Monday, June 25, 2007

Consumer Rant

Since I have a public forum available, I’d like to indulge in the time-honored tradition of the consumer rant after a bad experience with a product or service. If those annoy you, please skip this post.

This particular rant is about air travel. Now, I realize airlines are popular targets of consumer rants, and I usually give them a break because (1) most people who travel by air do so because they have An Agenda and are already stressed out and feisty, (2) airlines are frequently at the mercy of elements beyond their control, such as weather or air traffic control, and (3) when you travel by air you have to expect a certain number of delays and mishaps a certain percentage of the time just as a matter of statistical probability.

However, I think the number of mishaps I’ve had with Northwest is starting to stretch my patience with statistics and make me suspect that Northwest might be a proper target for an accusation of incompetence. So here’s a sum of the last month of Northwest travel for me:

South Bend to Chicago: fine

Chicago to Dallas/Ft. Worth: 1 hour delay

Dallas/Ft. Worth to Chicago: slight delay

Chicago to South Bend: fine

South Bend to Detroit: 2 hour delay

Detroit to Harrisburg: delayed four times, finally cancelled due to lack of pilot, co-pilot, and half a flight crew. The pilot was stranded on the west coast due to storms, so no vouchers were given (Northwest does not take responsibility for “weather-related” mishaps). No more flights went out of Detroit that night. All hotels were full since we were the last flight cancelled. Since I has delayed out of South Bend I had booked an alternative itinerary for the next morning through United Airways. I called the hotline and was told that I “definitely had a confirmed seat” to Harrisburg via Dulles the next morning at 6, so I settled down in a chair to try to sleep for a few hours before setting out for the other terminal at 4:30 the next morning. When I got up to the United ticket counter I was told that the flight was overbooked and my “booking” was standby, along with 15 other people, and frankly, since I was not a United customer I was not a high priority for them. I took the bus back to the Northwest terminal, waited in the line again, and got myself booked on a 10:30 flight to Baltimore. Once I got through security I found a half-full 6:45 flight to Baltimore and the agent let me on. I never got to Harrisburg; Ryan picked me up in Baltimore.

Harrisburg to Detroit: fine

Detroit to South Bend: fine

South Bend to Detroit: slight delay

Detroit to Minneapolis: fine

Minneapolis to Rapid City: 1 hour delay

Rapid City to Minneapolis: cancelled for lack of a crew, next two flights oversold. They put me on the second oversold flight (last one of the day) and then we sat on the runway for an hour and a half while they tried to buy enough people off the flight to make it light enough to fly. We were told this happens all the time. I spent the night in Minneapolis, this time in a hotel on a voucher.

Minneapolis to Detroit: changed planes at the last minute and had to reassign seats before boarding, so we boarded late, then sat on the runway for 2 hours for maintenance problems. Meanwhile, we all missed our connections. My connection left while I was still on the runway in Minneapolis.

Detroit to South Bend: next flight was oversold and I was told I would have to pay to get on the standby list; waited until 7:18 pm for a flight with a confirmed seat.

So where does that leave me? In the last three weeks I have flown 14 separate Northwest flights. Of those, 4 have been significantly delayed, 2 have been in place of cancelled flights. I tried to get on earlier flights 7 separate times only to be told they were overbooked, so I was frequently stuck in an airport for three to six hours waiting for a flight with a seat. So my significant delay rate was 2 in 7; cancellation rate was 1 in 7; and overbooking was 1 in 2 (though that number is statistically sketchy because I was sometimes trying for flights through other cities to try to get at least close to where I was going). Is that normal? Granted, the sample is not large enough to be considered representative, but conversations with other Northwest passengers (and employees) confirm that my experience is not unique or even unusual. What I found especially exacerbating is airline employees’ complete lack of help, particularly in Detroit. If I could manage to find a ticket agent (which was nearly impossible) I was usually told more or less to go away; my cancelled flight was not their problem. When I did manage to get someone to even look at my printed itinerary, I was often told there was no room for me on the plane, I would have to pay to get on a stand-by list, or I should go somewhere else or call a number. Only in Minneapolis was I ever offered any vouchers for meals or lodging. It was clear that once you were bumped from a flight and your schedule was thrown off, they would just get you there whenever they had a convenient empty seat; you were not a priority.

Classic example: when I went to the counter on the 5:30 flight to South Bend to ask if they could put me on the stand-by list, I was told I would have to pay. I objected and said I was there as a result of a delayed flight. The agent frowned and tapped on her computer for a bit and finally said, “Well, your flight from Cincinnati to South Bend left on time.” I tried to patiently explain that that was wonderful for the people lucky enough to be in Cincinnati, but I had never made it there because my flight had been cancelled, oversold, and then delayed in Rapid City and I had to spend the night in Minneapolis. Had she looked more carefully at the itinerary I had handed her, she would have noticed that was why I was in Detroit in the first place. Finally she sighed and told me there were already six people on the stand-by list and there was no way I was getting on the flight either way (at least four of these people got on the list through the other agent while I was talking to her). I hung around to see what would happen, and went back up to the desk when they were finishing up. The man who got on the stand-by list right after I was turned away was the last one on the flight.

I wish I could say that I’ll never fly Northwest again, but frankly, I’ve not heard much better news about other airlines, and right now I can’t really afford to be picky. So like the rest of flying America, I will just sit here in the airport and vent my consumer rants on my blog.

UPDATE: Hat tip to The Bard for this news article. Apparently it's not just me; the statistics really do point to the conclusion that Northwest is terribly mismanaged. According to the article, 12% of Northwest flights were cancelled yesterday, compared to 1.2% on other major airlines. That's not the weather, folks.

UPDATE UPDATE: Hat tip to Lincoln for
these articles from USAToday. Yesterday was the fourth day in a row Northwest has canceled over 10% of its flights.


The Bard said...

"Cry HAVOC and let slip the dogs of war!"

Seriously. This is so bad, and so continuous, that the only thing to do is fight back with every weapon you can. You know, the internet is to the consumer what the Colt was to the cowboy (and to Indiana Jones): it goes a long way to making a big man no better off than a small man.

mel said...

Wow. I feel better about my recent flight saga.

After my flight out of Charlotte was cancelled, the US Air ticket counter people spent an hour trying to find a way to get me to Peoria, IL in time for my grandmother's funeral. The ticket counter lady thought she booked me on flights going to Reagan National, Minneapolis, and then Peoria, but Northwest (who operated, I believe, the second and third flights I would have taken) somehow decided in the middle of the booking that they couldn't let US Air book me on those flights. I ended up flying US Air to Atlanta and then Delta to Peoria. Sure, Delta held my luggage hostage at the airport overnight, but after reading your blog I'm glad that I flew Delta, even with the luggage issue, instead of getting on those Northwest flights!

Anonymous said...

Worst airlines: Northwest, US Air.
Ho-hum: United.
Pretty good airlines: American, Delta, Continental.
Awesome airlines: Midwest, Southwest.