I haven’t had a lot of luck with air travel of late. My flights always seem
to be delayed – and for some reason, when a flight is delayed more than
half an hour, it always turns out to be six hours at least. You lose a whole
day, your sleep patterns get completly screwed up, and, of course, any vague
hint of a bug you might have had getting on to the plane gets turned into a
full-on raging cold by the time you’ve spent 12 hours in a metal tube breathing
stale, fifth-hand, dry-as-dust air.
I’m in Argentina now, and my trip down here is a case in point. The kind of
people who say "you’re lucky" to someone with a terrible injury would
probably say the same thing about me: I was on the last plane out of JFK as
snowstorm was blowing in to New York, and who knows when I might have been
able to leave had the flight been cancelled.
That said, however, the American Airlines experience left a very great deal
to be desired. On an evening when all flights out of the airport were significantly
delayed due to weather, they insisted on boarding us right on time, only to
sit at the gate… and sit at the gate… and sit at the gate a bit longer.
The announcements from the captain were mumbled, short, and unhelpful: something
about engines, power, de-icing, it was not clear at all.
After about an hour, finally a coherent message from the captain. The good
news: we were finally able to leave the gate. The bad news: a couple of standby
passengers who were meant to be on board turned out not to be, and so their
luggage would have to be removed. Of course, they had all the relevant information
an hour earlier, when we were waiting around twiddling our thumbs, but somehow
failed to act on it until the point when we were hopeful we might finally be
able to take off.
Eventually, the bags were found, the plane left the gate, and – I think,
nothing was made very clear to us – we started the first phase of de-icing.
Apparently there are de-icing "stations" at JFK: this is not a procedure,
like refuelling, that can be done at the gate. So various bits of the plane
got de-iced, and then we headed off to station number two, where the wings and
fuselage would get done. Except we never got there. What with heating and lighting
the cabin, and de-icing whatever they de-iced, they’d somehow managed to run
out of whatever battery power they needed to actually move the aircraft. So
we had to wait for another hour while someone could, in effect, give us a jump-start.
Then, the second phase of de-icing took at least twice as long as it should
have, for similar reasons to do with power. First one side of the plane got
de-iced, then the other, instead of them both being done at the same time.
More profoundly, the way we were running out of power created a big problem:
there now wasn’t enough fuel left to get us all to Buenos Aires. The captain
had three choices: cancel the flight, which no-one wanted; lose 60 passengers
to lighten the load; or refuel in Miami. In the end, the choice was made for
him: the crew had spent so long sitting on the ground that under union rules
they weren’t allowed to work the whole 11 hours to BA. So Miami it was.
It was exactly at this point that things really started to go wrong. Once the
flight had been sitting on the tarmac for a certain amount of time, Miami was
a certainty. In fact, the pilot more or less admitted we would have to refuel
there in one of his earliest announcements, while we were still stuck at the
gate. But let’s be charitable and say it took them a couple of hours to put
two and two together. The plane was meant to leave at 10:20, so by 12:20 American
Airlines should have been getting on the phone to Miami, organising a new crew
to replace the JFK crew, and generally attempting to ensure that we wouldn’t
need to spend any more time in Miami than we needed to refuel.
We finally took off, five hours late, at 3:20. The flight was fast and uneventful,
and we landed by 5:15. The crew, by this point, was very annoyed: rather than
working 22 hours New York – Buenos Aires – New York, they would
get paid for only nine or so, for the time spent idling in New York and the
flight to Miami. Still, they told us, not to worry: the American Airlines agent
would be waiting for us at the gate, along with the replacement crew, and we
should be on our way in no time.
Of course, when we get to the gate, there’s no agent there: no one in Miami
seems to have the foggiest notion what’s going on. Eventually, at 6:00, roughly
when we were expected to be leaving, an agent arrived, and seemed most surprised
to see us at the gate. After a bunch of scrambling around, it’s determined that
our nine-person crew from JFK is going to be replaced by a five-person crew
from Miami – they should be here any time. And, indeed, they all turn
up relatively quickly, except for the one who doesn’t. An extra crew member
must be found, which is likely to take an hour or so, and so at this point it’s
decided that maybe we should be let out of the airplane after all. We’d been
cooped up for eight hours, no one knows how long we’ll be stuck in Miami, and
the flight on to Buenos Aires is another nine: even American realised that it
might not be smart to make a 767 with more than its fair share of small children
stay in its seats for something over 18 hours at a stretch.
So we’re told that we can stretch our legs for half an hour. No longer will
groups of no more than four people at a time be accompanied to the phone booths
and back; rather, we can all enjoy the splendours of the American Airlines departure
lounge in Miami at our pleasure.
The departure lounge is a pretty grim place, outfitted with little more than
a Nathan’s hot-dog stand staffed by the surliest people I’ve ever seen in Miami
(although the fact that they were working at 6:00 on a Monday morning might
explain that bit). All the same, it’s an improvement over the interior of our
Actually, scratch that. The surliest people I’ve ever seen in Miami weren’t
the hot-dog vendors, they were the gate Nazis. What no one bothered to tell
us when we were deplaning (yes, they really used that word) was that once we
were off, they wouldn’t let us back on again until they were good and ready.
