A Series of No-Good Very-Bad Days

Southwest Air is having a complete meltdown of its systems. As of Wednesday, the airline had cancelled 15,700 flights. A rough estimate, based on the Southwest Air planes I’ve been on, would put that at approximately 1.9 million travelers impacted by the meltdown (if you consider that many line-ups at a Southwest gate having A and B line-ups of approximately 60 travelers to board).

Still, that’s a lot of folks who are struggling during a horrible holiday travel season.

Southwest isn’t a code-share airline either, so it’s not like Southwest can re-book your travel on another partner’s flight. On top of that, it appears that unclaimed baggage is just piling up. (Hope travelers kept their bag tags.)

Outside of all the anguish and anxiety that these travelers must be facing, it really hits home for me. I’ve been a frequent Southwest Air traveler. For a long time, Southwest had direct flights to locations like Vegas and Phoenix from Des Moines. Recently, though, it seems like many of those legs have a stop at another hub, whether that would be Chicago or Denver.

And, I for one, do my damnedest to never fly through Denver. (Back to that in a minute.)

If I’m not booking with Southwest, it’s probably Delta (my favorite) or American. I try to steer clear of United, unless I’m headed east, and that brings me back to a story of why I try not to fly into Denver.

About 10 years ago, I had to fly to LA for a presentation. Actually, two presentations. I left on a Sunday, while my colleagues followed with their travel on Monday, so that I could already be at the hotel to give the first presentation on Monday morning over WebEx, and then follow-up with the LA presentation when they arrived.

It was May. There were storms moving east from Oklahoma and Kansas. The really strong storms were brewing in Southeastern Colorado and Western Kansas. My Sunday flight left in the late afternoon from Des Moines and connected through Denver. I had about an hour and a half for my Denver connection. (Not bad, but my experiences with Denver have always left me sprinting through the terminals to jump from one to another.)

We were late leaving Des Moines. As we crossed into Nebraska, we hit the storms. There was turbulence, but I was accustomed to bumpy rides. I was in the very last row, in a window seat, packed in with a couple who were moving to New Zealand to start a brand new life.

The flight evened out, but that would be short-lived. About 45 minutes out from the Denver airport, a message from the cockpit asked flight crews to “Strap in.”

I’d never heard that phrase before, nor heard it with any amount of urgency. It wasn’t the pleasant, “Flight crews, prepare for landing.” No, this was a last minute request as we plowed into the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced. The plane rocked and bounced like a pinball at the arcade. Then the lights flickered, and we all had the sensation of free falling. It’s that feeling like when you’re on a roller coaster and your stomach simply lifts to your lungs. Except, on a roller coaster, there is a track and within moments, you’ll be safely back at the stop and you can exit and talk with your pals about how scary it was.

This was not that experience. What was probably seconds of free fall felt like minutes. People were crying all around me. There was the unsettling sound of passengers flicking open their barf bags and regurgitating their lunches and late breakfasts. The couple next to me were holding each other and sobbing.

The plane maneuvered its way to the tarmac with a hard landing. Technically, we didn’t crash land, although that is what it felt like.

Moments later, we were at the gate, ready to disembark. I looked at my watch and thought to myself, “Well, I’ve missed the connection (because we were so delayed in taking off), so at least I don’t have to deal with that storm again.”

My plan was to walk to a bar, regain my composure, get a room, do the presentation from Denver on Monday morning, stay to conference in for the LA presentation, and then DRIVE my now non-flying self back to Des Moines.

As I emerged at the gate, a woman from United was repeatedly saying that the flight to LA was being held for us, and we’d need to run to get there. I was caught up in a herd of other passengers who were somehow still optimistic about their chance to make it to the west coast, so I started running with them.

And, we did make it on the LA flight. I was seated in the front row of the economy section. As I took my seat, drenched from head to toe in sweat, I asked the flight attendant if we’d be passing through the same storm that I’d just come in through. She looked at me, puzzled by my appearance and my lack of understanding that the storm system was huge and, yes, we would be going back up through all of that horrible turbulence. Thank goodness I hadn’t had breakfast or lunch.

I made it to LA a little before midnight. Across the street from my hotel was a convenience store that was connected to a sushi restaurant. That’s overstating it. It was a hole-in-the-wall place where the purveyors were selling dollar sushi roles. I was hungry. Nothing was open. I took my chances. My luck was running on high at this point. I opted for the Cali roll to be safe.

The point of this tangent is we should start rethinking air travel. None of this feels sustainable.

Climate change (and I’m not about to start debating the realness of climate change with the online trolls) is the real deal and over the next few years, I suspect the weather will continue to become more and more extreme. How will the airline industry cope?

Airlines have needed federal bailouts to prevent themselves from falling apart. That certainly doesn’t feel sustainable.

The cost providers (Allegiant, Frontier, Southwest) are still somehow providing bottom-barrel prices for travel. Book a full trip with one of them, and the flights seem like they’re comp’ed when you take into account the packaged flight and hotel. (I suppose that’s the same across the airlines, though.)

Then, you add on staffing issues, IT issues, and more, and the whole thing just feels iffy.

Here’s hoping that passengers make it safely to where they need to go, get compensated, and are reunited with their baggage.

In the meantime, maybe we should also consider funding rail transport and other means of cross-country travel that can rival air travel.

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