It is now time for another addition of “Things That Tick Me Off” — my opportunity to vent frustrations and petty injuries to a captive audience. Today’s recipient is the Federal Aviation Administration. As some of you might have followed on Twitter, last night was an unmitigated nightmare as I returned from Chicago after a speech. It was bad enough to get a horoscope before a speech telling me to avoid speaking at all costs, but then the fire alarm was triggered at an FAA facility on Tuesday — forcing flights at both O’Hare and Midway to a grinding halt — it triggered a series of events that grew increasingly bizarre. Indeed, yesterday was clearly the result of my ignoring my horoscope and speaking despite the fateful warning. My frequent flyer Odysseus moment.
My American flight was cancelled as I was pulling up to O’Hare at noon. I walked into the airport and found a virtual zoo. Virtually every flight was grounded. It seemed like the FAA did not have a particularly good Plan B for a tower going out in one of the world’s most busy hub — at least a hub where an alternative tower could be used rather than grounding every flight and triggering a cascading failure around the country. No one could get through to the airlines by phone. When I finally reached the desk, flights at 10 pm were being cancelled in anticipation. No one knew what FAA intended to do. After a second flight cancelled, I was able to transfer my ticket to United for the 5:30 pm flight 622. It was a fateful decision. United was understaffed hours after the fire (another curiosity that the airline did not seem to be able to pull added people to the airport in such emergencies). The line for customer support stretched the length of the terminal. It took hours for some people I spoke to reach a customer support person with the airline. In our case, Flight 622 was a rare flight that was not cancelled, but the flight was delayed five times. (The passengers lined up after they were told that boarding would occur soon, but then waited for two hours in group lines). The problem is that we lacked a crew. Finally, a crew was found and we took off around 8:00pm. We actually felt lucky. Most people were booked for Wednesday (which I would have normally taken but I have a retirement luncheon for my former dean and friend, Jack Freidenthal today, and have to then leave for Utah).
I have to say that I do love traveling with fellow Americans. Despite being dog tired, most people were rightfully sympathetic with the United employees who were there and doing their best. People joked and made friends. One guy bought a beer for another guy in line that he just met and two women ultimately exchanged emails to get together after spending 10 hours at the airport. Once we were in the air, whatever remaining luck ran out. The pilot came on the intercom to announced in a cheery voice that part of the hydraulic system had failed and we needed to make an emergency landing. While he was reassuring, the lines of fire trucks at Dulles were less so. We landed surrounded by the trucks and were taken to a remote part of the airport. We then sat there as fire fighters checked the aircraft in case of fire or explosion. Eventually the fire trucks escorted us slowly to the terminal.
We finally deplaned and were told to go to buses after picking up our luggage. However, it turned out that United lost virtually everyone’s luggage. Only 50 bags were loaded despite hours of delay at O’Hare. Somehow the airline lost one bag of an English travelers while delivering the other bag. Once again, the airline was understaffed. A hundred people stood in line for an hour to file a claim with only two people filling out reports. No one thought to distribute the forms down the line and there was only one supervisor who disappeared. The passengers on the bus were upset as they had to sit there. Finally, after about an hour and half, someone came out to inform everyone that it would take a couple hours to get through the line but they could simply use a 1800 number.
We then drove to Reagan National. I found my bag in storage. (Apparently it was sent on a different flight). I got home around 1:30am.
It turns out that the fire alarm was simply a single fan that was smoking at an Elgin FAA facility. That resulted in grounding flights and effectively shutting down both O’Hare and Midway. We have been spending hundreds of billions on the airport and FAA systems and a smoking fan in a bathroom paralyzed the system. Does that make sense in a country so dependent on air travel?
Clearly, the fire was not the fault of any airline and I found all of the airline staff to have been heroic in the face of the emergency. However, the airlines (like the FAA) again seemed to be caught flat-footed by the emergency. The day did reaffirm my faith in my fellow travelers. People were clearly whipped and tired but kept great senses of humor and remarkable civility. It was an incredibly diverse group but strangers were showing each other family photos and, in one case, a passenger took over another passenger’s efforts to rebook his flight and got him a seat on our plane. Others helped entertain children on the flight. I sat with two wonderful people and we shared stories of our family and careers. When my seat mate lost her earring, everyone on the plane seemed to be on their knees looking for it. Despite the stories that we often discuss of horrible actions and frankly horrible people, we often lose sight of how remarkably decent most people are in this country.
Of course, as I pack for another trip to Utah today to serve as the keynote for the Southern Utah Federal Law Symposium in St. George, Utah, I am a bit worried that the line of bad luck has not fully run its course. I am hoping that 12 hours in an airport and an emergency landing will satisfy the Gods that I am properly punished for any horoscope sins.