Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Northworst Airlines and Orbutts

I'm sitting in a hotel in Jacksonville, North Carolina, which borders the city of New Bern. Earlier this evening I stood in what I think was the flank of the Union army's force during the Battle of New Bern in 1862. It's hard to tell, as I was standing on the side of the road with a Travelodge and an Outback behind me and a highway off ramp in front of me. I think I found the remains of a Confederate earthwork beside the road; it looks like some sort of narrow water retention pond. There's precious little of the battlefield remaining. It wasn't a particularly well known battle. The Union grabbed a foothold in North Carolina because of it, but they were never really able to exploit it until 1864. By winning the battle, Union Bridagier General Ambrose Burnside was made Major General, resulting in a lacklustre performance at Antietam and a disasterous stint at Fredericksburg and Petersburg (though he did fight well in Tennessee). That's the battle's lasting legacy. Unfortunately, it is all but gone now...

I was beginning to wonder at one point whether or not I'd be getting here at all. My flight, on Northwest Airlines, was to leave at 11:37 am on Sunday. I was due to arrive in Memphis at 12:45 or so and then fly to Raleigh, NC a little less than an hour after that. Instead, I was still in the Monroe airport (after we got something to eat) at 6:00 pm.

The problem was a mechanical fault in a sensor. The sensor said that the air conditioning was overheating, a potentially dangerous situation since it could indicate more serious problems than just an air conditioning unit. They had to fly a mechanic down from Memphis to fix the problem. He showed up on the 4:30 flight.

I'm not peeved at the breakdown. Things happen. I'm peeved that the airline would not let me cancel the flight so that I could find an alternative route out here, even after someone said I could cancel.

The flight taxied out to the runway half an hour late due to weight balancing concerns. It was on the runway that the sensor kicked in and they brought us back to the airport. Alana and Logan had been watching the flight. They came back in and joined me.

After the flight was delayed, I asked at the counter if they had any alternative ways into Raleigh. There's a rule, I remember reading, that an airline has to find you a way to your destination in the case that they goofed. Unfortunately, because the Delta flights to Atlanta were all filled up when I booked the flight, I was flying into Memphis. Memphis shuts down early, so there were no other flights into Raleigh that night (and, as I mentioned, the Delta flights — into Atlanta — were filled). There weren't even connections from other airlines going more roundabout routes. I asked if I could cancel the flight, and the counter agent said yes. He gave me Northwest's customer disservice number.

The first time I called they said I could cancel. At this point I was still not sure what to do. I ended up calling our company president to discuss the situation. He found there were no extra flights available. I then called the number again. They were going to let me cancel, so I could drive instead, but they said I was still showing boarded. They couldn't cancel the ticket at that point. I would have to get the counter people to "take me off the flight". When I did that I called the number again. This time, after talking to a supervisor, I was told that they would not let me cancel. Or, I could cancel and use the ticket any time within the next 10 days, but they would not reimburse me. The reason they gave was because I had ordered through Orbitz, not through them.

(I tried to order through them, but they wouldn't let me. My new company credit card, after the old one expired, hadn't come in yet. Northwest won't let you order tickets online with someone else's card, so instead of phoning them I just went ahead and used Orbitz. It seemed the easiest thing to do.)

Oh, and it took a minimum 20 minutes per phone call! By the time the supervisor gave me the ultimatum, I was fast running out of time to drive and had no time to argue.

So, they couldn't get me to Raleigh on the day I needed to get there. The next flight was Monday morning at 8:35 am. I was going to lose an entire day of training the clients, and yet they still wouldn't let me find alternative transportation. If I had driven, I could have salvaged half a day. No dice. The apparent reason: I had made the mistake of buying the ticket through Orbitz.

Which brings me to the hotel room in New Bern. I missed my flight, so I couldn't stay at the hotel I had reserved (of course). I called to cancel for that night, only to find out that I couldn't cancel... because I had gone through Orbitz. (See a trend?)

