By Scott Robertson
It could have been a nightmare.
If you didn’t hear about it last week, you missed the fact that one of American Airlines’ carriers, PSA, had a massive computer failure. Over five-plus days, 2,700 flights were cancelled. Charlotte, N.C. reportedly ran out of rental cars. Hotels were full. The airport concourses were what I referred to as, “angry people soup.” There, in the middle of it all, hoping to get to a better place (a low bar to clear at that point) stood I.
It was Wednesday afternoon and I was listening to a business traveler from Chattanooga tell me of his experience. The previous Thursday he had been in Charlotte, trying to get home. He ended up having to get a rental car to drive the five-plus hours to Chattanooga. The next day, he had another flight with a connection in Charlotte. It was cancelled, so he flew out on another airline. Sunday night, as he was supposed to have another flight connecting through Charlotte, he got an email alert just after midnight saying his flight was cancelled. The airline put him on a flight out of Knoxville instead, so he drove to Knoxville instead of sleeping. The Knoxville flight was delayed five times. He booked another flight on another airline to another city and rented another car to get where he needed to go.
As he was telling me all this, we were interrupted by a call from our gate telling us, “We are currently waiting for our crew members. Once they arrive we will begin the boarding process.” The business traveler scoffed and said, “That’s the exact same thing they said last Thursday night.”
My own misadventure proved shorter, but no less complicated. I had arrived at Tri-Cities Airport aware of the problems PSA was having. I was told at the check-in counter it was a crap-shoot as to whether my connector flight from Charlotte to Arkansas would actually leave. Mine was a PSA flight, and most of those were being cancelled. So, I agreed to take a non-PSA American flight to Oklahoma instead. I’d just have to check in with customer service in Charlotte to get my rental car taken care of.
When I arrived in Charlotte, I was told that my original flight was still listed as departing on time, but that there was another flight to Arkansas leaving 45 minutes earlier, and seats were available. So, I abandoned the Tulsa route for the most promising option yet. After having my enlightening interview with the Chattanooga-based business traveler, I boarded that flight.
We pushed away from the gate and stopped on the tarmac. And there we stayed.
An indicator light had alerted the flight crew to a maintenance issue, the captain told us, so we would just sit and wait for the maintenance crew to come to where we were and, “make what should be a very quick fix.”
You may have heard the saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him all about your plans.” When God heard the pilot tell us we should have a very quick fix, I’m sure I heard God chuckle.
The sky opened to a sudden thunderstorm. We watched the truck that had been heading toward our plane from the terminal turn around. Once the rain stopped, the captain told us that it would be at least 15 minutes after the last lightning strike before the maintenance crew could approach the plane.
I tell you all of this misfortune to set up a lovely denouement.
As we “celebrated” the one-hour mark of waiting on the tarmac, I mentioned to a flight attendant that I had a bit of a headache. I inquired as to whether any tablets for such might be available. I was told that it was against regulations for such distribution to be made, but if I could be patient a few minutes, something might be arranged.
Within 10 minutes, the crew began serving pretzels and drinks, there on the tarmac. When the flight attendant reached me, I received not only a package of pretzels, but also a napkin. My napkin, unlike those being handed to other passengers, was folded. Tucked inside the fold were four ibuprofen tablets. The flight attendant smiled for a half-second and moved on to the next passenger.
Once the maintenance team arrived, they proved the captain right, making what was indeed a very quick fix. When the plane finally began to taxi, a small boy who had been blessedly quiet through the whole experience shouted, “Yaaaaaaaaaaah!” Most of the passengers laughed appreciatively. That boy was all of us. The flight attendant may have laughed loudest.
It dawned on me at that moment that amid all the chaos, all the disgruntlement and disappointment of the day, not one airline employee that day had been anything less than professional. Several had performed their duties with empathy and even, in the case of this flight attendant, grace. Think about that. They’d been dealing with extraordinarily unhappy people for almost a week. You’d think by this time their own veneer would be cracking. Yet they seemed to be doubling down on handling their own part of the business the right way.
My flight landed in Arkansas after the “crap-shoot” flight on which I had first been booked, ironically. In fact, the flight I was on had been delayed for more than eight hours from its scheduled departure time. Yet I felt buoyed by the experience. None of us had any control over our circumstances. But the rank-and-file employees I dealt with each made the choice to control their own behavior and to rise above those circumstances. Had my flight been on time, I would have missed the opportunity to be inspired by those choices.
Years from now, I could remember last Wednesday as the day in which I encountered thousands of unhappy travelers, or as the day I wondered how a computer problem couldn’t be fixed in a week, or as the day I sat on the tarmac for more than an hour as a thunderstorm and a headache both raged. Instead, I will remember it as the day I realized how any situation can be made better by people who choose to act in a first-class manner.