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Flight Delays: Only Bad When They Affect Me

John Deiner

I've been a very lucky flier lately -- haven't lost a bag in years and have been subjected to only the slightest in delays over the past year or so.

Until last week.

According to a recent story in The Post, travel delays are worse than ever. According to the story by Del Quentin Wilbur, "The first five months of the year rank as the worst in terms of delays -- 26 percent of flights were late or canceled -- since the Transportation Department began keeping such statistics in 1995."

I experienced this firsthand en route to and from Las Vegas out of BWI. On the way out, I arrived at the airport to discover that the Southwest jet due in from Texas had been caught in bad weather and would be two hours late. Argh. If I'd checked before I left home, I would have discovered it then (and I know better than that, or at least I thought). Once on the plane, we were told that we'd make up an hour of the time because of an ideal flight plan -- then waited an hour for refueling, thus killing any time we'd been told we would make up.

Oh, well. Midnight in Vegas is like 7 p.m. here, so there was plenty of nightlife remaining when I finally arrived.

On the return flight, I watched from my hotel at 10 a.m. as a freakishly large summer thunderstorm swept out of the desert and headed for the airport. Then I turned on my TV and found MSNBC declaring Vegas home to the "Worst Weather in America." Flooding ensued, flights were delayed. But when Southwest miraculously declared my flight was on time, I headed to the airport and boarded on schedule.

Then it got ugly. What had been touted as a full flight at the gate had about 30 empty seats, and seconds after the flight attendants slammed the overhead compartments shut, they went back down the aisle reopening them -- never a good sign. We were told that late flights with connecting passengers were due in at any moment and that the occupants of all those empty seats were on their way.

Long blog item short: 1 hour 20 minutes later the last straggler took his seat, next to me, and we were off.

Now here's the funny part: I wasn't bothered by this at all.

I mean, what if that was my mom and dad stuck at the airport if we hadn't waited? Even worse, what if that was ME stuck at the airport and we hadn't waited? A woman seated behind me took out her cell phone at the 45-minute-and-waiting point and had a loud conversation with her significant other, saying, "I guess Southwest doesn't really care about all of us here . . . I just don't understand why they'd make us wait for so few people."

The point is, about a fifth of the plane was in transit, you can't mix Vegas with a thunderstorm and not expect consequences, and the flight eventually took off (instead of being canceled, as many flights were that day). I actually think Southwest did right by its patrons to hold the plane, even though it inconvenienced me and many other passengers. You can't stop the rain.

Am I alone here? Does anyone think my plane should have left those folks behind? From the grumbling on board as we waited, I was definitely in the minority.

By John Deiner |  August 6, 2007; 9:53 AM ET  | Category:  Airline Industry , John Deiner
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Aw. I think that's really nice of Southwest! I mean, think what a disastrous mess it would have caused if your flight had just given up on those people and Southwest had had to transport them later. I would have been bummed to have to wait on the plane all that time - it would be more comfortable back in the airport, I'm guessing - but I think it's the right decision.

Posted by: h3 | August 6, 2007 10:50 AM

This is a good place for the "little white lie". You should have turned around and told the woman behind you that you heard that one of the passengers who the plane was waiting on was boarding the flight in order to make it to the hospital in time to donate a kidney. Then she could have spent the rest of the flight thinking about what a selfish jerk she is.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 6, 2007 11:09 AM

if they're going to delay the flight for people making the connection, they should delay the flight before you board. they had to have known those 30 people were not going to make it on time. delay boarding for a hour and go from there. keeps everyone more comfortable.

Posted by: delay | August 6, 2007 12:55 PM

Well, sure, if you're on a direct flight home, and it makes no difference to you if you arrive at noon or at 1pm.

How about if you had been headed to a connecting flight? Would you feel quite so charitable and waiting around for other delayed passengers, if it meant missing your own connection at the next stop?

How about the folks waiting at the next airport to get on that plane? They had gotten to the airport on time, and were hearing "our plane hasn't arrived from Las Vegas yet..." and they were thinking about THEIR connections. And so forth.

Making exceptions to the schedules is nice and all, but that one exception is NEVER the end of the story. It has ramifications all the way down the line.

