Sunday, January 18, 2009

Every pilot is a hero

In light of the recent heroics of Capt. Chesley B "Sully" Sullenberger, and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, of US Airways flight #1549, I thought it would be an appropriate time to post a story about my own personal heros: commercial airline pilots and co-pilots everywhere, who fly planes of passengers day in and day out all over the country without incident. Every day that I take off from one runway and land safely on the next, I am ever grateful to the pilots who got me there. Every pilot is a hero. Yet it seems they are only ever hailed as such when something tragic, or near-tragic, happens. Well, to all pilots everywhere, this is for you. I appreciate what you do. I appreciate your skill, your split-second decision making, your focus, your dedication, your responsibility. I appreciate every moment of delay you put me through in order to ensure everything is in order for a safe flight. Thank you. Thank you for the safe flights, and thank you especially for the delays.

Now here's my story. It dates back to October 2007. I wrote it basically to vent my anger, pounding away my frustration on my laptop during a flight. But in doing so I found I was more grateful than angry. And I was reminded, although in the harshest way, what it means to be well and truly lucky.

October 22, 2007
I left San Diego yesterday morning - my family safely evacuated and my home still untouched by flames, though directly west of the Witch fire burning through Rancho Santa Fe. My husband, daughter, dog and all our sentimental valuables were staying at a friend's closer to the airport and out of the path of any fires, and we agreed that there was no point me cancelling my work assignment to Peru for the next 10 days. If the house burns, it burns. I'm ok with that, I had time to evacuate with our family photos and all that was sentimental and not replacable. As long as family and loved ones are safe and sheltered, we saw no reason not to continue with life as planned.
Despite smoke-filled skies and Santa Ana winds, my Delta flight took off on schedule without incident or delay, and I was on my way to Atlanta to make my international connection to Lima, Peru. I was impressed with operations at Lindbergh Field - everything on schedule, getting folks safely in and out of San Diego - just as if it were any other day. I sat back to relax and prepare for my assignment.

The uneventful flight was fine, save for some frightening turbulence as we began our descent. The pilot had prepared us for it, announced we would be landing in Atlanta shortly, and told the flight attendants to take their seats. I watched out the window to see the cloud-specked Appalachians, and caught eye of the runway nearing to the right. No sooner had the wheels been lowered, then our descending plane suddenly veered upward and back into the skies - the landing had been averted. We awaited anxiously for word from the cockpit as to what was going on. After a while, the pilot announced that high cross winds were at dangerous levels and prevented a safe landing of our aircraft. At that moment, I added him to my ever growing list of heroes (including the San Diego firefighters). I was extremely thankful. He kept us posted as the situation was assessed, and ultimately that meant news that we would NOT be able to land at Atlanta, and instead would be diverted to land in Huntsville, Alabama (where?), about 45 minutes to the northwest (and the other side of the Appalachians), where conditions were more favorable.

We landed in Huntsville, which is really nothing more than a landing field with a single small terminal building, and, having no gate to pull into, our aircraft parked on the tarmack alongside a couple of other Deltas also diverted from landing in Atlanta. As we sat for over an hour waiting for an improvement in the weather, unable to get off the plane, the heroic pilot made his way through the entire cabin and calmed nerves and answered questions, and for the most part passengers were civil.

video

But clearly, the diverted landing meant that several passengers, including myself, would be missing their onward connections from Atlanta. I was hopeful that the flight to Lima would be delayed (as is often the case with flights in/out of Lima), but my call to Delta reservations from my cellphone informed me that the flight had departed, late, but not late enough for me to be on it! So the agent on the phone looked at options to re-route me to Lima that night, so I would not have to wait another 24 hours for the next Atlanta to Lima flight, and could still be there before my group arrived. As it appeared, there was a flight from Atlanta to Miami with seats, with a connection on from Miami to Lima with seats, which would get me to LIma before my arriving group. However, the agent told me that she couldn't re-ticket it over the phone, and that I would have to proceed to the customer service desk in Atlanta to be issued new boarding passes.

Our heroic pilot had us back in the air and back to Atlanta just as soon as it was safe to do so. Fortunately conditions improved before too long, as some passengers were really starting to grate on my nerves. Why so many passengers get so uppity and complain in this situation is beyond me. Obviously, the pilot put safety before schedules, and I have nothing but praise for his decisive wisdom. Here's the flight path once all was said and done:



If only my own flight path through the terminal were straightforward. If only all the Delta employees and agents were as competent as the pilots. But alas....

