Things That Tick Me Off: The Federal Aviation Administration

FAA logo220px-United_Airlines_-_N14219_-_Flickr_-_skinnylawyer_(1)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.

36 thoughts on “Things That Tick Me Off: The Federal Aviation Administration”

  1. Here, here, Kraaken! I love travelling by train and would love to see high-speed and regular speed trains available for all intra- and inter-city travel. It seems Amtrak struggles to continue existing but it would be so much smarter to expand Amtrak with trains that reach all places at bullet and regular speeds and have an alternative travel option should things go awry with planes, as Professor Turley just experienced.

  2. chimene: “:“a country so dependent on air travel” — huh? anybody know WHY that is? WHEN did it happen? and what would it take to un-do!?

    How right you are! As people over time became more worried about saving time when traveling, and especially since the advent of business travel, the train has become a relic of the past (unless you are lucky enough to live in the Beltway area). I would MUCH rather take a train than fly any day, but it would take a lot of capital improvement as far as the railway infrastructure for this to happen, and with Congress the way it is now, you can forget about anything substantive as an alternative happening.Besides, having worked for U.S. Airways at one time I can tell you that the only way we’re ever going to get back to an alternative travel system is if people finally have enough of being groped at the airport and paying the insane baggage prices that the airlines cook up between themselves. Where I live in Arizona, you have to leave Phoenix (the capitol of the State) and drive to Maricopa to catch a train, and even then you can only catch one about two days a week, going nowhere that you really want to go.Had I Bill Gates’ money, I would buy Amtrack and redo the entire system with bullet trains and convenient schedules and give the airlines a run for their money.

  3. After Sept 11, there was a lot of emergency preparedness being re-examined. At the time, I was an office manager in a prominent DC office building, within the perimeter of Secret Service’s concern. I read an article at the time by a very interesting fellow (in the IT storage world; I wish I remembered his name!) who had a different take than I’d ever encountered. He said that all things fail, but the trick with emergency preparedness is whether a system FAILS WELL or not. Typically people proceed with trying to avoid all failures, but he’s right, all things do fail at some point and in some way, especially mechanical things. His approach dealt with setting up systems that could fail pretty well, to the point where he was left dealing with inconveniences rather than catastrophe. That article changed my thinking. Not just in this situation, but when you think about things like humans using nuclear power as an energy source when we don’t know how to safely contain a failure or even how to safely store very toxic materials that’s life will no doubt outlive the lives of their containers.

  4. “a country so dependent on air travel” — huh? anybody know WHY that is? WHEN did it happen? and what would it take to un-do!?! This appears to be a problem ENTIRELY of our own devising; we should be able to un-do it. Like, wouldn’t a decent passenger train system be a lot more useful, and take less energy????

  5. Paul, I often drive through St. George on my sojourn to and from the west coast. Are you aware it has become a big retirement destination? It’s also where Electric Horseman was shot.

    1. Nick – did not know that, but did not really like that movie.

  6. Paul, What a ballbuster! Jonathan accounts a horrible day, but being a positive, glass half full man, he takes away the inherent goodness in people. Then you lay cancer on him! Do you walk down the Santa line @ the mall every Christmas and tell kids he’s no real? Just bustin’ on you, bud.

    1. Nick – I was trying to give Jonathan a heads-up, if he did not know, that he should not stick around too long.

  7. JT: “Does that make sense in a country so dependent on air travel?”

    As much sense as the TSA.

  8. It’s more amazing that things go right most of the time, than that things occasionally go wrong.

  9. @Paul Schulte “BTW, have a great time in St. George. Think that is where the cast of Genghis Kahn got cancer.”

    Hee. I wonder what kind of cancer statistics we would see if we tracked participants in other movies of the same period. The fact is that most of those people smoked like chimneys and would have gotten cancer no matter where they worked or lived.

    1. Simms – Jonathan was having an Odysessian journey, so I thought I would add to it. 🙂 It is like the cursed cast of Rebel Without a Cause.

  10. Seems like an epic movie.

    Question, when the FAA Tower goes out and the Tarmac is loaded with planes, do the airlines still get fined 27k per person on the plane?

    Or if they are on the Tarmac, they force them to deplane are they still liable?

  11. What else is reasonable to expect from a government that is of the people, by the people, for the people, and not with the people?

  12. This is why I always carried a good book when traveled by air. Don’t travel by air any more but still carry a good book and games in my kindle when I have appointments, just in case.

  13. The stars foretell but don’t compel at all. So choices made have clear effect on things.

    Each and every thing the word _federal_ is used to describe has a dismal horoscope. It is predictable that the Peter Principle applies in spades. _Federal_ employees all rise to their level of incompetence and then do that job until they retire.

    No FAA employee will be fired. No cost to whomever made the error of judgment grounding thousands. Isn’t government grand?

  14. I do know how to get rid of the curse of the Scottish play but you do not have that. You are just going to have to tough this out.

  15. Don’t pay attention to horoscope, tarot card, or weegie board messages.
    It’s a jungle out there and lawyers just have to do a little crisis management.

  16. The only way to undo a bad horoscope is to get a bag of fortune cookies and keep eating until you get a better fortune

    1. While you are in St. George take a Geiger counter reading. Always wondered if the level had lowered over the years.

  17. I agree completely that most people are very decent. I see it every time I drive the beltway and/or the 270. Only a handful of drivers are really rude and dangerous. Same with the Metro. Best of luck in Utah. I can’t wait to read your take on the latest ruling on Idaho’s ban on gay marriage.

  18. BTW, have a great time in St. George. Think that is where the cast of Genghis Kahn got cancer.

  19. I know that it is not going to help to tell you that horoscopes have no scientific value. The problem is that someone in the airport was cursed and caused a domino effect on all the other passengers. Has nothing to do with you. For God’s sake stop reading your horoscope!

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