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David J. Danto
Business travel thoughts in my own, personal opinion
eMail: ddanto@IMCCA.org <![if !vml]><![endif]>Follow Industry News: @NJDavidD
The Sacrificial Lamb of Southwest – January 2023
<![if !vml]><![endif]> Despite the title, this blog is not about Southwest Airlines. Yes, Southwest had a meltdown of historic proportions during the very busy holiday season. I don’t even need to give you a reference link for that, if you read this blog you likely already know about Southwest’s problems. What you don’t know is the cheering that is going on in the executive offices of the other US airlines as a result. You see, there is an old saying in business that says if the pope dies you should hurry up and release any bad news you have because no one will pay any attention to it. And that is what happened with Southwest. Their crisis provided excellent cover for all of the rest of the failures of the US airline industry as a whole. And things are not getting any better anytime soon.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, I had intended to report on my experiences at the CES conference that just concluded in Las Vegas, but my family’s flying experiences on United have been so horrific lately that it’s more pressing to give that the attention that it has not received under Southwest’s meltdown cover.
I drove my family to LAS airport on January 2nd to fly home after celebrating NYE there, while I stayed behind to cover the conference. Their flight (UA2001) was scheduled to depart at 12:26 pm and arrive at EWR at 8:19 pm. They ultimately had a five hour delay, as they boarded, then de-boarded the first plane as it came from Newark with a mechanical that they were ultimately not able to repair quickly. United reassigned a different plane that came out of SFO to their route, but they had to de-board that one too as it also had a mechanical issue that needed repairing. They landed close to 1am, and of course, at Newark, retrieving checked bags took at least another hour, so they were not home till around 2:30 am the next day.
<![if !vml]><![endif]>(One quick sidebar here before I continue: the United baggage carousels at EWR have signs that show you how long it will take for your bags to come out. They count down (15 minutes…10…5…4…3…2…1……..) but then they post “expected soon” for as long as they freaking want to – sometimes hours, making any sane person wonder what the point of the original fake countdown is. OK, back to the original point. )
Did my family just experience a one-off bad flight? No, as was proven when I had to fly home the following Saturday. Boarding for my flight (UA 1386) was nearly complete when the captain came over the PA system and said that there was “some sort of problem” with one of the engines and it was only “vaguely reported by the prior crew” who made a beeline for their hotels and were “unreachable.” So all they could do was run a full engine test, which they’re not allowed to do with passengers on the plane. We had to de-board so they again could address the mechanical. Even the captain was upset that this was not checked prior to boarding. It certainly makes one wonder what the quality of maintenance being done at EWR is. I also got home a few hours late once the “expected soon” bags finally trickled out of carousel 2.
OK, that’s two for two. Still not convinced. I’m typing this blog from Houston where I’ll be in business meetings all week. I had purchased this itinerary months ago, and selected flights with available aisle seats so I’d be comfortable (as I’m still just a little bit past my surgery.) Everything was going fine till I get a message at 3am last night that my EWR-IAH flight had an equipment change and I had a new seat – in the middle of a row of 4. I used the United app to message an agent and explain I had to be in an aisle seat, and she couldn’t get one on that flight as there were none left. As I was explaining to her that I can’t tolerate anything else right now I began looking for any flight I could take today that had an aisle seat. I found one that got in after midnight and I was about to make the very undesirable change when I got a notice that the flight I had been on was now completely cancelled. United canceled a nearly full 777 from EWR to IAH for some reason at 3:30 am. Now I was really trying to grab that available aisle seat ASAP when the agent texted me and said “how about the noon flight? There are lots of seats on that.” I explained that the noon flight from EWR to IAH was just cancelled, and she explained “no, not that one [UA 1973] the new one [UA 3025.]” Forty years of flying and nearly two million miles logged and I’ve never seen that before. I can’t envision why any airline would want to pull shenanigans like that – create a brand new flight number that didn’t exist before for a next day flight.
By then it was about 4:30 am and I needed to get at least a little sleep, so I was thankful the agent got me the seat and went back to bed. When I woke-up, surprise, I even had an upgrade – now in a Polaris configured seat 4D.
When I got to the airport the next day (after two gate-changes) the inbound flight arrived, but apparently the catering truck was nowhere to be found. Its MIA status resulted in a delay in boarding, and then, the understandable yet galling move to board the back of the plane while we were waiting for someone to find the catering truck somewhere in Newark and send it to the airport so the forward areas could board. It was yet another one hour delay. When we finally were allowed to board I dumped my things into my seat and ran for the forward lavatory – only to find out, as the FA said, “it came in broken and no one bothered to call to have it fixed.” We’re all standing around waiting an hour for a lost catering truck and no one thinks to have the 1st class lav fixed?
What in hell is going on with United maintenance?
When I mentioned all of this to Joe Brancatelli he had no idea why the original flight would be cancelled and replaced, but he did address the Southwest situation. His quote:
“Southwest’s total meltdown totally obscured the problems at the other airlines. No one has he bandwidth – readers or journalists – to absorb it all…”
After all, the airline industry stopped trying to be excellent many years ago. All they do now is ensure they suck as much as the other guys. If they ever suck more they get dragged (like Southwest) by the same reporters that seem to give them a pass all the other times.
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If you do want to read about my very general impressions from CES 2023, read here and here. But more than that, cross your fingers that I can make it home without incident at the end of this week. I trust United about as far as I can throw a plane.
This article was written by David Danto and contains solely his own, personal opinions.
All image and links provided above as reference under prevailing fair use statutes.
Copyright 2023 David Danto
As always, feel free to write and comment, question or disagree. Hearing from the traveling community is always a highlight for me. Thanks!