Upon arrival into Atlanta, it was the expected chaos, with nearly everyone on our flight having missed their onward connection. The line at the Customer Service desk was long, and I had just over an hour if I was to catch the flight to Miami. It could be done, and would have been done, had I not encountered the worst customer service situation I have ever experienced from an airline (and in my line of work, I have MANY such instances to compare). Passing the buck in true style. The Delta service desk just to the right of our arrival gate was packed and crowded with passengers needing re-booked flights and/or assistance with accommodations for the night. I explained to the first agent (stationed at the entry point to the LONG line to reach the desk) that I had been advised of the re-route availability via Miami and she instructed me to go directly to the gate for that flight in Terminal A, as it would be boarding soon.

I rushed to Terminal A and directly to the gate, where the agent told me that they can't issue tickets or boarding passes at the gate, and that I had to get a ticket at the Customer Service desk. So I rushed there, relieved that only a few people were queued up, only to have the agent there tell me that because the connection was international, I would have to go to the International Terminal, Terminal E, to be re-ticketed. Terminal E is at the complete opposite end of the airport, and had I been told to go there in the first place, I still might have made it. NOW, however, my Delta Customer Service Desk wild goose chase was swiftly underway. I arrive 10 minutes later at Terminal E, only to witness the LONGEST line yet at a Delta Customer Service Desk, snaking it's way beyond the maze of barriers and pouring freeform into the public terminal space. There was NO WAY that I could get to the front of this line and get onto the flight to Miami at this point, so I gave up hope and resigned myself to "go with the flow" and join the crowds of other angry Delta passengers. The line moved at a snail's pace, and I finally reached the desk about an hour and 15 minutes later. I was exhausted, upset about the runaround when I could have been on my way to Lima had just ONE Delta agent along the way taken action. But nonetheless, I saw that the agents here were not having a fun day either and I was polite and civil.

The only option for me now to get to Lima would be on Delta's flight the next evening, which would mean spending the night in Atlanta. I could see that everyone ahead of me was having to do the same, and in my wisdom from experience, I called my company right away to secure a room for me somewhere, as i knew all too well that Delta wasn't going to cover anything, and were only handing out discount vouchers to cheap hotels that would no doubt be filled to capacity, but what does Delta care, right? Just get them on a shuttle and away from the airport and out of their hair so they can do the same for the next planeful of passengers with misconnects. Even at this point my company had to contact several hotels, and the cheapest accommodation they could find for me was one suite left at a Marriot to the tune of almost $200, which I had to secure with my own credit card. When I finally reached the Delta counter, the agent barely provided the minimum of customer service attention - she printed a new boarding pass for me and told me my checked bag would be held and not available to me until Lima. OK, that I was prepared for. I had to ASK (and ever so politely) that my window seat request be transferred, as well as my special meal request. She managed the window seat by placing me in an exit row (non-windowed I later discovered), and assured me that my meal request was already in the system. She handed me the boarding pass, and I saw immediately that no special meal request was noted, so I asked her (ever so politely again) to confirm the meal request and print a new boarding pass that noted it. She refused, telling me that "its in the system" and shooed me on my way. I had not even asked about lodging help and/or compensation (since I had already secured something), and i was curious to see if the agent would volunteer it. She didn't. So I asked. She handed over a generic voucher which requested a "discount" at a locally named cheap hotel (name not revealed to protect the innocent!). In consideration of the passengers in line behind me, I didn't pursue it further, but I knew an hour earlier that this particular hotel was already booked full. I then had to ask, what time and at what gate to be back at the airport the next day. She responded more rudely than ever now, as if it were common knowledge and I had no business inconveniencing her for this seemingly minor detail. I was outta there.

Alas, back I travelled to the other end of the airport to find ground transportation to my company secured hotel lodging. I arrived with a shuttle full of people hoping to get rooms, and being turned away. I was SO thankful that I had secured my room over an hour earlier, and it was, indeed, the last room in the hotel. I collapsed in my room, and fell asleep as I watched updates of the fires back home. I had talked to my husband en route, and could sleep peacefully knowing that they are still safe and well.
In the morning I checked online at Delta to see if the flight to Lima was on schedule. It was. But I checked my reservation to find that my special meal request was NOT showing up for the flight to Lima, only for the return. So when I returned to the airport I went straight to Delta Customer service, and sure enough, the agent confirmed that it had NOT been entered in the system nor transferred over from the misconnect flight, so she (being more helpful than all others so far) entered it and printed my new boarding pass with "special meal request" noted. She even highlighted it in yellow marker.

