Saturday, December 29, 2007

Note to Self: Avoid Northwest

My wife had flown ahead to be with her family in Iowa, and the kids and I were coming out on Friday. She got stranded in Minneapolis, after paying more than a thousand bucks for a same-day ticket, but she finally figured out a way to get out. We had a quick layover scheduled in Minneapolis, less than an hour, so we were glad our flight arrived there a few minutes ahead of time. It's a pretty big airport, and we had to catch a shuttle across to another terminal. We kind of misunderstood how it worked and went back, ran to another point, and got on again. Eventually we ended up at our gate at 4:40 for our 5:10 connection; that's pushing it, but not bad.

It was snowing lightly in Minneapolis when we got off the plane, about twenty Fahrenheit outside. Cloudy, no wind, not too bad for this time of year.

When we got to the gate, the Northwest sign didn't say 5:10 any more, it said 6:30. There was no agent there or anyone, and you could see quite a few people waiting patiently. People are pretty tolerant about that, the airlines just reschedule things and you float with it. As we got closer to 6:30, the sign changed to 6:50, and then when 6:50 came and went it just stayed there, as if we could still leave in the past. The "Departures" monitor in the hallway also said 6:50. They used our gate for a flight to Aberdeen, South Dakota, and then put our Sioux City flight back up on the sign.

I talked with a lady from Sioux City who was a little worried about her family waiting for her. I talked with a young mother and her daughter, who now live in Sioux City. I thought the mother had a New York accent, but she was Russian. Weird, I know a lot of Russians, I never made that mistake before. I talked with a black lady about my age from Puerto Rico, whose English was comparable to my Spanish, so we had a good time laughing at how poorly we communicated. I talked to an older couple who had this little dog with a deformed jaw; and basically no lower jaw, so its tongue hung down to its chest, but it was a happy little mutt, and all the little kids came over to pet it. A little kid reached out to pet it and the dog snapped at his hand; the lady said, "Don't worry, he doesn't have any teeth." I talked to a college girl who was coming from Calgary to visit her boyfriend's family, and who kept text-messaging him while we were talking. I was paranoid that she was saying things like, "Ick, there's this old guy sitting here hitting on me." Of course I wasn't, but you hate to think they're saying that.

My son got a Spin magazine at the Hudson News, and read to me all about this rapper who had recorded a song by a punk band that dresses up like robots. He says they are both extremely famous. We also tried to solve crossword puzzles about Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, and Sublime, which is his favorite band. I did pretty well with the Hendrix one.

In other words, you figure out how to pass the time. There was a plane at the gate, but they didn't call us. At one point the kid -- the gate agent looked to be about twenty years old -- looked kind of embarrassed when he told us they were fixing a tray on the plane. He was telling us, "They said it would be about fifteen minutes, five minutes ago." First of all, we're only going on a forty-five minute flight, they aren't serving any food, it wouldn't matter if your tray was busted. Second of all, couldn't they fix that sometime where there wasn't a room full of people waiting? Third -- how long can it take, anyway? You take your vice-grips, you yank it off of there, you get your duct tape and put in a new one, how hard is that?

Finally at about nine they called us to board. By this time we were all pretty good friends. We lined up and took our seats on this little propeller-driven plane, with two rows of seats on the left and one on the right. They made everybody sit in their assigned seats for "load and balance" reasons, even though you could've had a row to yourself somewhere else, whatever, people were okay with that.

Then the pilot said there was a problem with the readout from the cargo door. It was open, but the pilot's instruments said it was closed. Well, you understand how that is, they have to know. He explained it on the PA as if there was an alternative way they could detect it, and said mainly it was a matter of doing the paperwork, and somebody had to come with that. But in the meantime work crews came and they were hammering on the door, and passengers heard them use the f-word a number of times, working out there in the freezing darkness. Passengers were getting silly. I heard a lady calling her family on her cell phone, she told them, "There could be a Mutiny on the Bounty here, people are getting a little upset." She wasn't joking, just telling them. But everybody stayed cheerful, it's just that Northwest was the butt of their humor. Also, I noticed that the language was not as G-rated as it had been when we first got on the plane; these cheerful Midwesterners were hinting to each other that they were reaching their limit.

We were four hours late so far, and people were making pretty funny jokes about Northwest and the way this was all being handled. Then the pilot told us there was frost on the wings. The guy in the seat in front of me, who was going to Iowa to work on the Biden campaign, speculated that the crews would be out with the hair driers in a minute. His prediction was, they would be defrosting with the hair driers and they would chip the paint, so they'd have to send out another crew to re-paint the plane, and then wait for paperwork again.

The guy across from me lives in Sioux City. He said right at the start, there's no way they want to spend the money to fly this plane there, when there's another flight at 9:30. He said that the airline wants to put us on that flight. He kept saying it. At first it sounded like a joke or a conspiracy theory. He said it had happened to him twice already, just like that. He said they're going to waste a bunch of time and then try to book us on that other flight.

Finally they closed the door and made us turn off our cell phones, and they started the propellers. This is about where I like to catch a nap, so I closed my eyes, and we started taxiing. It seemed like a long time. Finally the pilot announced we were second in line for the runway. Then he said, sorry, conditions in Sioux City are bad now, the clouds are too low, we can't land there. We sounded actually sorry, said, I know you're getting frustrated but there's nothing we can do. He told us, don't worry, there's another plane going there in about an hour. He said they had teams of people in the airport right now getting the paperwork in order to transfer us to that flight. It was a bigger plane, and somehow it would be able to land there. He said stand in Line Eight. The guy across from me was laughing, he was turning out to be right about this.

