He flew American Airlines, she flew United. For both, the unthinkable happened

Airlines are currently letting a lot of passengers down. Just how bad is it? These two stories offer a clue.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

Not all flights are the same. Even now.

(A screenshot from a United video)

A screenshot from a United video.

A lot of Americans are thinking twice these days.

Should they fly somewhere, anywhere? Or should they tolerate the high price of gas and drive somewhere, anywhere? 

Currently, America's airlines seem to enjoy all the efficiency and competence of, well, America's politicians.

Delta, for example, got so desperate that it essentially begged passengers to fly at any other time than the Fourth of July weekend, by offering them free flight changes to any other time of the year.

But is it all so bad? Two surprising stories may offer a certain perspective on the madness.

Driven Mad.

First, the tale of Brian Driver. He was flying on business. He was booked on American Airlines. He was aware this was the Thursday before the long Father's Day weekend.

He wanted to change his return flights. So, as the Wall Street Journal recounts it, he first tried using modern technology. You know, things like the app and the American Airlines website. He couldn't make the changes.

He resorted to more ancient technology -- the phone. A machine told him the wait time was eight hours.

Back to more modern ways, he tried the chat option. Within a piffling ninety minutes, he talked to an agent. But then he wasn't able to get the seat he wanted. He tried calling again. Oh, the futility of a system when an airline simply doesn't have enough customer service staff to operate it.

This drove Driver to distraction. It drove him to drive for forty-five minutes to Denver Airport. He marched up to the ticket counter and finally got what he wanted -- customer service.

The airline, naturally, blamed a combination of factors for slow customer service -- air traffic control and weather, for example -- but not, oddly enough, the possibility that it doesn't have enough staff to cope with significant disruptions.

It does seem extreme that a customer has to do something so extreme to finally receive what some might call basic customer service.

It also seems extreme that airlines are blaming operational issues, staff shortages, weather, and air traffic control for what appears to be an insufficient number of actual employees hired in advance of what was clearly going to be an enormous surge in demand.

Please Don't Do It. It'll Drive You Mad.

So when my wife told me she was flying to a conference in Orlando last week, I was a little concerned. (Alright, a lot.)

A cross country flight to Orlando in June? This was asking for mayhem.

It isn't just the weather that's always likely to disrupt the Floridian air in the summer. It's, well, flying right now. The horror of it. Even pilots at Delta, Southwest, and American are declaring that their bosses have no idea what they're doing.

Pilots at United, slightly less so. This may have something to do with the fact that they've just reached an agreement with their bosses on a new contract -- which the other three airlines' pilots haven't.

My wife booked an early morning flight out of San Francisco but was forced to book an evening flight out of Orlando a few days later. Both flights were with United, as she believed that a non-stop option offered the best hope.

The night before her flight, a colleague going to the same conference texted that she'd had a torrid time on Delta. She'd sat on the tarmac for two hours. Worse, those two hours were in Tampa.

I wished my wife much good fortune, shut my eyes, and waited for the bad news. 

After a few hours, she texted: "Guess which airport we landed at."

"I give up," I replied. "New Orleans?"


A tinge of disbelief coursed through my soul. The flight was on time? It landed in the right city? She could get to her conference's opening ceremony?

It seemed so. I felt sure, though, that her return flight would offer discomfort. It had to, right?

Finally, Not On Time.

Oh, the lines at Orlando airport were long. Yet, said my wife, they kept on moving. It only took her twelve minutes to get through security.

But the flight was delayed, you wonder? No. It wasn't on time, either. It actually arrived early. There wasn't even a crying baby to be heard, said my wife.

Just as Brian Driver's experience was unthinkable, so was my wife's. Two extremes in absurdly extreme times.

This isn't for a moment to suggest American is less competent than United -- even though American's own pilots believe that's true.

It's more to honor those airline employees who are working as hard as they can, in the face of laughable levels of mismanagement, to get as many people to their destinations as possible.

Many of them can't work from home. They have to face the disgruntled, the desperate, and the angry.

It's always the service employees -- especially those who face customers every day -- who suffer the most and are paid among the least.

And, peculiarly, it's always the service employees who get laid off -- or encouraged to take early retirement -- first in a downturn, even when airlines take billions of the people's money.

It doesn't seem quite right, does it?

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