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June 30, 2007

24 Hours in O'Hare

I opened my blog entry for June 20 with “You know I like to travel.? Well, this statement became problematized when I spent 24 hours from hell in Chicago’s O’Hare airport.

OHare airport.jpg

My itinerary didn’t even call for me to go through O’Hare. I was spending a week in New Mexico with Susan. But while there, my father was released from the hospital (in New Hampshire) and my sister had several non-negotiable work commitments, so I changed my travel plans to cut NM short and fly to NH before returning home.

It started out smoothly enough, taking off from El Paso. But just as we were boarding, the agent said we’d be making an unscheduled stop in Omaha for refueling. Refueling? Why?

Well, the story goes like this. (And if a physicist or aeronautical engineer can verify it, I’d appreciate it.) It was very hot in El Paso (typically lower 100s in late June), and the flight was full - in fact, oversold. They reasoned that in that heat with a full load, there would not be enough lift to get the plane off the ground with a full tank of gas as well. So they either had to bump 25 people off or not go with a full tank of gas, refueling along the way. It sounded plausible and not traumatic. We landed in Omaha just fine and started to refuel. Then came the rest of the story. There was very bad weather in Chicago, and planes were not being let in. So it wasn’t clear when we could take off. Mercifully, they let us off the plane, which was getting incredibly hot and close.

They warned us to stay near the gate and be able to leave on a moment’s notice. We all saluted. But some people snuck out for a smoke -- outside, of course. And even though they had their boarding passes, the documents didn’t say anything about Omaha. They were from El Paso to O’Hare. So the attentive TSA agents didn’t let them back through security without a lot of cross checking and some angry words and flared tempers. This delayed our departure, but we finally did leave.

By the time we got to O’Hare, I had missed my connection to Providence. (Yes, the closest I could get to NH on 2 days’ notice was Providence, a 2+ hour rental car drive away.) If we had taken off 10 minutes earlier, I would have made the connection and wouldn’t have this fascinating story to tell.

O’Hare was chaos. They said we should go immediately to the relevant gate (I did, but the plane had left), or call their 800 number on our cell phone, or stand in the re-booking line. Me and about 500 other people. I stood in one line for FOUR SOLID HOURS. They had 5 agents trying to serve about 500 people. I tried to call the 800 number while standing in line, and it first said the estimated wait time was 37 minutes - then it cut me off! Which was good, because my battery would have died. (One by one, cell phones were shutting down as batteries died.)

I really felt sorry for the families with little kids and seniors traveling in wheel chairs. Once I finally got up to the desk (after midnight), the agent booked me on a Continental flight -- but when I came to take the flight the next morning, there was no such flight. No such departure time, no such flight number. Hmmm.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. While I was standing in line, Susan was trying to find me a hotel room (online back in NM). Word was that there were NO rooms available in the city. Amtrack was also completely sold out. After trying almost 100 places, she found a room in Glendale Heights, purportedly not too far from O’Hare. I was very grateful!

So after rebooking my (bogus) flight, I confidently left the airport to get a taxi to Glendale Heights. When the Suburban taxi pulled up, I was a bit suspicious because it was a black limo with no meter. I asked what the approximate fare would be: $75 one way! WHAT!? Even under the best circumstances, I would only be at the hotel 4 or 5 hours, because I had to be back at the crack of dawn. So I told him to forget it. He said he’d take me for $60. I declined.

So I went back into the airport and thought I’d go and claim one of the cots they were setting up, if there were any more left. (I doubted there would be, but thought I’d try.)
Guess what? Security was closed until 3:30 a.m. So I had the pleasure of spending the night in the baggage claim. What happens in baggage claim over night, you might ask? Welding, floor waxing, cleaning, and oh those announcements every 3 minutes. I knew them by heart. The threat condition is orange, don’t pick up unattended luggage, and remove your electronic objects before going through the magnetometer (seriously).

I felt like Tom Hanks in “The Terminal.? (great movie, by the way.)

airport chair sleep.jpg

Food?? Hmm, dinner never happened. I had a bag of trail mix, but had already ingested a zillion peanuts. The only food open in baggage claim is the 24 hr Starbucks. Coffee was NOT what I needed. Hey, they have great baked goods. But hey, I can’t eat any of them. Fortunately, they had yogurt. It helped make my throbbing headache go away.

Of course, I was still confident that I’d get out in the morning, not knowing that I had a bogus reservation (I’m glad I didn’t know at that point.) After I discovered the non-existent flight, I had to spend an hour on the phone rebooking again. The agent told me he couldn’t get me to the East coast until Sunday. Sunday! It was only Thursday! So I said - go home; this is not working. Can you get me back to MSP? No - but I can get you to La Crosse, Wisconsin. Fine - get me to La Crosse. (and where is that??) And by the way, that plane departs in 12 hours. So another 12 in O’Hare. The seats in the main terminal aren’t much better than in baggage claim -- and oh those announcements and ubiquitous TVs.

Finally got to La Crosse, and Mark drove there to pick me up. We made it home at 1 a.m. Almost 36 hours later, I still don’t have my suitcase.

American lost a customer on this one. As Susan pointed out, the U.S. transportation system works great when there are no problems (strikes, bad weather, terrorists) -- but throw one monkey wrench into the mix and the dominoes start falling - and bring everything to a standstill. That’s what happened Wed / Thursday. There were huge storms in Dallas (the main AA hub) and Chicago - and everything just domino’d one after another.

I’m glad to be home and am looking forward to re-connecting with my luggage. At least I won’t have to go to La Crosse to pick it up. In the meantime, Dad made it home and has no memory of having been in the hospital for two weeks. But that’s a topic for later.

Posted by hgroteva at June 30, 2007 12:07 PM | Travel

Comments

Each segment of your trip was bad enough, but combined they sound like the movie script from a travel movie from hell "Lost In Chicago (via Omaha and LaCrosse)". Incredible. Glad you made it back, but sorry it was under those circumstances!

Posted by: lynn at July 1, 2007 3:02 PM

Hope you don't mind that I sent a link to your blog to the customer relations office at American Airlines. This whole thing is inexcusable--even if their original "reason" for the extra stop is true, it doesn't speak too well about their management practices. Heat at the end of June is predictable, the number of seats on the plane is a known quantity, and the fuel capacity and distance to be covered should be familiar enough for them to make reasonable predictions. Glad you're safe, and that you had someone available to pick you up in the middle of the night in the greater LaCrosse metropolis. And glad that your sister was able to shoulder the whole burden while you were trapped in baggage claim.

Posted by: Deb at July 1, 2007 7:51 PM

Deb, Thanks for forwarding this on to American Airlines - they need to know about it. I think their biggest problem was not that the planes were delayed, but that their customer service in rebooking was so terrible. When an emergency like that occurs, they need to be ready to call in the reserves to get people rebooked. Four hour lines and 80 minute estimate wait times on the phone are completely unacceptable - and counterproductive in terms of maintaining their customer loyalty. The agents I spoke with were as friendly and helpful as they could be, under the circumstances. There were just way too few of them. My luggage arrived a few hours ago --- 3 days later.

Posted by: Hal at July 1, 2007 8:31 PM

So sorry to hear about your terrible experience. As I was on route from LA to MSP last week, at around midnight, a flight from LA to Detroit (Northwest) was cancelled, causing quite the row in the check-in area: I was glued to watching one ground staff having a yelling match with a customer! These are the "moments of truth" (Jan Carlzon) when airlines can really win over customers, if the organization were more systemically managed.

Posted by: Johnben at July 3, 2007 4:38 PM