Sunday, January 31, 2010

Continental Airlines good, American Airlines bad

Perhaps I am tempting fate by saying this before I actually board my flight. But purely as a matter of their own self-interest, all readers are urged to prioritize Continental Airlines far, far ahead of American Airlines when making travel plans. Ignore my words, and you may be sorry. As in: unnecessarily delayed for 48 hours or longer in the middle (from your perspective) of nowhere.

i've been spending the weekend (and more of it than I intended) in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, which I am sure is usually lovely, but less so when it is going through what the locals regard as a storm of Biblical proportions, leaving aside the fact that there are no snowstorms in the Bible. (Right? I admit I haven't read it recently.)

The area got hit by 2 or 3 inches of snow and sub-freezing temperatures. In Chicago we used to have a name for this: an unusually mild January weekend. But here it is a once-every-10-years storm that shuts everything down.

American Airlines started canceling flights faster than a Knick fan can say LeBron James, or than a quitting prize fighter can say No mas. Even before the snow started, they had canceled their last Friday evening flight by reason of the approaching storm. I tried to switch my mid-Saturday ticket to an earlier Friday night flight, but missed out solely due to another of the presenters at the conference, who had persuaded the organizers (while I was incommunicado) to switch my panel with his so that HE could get out early. Smart guy, I suppose. University of Chicago economist.

But not to worry, I was still booked on the 4:40 pm Saturday flight, and by then conditions had greatly improved. American Airlnes was having none of this, however - by 7 am that day they had preemptively canceled everything for the day.

This is when their cat and mouse games, reminding me of how our cat Seymour plays with a red, catnip=infused cat toy, really began. They booked me on the 8:10 am out of Durham this morning (Sunday). In dizzying succession they sent me e-mails indicating that the flight was on time, no make that one hour late, no make that 90 minutes late. Then they waited until I had gotten my boarding pass and passed through security to drop the big one: flight canceled, and they had re-booked me to fly to New York at 1:15 pm on MONDAY. More than 48 hours after all precipitation had ceased. In the midst of a bright, sunny day, with no weather disruptions in New York either, and perhaps at this point an inch of snow on the ground, which had been there for more than 24 hours.

When this happens, while having a meltdown is tempting and potentially (for a moment or two) enjoyable, it's better to focus on exploring your options. First I found that the very best American could do for me today wsa get me into Boston in the middle of the afternoon. Then I could try to find a shuttle flight home. But I didn't believe for a second that they were actually flying to Boston today. All uncanceled flights they kept on delaying and delaying, and it seemed likely that this would happen again.

I went back out past security and over to the next terminal to try Continental, which I knew had flown out of Raleigh yesterday when everyone else was canceling. One seat left on the 10:35 am flight to Newark. The very helpful agent got American Airlines to transfer my ticket over (though I would have bought a new one if necessary). What's more, she made a quick phone call and ascertained that the plane is actually sitting here on the ground, ready to leave on time after what I gather is a routine between-flights inspection. Funny how agents will usually decline to let you know this sort of thing, even though it's got to be easy for them to find out.

"We don't like to cancel," she said of Continental's weather policy. "We regard it as a last resort." I have no reason to doubt her.

Given how completely benign the weather conditions are by now (and have been for 24 hours if you don't mind a bit of cold), it is obvious that American's policy is to cancel whenever it is inconvenient to honor their schedule. Since, under the current weather conditions, a rookie pilot could probably land here with his eyes closed (well, on second thought I hope he'd keep them open) the only logical explanation for American's rampant cancellations is that it isn't worth their while to fly in planes that are insufficiently full so they can fly them out again.

That's no way to run a railroad, or rather an airline.

Posting this now in the hope that I am not tempting fate by assuming that we actually depart as scheduled in just 60 minutes ... The Monkey's Paw would certainly know how to have its way with me in these circumstances.

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