Air travel needs to be fixed from the ground up

Here's Alan in the Atlanta airport after 8.5 hours. You can imagine how happy he was after 20 hours! (Photo by Cynthia Moxley)

Here’s Alan in the Atlanta airport after 8.5 hours. You can imagine how happy he was after 20 hours! (Photo by Cynthia Moxley)

NOTE: This guest post was written by Alan Carmichael, president of Moxley Carmichael.

The world was shocked when they saw United Airlines forcibly remove a passenger from a recent flight, precipitating a public relations crisis of the worst order, compounded by an incredibly bad company statement about the incident and the need to “re-accommodate these customers.”

In the week before, Cynthia and I were eyewitnesses to how another airline, Delta, handled its own crisis related to multiple delayed and cancelled flights following severe storms in the Southeast. Like United, this incident pointed out lessons in public relations, customer service and the critical need for crisis training and advanced planning – internally as well as externally.

Cynthia and I were among hundreds of passengers stranded in the Atlanta airport overnight April 5-6 due to cancelled flights resulting from the predicted bad weather. It happens, but what we saw and experienced that night should give any airline CEO real incentive to see that the crisis could have, and should have, been handled a lot better on the ground.

A passenger delayed overnight in the Atlanta airport sleeps on the floor. (Cynthia Moxley photo)

A passenger delayed overnight in the Atlanta airport sleeps on the floor. (Photo by Cynthia Moxley)

Let me say at the outset, Delta is one of our favorite airlines. They have provided us excellent service and customer care on numerous flights at home and abroad. In addition, no one questions how Mother Nature can interfere with the best laid plans of man and airline.

Scheduled for an 11:30 a.m. departure, we took off late from Knoxville on Wednesday, April 5, because flights already are backing up in the Atlanta Delta hub because of the storms. In Atlanta, we headed to our gate for a flight to New York City’s LaGuardia Airport to join other Knoxville folks for a Clarence Brown Theatre visit to see plays. The flight originally was scheduled to take off at 1:45 p.m. and arrive in New York at 4:05. We were to see a play at 8 p.m. At the gate, the real drama begins.

Hundreds of folks in a "help line" in the Atlanta airport. (Photo by Cynthia Moxley)

Hundreds of folks in a “help line” in the Atlanta airport. (Photo by Cynthia Moxley)

On a day with an already deteriorated schedule situation, there is ONE gate attendant for this very full flight. The plane is at the gate, but there are no pilots and no flight attendants. It is a story being repeated at other gates due to the weather.

Then begins a litany of many assurances that the flight will get out that night as the storms subside. “We are waiting on a crew.” So, people for the most part hang at the gate. Some try to jump on other flights but find that the same situation exists there, too.

At some point, while the hours are passing by, we are joined by Delta’s “Captain George,” a 30-year veteran pilot, who takes over the microphone from the gate attendant. He announces he will be our pilot.

We are treated to highlights of his career as he, too, reassures us that the flight will be going to New York that night. “How do I know this?” he asks. “They need this plane to be in New York (for tomorrow’s flights).”

There will be several repeat trips to the gate area microphone to give us the same message: “We apologize for the delay. We are going to get you to New York tonight. Stay with us. This is your best option. There are no hotel rooms available for miles. We are waiting on flight attendants to arrive.” Many pilots and flight attendants are timed out and can’t fly due to regulations. No argument there. Safety is the big consideration.

A chair sleeper in the Atlanta airport. (Photo by Cynthia Moxley)

A chair sleeper in the Atlanta airport. (Photo by Cynthia Moxley)

We are now well past midnight. Passengers are restless, making trips to the desk to ask questions. At this point, the gate attendant is shouldering through the tough situation pretty well, but the key point: she is terribly alone in handling a planeload of tense and tired passengers. A quick visit down the concourse shows the same thing, not enough personnel around to handle the crisis and the questions of the passengers.

Another pilot shows up and is applauded by the passengers at the gate. Later, a crew of flight attendants shows up to cheers and applause. The crew members rush onto the plane. Now, we are awaiting approval to shove off. “This is still your best option,” from Captain George.

Inexplicably, the airport emergency strobe lights and warning siren go off. “There is an emergency in the building. We are investigating. We will let you know what we find out.” Now, they really have everyone’s attention. But the same message goes off again and again, and we come to realize it is some kind of malfunction. No one pays attention anymore.

Then, at 3 a.m. the message comes from Captain George. “The flight has been cancelled.” A collective groan goes up as passengers rush the desk to see if other flights can be booked, but everything else is pretty much cancelled, too. The flight attendants rounded up for the flight grimly exit past us.

A large, older white gentleman in the middle of the line begins yelling at the African-American gate attendant, who is doing the best she can with a very bad situation. She has been there for 13 hours. “Get some help down here!” he shouts.

“There is no one else, sir,” she says.

“Get your supervisor down here!” he shouts. Then, he begins to berate her.

