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

American, Trip Reports, US Airways

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 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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39 comments on “Planes Break, But This Should Have Been Handled Better (Trip Report)

  1. You talk about an involuntary bump here and cash being owed, but would that be the case here with an airplane change that only held 50 people? I thought that an equipment change got the airline out of this responsibility.

    1. Ken – You’re definitely right that no compensation is required in a downgauge, but the way they were talking about it, that’s how they were proceeding. Now I don’t know what they ended up actually doing since I got out of line before many had been processed, but that’s how they made it sound in their announcements.

  2. This is a great case study of what not to do coming from a reliable source aka… not an angry customer. Hopefully someone over at the “New American” will incorporate this into a training program for gate agents and supervisors. Clearly these staff members could use a refresher.

  3. Can we hope that PHX-LAX will go all mainline as a hub-to-hub route for the new American? Entrusting to a regional the single most important market out of PHX is not an operationally sound move.

    Screaming at customers is bad IROPS handling procedure regardless.

    1. Sanjeev M – They are almost entirely all mainline on this route. They just have a couple of off-bank flights (ones that don’t really connect to much so are just for locals) that are on the CRJ-900s. Not a bad plan if it helps build out more schedule.

    2. I wonder how long PHX will stay a hub in the new AA. Doug Parker has shown no hesitation to shut down weak hubs as he shut down LAS and PIT. PHX is mainly a leisure destination and it probably doesn’t have much high fare O/D traffic, and it has little international traffic. AA seems to be investing in building out LAX, although it is gate constrained there, but it seems likely that AA can handle much of the profitable flow traffic that goes over PHX by sending it over DFW instead, and to a small degree using LAX.

      If that’s the case, don’t expect much investment in PHX and perhaps less service…

      Cranky, what’s your take?

        1. I guess as I look at it, after both the DL and UA mergers we have seen some hubs dismantled (CVG, MEM & CLE so far). And after the HP-US merger we saw some hubs dismantled by this management team. It seems likely that the process will repeat itself. And while the level of competition is great in LAX, so is the level of O/D traffic and AA seems to be building up there, and over time can probably get more gates. AA has tons of international traffic at MIA, PHL, DFW and some at ORD and JFK. CLT is a fortress, while PHX has WN as the largest carrier, and I believe is relatively low yield. As this management team thinks about optimizing its network, and looks at the weakest service, PHX seems vulnerable. I agree that might mean giving up some smaller markets out west, although with the RJ terminal at LAX and partnership with AS they can probably preserve service to many cities.

          1. I agree that one, or more hubs will close. However, I’m betting JFK will be the first one closed, possibly followed by LAX if the expansion effort becomes a bust. ORD may be vulnerable as well. PHX should be safe.

  4. My mom reported a somewhat similar experience on US this past week. While flying back RSW-CLT-DFW, the plane for the CLT-DFW leg was coming in from DEN and was scheduled to use a gate occupied by a delayed CLT-BWI departure. She said a rather comical “we’re going to change the gate – no, we’re staying here – yes, we’re changing the gate after all – never mind, we’re not!” scene with the gate agents ensued as they apparently tried to figure out if they could find a different gate for the plane to park at. They ended up staying at the same gate and taking a 1-hour delay, as apparently CLT didn’t have any other open gates at the time. Not a big deal, really, but my mom did say the whole episode was unnecessarily confusing for passengers, as the GAs couldn’t seem to get the story straight. Seems like US gate agents in general could use a little refresher training in the right way to handle IRROPS.

  5. This sounded about right, the workers facing the crowds of people seemed to be the last to know what’s going on since others in the back office are making the calls and don’t know what they are doing.

    And the reason it was taking long for them to process each passenger is because they just know what to do to board a flight and not to change a bunch of people to other flights and change e-tickets to those flights.

    1. Seemed? IRROPS always suck, because the station ops folks are winging it (each flight’s a case by case basis) and little to no information is available to the gate agents.

      I worked for an express carrier for awhile, and the lack of information flow is atrocious.

        1. Each IRROP is a case-by-case basis. You will always have your protocol, but every situation is different. One time, everyone may be happy with the automated rebooking… another time, everyone will be in front of you screaming for your head because they can’t get to SNA because of the curfew.

          There will be times you can get a plane held because of 20+ people on your 50 seater going to it. Other times, everyone is going in a different direction other than the fact they have to make the F12C to C20-C31 connection in ORD in 5 minutes or they’ll be stuck there.

          The real issue is training and staffing. The airlines want to cut costs, so they rely on automation. Automation breaks regularly and do not give optimal results. That means that staffing has to make up for it…. however airlines do not want to pay a fair wage anymore and want someone to breath, force the largest fake smile, and read off the screen.

    1. Ron – You didn’t hear about the new runway 31A? The community was really excited about it so they built it in a couple of weeks.

      (Thanks for catching – it’s fixed.)

  6. From the comments about we’re changing gates, no , yes, no…I certainly understand the confusion but the agent is trying to give you the info that she has. If no info was forthcoming people get angry that they weren’t informed. Generally the agents and behind the scene workers are trying to get you to your destination.

    And I hate being stuck on a plane for gate checked bags when I don’t have any. I almost missed a connection once because of the IAD ground folks unloading gate checks ever so slowly.

  7. Airlines in general seem to be absolutely terrible at handling irregular operations. They don’t seem to train their agents on how to be compassionate and have good “bedside manner” even when passengers are stressed and upset. And they don’t seem to give the gate agents the tools that they need to manage these situations efficiently and effectively. That ought to include compensation and recovery tools like a meaningful promise for a taxi ride.