Posted by: WDC | August 6, 2007 12:56 PM

It's one thing when your connections are missed because of weather - it was nice of Southwest to hold the plane. But that does have a ripple effect down the line.

About 8 years ago, I was coming back to the Dulles from Canada, via Calgary. What I didn't know when I had booked my trip was that the Pan Am Games would be ending the day before my departure, and that Winnipeg - the location of the games - didn't feature an airport with lots of international connections.

So which airport did all of those athletes and their families end up actually leaving Canada from? Calgary.

If you have a flight that stops in the US as you're leaving Calgary, you go through US Customs. I'd done this a couple of times before (lots of good dino digging in Alberta so I was a frequent visitor for many years), and it's usually not a problem at all. Adds maybe 15 minutes to the process. But Customs was completely overwhelmed so it was taking about 90 minutes to get through Customs.

I was at the airport in plenty of time (it was an early morning flight, so I stayed at the hotel airport), so it was no big deal for me. But a football team from a South American country (can't remember which one now) apparently only arrived at the airport from their hotel 60 minutes before the flight, and were held up in Customs. So Air Canada held our plane for them. For THREE HOURS.

When we got into O'Hare, my connection (which I thought had been well planned with a three hour layover) was on the complete opposite side of the airport. The United gate agent who was supposed to help us find our connections as we got off the plane just stared at me blankly when I asked her where my gate was. I actually had to take her clipboard and find my name/flight myself.

I sprinted through O'Hare, and arrived at an empty gate with only the agent at the desk, who waved me through. She said that they didn't even realize I had a late connection and were getting ready to close the doors!

I'm still not sure to this day that if I had missed my connection that United would have helped me get another one if I had arrived 10 minutes later, since they obviously weren't communicating within their airline partnerships.

But I was one of the lucky ones - everyone sitting around me missed their connections - a number of people much larger than the team they held the plane for. The way schedules are so tight these days, I hope Southwest took the connections of the other people on the plane into account.

Posted by: Chasmosaur | August 6, 2007 2:39 PM

If I was making a connection at BWI and I missed it because Southwest waited for the people in Vegas, I would certainly be steamed. Waiting five minutes is one thing, and waiting 80 minutes is another.

Posted by: Tom T. | August 6, 2007 2:52 PM

People need to realize that decisions being made by airline personnel are NOT personal - no one is deliberately trying to ruin your day and if you're going to travel in this day and age, you need to be flexible and accommodating. You don't get very far by whining and complaining about things that are not within the control of a gate agent or flight attendant - the decision to delay a flight is made by people much higher on the airline's food chain than the people with whom you come into contact in the normal course of traveling. However, gate agents and flight attendants DO have the ability to make the delay either more or less pleasant depending on YOUR attitude. People who complain also make the experience less pleasant for everyone around them as well. If you honestly think that your needs supercede those of the larger group that the airline is trying to accommodate, you need to find another way to travel.

Posted by: flyalot | August 6, 2007 7:31 PM

It's pretty unpleasant to get someplace and discover your flight has departed without you. Probably the moral of the story is that when traveling you should arm yourself with plenty of things to do/read and expect waits.

That said, if you were juggling small children for 80 minutes you might not have been quite so calm.

Hopefully they kept the a/c on during the wait!

Posted by: RoseG | August 7, 2007 12:18 PM

Two things: They did leave the AC on, and we were able to get out of the plane and grab some food if we needed it. And second: Everything flyalot said, I, uh, double it. Nicely put.

Posted by: John Deiner | August 7, 2007 11:57 PM

whannn..aren't we usually a selfish nation..we all want the $99 fare and filet mignon and champagne with it..and then hold the flight for me if i'm late and leave the other late folks behind if i'm on the plane and ready to go....southwest did the right thing from their perspective for their customers..after all, they are in the airline business..

Posted by: budflight | August 8, 2007 12:40 PM

It is never pleasant to have to sit on a plane and wait, but, apparently, Southwest tried to make you as comfortable as possible, which is more than I can say for some other airlines.
Southwest is always my airline of choice, if it is possible take it to my destination.
We have turned into a very selfish, give me everything now or else, nation. This could be our downfall someday.
At least give Southwest an A for effort.

Posted by: Dorothy Nelson | August 23, 2007 9:29 AM

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