The System

Phoenix Skyharbor Airport

The travel system is complex. Flights, multiple carriers, millions of bags, rain, equipment problems and a lot of really frustrated customers. Add to that rental cars, hotels, destinations and the TSA and you have to be amazed that the system works at all and doesn’t come to a grinding halt.

Take today for instance. My lovely wife drops me off at RDU (If your in Raleigh or a frequent traveler you will know thats the airport code for the Raleigh-Durham International Airport) for my trip to BUF (thats Buffalo, NY!). The weather was nice. Looks like we were off to a good start.

But lets back up a couple of weeks when the whole thing started. I get notice that I will be traveling to BUF for a business trip. No surprise, I do this alot. So step one. Go to the company required travel service. I won’t mention names, but its a business version of a popular web based travel site. I’m more and more convinced that they don’t give me all available flights. So after trying to find a suitable set of flights (times, layovers, FF Miles for where the bulk of my miles pile up, what planes are being used . . . and thats important to know!, options for upgrades . . . being a frequent flier has its perks!) I end up with a reasonable Sunday flight with an around 11am departure getting in to Sunny Buffalo around 4:30pm.

Thats not to bad, 7 hours in the travel system to avoid a 12 hour drive. But my flight had a 3 hour layover in Washington National (thats DCA for short). The airline web site had plenty of other options that my super portal didn’t have that would have avoided the layover!

The company I’m training this week wanted me to stay at a particular hotel which was sold out. So after a call to them (remember we still are a few weeks ago!), they booked me at the next best choice distance wise (but not a hotel on any of my frequent stay accounts.) and I booked my rental car (keep that in mind for later!). Okay, all set with the reservations. Get my training materials shipped in time. Get packed. Sunday arrives and we get back to the beginning, I’m at RDU.

Its at this point that alert readers should be told — I DID NOT bring my camera on this trip (GASP!). Sorry, no pics.

I grab a quick bite for breakfast since meals in route become tricky or horrid (yes that $5 will get you a snack box). Security was fairly fast to clear and since I didn’t check bags, my “Two Hours” before your flight meant I had time. So I strolled to my gate and sat down to wait on boarding time. The counter worker for (I will name the airline!) US Airways announced the flight was oversold and was looking for flexible fliers.

The first thing that runs through your mind is “Oh bummer, another packed flight with no place to put your bags”. Normally on outbound trips, I won’t give up a seat because the schedule is too tight, but today I felt as if I could be flexible, so I volunteered my seat. On return flights, I’m quick to give up my seat since I’m not under any pressure. Coincidently, I’ve never been selected for that free fight voucher! Even today, being the first in line, there was a good chance I would still make my flight. Its amazing how people just don’t show up!

“Passenger Robert Miracle please come to the podium”. Damn! I won. I’m getting my bump and my free round trip ticket! Sure enough I got bumped and was being put on a later flight to DCA which would still let me catch my original connection and get into BUF as planned! Sweet!!!! So my delay would be in RDU instead of DCA, no big deal. I ask myself, why wasn’t this later flight an option from that blasted online travel service?

So I hop online since I have time to kill and would be a good chance to study the company I’m going to be training. I coincidently looked up my new flight to find out what kind of equipment I’m on (yup, a smaller regional jet, time to green/yellow tag the one bag since I know it won’t fit in the overheads (and I have a smaller bag at that!). Whats this? 40 minute delay? Leaving me 5 minutes to make my connection? Not good, I continued to do my research and checked back later. 50 minute delay, now I’m missing my connection. Well the podium worker at the new gate arrived and I asked him if the 50 minutes was real and he said “Yup!” and very politely told me he was trying to figure everything out and he would let me know.

A few minutes later the intercom squawks with the announcement…. “The flight is delayed until 5pm (it supposed to depart around 1:40, not 40 minutes or 50 minutes but 3+ hours!)”. A chorus of gasps was heard from the passengers waiting that flight. The intercom continued “I’m working on getting every one to alternate flights so you can make your connections. Please don’t ask questions as I’m working as quickly as I can to get you on the flights. I’ll call you up as I know something”.

