but everything was booked solid I kept my original booking.
So I went back to D1 and waited until the flight was ready to board. So many people trying to get on that flight. I felt really bad for the United staff. They were taking a lot of abuse for something that was not their fault. While United made it worse but not having enough reserve pilots that is not the individual employees’ fault. While people watching I heard the United employee tell a passenger that she could put him on the standby list for a flight in Chicago right now without having to wait until he got there. This was something that the other United employee told me wasn’t possible. Upon hearing this I decided to see if that was something she could do for me. So I waited in line for 30 minutes, explained my situation, and she not only put me on the standby list but made me a priority standby which meant that I would always be number one on the list (I guess United card holders and first class/business people can jump to the top of the list even if they are put on the list afterwards). If it wasn’t for that United employee I might still be in Chicago as the standby lists were really long and on my flight only the first two people got seats.
Anyway I got on the flight to Chicago and once I landed I proceeded to gate F11. There I saw that the next flight, which I was on standby for was pushed back from 1:43pm to 4:10pm. While the Chicago airport in general was pretty chaotic the F11 gate was pure pandaemonium. Most flights were delayed several hours so there were like 8 flights full of people crammed into one gate with 20 – 30 people waiting in line to talk with the United staff.
There were so many problems. There was one plane to Huntsville that was delayed as the plane was getting repaired. The people boarded the plane and then they had to get off the plane once they figured out something was wrong. Every 30 minutes or so they would announce that it would be another 30 minutes. After a few hours they said that the flight was now cancelled and the people would need to go back to the airplane to get their luggage (on these small plane you had to check normally carry on luggage). Then right after they made them get their luggage off they announced that they found another plane and would be leaving right away.
I watched plane after plane leave and noticed that very few standby passengers were allowed on. Most flight only had a few open spots and those went fast. It was so loud in there and the plane were so backed up that if they called your name and you didn’t go up there right away they gave your spot to someone else. Because of this I decided to stand near the counter to make sure I got there quicker enough. They had a policy of only announcing who was getting a standby slot right before the plane took off so even though I was first on the list (thank you Dulles United lady) I was still worried the whole time. You wouldn’t believe how happy I felt once they called my name and I boarded the plane that would take me home. It did take 24 hours more than it should have but I was happy to be home.
While the experience was pretty horrible it was interesting to see all the different types of people. In Amsterdam there was this older man who was yelling at the flight attendant because when they rebooked him on the cancelled Chicago flight they assigned him a window seat and he only sat in aisle seats and he wanted the attendant to move someone out of their aisle seat so he could have it. There was also an English guy in Dulles who was waiting in line for an hour to yell at the United employees because while he was lucky enough to have a spot on the flight going out that night it was a business class seat and he only flew first class and wanted to know how they were going to fix this. I’m sure the other people in line wanted to strangle him as most of them didn’t have a flight out and were likely stuck here overnight.
The most intense experience was in Chicago where two older people got in a shouting match over this lady cutting in line. Everywhere I went no matter how long the line was there were always some people who thought that their situation or status warranted immediate attention but the United employees were always were careful to enforce the first come first serve rule which I was very grateful for. In Chicago there was a 2:00pm flight going to Quebec and there was a family of five and four had seats while one only had a standby ticket. I guess there is a policy where they try to keep families together (they usually get standby priority) so the United staff offered whoever would trade their 2:00pm ticket for a 6:45pm ticket $400 in travel vouchers and a $10 meal voucher for the airport restaurants. They tried for several hours and no one would give up their seat. It finally took raising the $400 to $500 before a young guy agreed to give up his seat.
Anyway the whole Amsterdam trip was a blast and even if I knew the trip back would be so horrible I still would have gone. I will try and get over my airport phobia before the next one.