The following is a trip report I posted on my blog, but failed to post here in the trip reports section where it *really* belonged.
Last week was quite an experience. As a salesman in aviation, my “territory” is largely known, and for this reason I tend to prefer Southwest for its service and reliability over the others (this is contrary to an article I wrote last year, but that’s another story altogether). Unfortunately my flight last week would take me outside of my typical territory from Los Angeles all the way to Charlotte, North Carolina. What follows is a comedic day of travel, and inversely an advertisement for Southwest over other carriers.. in my opinion.
Knowing that I can count on SWA to get me where I need to go, I had actually planned to fly from Los Angeles to Raleigh Durham via Chicago, and then drive to Charlotte. Why? Because every single time I’ve had to fly another carrier to somewhere further than Texas, issues would appear.. issues I almost never see at WN. Unfortunately the travel agency my company uses to book flights was unable to pull the same price I was able to book directly on Southwest’s website, leaving the difference between airfare at over $150.. too much to ignore. So with regret, I was forced to book Continental from LAX to Houston Intercontinental on a 737-900, and then catch a connecting 2 hour Embraer 145 flight (ExpressJet) to Charlotte. The fare was $260, and the itinerary looked OK.. on paper. What actually occurred that day would be a far cry from my originally-booked itinerary.
I showed up at LAX Monday morning at 6am to give me ample time to clear security and grab a bite to eat before catching my COA flight to Houston. Now COA has an admittedly cool means of getting through security.. a paperless boarding pass. Essentially an “Aztec Code” barcode (look it up on Wikipedia) is displayed on the user’s cellphone, which is scanned at the TSA booth and compared to the user’s driver’s license. It’s supposed to be ridiculously simple, but today I was unable to load the paperless boarding pass. I kept getting an odd message “You cannot check in at Continental.com for itineraries booked on other carriers.” What? That didn’t make any sense.. yet. When I finally got close to the booking agent’s desk downstairs, a short COA employee informed everyone that our COA flight to Houston had been cancelled and that all passengers had been rebooked on other carriers. I had been rebooked on United. You know, the airline that breaks guitars?
Aboard UAL106 N545UA with my Daughter's Monkey
After waiting in another line for over an hour for my rebooked itinerary, I was finally shown my new plans.. I was to catch a United 757 to Chicago’s O’Hare and connect to Charlotte on US Airways. Great. Not only was I flying on 2 legacy carriers, I was also going to be fling an additional hour or two just to get to Charlotte for a single day of meetings. I didn’t have enough time to grab a bite , so I rushed to my newly-assigned United flight and boarded almost immediately. My bag made it in the overhead, but I was going to be cramped.. it was a full flight and the seats were not very comfortable. My only saving grace would be Channel 9—the live feed to the radio communications in the cockpit. At least that would keep me entertained on my flight to Chicago. As we pushed back, I heard the first engine wind up, but the second didn’t turn over. It was then that I heard the lady Captain up front make an unusual call “United 106 to dispatch, requesting a patch to [maintenance.” The UAL captain proceeded to explain that the auto-start switch was snapping out of the GND position, and thus unable to initiate the start sequence for engine 2.
So here I am, listening to delay #2 beginning to unfold.. and I hadn’t even left LAX! The USA engineering folks eventually found a fix.. simply holding the switch in the GND position until the engine started, waiting until N2 reached 40%, and then releasing it. It worked, and they MEL’ed the switch to Chicago’s maintenance base. The rest of the flight to O’Hare was uneventful, if a bit cramped.
N753US blows at tire at O'Hare
When we arrived in O’Hare, I made a beeline for my connecting US Airways gate (passing Butch O’Hare’s WWII wildcat on the way—very cool) and plopped down near an outlet to charge the laptop and check email. Not 30 minutes later? Gate change. I figured “sure, why not?” After all, I was just rolling with the punches by now. At my new gate, I found another electrical plug and sat down. Not 20 minutes later, my connecting Airbus A319 pulled up to the gate and shut down. “BLAM!” I kid you not, that A319 blew a tire that very moment in full view of its hopeful Charlotte-bound passengers. “Ladies and Gentlemen your flight to Charlotte has been delayed due to a flat tire. The delay is anticipated to last approximately 2 hours.” The collective groans were entirely understood. All I could do was laugh. Did God not want me in Charlotte that night? I didn't know.. Passengers with connecting flights in Charlotte were immediately rebooked, while the rest of us terminating passengers had to sit it out.
About an hour later, I overheard the gate agent say “Hey that’s funny, the jet they are changing a tire out on shows no passengers.” Not a good sign. She announced over the PA that 2 flights remained out of O’Hare that evening to Charlotte—all US Airways Express flights. Passengers wishing to rebook on these flights would be allowed on a first-come first-serve basis. I hopped up so fast my cellphone went flying, and was third in line to catch what would be US Airways flight 2680—a Mesa Air CRJ-900 still bearing the internal configuration from her America West days (N912FJ). In typical Mesa fashion, the seat I was issued was flat as a board from years of butts in the seats. That and it was the very last seat in the jet, 23A.
The flight to Charlotte was not pleasant—while the crew did a masterful job of minimizing flight through known bad weather, eventually we didn’t have a choice. N912FJ penetrated a strong stormcell with moderate turbulence, heavy heavy rain and plenty of lightning to observe. Lightning flashes at night in heavy storm cloud are not only loud, but extremely bright.. it was an uncomfortable experience. At times like this I wished I didn’t know so much about air safety and those that had come before us to pave that path with their lives. American flight 1420 kept flashing in my head, and my seat between the engines at the very tail of the jet was giving me a front-row seat to the rapid power changes and the roller-coaster effect of the autopilot correcting for the storm's gusts. As a frequent traveler who's seen his share of bad flying weather, even I was beginning to grab the armrest a bit with uncertainty. I knew the crew up front was likely young, and thus less experienced that a mainline crew..
After a long outward diversion around the clouds, we re-entered the storm on final approach and landed with a good “thump.” Those young boys up front did a great job of getting us safely to Charlotte, and I was happy to exit that pressurized pencil tube.
Why on earth is was so hard to get to Charlotte that day, I’ll never know. But two interesting points came out of my post-flight research. 1) The US Airways jet that had blown at tire at O’Hare saw full cancellation of it’s flights that evening to Charlotte and beyond, and 2) The Southwest option through KRDU and driving to Charlotte would have put me in my hotel 3 hours earlier.. and neither of those flight options delayed longer than 10 minutes or so, each touching down in KRDU ahead of schedule.
(the flights home on ExpressJet CLT-IAH and COA IAH-LAX were uneventful.. just as I expected. If you can't fly Southwest, Continental does it best.