No. of Recommendations: 6

On Monday of this week, I flew from New York to Chicago to Dallas (on ATA) to Tulsa (on American). On Wednesday, I flew from Oklahoma City to Phoenix on Southwest. And on Thursday, I flew home from Phoenix to Philadelphia to New York on US Airways. In addition, I had booked a ticket on American from Oklahoma City to St. Louis to New York that I didn't end up using.

Since I was writing my column all week on JetBlue's customer service, I was taking careful notes on how the other airlines did. Here are my notes and observations:

1) Monday, ATA, LaGuardia to Midway to Dallas/Ft. Worth

I had originally planned to get to Tulsa by flying on American from LaGuardia through St. Louis, but I wasn't ready to book on Saturday, when the fare was $357, and when I went to book the next day, the fare had nearly doubled to over $700. How frustrating! So, I was forced to book on ATA through Midway to Dallas (for $267), and then book a separate flight from Dallas to Tulsa (for $98.50 on American). The price to Tulsa ended up being roughly the same, but I had to make two connections rather than one, which ended up being costly.

On Monday morning, I had a 6:15am flight from LaGuardia to Midway. It was delayed on the runway at LaGuardia by 45 minutes due to weather, so by the time I got off the flight in Chicago, I only had a few minutes to catch my connecting flight. The gate was at the other end of the airport (of course), so it was a long sprint. Sweating and breathless, I arrived at the gate, only to discover that the flight was delayed by nearly three hours (until 11am) because, I was told, the airplane had gotten stuck in Philadelphia the night before due to inclement weather.

ATA's Mistake #1: When the flight attendant on the inbound flight read the connecting gates as we prepared to land, he didn't say anything about a delay -- he just said, "Flight 233 to Dallas/Ft. Worth, gate B26." Why didn't he say, "For those of you connecting to Dallas/Ft. Worth, you'll be departing from gate B26, but don't run since the flight is delayed."?

Mistake #2: When I arrived at the departure gate and learned of the delay, I asked the agent if there were any earlier flights I could try to get on. She said there was one at 10:30am, BUT DIDN'T OFFER TO PUT ME ON THE STAND-BY LIST (which I later discovered she could have done), so by the time I got on the list, I was #16. Guess how many people from the stand-by list made the 10:30 flight? (Hint: it's the average of 10 and 20. Grrrr!)

Mistake #3: "Oh well," I thought to myself, "at least the flight I'm booked on leaves in half an hour." NOT! Upon returning to the original gate, I learned that the incoming flight from Philadelphia was delayed even more (apparently by bad weather) and I didn't depart Chicago until nearly 2pm, missing all of my meetings in Dallas.

Mistake #4: I was given three different reasons for the delay, which made me wonder whether I was being told the truth. I later found out that the crew had "timed out," meaning that they had flown so many hours in a certain period of time that FAA regulations prevented them from flying until later Monday morning -- this explained the first three hours of delay, and then weather explained the rest.

My question is: Since ATA knew the night before that the crew problem would cause the plane be three hours late, why didn't it find a replacement crew or bring a spare aircraft into service? I don't know for certain, but I have a strong feeling that if JetBlue were faced with a similar situation, there would have been little or no delay.

To its credit, when we finally arrived in Dallas, ATA handed everyone a card with a sincere apology and a $50 voucher for another flight (along with a $10 food credit), but it was small consolation for such a long, needless (in my opinion) delay.

[My friend had an even worse experience on ATA later the same day. He was coming to Tulsa through Chicago and Dallas as well, but was departing LaGuardia at 6:50pm. Here's his story, as told to me:

"When I got to the airport, I learned that Midway was closed down due to weather and other airlines were canceling their flights, but ATA wanted to be ready to depart if Midway opened up, so they boarded us on the plane, we taxied a few feet away from the gate and sat and sat and sat.

"Two hours went by and I knew that I wouldn't make my connecting flight to Dallas, which meant I wouldn't get to Tulsa in time for our meeting, so I just wanted to get off the plane, go home, and skip the entire trip. So, I told a flight attendant that I wanted the plane to go back to the gate so I could get off. She said that wasn't possible, so I calmly asked what my legal rights were to demand to get off. She said, 'If you're threatening me or this airline, I'll have the FBI arrest you at the gate when you get off.'

