Sunday, May 17, 2009

Modern Air Travel

The end of the spring every-week travel marathon is in sight finally. One more trip next week, then nothing until mid-June, and then we’re off to France. Good things are within reach.

Recent travel has provided many opportunities to observe our system as it functions these days. Mostly, the TSA checkpoints are vastly better run than they used to be, reasonably efficient (given some of the baseline stupidities we’ve all bought into) and usually civil. The experience in Bloomington was anomalous in my recent experience; after stewing about it for a while, I did finally file a complaint with the TSA about it--which brought a non-response response,that can be paraphrased as: “thank you for sharing, we sent this to the site manager as we only track trends.” Swell.

Last week’s trip, in which I spent almost as much time in transit as on the ground, was interesting, mostly because it highlighted how well most things run these days, especially when you stop to think about the number of people processed by this system every single day. Colgan Air--you remember, the folks running the Continental flight that crashed in Buffalo--are also the subcontractors for United out of Dulles. I don’t fly United very much because it doesn’t service any nearby area. My experiences with it when I do have been relatively positive. Colgan Air, however, was out of another dimension, and provides a useful object lesson in how well most airlines seem to be run these days, at least on the ground dealing with customers.

Every single aspect of dealing with that company was bad, from the lousy communication and training of the gate agents (six hours of opportunity to observe one day), the poor management of the Dulles Colgan station, to sub-standard maintenance and ground procedures. The gate agents continuously on duty throughout the long observation period, including the shift supervisor who was constantly at this problematic gate, didn’t know how to work the equipment, couldn’t get their story straight, contradicted each other continuously, and didn’t bother to communicate with the 25 people in the gate area until there was a serious mutiny on their hands. Two airport staff passing through the gate area (to confirm that the gate’s computers worked just fine, the gate agents just hadn’t signed themselves in, which is why they couldn’t access their systems) gave us more information in five minutes--by calling the United operations center--than we got from the Colgan staff in hours. Three separate times, one gate agent made an announcement over the PA system that a different agent immediately followed--using the same microphone, once wrested out of the first person’s hands--with a contradiction. “No, don’t go to customer service, we’ve already rebooked you.” “No, the flight isn’t cancelled, it’s just delayed some more.” “No, that’s wrong. Wait for the next announcement.”

On the outward trip that was so badly delayed by mechanical problems, after the second time we boarded the plane, the ramp crew ran the baggage cart into the plane, causing another delay while the mechanics re-certified the plane for flight. On the airplane used for both outward bound and the return, there were five broken seats, distinctive because they were folded flat (forward) and taped down. Each time, as we boarded the same flight attendant said “sit anywhere because we took the seats out of the inventory but the computer is still assigning them.”

On the return trip, we landed late at Dulles, with many very tight connections among the passengers. It took 25 minutes to bring a ramp crew over to get the bags off the plane, even though we could see them all standing around within our line of sight, and seemed not to be doing anything special. Some of them might have been on break, but others seemed to be on duty and just not aware that a plane was waiting to be unloaded. Whew.

One of my fellow passengers said he had a cousin who’d worked for Colgan Air and had quit because of the management environment and the pressure to cut corners. If he hadn’t been blind, he assured me he never would have flown them again, but he had no other way to go visit his elderly parents. Live and learn. I’d drive quite a distance before getting on a flight they operate ever again.

The magnitude of the operational disaster that is Colgan Air was hard to grasp at first, and it made the annoying new gate check procedures of American at O’Hare pale in comparison.

Removed from the negative comparator, though, the new procedures are an issue I’m trying to figure out how to comment upon. Rather than loading gate-checked bags on the cart so the largest number of bags are handle-first, the new procedure loads the bags so they’re all sandwiched in sideways. It creates unbelievable chaos on the gate ramps--except there are never any agents there any more to see it. Anyone know anyone in operations at American, especially at O’Hare? It would be nice to find the right person to whom to send a comment. At first, I thought it was just a one-time incident, but it appears pretty consistent over the last few weeks, so I’m guessing they’ve changed a procedure, and it’s not a positive change.

Closing out the semester is taking forever this year. The bulk of the grades are all finally filed, except there are one or two stragglers. In any event, it’s good to have it virtually all done and to be able to move on to other things. Traveling again Monday, home Wednesday, and then I get to stay off airplanes for a while. That will be delicious.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps you could write a letter to the editor, detailing your experiences, in response to today's front page NY Times article on Colgan Air. -Jill