I travel a lot by air. Last week I was in one such trip when I left my home in a suburb of Philadelphia very early in the morning to be at the airport by 6 a.m. There was no direct fight to my ultimate destination in Chattanooga, TN. My American Airlines (AA) flight took me first to Charlotte, NC, one of its major hubs before I boarded the connecting flight.
After a very busy week of providing training at a manufacturing site I was scheduled to get back home from Chattanooga (CHA) on Friday.
Unfortunately, I could not.
On Thursday night I got a message after 10 p.m. on my smart phone from the airlines stating that my connecting flight AA1798 out of Charlotte (CLT) to Philadelphia (PHL) on Friday night at 8:42 p.m. had been cancelled and that I had been rebooked to fly on Saturday at 7:45 p.m. via flight AA5517 from CHA to CLT. There was no message for the next leg of the journey to PHL.
When such a message comes from the airlines, it is never a good sign. I promptly called my wife who informed me that Philadelphia and the entire north-east region of the USA were embracing for a big storm with 50 miles an hour wind speed and snow accumulation possibilities; the weather condition was predicted to be worse from Friday afternoon. She advised me not to take any chance and to stay in Chattanooga until the weather turned better.
However, my mind was made up to return home, and if possible, by taking an earlier flight. I had an invitation from the organizers of a seminar on the Genocide of the Rohingyas in the Holocaust Memorial Center in New York city, which was scheduled for Sunday afternoon. Some of my good friends are also coming from the UK and other parts of the USA to speak in the seminar.
Next morning, I asked the administrative associate at the manufacturing site to see if she could contact the American Express (AmEx) travel agent and arrange for an earlier flight out of Chattanooga. Efficient as she was, Kathy did not surprise me and told me during my class that she was able to find the only empty seat available for me to take an earlier flight at around 11 a.m. that was scheduled to arrive in Charlotte at 12:25 p.m. and then I could take a connecting flight at 1 p.m. out bound for Philadelphia.
I was overjoyed with the development and felt lucky that I would be able to arrive home around 2:30 p.m. before the weather would turn nasty, thus, allowing me to be in NY city on Sunday for the seminar. Kathy also ordered a taxi for taking me to the airport. By 10 a.m. the training materials were all covered and so I excused myself leaving the task of conducting an exam with a colleague of mine.
The taxi driver arrived on time and soon thereafter brought me to the small Chattanooga airport. I was feeling so good that I left a big tip for the driver. Then I proceeded towards the security check where I had to take out my computer from the bag, empty out my pockets, take out my shoes, belt and winter jacket (which I had brought from Philadelphia in case it would snow or be cold when I returned).
I travel very light and had a small carry-on bag besides my computer bag. Since the air carrier was a small plane between CHA and CLT, all passengers are required to leave their carryon bags near the plane door, which are returned near the door of the plane after the flight. My years of air travel have taught me that the bag pickup process usually takes more than 10-15 minutes after the plane comes to a gate.
Knowing of the short connection time in Charlotte I decided this time to check in my carry on bag, which would allow me to catch the connecting flight faster than if I were to wait at the gate to pick it up. The weather was great and the plane left on time and landed at the Charlotte airport shortly after 12 noon. There was, however, something wrong at the airport with many planes scattered and waiting on the runaway. It took unusually long – almost half an hour – for our plane to stop near a gate. [The passengers had to walk from the runway to go inside the airport terminal. I later learnt that there was a ground stop at CLT airport – meaning no plane could fly in or out of the airport because of the visit of President Trump to the city to attend the funeral of Christian pastor Billy Graham.] I was feeling nervous about the delay. Little did I realize that my next flight to PHL had been cancelled before my CLT flight from CHA was airborne.
As soon as I could switch on my cell phone inside the plane, I noticed a message waiting for me from AA.com, sent at 11:24 a.m., stating that my flight AA2054 from CLT to PHL had been cancelled. The next message said that I was rebooked for March 3 flight at 7:25 a.m. from CLT to SDF. There was no mention of flight from SDF to PHL. Needless to say that I felt cheated and was very upset with the news. If the airlines had told me that there was a strong possibility for such a flight cancellation in CLT, I would not have taken the flight out of CHA.
It was late to undo the latest outcome. Once inside the airport, I quickly called AmEx travel agent to see if she could put me onto any flight to PHL. She said that there was a flight heading out for PHL at 4:35 p.m. that day in which there was an available seat that she could put me in. I was happy with the new reservation and approached a counter and got my new ticket issued replacing the old one.
