A lot of things go through a 40-year-old traveler's mind when he wakes up at 4 a.m. on a metal grate in a woebegone corner of New York's JFK Airport. Things like: Where's the &!#@% Advil? And: If ravenous tubercular weasels gnawed the hearts out of Delta Airlines executives, wouldn't that be simultaneously an act of cannibalism and of justice?
I was one of a planeload of Dallas-bound passengers last Sunday night whose flight was canceled after spending five hours on the tarmac. The delay was not Delta's fault. But inasmuch as Delta and other airlines a passenger's rights coalition last week cited American, United and US Airways as being egregious offenders are finding themselves in this situation more and more this awful summer, here are a few hints that might keep customers from devoutly wishing for the airlines' demise:
Water us. Five hours on a plane with only a cup of water per person, and no other fluids offered? Come on.
Have a contingency plan in place for these situations. Taking passengers back to the terminal at midnight and telling them that they're basically on their own for the evening is unconscionable. The other night, those with financial resources and the wherewithal to leave found their way to hotel rooms, at considerable extra cost and trouble. Most of us slept in the airport. We begged for water and food, all the shops in our terminal being closed. Finally some Delta employees appeared and desultorily dumped warm water and packaged snacks on the floor, along with blankets, then slunk off.
Hire competent staff. One poor passenger had held on the phone with Delta for two hours to rebook his flight, only to be told that he had to speak to someone in person at JFK. So he waited in line for ages, only to be told that he had to rebook his flight by telephone! There were countless stories of contradictory information being given to passengers by airline employees.
Hire human beings. We were all in a rotten situation that night. Delta's people didn't want to be there, and neither did the rest of us (and nobody wanted to be near the slobby passenger with the thick New York accent, who apparently believed that repeating the F-word loudly and liturgically would change our lives for the better). It was astonishing, though, to encounter over and over again airline employees who acted as if we passengers had ruined their evening by our miserable existence. A little empathy would have gone a long way at that hour.
I did encounter a few saintly Deltoids, bless their hearts. But for me, the face of Delta Airlines will always be the snotty woman manning the check-in desk in Terminal 3 on Monday morning. After spending the night on metal grates in Terminal 4, where we'd eventually been sent by Delta in search of food, a Richardson passenger and I decided to return to Terminal 3. Our flight home was set for 7 that evening, and we hoped to check in early. We approached Cruella de Delta, showed our tickets and asked for boarding passes.
She sniffed that check in wasn't possible until six hours before the flight. Which meant we'd have five more hours to sit on the floor, or on metal chairs, and spin.
"But we've just spent the night sleeping on grates," I pleaded. "All we're asking is that you let us in so we can sleep on the carpet."
"I am sad for you," she replied sassily, to us problem children. "But that's not my fault." Snap!
After that, I'd ride a bony-backed mule to my destination before I'd give Delta my business. You simply can't treat customers that way. I didn't pay $1,800 on a plane ticket, endure a 49-hour journey home, and end up spending the night on a grate only to be condescended to when requesting an upgrade to a carpeted floor.
Delta handled the situation badly, but the congestion that caused the initial problem wasn't the airline's fault. The Department of Transportation recently announced that airline flight delays are at their highest number since the government began keeping track in 1996. Congress has got to spend the billions it's going to take to upgrade our antiquated air traffic control system. And this crazy airline overbooking policy has got to end. On the other hand, I'm all for a passengers' bill of rights, but I'm also in favor of consumers paying more for tickets to compensate airlines for providing decent amenities food, water, a cot to stranded travelers.
This is going to be a miserable summer for air travel, with sprawling terminals serving as Dante-esque cities of woe. Abandon hope all ye who enter here and don't forget the Advil.