Another passenger in the gate area tells the man to back off. A young black man next to us tells him, “She is doing the best she can. Leave her alone.”

Then, the man launches into the young man. The younger man responds, “I can whip your a–, old man.”

The F-word sails across the gate area many times. A man behind the line is talking to Delta on the phone and uses it liberally and loudly. There are young people in the gate area.

Misery in the Atlanta airport. (Photo by Cynthia Moxley)

Misery in the Atlanta airport. (Photo by Cynthia Moxley)

Finally, the gate attendant announces that she must leave to greet an incoming flight. She tells some of us at the front of the line (who have been nice to her) that she will not be back. She gives us the names of two attendants in red coats who will be booking flights down the hall. We go book one later that morning to White Plains, New York. “Your luggage will be shifted to this flight, and you will pick it up in White Plains,” the new attendant said.

Eventually, everyone wanders off to sleep in chairs or on the floor. It looks like Scout camp. We doze a few minutes at a time. We are awakened periodically by the emergency message.

The next morning, we fly out to White Plains after 20 hours in the Atlanta airport. We arrive, but our luggage doesn’t. We find out it is at LaGuardia Airport where our first flight was headed. We hire a car to take us to New York City at a cost of $137. We get our luggage the next day.

We tell ourselves that this is a First World problem, and it could be worse, but there are some lessons here for Delta Airlines if they are interested in the feedback.

  • Revisit your crisis plan. Prepare better for the worst-case scenarios.
  • One pilot told us that part of the problem is that airlines don’t have enough crews anymore.
  • When bad weather is coming, work on making additional resources – in the air and on the ground – available to fill in. Pay the overtime to additional ground personnel. It will be worth it.
  • One gate attendant is not enough, especially at 3 in the morning.
  • Give crisis communication training to all personnel who deal with customers.
  • Tell the truth to passengers. If you don’t know, say you don’t know. Don’t promise something you can’t deliver.

Note to passengers: No matter how bad it gets, treat the people who are trying to help you in a friendly and respectful manner. You will get more help and information.

Our attendant said if the passenger who berated her got to the front of the line, she was not going to help him.

While well-intentioned, Captain George eventually became the symbol of everything bad that day. To his credit, he stayed around the gate and talked to passengers after the cancellation.

Unlike United, I think Delta will get most passengers back if they do a lessons-learned exercise.

P.S. With Delta still playing catch-up, the 12:55 p.m. flight home Sunday was delayed, and we missed our connection in Atlanta. We caught a later flight and got home at 11 p.m. That was just an 12-hour trip — about the amount of time it would have taken to drive.

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17 Responses to Air travel needs to be fixed from the ground up

  1. sidney neate, on April 14th, 2017 at 2:09 pm said:

    Airlines, like cell phone companies have become a necessary evil. Unfortunately they are aware of this, so largely they have foregone customer service and treat their customers like cattle.

  2. Scott Bird, on April 14th, 2017 at 2:31 pm said:

    “No matter how bad it gets, treat the people who are trying to help you in a friendly and respectful manner.”

    Very sound advice in any situation.

    For what it’s worth, we traveled to Miami today on Delta — no negatives whatsoever!

  3. Maria Cornelius, on April 14th, 2017 at 2:33 pm said:

    While some delays are unavoidable (weather), an airline company can always control how it treats the customers. Alan outlined it all very well.

  4. Cynthia Moxley, on April 14th, 2017 at 2:40 pm said:

    Sidney: We certainly experienced that last week.

    Scott: Glad your Delta experience was better. Have fun in Miami.

    Maria: I agree he did a great job.

  5. Dee White, on April 14th, 2017 at 3:11 pm said:

    I spent two days trying to get from Portland back to Knoxville. I got stuck in Minneapolis/St Paul. Same story there. Not nearly enough gate agents to help. Reassurances over and over that turned out to be untrue. Very long lines waiting for help from one or two overworked and exhausted gate agents. In addition Delta lost my luggage on the last two international flights I took. I am NOT feeling the love.

  6. Cynthia Moxley, on April 14th, 2017 at 3:16 pm said:

    Dee: Oh, no! Your experience sounds even worse than ours! So sorry.

  7. Mike Griffith, on April 14th, 2017 at 3:43 pm said:

    Very constructive way to use your time and expertise in this situation! More than once, I’ve asked to move my flight back a day when I see bad weather moving in in Atlanta.

  8. Cynthia Moxley, on April 14th, 2017 at 3:54 pm said:

    Mike: Yep. Lesson learned.

  9. Ed Mathews, on April 14th, 2017 at 9:34 pm said:

    I would just reaffirm the message that when situations arise the ground level employees are not able to make the changes/decisions that we want so why not always treat them the way we would like to be treated when we’re dealing with a bad situation. Life would be better for both sides.