Surprisingly everyone basically went “Okay, not big deal” and they went back to their books, laptops, naps or conversations. Of course I turned to my laptop to start looking up what the other flight options were. A fellow traveler was also heading to BUF so we started talking about the options. A female passenger wanted to see what her options were for getting to her destination. “Too bad, we won’t be able to get this flight thats boarding now” I said to the other gentleman heading to BUF. The intercom squawks again “Any passengers traveling to Buffalo with unchecked bags please come to the podium”. We both jumped up and made a bee line to the podium. “Gate A23 now (we were in A24)”. A23 was one of the flights that should have already been boarded and pushing back. We get there, and they are working on their last standbys when they handle putting us on the plane. “Here’s your new flight number and gate” the worker said. “We will fix your ticket in route. Your boarding pass with be at the new gate.”

Sweet! The new flight was getting us out of RDU ahead of schedule and was still going to get us into BUF just a few minutes afterwards. I wonder about the other 60 or so people who were still stuck in RDU hoping to catch a connection, but for me, I’m movin’ on.

Short flight to Philly instead of DCA with a most friendly flight attendant. A Joy to talk to. “What a flight attendant has time to talk?” Apparently the flight was too short to do drinks, so they only did them on request. I felt somewhat cheated out of my half a glass of Sprite, but it was okay, the FA’s conversation was worth it (and everyone who wanted a drink got one!). Now I should say that this FA did me a big favor. Being the next to last one on the new flight meant I didn’t have any overhead room left (and it wouldn’t fit anyway and they had already closed the cargo hold) and I had my two carry ons and only one would go under the seat. She found a hole to shove it in. I was pleased!

The landing in PHL was near perfect. You could hardly feel the landing instead of the normal big bump. Kudo’s to the pilots!

Short stroll from B2 to C24 and I’m ready for my outbound flight. Philly street pretzels in hand I get to the gate and my boarding pass was ready. My original seats for both flights was 3D, an aisle seat with overhead storage. I would be one of the first on the plane, I was all set. Through the chaos of all the flight changes, first the bump and second the re-route, they managed to keep me in rows 2 and 3 and I was in the larger Embraer 175 instead of the the 145 which has much more comfortable seats, bigger windows, and more importantly bigger overhead bins!

All in all, we were early into Buffalo, but I was about 40 minutes later than I had planned. Not bad given the reroute. I do want to say that today US Airways handled everything as best they could and managed the big delay at least for me in a favorable way. I fly United a lot and I can tell you this. The experience would have been far different. I would have been met with rudeness and arrogance. I would have gotten no “Love” from them. I think US Airways is far superior to United in the Customer Service area!

Touch down in BUF, make my way to pick up my bag (I gate checked it in Philly because it was still going to be too tight a fit any way) then to the rental car agency. Now I try to do most of my business rentals with National. They have always been good to me. I’m an Emerald Isle member so I can just run get the car and take care of my signout at the exit gate. So I bop over to deal with the person at the exit gate. She can’t find my reservation. (Again, a very nice person to deal with!). I pull out my itinerary printed from nameless online travel services. And low and behold there is no car rental listed. Now I know I reserved one. “No problem, we have plenty” she said as she took care of setting me up on the spot. Now I’m panicked a bit. Did I rent with someone else? Did I rent at all? Or did said online travel service drop it (they recently did some upgrades!).

Zipped from BUF to the Hotel with no problems. Got checked in, reasonably nice place (Adam’s Mark for the curious). I hop on line to figure out what happened to the car. Either it did get dropped or I didn’t rent it. Given that I didn’t do the hotel through the service I’m thinking its my fault since its always Flight, Hotel, Car and with me not doing the hotel part, I probably never went back to take care of the car.

But amazingly enough. With a Bump, a huge delay, resulting in a re-route, a forgotten car rental, I’m at my destination with minimal headache and hassle.

Thank you travel service workers for making this horrid travel day actually work out pretty much as planned. And thank you to all the travelers who now go “Okay, whatever, it will work out” for not making out travel service work’s lives miserable.

Somehow the system just works.

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