Because the next flight was not due to leave until a few hours later I started to walk to my new gate for departure at a slow pace. It was a long walk. I pulled out the day’s newspapers, which I had brought from CHA, from my computer bag, and started reading all the important global and local news. At around 3 p.m. I checked my phone to notice that an AA message had been waiting in my message box since1:27 p.m. My flight AA559 to PHL had been cancelled. I was devastated with the latest news and called my taxi driver back in Philadelphia that I was not coming on Friday.
I again called AmEx travel agent who said that with the stormy weather in the north-eastern USA, hundreds of flights had been cancelled, and that there was nothing she could do except trying to find a hotel in Charlotte and rental car for me. She advised me to talk to AA Customer Assistance for any assistance with my flights.
I walked to the Customer Assistance area and noticed a long line with hardly any movement there. There was no alternative but to stand in the line. After nearly an hour of standing in the line, an AA agent suggested that instead of waiting in the line the stranded passengers could call an 800 number to directly speak with an agent. I called the number and heard a computer voice asking me about my record locator number and promising that I would hear back from a real agent within an hour.
I called the travel agent if she could find any hotel, esp. near the airport in Charlotte. She said that there was none available near the airport.
Apparently, many of the stranded passengers had already booked them. There were also many outside visitors to Charlotte who had come to attend the funeral service of Billy Graham who had died on Feb. 21. It was altogether a hopeless case for many passengers like me who had hoped to return to their destination by Friday. Now they must find other alternatives including renting cars or taking a bus or train ride to their destinations heading north-east.
It took another two hours before I received the call from AA agent. She told me that because of force majeure case the airline was not going to find a hotel for me, and that I should find my own lodging or stay inside the airport for nearly 24 hours. It was an unacceptable offer. I asked her if she could find any flight back to Chattanooga because I knew that I could stay in the same Hilton hotel where I had stayed. She said that if AA took me there, that would mean end of my flight with the ticket I had purchased and then the airline was not obligated to take me back to PHL.
However, the airline was willing to take me to any other place where AA was flying, subject to availability of a seat in that flight. I asked if I could fly to Atlanta, GA. She said that there was no empty seat available for me to take. After several minutes of searching she said that she could book me for a flight (AA 745) to Houston that night that would leave around 8 p.m. and bring me to the city at around 10 p.m. However, she cautioned me that no seats are available for flights to Philadelphia (PHL) airport on Saturday. I could take an early afternoon flight out of IAH at 1 p.m. on Sunday that would bring me to PHL at around 6 p.m. I agreed. She said that I should be able to get the new ticket issued for IAH from any counter. By that time, I had already moved up in the queue to stand in front of the Customer Assistant. After stating my case, she printed out a ticket and advised me to go to the baggage claims area to get my checked-out bag.
I walked to the Baggage Claims area and spotted my bag amongs the piles of bags that were bound for Philadelphia. After grabbing my bag, I went through the security again to get inside the departure area in the C terminal. I was hungry and bought some dinner for me. Then I called my wife letting her know that I was going to Houston and would be coming back InshaAllah on Sunday night. I also called my brother in Houston, asking him to pick me up around 10 p.m.
I went to the departure gate for my flight and was delighted to see a plane waiting there. I met an air-hostess seating nearby who said that she had not seen a similar mess in many years. She was one of the crew for the flight I was taking. She believed that Trump’s presidential visit, plus Billy G’s funeral and the weather in the US North-east had compounded the situation, resulting in the cancellation of hundreds of flights. When I asked her why the display monitor was showing 15 minutes delay while the plane was waiting she said that it might be caused by unavailability of the right pilot for the flight (who might have been stranded somewhere else), but also noting that she was not sure either. To my surprise, I noticed the waiting plane pulled away from the gate around 7:30 p.m., which meant that it was not our plane.
Another plane taxied onto the gate around 8 p.m. when the Houston-bound passengers were told that their gate had changed. We moved quickly to the new gate to embark on the plane bound for Houston. After some waiting in front of the new gate, I embarked on the plane and arrived in Houston at around 10 p.m. local time. By that time, I felt drained out after a stressful day with so many ups and downs with a series of cancellations and rebooking.
After landing at the George Bush International airport, I sent a message to my brother, who was already waiting near the baggage claims area. I reached his home shortly after 11 p.m. and went to sleep after eating my dinner.
What a day! This episode once again proved the adage: man proposes and God disposes. And ultimately, all my efforts to reach Philadelphia on Friday turned out to be a zero-sum-activity.
I am glad that I had a backup plan for the Rohingya seminar in NY City. An American friend of mine would be speaking at the event on my behalf on Sunday afternoon while I look forward to onboarding at that time for completing my incomplete flight to Philadelphia, God Willing.