Last week, airlines canceled over 11,000 flights, stranding hundreds of thousands of people all over the nation. That was just the beginning of something so brutal that people cried in public. I spent a day with thousands of stranded travelers in Phoenix, Arizona, where customer service lines stretched beyond five hours and the only option for a place to stay had roaches.
I spent much of the week in the Mojave Desert, wheeling side-by-sides, sleeping in an awesome little camper and watching races at the King of the Hammers. While I was gone, much of the country was battered by a winter storm that dumped tons of snow in the Midwest and brought the South to a standstill. Caught in all of it were airline operations, especially those airlines with hubs at Dallas/Fort Worth like Southwest and American Airlines.
On Friday, I tried bid to adieu to California after a swim at the Lake Perris State Recreation Area.
I dropped off my rental car and joined Palm Springs International’s security line. I didn’t even get my shoes off before a notification came through, telling me that my flight on American Airlines was canceled.
I placed a call to American’s customer service and was told that there were no more flights leaving Palm Springs that day. Yet, I overheard others talking about getting a flight taking off in just a few hours. A second call to American revealed a number of seats available on that flight, and the equally confused agent got me on it.
Our troubles would really begin on the tarmac.
A light illuminated on the Bombardier CRJ700's panel, and it resulted in a 30-minute delay as maintenance cleared the aircraft. For those of us headed to Chicago, it meant we’d have to sprint to our connection in Phoenix.
After landing at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, the Chicago-bound passengers made a run for it, with many of us arriving at the gate only just in time. But there was a problem. Boarding hadn’t even started, and every flight in that part of the terminal was delayed or canceled. The gate agents for our flight said that they had pilots but no flight attendants. The Los Angeles flight at the gate next door was worse off, as it had just a Captain and nobody else.
American Airlines told me that this was still the aftermath of storms that had rolled through the country days before. The bad weather meant that pilots and flight attendants were now in the wrong cities, nowhere close to the plane that they’re supposed to fly out in Phoenix. Meanwhile, other pilots and attendants timed out of being able to fly for the day.
Despite the situation, they told us to wait instead of getting a new flight because they’d probably find a crew. Three hours later, American finally threw in the towel, and the gate agents immediately pointed us to the American customer service line that stretched most of the terminal. There were hundreds of people in line, moving at a snail’s pace.
Remembering my experience in Palm Springs, I called customer service and scored a flight within minutes. I sent word to the huge line, and it wasn’t long before I heard others getting decent flights. Unfortunately, all of those flights were on Saturday, and the people on the phone told us that we had to wait in line to get hotel and food vouchers.
A group of us hunkered down for a long wait.
Passengers told some me sad stories. One man was missing a family member’s funeral. Another had been trying to get back to the east coast for two days. American sent him through six cities, canceling each connecting flight before his arrival. He was no closer to home and was yet again entering a long line he had gotten used to.
Elsewhere, people got creative. Those trying to get to Los Angeles made an impromptu disappointing stand up comedy club, with tired people laughing at jokes told by other tired people. On the Chicago side, people were dancing to Middle Eastern EDM.
Five hours later, we received news at the front of the line. Not only was American out of hotel and food vouchers, but it ran out of them before our flight even left Palm Springs. The five-hour wait was for nothing.
Some began crying while others looked like you just shot their dog. Once again, I sent word down, and people left the line.
By now it was about 1 a.m. and practically every hotel was full. Some visibly defeated passengers found a corner and tried to pass out. Others decided to rent a car or purchased tickets on another airline, hedging that their next flight would probably get canceled. I managed to find the last room left at a Motel 6.
My standards were low, but apparently they needed to be lower. The A/C unit smelled of electrical fire, the bed broke as soon as I sat down, and while I didn’t find anything before falling asleep, I woke up to roaches and other bugs coming out of the sheets and climbing the walls.
That morning, I learned that those hedging that their flights would be canceled were right. The morning flights out were canceled, and I saw some of my fellow passengers standing in a line even longer than the night before. The morning flight that I could have taken out of Palm Springs also got canceled. Even the guy who was flying for two days was in line, with a flight canceled yet again.
My afternoon flight was showing as being delayed by 30 minutes. The gate agents said that there wasn’t a crew to fly the plane. That made the time misleading. I later learned that they had flight attendants in Texas but nobody to fly them out. And if they did find pilots, the flight from Dallas to Phoenix was just under three hours. The gate agents told this to just a few people before a number of irate passengers demanded a public announcement.
Meanwhile, the system kept updating the delay to a time that was mathematically impossible to achieve.
Eventually, they finally found pilots to fly the plane in Dallas, but the delay would be extended due to a maintenance issue. They would depart Dallas six hours late. Three hours later, it landed in Phoenix, and after a six hour delay, we were some of the only people to head towards Chicago on an American flight that day. I finally walked through my apartment door around 1 a.m.
American’s Phoenix reps told me that they were handling over 3,000 people a day since the storm hit. They lost count of the canceled flights, but a FOX 10 Phoenix report notes that American canceled over 100 flights in Phoenix on Sunday, and today is not looking any better.
The fact that humans can fly places at all is still a miracle. But an event like this highlights just how delicate airport operations are. One snowstorm nearly a week ago still has some airlines in shambles and passengers sleeping with roaches, on benches or jetting to over a half-dozen cities.