No, they never said why. For me, it was no great hardship: all it meant was
that I couldn’t read my book, which I’d left safely tucked in the pocket on
the back of the seat in front of me. But for others, especially one woman who
had just got up to make a phone call and who had left two children on board,
including a four-year-old, this petty decision had huge consequences.
Everybody was cranky, remember: it was now 7 in the morning, and no one had
got much in the way of sleep. An 11-hour flight is pretty hard work at the best
of times, but now that another seven or eight hours were being added on to that,
most of them spent on board the airplane, people were getting angry. No one
at Miami knew anything; the only thing they told us was that they’d simply arrived
at the airport at 6:00 and really had no idea what was going on, where the crew
was, how many of them there had to be, when we might be taking off, when we
might be landing, or anything else.
At this point, understandably, various passengers decided that they’d had enough.
They were in Miami, which has many flights down to Buenos Aires each day, and
rather than stick around this accursed airplane, they were going to hang out
in Florida for a day or so and then, somewhat rested, continue on to Argentina.
After all, for the elderly or the very young, an 18-hour plane journey is the
last thing you want, and if you can avoid it, you do.
I don’t know whether anybody actually got off at Miami, whether their bags
had to follow them, or what. No one saw fit to tell us peons what was going
on: all we knew was that the 7:00 deadline for us to get back on to the plane
had come and gone, and there was no sign of anything happening. Communication
was nil. The American staff started playing the sorry-we’re-clueless card a
bit too often: sorry, I don’t know. I don’t know anybody who knows. I can’t
On the plane, it was the same story: people who’d missed dinner on the grounds
that it had been served at 4 in the morning when no one wants to eat were told
that no, they couldn’t have anything to eat, and that actually, I, your flight
attendant, haven’t had anything to eat since last night either. Oh, and no,
I can’t get you immigration cards for Argentina or anything like that, because
the JFK crew put them somewhere and we have no idea where. And in general, sorry
if you have no service on this flight, but you have to understand: we’re very
On arriving at Buenos Aires, we just got the standard "welcome to Argentina
and thank you for flying American" message: no apology for being eight
hours delayed, and certainly no attempt to make things up to us.
This general unhelpful attitude is something I’ve come across before with American
(and I’ve only flown them on two other occasions). I had an American flight
from Los Angeles to New York once, which involved a change at Dallas-Fort Worth.
All flights in and out of DFW were delayed for some reason, but we were assured
that because everyone was delayed by pretty much the same amount of time, there
shouldn’t be any difficulty making our connections.
Of course the story changed when we got to DFW. Sorry, your flight to LaGuardia
has left already: for noise reasons, planes aren’t allowed to land there after
a certain time, so it got bumped up the list. Again, a failure of communication
from one airport to another: while on the Argentina flight it was New York not
communicating with Miami, on the New York flight it was DFW not communicating
with Los Angeles. Of course, if we’d known in LA that we wouldn’t be getting
to New York that evening, we would never have left at all, and rather spent
one more night in California, catching an early flight back to New York the
following day. But because of information failure, we were stuck in Dallas-Fort
It got worse, though: American decided/decreed that the reason we were forced
to stay in Texas overnight was weather, not general incompetence on its own
part, and that therefore they weren’t even going to put us up in a hotel. If
we liked, they could procure some army-style cots and maybe a blanket or two
and we could sleep on the floor of the departure lounge.
Cock-ups, of course, happen on all airlines, through their fault or otherwise.
But where other airlines seem to genuinely want to make things better, American
seems to be as unhelpful as possible. Virgin once gave me a voucher for being
delayed, even though they’d phoned me in advance to tell me that the flight
was late and I could turn up a few hours later. Even the low-cost airlines in
Europe, like Buzz, or in the US, like JetBlue and SouthWest, are known for their
customer service. But American seems to have a completely different mindset.
I think that the problem could well be the aftermath of September 11. American
has been inflicting wave after wave of job cuts, and evidently a lot of the
lost jobs have been the people coordinating its different operations around
the country. I worry, too, that others have been in more vital areas: I don’t
think it’s coincidence that the Rockaway
crash happened so soon after September 11, when morale in the airline industry
was at its lowest and thousands of jobs had just been cut.
People are nervous about flying these days, and maybe they ought to be, although
their reasons for nervousness (war, terrorism) are, I think, misplaced. The
chances of an airline passenger being the victim of a terrorist attack are minimal.
But the chances of the same passenger falling victim to incompetencies which
are a result of downsizing following general nervousness about a terrorist attack
are much greater. It’s almost as though being scared of a flying is a self-fulfilling
prophecy: the more people that are scared of flying, the fewer people flying,
the more layoffs the airlines need to make, the less safe flying becomes, and
the more justified a fear of flying is.
Still, I’m going to continue to fly American, just because of their leg-room.
I’m telling you, once we were airborne, I actually managed to stretch out and
get some sleep – in economy! That doesn’t mean I like them, though.