  10. Gloria Montgomery, on April 14th, 2017 at 9:42 pm said:

    What an ordeal! We had a similar experience at O’Hare a few years ago coming back from Portland…almost missed Christmas . It happened to be on United. Well written, Alan.

  11. Gina Buffum, on April 14th, 2017 at 9:57 pm said:

    Because bad weather is random, airlines will never be able to staff for events like this.
    The planes are so small now, every seat is usually sold, and rebooking is a nightmare. I was told the next available plane I could get a seat on was two days later, and the destination would be Chattanooga, this happened a few years ago. My husband drove down in the middle of the night to pick me up.
    I’ve learned never take the last flight to Knoxville..leave wiggle room, and hope for the best.
    We just traveled 12 hours to Philly for Easter, by car. I still prefer to fly, even if it takes the same time! I think Delta does a great job, most of the time.

  12. Cynthia Moxley, on April 14th, 2017 at 10:06 pm said:

    Ed: You are so right.

    Gloria: So sorry you had to go through the same thing. Bummer.

    Gina: I agree the weather is random. And we totally understood the canceled flights. But these storms were predicted days in advance. They had time to staff up the folks on the ground. And by the time of our return four days later, wouldn’t folks trained in logistics have been able to get their flight crews and equipment back in the tight places? But, as Alan said, First World problems..

  13. Jaynie Ely, on April 15th, 2017 at 11:23 am said:

    We learned our lesson early on when Delta held us hostage in Atlanta 2x while trying to get to NYC. I refuse to fly Delta there. Now we drive. We get books on tape. On the way up we spend the night inHarisburg, VA, have a nice breakfast and arrive @ the Warwick Hotel at check in time. It’s exactly 12 hrs from the Warwick to our front door. Coming home, Another good mystery book on tape, & we drive straight thru stopping @ a Cracker Barrel to eat. Since we are heading south it feels like we are going down hill the entire time.
    I really feel your pain & frustration reading Alan’s story. Being held hostage is a terrible feeling. It would be nice if someone could forward Alan’s suggestions to Delta.

  14. D. Swanson, on April 15th, 2017 at 11:04 pm said:

    Weather is SOMEWHAT predictable.
    Storms worsen in the afternoon.
    Violent weather happens often on unseasonably hot days.
    Weather forecasts are more accurate than even 20 years ago.
    Weather is wilder with climate change.
    There are more weather disasters seen on the news now than 20 years ago.
    Airlines are less able to adapt because of leaner staffing.
    So …
    Plan to run late.
    Plan for delays; you MIGHT make 30 min connection, but don’t bet on it.
    Travel EARLY in the day, if possible. The later in the day, the more likely your flight will be impacted by other tardy flights.

    Lowering your expectations is hard, but it’s necessary. Airlines are now buses; the airport is the bus station.

    That said, airports need cots!

  15. MattNYC, on April 16th, 2017 at 9:34 am said:

    Not trying to cannon ball into the pool while everyone is sunbathing, but I became all to suspicious when “severe storms” were used as an excuse to strand this many pax. This is something more on the scale of a tornado hitting an airport, a bomb threat (or active shooter) or even a hurricane.

    Airlines have procedures for IRROPs like this and frequently execute IRROPS procedures like a well-oiled machine. A little research into this revealed via flyerTalk, a complete meltdown of the crew scheduling system at Delta. The airline then proceeded to point the finger at the weather…

    I’m sure I can’t direct-link the article but Google: “Delta’s Big Disaster: Even Its Pilots and Cabin Crew Are Angry”

    I encourage any and all of you to frequently visit FlyerTalk and blogs like ViewFromTheWing (full disclosure, I am a member of both of these sites but have no professional affiliation or business interest with either) as they give you a great run down of what you can do as a pax to avoid IRROPS altogether, or what to do when you find yourself in an IRROPS scenario.

    I fully agree with D. Swanson, and for those of you that don’t fly often, follow all the steps he listed for the highest probability of a smooth trip.

  16. Cynthia Moxley, on April 16th, 2017 at 9:47 am said:

    Jayne: Wow. You really took action to avoid the problem. Good for you.

    D. Swanson: Great points, sadly.

    MattNYC: Thanks for the info. We will check out some of those resources. Appreciate the tips.

  17. daniel andrews, on May 21st, 2017 at 3:32 pm said:

    Very well written. I often wish Alan would be able to write more guest postings. Truth be said as someone that studies hazardous weather, I think people really don’t understand just how dangerous and complicated it is to predict storm patterns 10,20,30,000+ feet in the air. I mean take Knoxville. On average we have 3-4 weather days a month that have significant weather potential. With all the modern technology, weather forecasters can’t even get a good handle on forecasting ground level. So, while everyone is kind of angry and tempers flair, remember, it is better to err on the side of caution.

    That being said, I firmly believe that more officers of law enforcement should be called in from surrounding counties on days or nights like this so that people sleeping in their chair can rest a little easier knowing that if they dose off, their carry-on won’t walk off.

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