By simply canceling flights, American Airlines might be on to something

Reporter Laurent Belsie describes the agony of a recent delayed United Airlines flight.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

If last Thursday was bad for American Airlines, the situation was none too good for other airlines either. The federal Air Traffic Control System Command Center logged more advisories that day (108) than on any other day that week. Route overcrowding due to weather problems caused delays and cancellations of many flights.

Then, there was United Express #7052.

On most days, it's an uneventful small-jet run from the Washington-Dulles airport to Boston. Scheduled time: one hour 36 minutes. But on Thursday, the problems began to pile up.

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Though for reasons unrelated to problems facing the American Airlines MD-80s planes, this plane was nevertheless delayed nearly two hours in Birmingham, Ala. The jet arrived in Dulles just before 4 p.m. That's when passengers learned that the flight to Boston was missing a first officer (who had been snatched for an even-more-delayed flight). An hour later, a new pilot arrived. We boarded.

The plane was uncomfortably warm. The crew assured us things would cool off once airborne. We taxied to an onramp where we could join the line of waiting jets. In the distance, planes took off. We didn't budge an inch. For nearly an hour. On the tarmac. In a hot plane.

Some passengers fanned themselves vigorously. "We're not cattle," one man said loudly to the flight attendant. It was hard to shake the feeling that our Canadian-made regional jet was the runt of the airline world as big jet after big jet cut in front of us. (I learned later from a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman that we were held on the ground because our northern route was already filled to capacity with other flights).

Note to airlines: If it's a long delay, tell passengers what's going on. And don't forget to maintain the Air conditioning!

Finally, we joined the end of the line, reached the front, started to accelerate for takeoff, and then swerved to the right. It was an aborted takeoff for mechanical reasons that weren't immediately clear. Back to the gate we went to deplane and meet the service representative.

So we've spent the better part of two hours in a hot plane taxiing for less than a half a mile to get back to where we started on an already-delayed flight. At least the friendly service rep. would get us rebooked, offer some food and beverage vouchers, and smooth ruffled feathers, right?

Ours took a different approach. When one passenger said he wouldn't get back on the plane, the agent escorted him away from our group. When others peppered him with questions, he walked away. Twice. When customer-service gets ornery, you know air travel has hit a new low.

"The whole issue of the flight, that could have happened to anyone," said Karen Noone, a reimbursement-specialist for a Boston biotech firm, who requested to fly out the next morning and got a complimentary hotel room and dinner and breakfast vouchers. But "the customer-service people were atrocious."

"Had the gentleman who refused to talk to us just been nice and not rude, that would have made a difference," said Beth of Boston, who declined to give her last name. "It tells me that this industry can do whatever they want because they have no competition. And there's nothing we can do about it."

As I write this, my fellow passengers await the last Boston flight of the day. Some gab, others read, 14 are sprawled on seats fast asleep. The plane was originally scheduled to leave at 9:30 p.m. but it's been delayed. We're not expected to leave until 12:40 a.m.

Laurent eventually reached Boston at 2:15 a.m., 10 hours and four minutes after he was originally scheduled to land.

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