Planes Break, But This Should Have Been Handled Better (Trip Report)

Last week, I wrote about the first 3 of my 4 flights to get to and from Dallas for American’s Annual Leadership Conference. Once I got back to Phoenix for my last flight home, things fell apart quickly. Airplanes break, but this was a great example of how a situation could have been handled so much better from a customer service perspective.

[Disclosure: American paid for my flights and hotel]

US Airways in American Colors

When the story ended last week, I had less than 20 minutes after getting off my first flight to run to my connecting flight, but a last minute gate change foreshadowed bigger problems. When I got off the airplane (after almost breaking my ankle when this woman in front of me dropped her carry on bag as she pulled it), I ran to my new gate one concourse over.

Out of breath, I got there to find everyone waiting around, completely confused. There was no gate agent and the only airplane I saw on the ramp was an all-white 50 seat CRJ with a couple of parts in different colors. (It looked beat up, and I was told later that this was the only CRJ-200 left in the Mesa fleet, recently back from Hawai’i where it flew for go!) We were supposed to be on a CRJ-900, so this was a bad sign.

I went on to Expertflyer.com really quickly and checked flight status (they give you the raw flight status instead of sanitizing it as you’ll find on the airline website). Sure enough, it showed a 50 seater being subbed; the dreaded downgauge. This would be ugly.

A gate agent finally showed up and made the announcement. “As you can seen, they’ve given us a smaller airplane, so we’re going to be asking for 24 volunteers to go to an alternate airport for a $200 voucher.”

That sounded pretty silly since I don’t see how anyone there could have been expected to know that it was a smaller airplane than what was scheduled.

There was a mass rush to the desk, but I stood back, instead contacting the people at American who got me booked. Since the airline paid for this ticket, was I supposed to volunteer? I assumed I wouldn’t get any compensation. I just didn’t know what to do so I hung back from the insanity.

After awhile, they got a few volunteers, but they needed 24. Tensions were rising, especially since nobody knew if they were going to be on the flight or not. Finally, the gate agents read off the names of the 50 people who were getting on the flight. They said there were no seats into Long Beach the rest of the day (though my quick check showed several seats on the late flight that night), so they were putting everyone else on the 415p and 5p LAX flights. The latter had a ton of seats open so it wouldn’t be an issue.

My name was called as being on the flight to Long Beach, but I didn’t know what to do. I heard back from my contacts at American and they said that I should go ahead and take the flight if I was on it. But I looked around and saw people just freaking out. The agents weren’t really providing much information and they seemed confused. That only added to the anxiety others were feeling.

I thought about it and figured I could sit there and do some work. Sure, I’d get home a little later, but it’s not like I HAD to be there. Besides, the company had flown me out, and it wasn’t their fault that this happened. Apparently a door broke on our original Mesa-operated aircraft, so they scrambled to find a CRJ to at least get 50 people to Long Beach. This could easily have canceled. I decided to wait and let someone else have my seat.

It was a terrible mess. At our original gate, B15C, they said anyone willing to volunteer should follow them over to B17. What they didn’t do was figure out who was in a confirmed seat and was actually going to volunteer. So a supervisor came over and read off a bunch of names to see who was volunteering because they had empty seats on the original airplane. They had no idea who was where.

One person said he would volunteer but only if they could guarantee the bus that they said they’d work on to get people back to Long Beach from LAX. The supervisor said, “I can’t guarantee a bus, but we’re closing the door of that airplane. So if you want to be on it, you should go now.”

Terrible plan. This guy was calm, trying to be so helpful, and willing to take the $200 instead of forcing them to involuntarily bump someone else and pay them a lot more cash. Just tell him you’ll get him a cab in the worst case scenario and you’ll still save money. Instead, people started shouting.

The supervisor then effectively threw up her arms and said, “Ok, anyone who wants to try and get on that airplane, just go to B15.” Big mistake again. A bunch of people scrambled over there, and one guy quickly came back absolutely steaming. “The door is closed and there’s nobody there. What is going on here?!” Others were joining in the chorus.

I saw the supervisor talking on the radio and only heard the response “you should have told me.” My guess is they either left with empty seats or found other people who were hanging around the gate and let them on. Either way, those who were left behind were livid.

Meanwhile, I was waiting in line calmly and nothing was happening. It was taking this agent a silly amount of time to process even one person, and I knew that seats on the 415p flight were scarce.

I reached back out to my contact at American and asked if they could get me on the 415p flight. I didn’t want compensation or a shuttle to Long Beach; I just wanted to get on that flight. Sure enough, they had me moved, and I stepped out of line to watch as the other people began to further lose patience. At least they would get compensated and they’d get to LAX less than 3 hours after original scheduled arrival… if the agent could process them all in time. He only had a couple hours….

Meanwhile, my new flight was at gate B26 so I just walked over and found an agent nearby who printed out my boarding pass. (I couldn’t get it in the mobile app.) I logged on and worked as we waited. Soon, we were boarding.


June 13, 2014
US Airways Express 2867 Lv Phoenix 415p Arr Los Angeles 535p (operated by Mesa)
Phoenix (PHX): Gate B26, Runway 25R, Depart 4m Late
Los Angeles (LAX): Gate 31A, Runway 24R, Arrive 5m Late
N244LR, Bombardier CRJ-900, Standard US Airways colors, 100% Full
Seat 13C, Coach
Flight Time 1h0m

I took my seat (exit row aisle, which was cool though I would have rather had a non-exit window), and settled in to take a deep breath. I was tired.

We pushed back a couple minutes late and our cheerful captain welcomed all his “friends and neighbors” onboard who would be flying to LA.

We had a quick taxi and soon headed into the 100+ degree heat. As is always the case in Phoenix in the summer, it was a rough ride getting out of town. But after a few minutes, it all calmed down.

The seats looked new, but this airplane looked like it had seen better days. The cover over the exit door handle kept falling down, and I was able to open my tray table. (You’re supposed to use the one in the armrest in the exit row, but the one in the seatback, which should be bolted, opened right up.)

I had a glass of water, typed up this report, and before long, we were descending into LAX. Even though it was only a few hour delay, I felt like I had been traveling for a really long time. Then it just got annoying.

US Airways LAX Terminal 3

We were held short of crossing the inner runway for awhile while other airplanes departed. Then we got to our gate, but the rampers were nowhere to be found to marshal us in. When they finally showed up several minutes later, we pulled in and were told that we had to walk out on the ramp to get to the terminal. Those who had gate-checked bags should just wait onboard until they were unloaded.

I’m not sure why they said that, because they didn’t give us any choice. Everyone was held on the airplane until every gate checked bag was pulled off. Once finally out of there, I couldn’t wait to get home. Only rush hour on the 405 lay ahead of me. Fun times.

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