GEORGE KENNEDY: Flight cancellations cause travelers to reconsider choices

Thursday, August 15, 2013 | 5:50 p.m. CDT; updated 11:29 p.m. CDT, Thursday, August 15, 2013

Heading to our nation’s capital for a long weekend with the grandsons, my wife and I decided to fly out of Englewood International. We hadn’t done that for quite a while, and the cost was about the same as from St. Louis.

Sure, there was a change of planes in Chicago, but we’ve switched there with no problem. We’d have plenty of time to make the connection both ways. A good-hearted friend even offered to drive us to the airport. What could possibly go wrong?

American Airlines provided the first clue to the answer when we left Columbia Regional an hour late. No explanation offered. The plane, one of those narrow ones made in Brazil and obviously designed for slender passengers, looked to be hard used. Still, we accepted our complimentary bottle of water gratefully and got to Chicago in time to walk briskly the mile or so to the next flight.

I didn’t even realize that none of my Journalism School colleagues, most of whom were bound for Washington to attend a conference, had joined us on our route. (One told me later that, after a couple of misadventures, she has decided the prudent course was a drive to either edge of the state. Sometimes, scholars really are smarter than the rest of us.)

In our case, it was the trip home that inclined us toward her conclusion.

We were booked, of course, to reverse the Columbia-Chicago-D.C. route. That was not to be. A recorded voice informed us that the flight to Chicago had been canceled. No explanation offered. Not to worry, the voice continued. You’ve been rebooked to Dallas. That’s the only other way station between Columbia and the world.

There was a series of those robot calls. The flight was delayed and delayed again. At least there was an explanation forthcoming: equipment problem. We realized after about the third delay that we’d have to sprint through the Dallas airport to have a chance to get home that night.

While we were at last in the air bound for Dallas, the drought there broke with a thunderstorm of such violence that the airport shut down. Our pilot announced that we didn’t have enough fuel to circle, so we headed for Austin. Now, I’ve always liked Austin; but there wasn’t much to like about three hours on the tarmac, nourished by my choice of a small bag of Goldfish crackers or potato chips. I went with the Goldfish.

We eventually reached Dallas. The Columbia flight was long gone, of course. And, adding injury to insult, by the time we found and then reached the only hotel with a vacant bed in the vicinity of the airport, the bar was closed.

When we arrived back at the airport the next morning, we learned that the mid-day flight to Columbia already had 54 people on standby. We switched destinations to St. Louis. A gate change provided opportunity for another hike. You’ll not be surprised to learn that this flight, too, was delayed. When at last the gate attendant allowed us to begin boarding, she told us we were bound for Kansas City. Informed of her error, she explained, “Well, they’re both in the same state.”

When my wife called to book us a ride home from St. Louis on MO-X and explained our problems with American, the guy told her, “We hear that a lot.”

The top story in the Dallas Morning News that morning was that the government was seeking to block a merger between American and US Airways. The argument was that decreased competition would lead to worse service and higher prices.

Our little adventure was a reminder of what you get with no competition.

I know it’s wise never to say never. Today, though, when it comes to flying American out of Columbia, that’s what we’re saying.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to take a few minutes to fill out the customer satisfaction questionnaire American just emailed me.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.


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