Wednesday, July 11, 2007

How to (and how not to) run an airline

For those who have yet to experience the joy of East Coast air travel, there is one bane beyond all others: East Coast thunderstorms. During the late afternoon and evening, masses of thunderstorms often form, blocking airports and flight paths from Boston to Washington. These storms often create "creeping delays", where all Air Traffic Control can tell the pilots sitting on the ground is "ask again in half an hour", because it could be 15 minutes and it could be 4 hours before the planes can fly again.

In two trips within three weeks, I got to experience this first hand.

The most recent, from Washington DC home, was on JetBlue. With a tight travel budget and DC's outrageous hotel costs, an extra night and a morning flight was not in the cards. So on the evening of June 28th, I arrived for the 9:20 PM flight from Dullis to Oakland, Jet Blue flight 321. Sometime around 6pm, the airport basically was shut down: thunderstorms were blocking all routes east and north, and a storm was heading directly to the airport itself.

During this time, other airlines still boarded people and shoved planes onto the tarmac. JetBlue did not. The counter personnel said "we don't want to board the planes until we know you can take off, its more comfortable sitting here". An airline than learned its lesson the hard way.

More important, they communicated with the passengers. Every half hour or so, the counter staff would check in with a pilot on a plane and get an update from Air Traffic Control.

One pilot (the pilot for my flight) stayed at the counter and helped out: explaining to people the cause of the delay, looking up flight status on his smartphone, showing the weather radar to people, assuring us that he was NOT going to cancel the flight to Oakland, and even detailing the tricks he was going to pull to try to get us out as promptly as possible, a scheme which required shanghaing off-duty and over-houred flight attendants to board us 15 minutes before our scheduled cabin crew was due to arrive from a connecting flight.

One of the counter staff even unloaded a few drink and snack carts from the plane, with a "I know this won't make you feel better, but it makes me feel better, so help yourself". The good customer service even continued onboard, with the pilot unlocking the pay-per-view movies.

So although the flight was almost three hours delayed leaving (but only slightly more than two hours arriving, the Pilot put the pedal to the metal), and other flights suffered even longer delays, the process went as smoothly as could be expected.

About the only thing which would have improved the situation would be a weather and/or weather + air traffic display in the lounge, so the customers could see for themselves the airborn mess.

This was in sharp contrast to United flight 19, on June 8th. A similar evening flight, from JFK to San Francisco. Weather was moving in, and any pilot worth his salt would have seen the impossibility of getting off the ground. Nevertheless, we boarded the plane on time.

It turned out June 8th was going to be a ClusterF*** of a flying day out of JFK. Earlier in the day, Air Traffic Control on the east coast suffered a major computer crash. One of the two taxiways at JFK was closed for construction. The East Coast Thunderstorms made their appearance. And an emergency landing on one of the other runways.

But the United pilot told us nothing, simply moved the plane to the taxiway and parked it on the side. No updates, no reports.

The only reason I knew about the weather issues (and resulting routing issues), the emergency landing on the other runway, and most of the other problems was because the pilot did not turn off the ATC channel on the entertainment system, so I listened away to 'xxx, switch to controller C, wait for him to contact you, it will be a while' and 'all emergency vehicles roll to runway Y'.

Even the cabin crew didn't know about what was going on, relying on me to relay information to them! After an hour or so, they distributed cups of water but provided no other cabin service while we were sitting on a taxiway with the engines off.

Four hours later, we were finally in the air. Again, I knew about departure information long before the cabin crew was informed, let alone the passangers. Even during the ascent, the frustrating lack of communication continued, with the pilot detailing to ATC the "moderate" turbulence we were passing through but saying almost nothing to us poor souls along for the rather bumpy ride.

So thus ends the simple lesson in how to, and how not to, run an airline.

1 comment:

carterson2 said...

My main problem with airlines is talk....
Q: Do you know if a headset would quiet cabin speak. e.g. the dreaded "seat belt message"?