I phoned up Orbitz and tried to get reimbursed for the day I missed. I'm not too worried about it, as I got a free hotel stay in Memphis and the client is paying. Still, the client is paying for a hotel that was better than the Clarion dump I stayed in, and since they were losing a day of training they could understandably want a break on the hotel. Still, I should have been able to cancel the hotel.

I phoned Orbitz Sunday night when I got to the Memphis hotel. I was transferred four times, talking to five different people, about the situation. They promised to e-mail me after their "specialist" reviewed the case, but I haven't seen an e-mail. No one would tell me one way or another if they were going to reimburse me for the room I didn't get a chance to stay in.

It was clear, however, that it would have been cancelled/reimbursed if I had ordered through Holiday Inn and not Orbitz.

I should also mention that due to web site problems I couldn't order the hotel room in Raleigh for Friday night. I purchased the rest of the trip, but afterward I couldn't order the Friday night stay.

As far as I can see, there's no good reason to order through Orbitz (or, I'm guessing, Travelocity or Expedia). All the hotels and airlines now have their own online ordering system. The prices are comparable. Since the hotels and airlines treat you as second class citizens if you order through travel web sites, there's a distinct disadvantage to going through travel sites. This is the first trip that had a problem, but it will change the way I book future trips.

As for Northwest, the second last time I flew with them they got me home 6 hours late. Out of all the flights I've taken on Northwest (16, with all the different connections) only three have left on time. The flight from Memphis to Raleigh got all the way to the runway, where it waited for final weight balancing numbers. Then they discovered the plane wasn't balanced and hauled it back to the jetway, where they threw on more weight. These are the first flights I've ever taken where balance was an issue.

I don't know if Northwest is pushing things too much or what. Why leave the jetway without the numbers? Because they were gambling that they wouldn't need to add weight. Why aren't they getting the numbers in time, though? Other airlines seem to manage. I just don't understand...

At any rate, I intend to avoid Northwest in the future if at all possible. I will also avoid Orbitz. This isn't about punishment. This is about avoiding hassles.

I'm due to land back in Monroe Saturday morning. Whether or not I get there on time remains to be seen...

For the record, I got to the client site at 4 pm. I worked until 7 Monday and Tuesday, and I think I've got them more-or-less caught up. I'll know better tomorrow.


Michael Skeet said...

Travel discounters like Orbitz buy huge blocks of hotel rooms (and presumably airline tickets, though I can't claim any knowledge on that score) up to a year in advance. Because they're guaranteed sales, the prices are lower. The downside is that hotel chains are distinctly ambivalent about this operators, and customers sometimes pay the price. If business is slow, the chains are happy to have the guaranteed sale. But if business is brisk, the chains resent having sold the room for a lower price than they could now charge. So they have no incentive to treat the customer nicely if that customer booked through the discounter.

Another issue is that individual hotels are often operated by franchisees, but the block sales are made by the chain's parent. Again, there's little incentive for the individual hotel operator to go out of her way to help a discounter's customer.

My practice whenever possible is to use the discount sites for research, but to book through the actual company whenever possible. It's saved my butt as recently as last weekend.

Brian said...

Wow! That boggles my mind. You'd think a hotel or airline would be more afraid of pissing off a bulk-buyer like Orbitz, not less. Well, lesson learned. Good luck on the rest of your trip.

Michael Skeet said...

Remember, the discounter has likely already been paid (many of these price deals require up-front payment), so a problem between the customer and the hotel isn't likely to have an immediate impact on the discounter. It's not likely to have an immediate impact on the hotel, which has also been paid. It's going to have an impact on... guess who? For every customer like Allan, there will be many customers who will go back to the discounter because the deals look so good.

Allan Goodall said...

I've learned my lesson, and won't be going through Orbitz and the like again. Instead, I will go through the actual airlines and the hotels directly.

I did make it home in one piece. My flight from Raleigh to Memphis was delayed by 10 minutes, which wasn't too bad. The flight from Memphis to Monroe left on time.