I found out from people who had not closed their eyes that our plane had actually gone around in circles on the tarmac, three times, passing the same landmarks. Two different people told me that.

We got off, and nobody knew what Line Eight was, so everybody stood in line at our gate, to get their papers processed for the other plane. I didn't recognize some people in the line, and the sign said it was for Mason City, so I went up and asked the agent, is this the line to get transferred to the other flight to Sioux City? She looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language. "Yeah, sure," she said.

The girl from Russia was at the front of the line talking to them, and didn't look too happy. She had her head on the counter. Her daughter was standing there. I got back in line. Then I saw her walking out to the escalator, shaking her head, obviously too unhappy to tell anybody what had happened. She works at Gateway, her husband is a lawyer. Pretty lady, and her daughter looks exactly like her, but six or so.

The gate behind us opened up, and they said they could help us there. I got in line behind a guy holding a baby. He told the lady he'd been lied to. The gate agent, who was wearing ridiculous multi-colored-framed glasses, told him to settle down. He was very calm, he said, "I'm just telling you, we were lied to."

She said, "Sir, step away from the counter. Step back from the counter. Step away from the counter or I'm calling the police. You don't have to be angry."

I was behind him. I said, "There's a whole airplane full of angry people, we're all angry."

The other gate agent came out from behind the desk and touched my arm, and said, "Don't get angry. It won't help to be angry."

I said, "I'm just telling you, he's right, we were lied to."

The gate agents were frantic. This was turning ugly, these nice people from the heartland had been pushed a little too far. People were telling them we were promised another flight, but it didn't show on their computer. Actually, there was no other flight.

When it was my turn, the lady said they might be able to get us on a flight to Sioux City tomorrow and nine o'clock at night. I had already heard them saying this to the guy in front of me, and had had my son check the schedule while my daughter called my wife in Sioux City to see if they could pick us up and they could, and so I suggested they could fly us to Omaha instead, in the morning. This worked, they got me some pieces of paper they called "Itineraries," which are not boarding passes. They said they couldn't print boarding passes, because it was too early or something. Also, they couldn't get us a hotel because the flight was canceled due to weather, and Northwest isn't responsible for weather delays. It doesn't matter that the weather was fine when the flight was scheduled to take off, and even for the next five hours after that until the very instant we reached the runway. She said that if we went to the ticket counter, they would have cots or mats for us.

We were going to do that, but the ticket counter is outside the secure zone, and I realized we might not be able to get back in without boarding passes. So we found another Northwest gate, where a dozen people from another flight were getting hotel rooms, oddly enough, and I discussed it with that gate agent, who not only printed boarding passes for us but gave us a voucher for a discount at a hotel, which the other gate agents should have done. By that time, though, it was nearly midnight, and we had a flight at seven in the morning. So at best we might've gotten three or four hours of comfortable sleep.

I called my wife to tell her the plan. Our flight was not on the computers at the gate yet, or on the monitors in the hallway, but she could see it on the Internet, and told us we would be at Gate F-11. So we had a sandwich at Subway and went to F-11. Some of the seats didn't have arm-rests, and people were crashing where there were three or so of those in a row so you could stretch out. The three of us found places like that and lay down after setting the alarms on our cell phones for six AM.

As I write this, it is morning and we are sitting at F-11 watching the scheduled departure change from 7:00 to 7:07 to 7:21. My wife called earlier and asked, and I told her it looked there was a plane here and we'd be on time, so she's going to wake people up to drive over to Omaha to get us. Our luggage will be in Sioux City, but nobody knows when it will arrive.

This has been handled as inefficiently as you can imagine. We are making a little hop halfway across the US, to visit my wife's family who are gathered there for the passing of her father and there will be a service on Sunday. The weather is decent, the airports have not been crowded, there is no reason this has to be this way, except for the incompetence of Northwest Airlines.

One thing. When we were on the plane, and the pilot announced we would be going back to the gate, the guy who had predicted this said, "Well, they're just saving money, that's business." The way he understood it, the corporate office knew they would save money by not making the extra flight, but the crew wouldn't get paid unless they made an attempt. So they had to put us all on the plane and go out to the runway, and then blame the weather, so the crew would be paid, the flight could be canceled, and Northwest wouldn't be responsible for putting us up in a hotel.

It just struck me as strange that this all makes sense to a guy, because it's "business." Is this what business has become, and we're supposed to put up with it?

[Update] I'm now in Sioux City. There was fog this morning, and it froze on the trees, and the whole hundred mile drive from Omaha was amazingly beautiful. I took some pictures, hopefully I'll show a couple of them to you later.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Shmudel said...

I hate Northwest. A few years ago our family of 4 flew to Minneapolis from BWI. They were as rude as could be. We had to move things in one suitcase to another so they would not charge us 50 dollars for having heavy suitcases. Then they changed to a smaller plane. We were lucky to have 3 in one row and one in the end seat across but other families, including one with a toddler, were split up. They didn't seem to understand why the parents were angry and I believe they also threatened to call the police. They must have worked it all out somehow but Northwest did seem insensitive and there was no reason to switch to a smaller plane. I believe some people may have even been bumped.

December 29, 2007 8:13 PM  
Anonymous Emproph said...

Northworst.

I heard somebody say that about 20 years ago but I dismissed it because the guy was so cynical. I'll rememeber it now.

December 31, 2007 7:50 PM  
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