Sunday, August 12, 2018

Trying to travel on American Airlines from Rio de Janeiro to Miami

Here's a tale of what goes wrong when airlines are so busy saving money on staff that they forget about their secondary function, namely carrying passengers in a timely fashion from A to B. Their primary function, admittedly, is to maximize profits for their shareholders...

So, here is what happened to me and a Boeing 777 full of passengers, it shows organizational as well as professional failings on various levels.

I was supposed to leave on flight AA 905 from Rio de Janeiro (GIG) to Miami (MIA). Scheduled departure August 09 8:40pm for a 4:30 am arrival on August 10. The plane would have sat on the tarmac pretty much all day, from its early am arrival from either JFK or MIA. Keep that in the back of your mind as you read-on.

We board on-time, everyone is ready for an on-time departure. There were some issues with an odd bloke who wandered about the cabin while the plane was taxiing. Anyhow, so it began: They had engine problems. An external aircon unit had to be deployed, because it got quickly boiling hot in the cabin. The initially talkative Captain on this flight disappeared soon completely. Keep that also in mind as you read-on.

For a number of hours passengers endured a complete communications break-down. At no time were we told what the problem was, whether or not it could be fixed, and/or how long it would realistically take. We were fed continuous misinformation like 'we will be airborne momentarily', 'the unacceptable temperature in the cabin will decrease rapidly after the second engine comes on' (that engine never came on). That was after the Captain made a brief appearance uttering things like we would have to wait for paperwork to be completed, and that that would take about 45 minutes. Right after that that much talked about second engine failed to come on and it got really hot. As I said, the Captain was missing in communications action ever since.

Passengers became irate because of the communications break-down caused by the Captain in charge. The flight attendants made-do with the false information they had been given and passengers rightly did not believe a word they uttered any longer. I did feel sorry for them, because none of that was their fault, but they bore the brunt of passenger anger.

Discipline on the plane began to break-down. People were told that they could leave if they wanted to. Some people left, others started arguing with the flight attendants, refusing to leave or sit down until they would be promised that their luggage would be unloaded. The flight attendants could not promise that, so there these passengers were, not leaving, not sitting down. Perhaps cognizant of the PR disasters security personnel on planes cause, nobody forced these passengers to either sit down or get off the bus.

Eventually we were told that *really* we were ready for departure, if people would please just sit down so that we could leave. Sadly the majority of passengers did not respond to that directive anymore. Some wanted to get off, but not without their luggage, others just stood in the aisles and were angry in a directionless way, a few sensible people tried to coax standing passengers to take their seats, without much success. I wonder whether mass hysteria looks like this. None of this made any sense to me. Well, we did not leave on his occasion because of the breakdown in cabin discipline that was a direct result of American Airlines staff feeding us misinformation for many hours. I just sat down in my seat and watched movies, while watching the drama unfold around me.  

I carefully monitored my app, waiting for the inevitable, the cancellation of the flight. The inevitable happened, my flight was rescheduled for the next day's afternoon. Interestingly, I had the flight cancellation information before the flight attendants. You do wonder whether they are the absolutely last people on the planet to be informed about anything that's going on on their flights. We were bused to a downtown hotel and picked up the next morning at 11 am for a 3:30 pm departure. All that was fairly professional, and while the hotel was basic, I have no complaints.

At the airport we duly checked in, boom, shortly after we cleared security and customs, came the message that the flight was delayed to 1:30 am, and that we would be bused back to a hotel. I trust you appreciate the staggering incompetence, on an organizational level, that would be required to result in such an activity. Apparently they had no crew to staff that flight. Well, *that* American Airlines surely would have known prior to dragging people in several coaches from the hotel to the airport. Incidentally, this pointless leasing of coaches and drivers to ferry passengers forth and back between the airport and the hotel is unlikely to contribute to the primary reason for existing of listed companies, profit maximization. I won't even go into the self-inflicted reputational damage.

On the bright side, this seasoned traveler didn't like the idea at all, of sharing the flight with all those angry passengers, so I re-booked myself on the regular 8:40pm flight. Sensibly American Airlines had allocated our disaster flight crew to this flight, so they would not have to face those furious passengers  again. I was somewhat less assured, to be honest. And there he was, our cheerful, talkative Captain from said disaster flight. I knew, of course, should there be a problem, he would just dive for cover and be nowhere to be seen or heard.

I think there are several lessons in this:

1) check your planes (especially if they sit on the tarmac for a day) prior to boarding.
2) communicate precisely to your passengers what the nature of the issue is, how long it might take, and admit uncertainty if you are uncertain (nothing is worse for trust and discipline if it becomes obvious that information provided is patently false, and was known to be false when it was provided).
3) maintain discipline in the cabin.
4) ensure the Captain shows themselve to be in charge.

If these rules had been followed we would have almost certainly departed that evening.

I still do not know whether that flight left at 1:30 am, because by the time my flight left it had disappeared from the airport departure information displays. On a cheerful note, the 777 I had rebooked myself on had newer seats. I slept definitely better than on my flight to Rio. Not that you wanted to know.

August 14, 2018update: AA initially told me that I had no case for compensation because the above issue was caused by weather. When I pointed out to them that none of what I described had anything to do with weather, they promised to look at their records again.  They followed up on this with an apology and the offer of a 250 $ voucher of 15k miles.  I accepted the travel voucher. Case closed.

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