"I calmly told her I wasn't threatening anyone and very nicely and politely told her that I merely wanted to get off the plane and, if I wasn't let off, would have my lawyer look into this matter the next day.

"Then, apparently realizing my rights, changed their tune and said, 'C'mon, be a good sport. Don't make us go back to the gate because then everyone else will want to get off and if we get clearance to fly, we won't be ready.' I said, 'I'm sorry, but I want to get off and I want you to take me back to the gate.' So they did.

"Then, they tried to keep everyone in the gate area by threatening that anyone who left wouldn't get a credit for the flight. I ignored this threat and went home. I later learned that the flight eventually left at around 2am and arrived in Midway around 4am."

Incidentally, to ATA's credit, they gave him a full refund.]

2) Monday, American, Dallas/Ft. Worth to Tulsa

I had no problems on this brief flight. The ticket was only $98.50, despite the fact that I booked it only one day in advance. The reason? Southwest flies this route out of Dallas's Love Field for the same price. Lesson: the majors will gouge you unless faced with competition from a discount carrier.

3) Wednesday, Southwest, Oklahoma City to Phoenix

Southwest had the only nonstop flight I could find on this route and, since I only booked two days in advance, I paid a hefty $269. But other airlines' fares were just as high and required a layover, so I was actually pleased to have found the Southwest flight.

The plane was full and, since I boarded late and there was no assigned seating, I had to take a middle seat near the back. Also, to my great annoyance, I had to check my bag since the overhead compartments were full, which meant that I had to wait at baggage claim in Phoenix. There were multiple carousels, each with a sign above it displaying the flights it was serving. For some reason, none showed my flight, which was causing me increasing stress as time passed. Fortunately, I recognized someone from my flight pulling his bag off one of the carousels, where I found my bag as well. But the sign still didn't show my flight, so I suspect that many of my fellow passengers ended up sitting in the crowded baggage claim area for quite some time, confused and frustrated, not realizing that their luggage was on one of the carousels.

4) Wednesday, American, Oklahoma City to LaGuardia via St. Louis

I wasn't sure whether I was going to Phoenix last week, so I booked a flight home from Oklahoma City for $355, figuring that if I waited the price might double suddenly and that if I didn't end up using the ticket, I would have one year to apply the credit (minus the $100 fee) to another flight.

When I called American on Wednesday to let them know that I wouldn't be taking the flight, the agent told me that the St. Louis - LaGuardia leg was nonrefundable, making the entire ticket nonrefundable, and that I would lose the entire $355 unless I rebooked another flight by midnight. What a nasty surprise! (Fortunately, I had not yet booked my flights for a trip in October, so I was able to use the credit.)

Incidentally, my friend, who was also booked on the flight and couldn't take it, was able to persuade American to give him a full refund. Go figure…

5) Thursday, US Airways, Phoenix to LaGuardia via Philadelphia.

The first leg of this trip went smoothly, but the second leg was delayed about 20 minutes because we were waiting for a few passengers coming from a late flight from Santo Domingo. Such delays are typical for hub-and-spoke operations.

Two additional observations:

a) Shortly after take-off, the flight attendant announced that in lieu of serving a meal, she would be coming through the aisle selling two types of what looked to be a tasty sandwich and chips meal by Einstein's for $10. I don't have any objection to US Airways's meal experiment, but suspect that they would be better off simply copying what JetBlue does.

b) As I went to book my one-way flight from Phoenix to New York with only two days notice, I feared that I might face very high fares and/or awful connections. On, I found two nonstops for $417 and an assortment of one-stop flights in the $250 range -- and one fare that seemed too good to be true: $107 on US Airways -- PLUS it was the fastest connecting flight. I checked US Airways's web site to see if the fare was indeed correct and it was priced at $169, so I quickly proceeded with booking it on Orbitz, fearing that when I went to confirm the purchase, it would say something like "We're sorry, but that fare is no longer available." To my surprise, the booking went through.

To me, this just underscores how crazy the major carriers' pricing schemes are: usually, they charge wildly high prices, which sends passengers to the discount carriers (such as when American doubled the New York - Tulsa fare on me, forcing me to take ATA), but sometimes they charge foolishly low fares to customers who would have paid much more.

Overall, I think my experience was quite typical in terms of pricing, problems, delays, erratic service, etc., which speaks volumes about how much improvement is necessary in the airline industry -- and how far JetBlue is ahead of the pack.
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