It’s almost 8:30PM in Atlanta.  I really need to be working on an office project, but I can’t until I get this off my chest.  It causes me great angst to write negatively about my (still) favorite airline, but this needs to be said.  Last night, I was traveling from Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina (RDU) to Washington DC’s Reagan National Airport (DCA).  I was booked on the last flight from RDU to DCA at 6:00PM.

Surely, there was some weather transiting the area, but flight operations were mostly unaffected as evidenced by what appeared to be mostly normal boarding/deplaning at every gate in the airport except the gate for my flight (AA Eagle 4583) to DCA.  I arrived at the gate just before 5:30PM for my 6:00PM departure.  There was no sign of an agent or airplane.  While not terribly concerned about it, it’s rarely a good sign that your flight will depart on time if there is no airplane or agent at your gate 30 minutes prior to departure.

Anxious looking passengers surrounded the gate area, but being the somewhat experienced traveler that I am, I didn’t really get worked up.  More time passed, and there was still no sign of an agent or an airplane.  5:40PM, 5:50PM, 6:00PM….departure time…  and still, no agent, no airplane, and worst of all, no information.  Anxious passengers were now walking around in circles and trying to get other agents to talk to them with no luck.  Other flights were being worked at adjacent gates, but for some reason, no one was working our flight, or seemed to care that it was departure time and there was no airplane, agent, or announcement about any delay.

Knowing what I know about airline operations, I determined that the ramp may have been closed due to lightning in the vicinity of the airport.  Shortly thereafter, a terminal-wide announcement was made to passengers arriving on American Airlines flights that baggage delivery would be delayed due to a ramp closure caused by lightning in the area.  Color me not surprised at all.  Trust me, the ramp (or anywhere else outside) is not the place to be during an electrical storm.  That said, I would think that a company that cared about its customers might consider sending an employee to the gate to make an announcement about the flight delay, yet none was forthcoming.

At 6:17PM, someone who appeared to be an airline employee finally showed up at the gate, parked the airplane that had now been waiting outside for a few minutes, and deboarded the incoming passengers.  One would think that finally, an announcement would be made that the now obviously delayed flight was running behind schedule, but that’s what normal people get for thinking.  There was a good bit of furious typing in the computer, printing of some paperwork, and speaking only to customers brave enough to approach the gate.  In his defense, I believe the agent that finally showed up at the gate may have been dispatched to work the flight very late in the game and with very little information.  That said, a tiny bit of communication can go a very long way.  If you are trying to catch up on what’s going on, pick up the microphone and say so.  Apologize for the confusion and tell your customer that you need a few minutes to sort things out.  Did that happen?  NO!

Instead, here’s what happened.  The co-pilot of the inbound flight came off the airplane with his rolling luggage and kit bag in tow, no doubt because he was assigned to come off the flight in RDU.  He then walked over to the adjacent gate and was provided a boarding pass to New York.  The Captain came off the airplane about the same time and asked the silent gate agent to page the co-pilot who was supposed to fly us to DCA.  There was a lot of furious phone calling, computer pecking, and paging, but no co-pilot would materialize.

While out of earshot to me, it was obvious that the Captain was working very hard to get a co-pilot, any co-pilot to help fly us to DCA.  I know it’s easy for a cold reader to say that this is just my opinion here, but keep in mind, I was once a pilot for a regional airline that shall remain nameless.  I’ve seen this scenario unfold before.  The Captain wanted the co-pilot he already had (but that was now sitting on a flight to New York in a passenger seat) to fly us to DCA since the one who’d been assigned to our flight was nowhere to be found.  But alas, he would not be successful, we were stuck.  In their defense, crew scheduling can see a bigger picture than the Captain, and certainly, a gate full of passengers, but it didn’t make it any easier to take.  This situation was made even more infuriating because even after all of this drama, no announcement via the public address system had been made to the customers waiting to fly to DCA.  We were all left to guess what was going on.

Finally….FINALLY…. an announcement was made by the harried agent that our co-pilot was missing and that he did not know when/where/how we would get another.  It’s times like these that I so miss access to Sabre!  The agent’s mostly garbled announcement was impossible to understand in the surrounding noise of the busy terminal.  I could not determine if a co-pilot had actually been assigned to our flight and was missing/inbound on another flight/whatever.

Out of frustration, I gave up and started the long walk back to the Admirals Club.  I was not “angry” but I was certainly frustrated.  I asked the AAngel behind the desk if she had any information on the flight to DCA.  She did not, but pledged to keep apprised of the situation and let me know if there were any changes.  Within minutes I was paged to the desk and advised that the flight probably wasn’t going to go.  I was offered the chance to reroute to a United flight to Washington Dulles, and I graciously accepted.  Long story short, I finally got home 3 hours after I should have.  God bless the Admirals Club AAngels.  It pays to have a friend at the airport!

There’s more to the story, but I think you’ve got the idea.  Frankly, I can’t think of a more textbook example of how not to handle a service issue.  It was obvious that the gate agent couldn’t help fly us to DCA, but seriously people, would it kill you talk to your customers every now and then?  I’ve had bigger problems in travel than this, but I do not believe I’ve ever been more frustrated!  The lack of information and communication was inexcusable.  This could have and should have been handled better.  Even if the ultimate outcome was the same, there is no excuse for not talking!  American (and Eagle) is still my favorite airline, but I’m mad as hell that they failed to handle this appropriately.  NO EXCUSE!