I boarded the plane and took my exit row "window" seat, which had no window at all as it fronted the galley area. The seat immediately next to me was quickly occupied by a man in need of leg room. One of the flight attendants asked me if I was allright in my seat or if I wanted to move. I said I would prefer a real window and glanced back to see nothing available, and she told me to sit tight a moment. A moment later, as the door was being closed, she returned to me and offered me a window seat in the cabin ahead, a semi-upgrade with more leg room, comfier pillows, and more elbow space. I gladly accepted and moved, and thanked her for her successful effort. I did not even have to ask - this flight attendant offered it - so she became my second mini-hero on Delta, after the pilot who safely diverted and landed us. Unfortunately, the count stops at 2.

As the male flight attendant for our cabin was preparing to serve peanuts and drinks, I let him know that I had the special meal request for 17G and was now sitting in 12G. "Oh, so you changed your seat, well how do you expect me to find you then?" was his half-smiling response, but then he stopped smiling and wanted a real answer. "That's why I am telling you now!" I smiled back. Then he went on to say "well I'm telling you now that I have no special meal request listed for you, and I know for fact because I personally count all the meals and there were no special meals requested at all on this flight." I told him that he could check my boarding pass because it was noted and highlighted there, to which he responded, quite rudely, "well you'll just have to eat your boarding pass then because I don't have any special meals on this flight". And if you think that was the point at which I completely lost it, hold on. I remained calm and didn't argue further - I figured the neglect originated with the re-ticketing agent at the airport last night, and despite the helpfulness of other agents since, it just didn't make the roster as these things have to be confirmed 24 hours in advance.

I settled in, pulled out my laptop, and began typing this here article I am writing now. Much to my surprise, as the meal cart made it's way into our cabin, I hear this: "that special meal goes to this lady here who is sitting in the wrong seat and isn't in her assigned seat". It was the male flight attendant, hollering across the whole cabin to the other flight attendant making her way through with a meal in hand. I was about to explain that I did not change seats of my own volition, and that it was due to the kindness of one of his colleagues who offered me this seat to move to, but before I could even get a word out he shouts at me "you are lucky that someone back there changed their mind and I got this meal for you.....YOU ARE REALLY LUCKY" as he hands off the tray.

That this Delta employee felt qualified to treat me so rudely and get away with it after a long line of rude encounters with Delta personnel is something I intend to address in a lengthy letter to Delta's President. But the fact is, despite his rudeness and obvious attempts to humiliate me, he was lucky too - had he said anything else, I'd have probably tore into him and created headlines to rival the wildflires. But I took a deep breath and let it go. Clearly he was more angry and troubled with his own life than anything I could have to complain about. But besides that, I let him get away with his statement because, although for all the wrong reasons, that ba***rd was absolutely right. I just couldn't argue the truth. I AM LUCKY. VERY LUCKY INDEED.

I am lucky because my family and loved ones are alive and safe in the midst of the San Diego wildfires.
I am lucky because, as of my last update before taking off, my home is still standing.
I am lucky because a Delta pilot took off from Lindbergh Field through smoke and Santa Ana winds without incident.
I am lucky as well because that same Delta pilot would later make a split-second decision and keep a plane full of passengers safe rather than on schedule, and for his caution and carefulness I am extremely grateful.
I am lucky that Delta's only employees without fault in this experience are the ones flying the planes (save for an occasional well-meaning flight attendant who re-seats passengers, or a desk agent who atleast tries to correct the mistakes of her colleagues).
I am lucky too, for the wisdom to refrain from confrontation with others less wise, or less lucky.
I am also lucky for my parents who taught me, by example, to express anger with words instead of violence.
Finally, I just want to note that "lucky" is more appropriately substituted with "fortunate, blessed and grateful" in all the statements above.

Life is life, good things happen and bad things happen, there are good people and there are not-so-good people, just go with the flow, and count your blessings along the way. And say thank you.

THANK YOU PILOTS EVERYWHERE!!! YOU ARE MY HEROES!!!

2 comments:

  1. Yeowser! That's a heck of a travel tale.

    I can't compete, tho once we had problems in ATL w/TWA going to ORY via JFK. Missed the flight from ATL because we were running late and had baggage issue with our guitars. Tried to run and hit up all the ATMS to get enough cash to buy a ticket, but no luck. So we went on standby and were shuttled to one of those crummy motels you spoke of. I guess losing my temper didn't help, but I hadn't had sleep in 2 days etc, etc. The ticket was $1k, and there were more available seats than you could shake a stick at...

    On the return trip the gals with Air France at CDG were super cool and told us how to get the guitars on board (check the case and put the guitar under a blanket next to the window)

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  2. You may want to add this gent from Oz to your list of pilots...

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