anger, tears and cockroaches; What Happens When Airlines Block You

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Image for article titled Anger, sadness and sleeping with cockroaches: the nightmare of being stranded in an airport

Photo: Mercedes Streeter

Last week, airlines canceled more than 11,000 flights, blocking hundreds of thousands of people across the country. It was just the beginning of something so brutal that people cried in public. I spent a day with thousands of travelers stranded in Phoenix, Arizona where customer service lines stretched past five and the only option for a place to stay were cockroaches.

I spent most of the week in the Mojave Desert, riding side by side, sleeping in a great little motorhome and watch the races at the King of the Hammers. While I was gone, much of the country was hit by a winter storm that dumped tons of snow in the Midwest and crippled the South. Caught in all of this was airline operations, especially airlines with hubs in Dallas/Fort Worth like Southwest and American Airlines.

On Friday, I tried to say goodbye to California after a swim in Lake Perris Recreation Area.

Image for article titled Anger, sadness and sleeping with cockroaches: the nightmare of being stranded in an airport

Photo: Mercedes Streeter

I dropped off my rental car and joined the Palm Springs International security line. I didn’t even take my shoes off until a notification arrived telling me that my flight on American Airlines has been cancelled.

I called American customer service and was told there were no more flights out of Palm Springs that day. Yet I’ve heard others talk about getting a flight off the ground in just a few hours. A second call to American revealed a number of available seats on that flight, and the equally confused agent put me on it.

Our troubles would really start on the tarmac.

Image for article titled Anger, sadness and sleeping with cockroaches: the nightmare of being stranded in an airport

Photo: Mercedes Streeter

A light came on on the Bombardier CRJ700 panel, causing a 30-minute delay when maintenance cleared the aircraft. For those of us heading to Chicago, that meant we had to sprint to our connection in Phoenix.

After landing at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, passengers bound for Chicago rushed in, many of us only making it to the gate just in time. But there was a problem. Boarding hadn’t even started and all flights in that part of the terminal were delayed or cancelled. The gate agents for our flight said they had pilots but no flight attendants. The flight from Los Angeles to the next door was worse, as there was only a captain and no one else.

American Airlines told me it was still the aftermath of the storms that had crossed the country a few days before. Bad weather meant pilots and flight attendants were now in the wrong towns, far from the plane they were supposed to be flying in Phoenix. Meanwhile, other pilots and attendants ceased being able to fly for the day.

Despite the situation, they told us to wait instead of taking a new flight because they would probably find a crew. Three hours later American finally threw in the towel and the gate agents immediately directed us to the American customer service line which 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 had a flight booked within minutes. I messaged the huge queue, and it wasn’t long before I heard others taking decent flights. Unfortunately all of these flights were on Saturdays and the people on the phone told us we had to queue for hotel and food vouchers.

A group of us hunkered down for a long wait.

Image for article titled Anger, sadness and sleeping with cockroaches: the nightmare of being stranded in an airport

Photo: Mercedes Streeter

Passengers told me sad stories. A man was missing from the funeral of a family member. Another had been trying to return to the east coast for two days. American sent him to six cities, canceling every connecting flight before he arrived. He was no closer to home and was once again entering a long line he had grown accustomed to.

Elsewhere, people have become creative. Those trying to make it to Los Angeles created an impromptu and disappointing 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 head of the line. Not only was the American out of hotel and food vouchers, he was out of them. before our flight even left Palm Springs. The five hour wait was for naught.

Some started crying while others looked like they had shot their dog. Once again I messaged and people left the line.

It was now around 1 am and almost all the hotels were full. Some visibly defeated passengers found a corner and tried to pass out. Others decided to rent a car or buy tickets on another airline, thinking their next flight would likely be canceled. I managed to find the last remaining room in a Motel 6.

My standards were low, but apparently they had to be lower. The AC unit smelled of electric fire, the bed broke as soon as I sat up, and although I couldn’t find anything before I fell asleep, I woke up to cockroaches and other bugs coming out of the sheets and climbing the walls.

Image for article titled Anger, sadness and sleeping with cockroaches: the nightmare of being stranded in an airport

Photo: Mercedes Streeter

That morning I learned that those who said their flights would be canceled were right. Morning flights were canceled and I saw some of my fellow travelers queuing even longer than the night before. The morning flight that I could have taken from Palm Springs was also canceled. Even the guy who was flying for two days was online, with a canceled flight yet again.

My afternoon flight was 30 minutes late. The gate agents said there was no crew to fly the plane. It made the weather misleading. I found out later that they had flight attendants in Texas but no one to take them out. And if they found pilots, the flight from Dallas to Phoenix took just under three hours. Gate officers told only a few people before a number of irate passengers demanded a public announcement.

Image for article titled Anger, sadness and sleeping with cockroaches: the nightmare of being stranded in an airport

Photo: Mercedes Streeter

Meanwhile, the system kept updating the delay at a time that was mathematically impossible to achieve.

Eventually, they finally found pilots to fly the plane to Dallas, but the delay was extended due to a maintenance issue. They would leave Dallas six hours late. Three hours later he landed in Phoenix, and after a six-hour delay, we were among the only ones heading to Chicago on an American flight that day. I finally walked through the door of my apartment around 1am

US reps in Phoenix told me they’ve been handling more than 3,000 people a day since the storm began. They lost count of canceled flights, but a FOX 10 Phoenix report notes this American canceled more than 100 flights to Phoenix on Sunday, and today it doesn’t look any better.

The fact that humans can fly over places is always a miracle. But an event like this shows just how delicate airport operations are. A blizzard nearly a week ago still has airlines in shambles and passengers sleeping with cockroaches, on benches or traveling to more than half a dozen cities.

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