    By not handling it well on the spot, they great more upset customers, the potential for negative social media and other feedback, and ultimately complaints and more customer relations recovery cost. If they spent a bit more upfront, at the time it’s happening, they could generate happier customers and not perhaps save later expense and negative publicity.

    So why don’t they do anything about it? It doesn’t seem like any of the big airlines do a good job at this.

  8. At the first sign of trouble, you should have called Cranky Concierge! (You do use them don’t you?) Glad you made it home the same day…

  9. What you see here is the new reality. Things are so automated, and there aren’t actual people to handle rebookings when there are problems. It runs fine when things are smooth, but when there are cancellations or weather or mechanical issues, one poorly trained person at the gate is left to handle the mess.

    I never use the gate agent in such conditions; I always use the 800 number. For me it is easier obviously, since I can use the elite line, but even if not you can find better service than standing in line for 90 minutes for the gate agent.

    1. Well, they’ve got automated reaccommodation tools. AFAIK they can handle 90% of the passengers automatically then have the gate agents work on the last 10%.

  10. From by experience, this was handled in perfectly normal fashion. Of couse, this was probably the first time something like this ever, ever happened, so what can we expect? Ugh!

    Add in “operated by,” and, well, just love it!

  11. I’m curious who handled this above the wing? Mesa? US Airways Mainline? Another US Airways Express carrier? I’d hope that US Airways mainline would be better at it than the handlers.

    Though I’m curious how creative the airline could get from the reaccomadation perspective. Perhaps run a plane that was scheduled PHX->LAX on a PHX->LAX->LGB milk run. Or even run that little 50 seater PHX->LAX->PHX->LAX. The compensation was $4,800 in cash, not sure if flying the plane in one of those situations would cost more than that. (CF this is ambiguous, what was being offered $200 in cash or $200 in credit? The cost to the airline is a bit different..)

    Random, but I once ran across an instance where CO had to sub a 762 for a 753. They had Express jet fly a 50 seat CRJ right behind it, since the 762 has about 50 seats less than a 753.

    1. Nick – I believe US Airways took back above the wing handling for Express in Phoenix, but maybe someone else can confirm.

      As for creative routings, I don’t think there’s much room for that especially with the need for rested crews. If they did that, it would have delayed a lot more people as well. But with the ability to just get people into LAX not much later and then bus them, that makes it even easier.

      The airline was offering a $200 credit to get people to volunteer. It’s not entirely clear what they paid people who didn’t volunteer.

      1. With creative routings its one of those “can it work?” sometimes yes, sometimes no. I know I’m theorizing on the sidelines here and I can’t/won’t make any conclusions without a full knowledge of what is going on.

        Sometimes this is a way to make really delighted customers, but in this case folks might’ve really complained.. :-/ I’m remembering the time B6 ran BUF-MCO because JFK was socked in, and 90%+ of the passengers on BUF-JFK were going to MCO. That makes one of those awesome stories.

  12. Couple of thoughts. With mobile alerts, many customers know before the gate agents if a flight is cancelled. It gives no time for agents to prepare. The IRROPS tools are good, but obviously can only rebook for flights that have seats. This summer, we are finding no seats for 1-2 days after the cancelled flight. Serious. Not good.

    1. Oooh, thats a good point and something that the IT folks can and should fix with the Ops folks. (Send the notice to the GA and either have them acknowledge it then send the notice to the customers or wait five minutes and notify the customers.)

      1. Absolutely. I was behind the gate podium and an angry passenger approached me pointing to the alert received on his phone. FIDS still showed on time. I was embarrassed to say the least. Suddenly a long, long line developed with no plan how to deal with it.

  13. I’m curious as to whether or not they followed the equipment downgrade/swap procedures that are in their handbook. I know said procedure exists because II saw it. I was part of a group of 16 that was booked in paid F MBJ-PHL on a 321, which subsequently was swapped during a schedule change to a 757 a month from departure. Now while the Envoy seat was nice, it still posed a huge issue that res couldn’t/wouldn’t resolve before departure as to who was to be seated in F and who wasn’t, and which the contract gate agents in MBJ actually followed to the best they could, considering our group of 16 was all in the same fare class and were all Silver.

  14. CF you need to check out Spirit’s fiasco yesterday on the flight from ORD to MCO. Granted planes break, but when you return to the gate and there are no employees to ground handle it ,gets very ugly. I have recently retired from a ULC and my biggest fear, is that we are setting ourselves up for another Value Jet.

  15. Automated IRROP systems are great, but the passenger may have another idea on how they want to get to their destination after a disruption. IRROPS can only book an available flight. In my experience it doesn’t consider interesting connections. For instance, ORD-DFW cancels. There may be decent connections available via TUL/OKC/XNA, etc. but the tool doesn’t look at those (or at least isn’t configured that way) Sure beats waiting a day for a non stop. Unfortunately, there is very little to rebook people on this summer when something goes wrong.

    1. Quite true, although I wonder if customers would balk at ORD->TUL->DFW if they were given that rather than a flight on the next day… Figuring out what people think can be a bit of a problem.

  16. What the hell, US Airways? We’ve been sitting on the Philadelphia Tarmac, an hour from our scheduled take off, and the only announcement came after my inquiry into the delay. The pilot informed us 20 minutes ago that the ground crew with the ability to start our engines left the site and an urgent request has been made for their return. The aroma of rancid sardines fills the cabin, which BTW is not air conditioned…and it’s only 93 outside. God knows what it is inside…

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