My boss told me that she had a major delay a couple of weeks ago with Delta. The impression is that delays are getting worse. I'm not sure why, other than perhaps the airlines are doing less maintenance on the aircraft, maintaining them only at FAA specified levels instead of doing any optional work. If I'm right, that's pretty scary. (Or it could be that they are just keeping older aircraft in service longer, which is also scary.)

Michael Skeet said...

I read somewhere, a few years ago, that the increase in delays was a function of the hub-and-spoke system so popular in the U.S. A problem in one part of the network cascades in a way and an intensity that doesn't happen in point-to-point systems. I don't fly often enough to have to deal with delays at all (and it helps that when I do fly I avoid really busy hubs).

Allan Goodall said...

I usually leave 2 hours between flights (after the delay getting home from South Dakota last year) for this reason. Unfortunately, flying out of Monroe you are stuck going to a major hub. Three airlines operate out of Monroe: Continental, Delta and Northwest. All three go to major hubs (Houston or Dallas, Atlanta, and Memphis, respectively). Memphis is probably the worst, since they shut down the airport early in the evening.

I have anecdotal evidence, though, that there are more delays with flights originating in Monroe or one leg out from Monroe. In other words, it's not a delay deep in the system that cascaded the problem, but a delay on the other end of a short hop.

A good example of this was my flight home from South Dakota. The aircraft flying me out of Aberdeen, SD was delayed, but because I got there early they put me on the earlier flight, so I got into Minneapolis early. My Minneapolis flight was delayed because of bad weather; there was nothing the airline could do about that. I was due in to Monroe at 4:30, but now I had to wait until the 7:00 pm flight. That flight was delayed due to air conditioning problems. They had to shift to a different aircraft and cool that one down. That could have been prevented.

Another issue this time out was "balancing the aircraft". The flight out from Monroe was initially delayed because it was full. All the seats were taken, which meant that they had to play around with the numbers to balance the aircraft properly. This procedure meant we were 20 minutes late taxiing to the runway. I've never had that happen before. Then, when flying from Memphis to Raleigh, we had to wait just shy of the runway for the "final weight numbers", only to find that there was an issue and that they had to take on more ballast. Off we went back to the jetway to get some dead weight.

This was the first time I encountered these balancing issues. Why isn't this built into the departure times? I'm guessing it's because the planes are now flying closer to the aircraft's capacity. In other words, they have cut flights and are cramming more people on the aircraft. Now they have weight balancing problems more often.

That's my guess, anyway.

Michael Skeet said...

You know, it's curious: I don't believe that Canada's weather is a whole lot less unpredictable or exuberant than that in the U.S. But I have never had a Canada-originating flight delayed for weather reasons. (Okay, once I think there was a 15-minute wait while a second round of de-icing was done; this is the Great White North, after all.) The only significant delay I've ever encountered in a flight in Canada involved a mechanical failure (in the a/c, as per one of your delays). So what's going on here? My own suspicion is that "weather" makes a convenient excuse to use when the other excuses have been over-used.

Of course, I could be wrong. It would be interesting to seem some stats on weather-related flight delays in Canada vs. the U.S.

Allan Goodall said...

I think the weather patterns are quite a bit different. There's a greater chance of thunderstorms because of the warmer air, particularly in the spring and fall. I remember the first summer I was down here where there were storms every night for two weeks. They only lasted a half an hour to an hour, but it was every night around 4 pm.

When I flew into Pearson three years ago, I was delayed in the aircraft, after it had landed, by 45 minutes because of lightning strikes near the airport. They wouldn't let us get out of the plane because we were having to walk down a set of stairs to the tarmac.

I think the difference is in the type of weather. Heavy snow causes delays, but light snow doesn't. Lightning is a serious problem, as are super cells and wind sheer. High wind isn't as big a problem as circulating wind. I'm no expert, but it wouldn't surprise me to hear that Canada's weather is just sufficiently different that it causes fewer delays.

Plus, as you implied, Canada doesn't have the hub system so a weather event in Vancouver is unlikely to cause major cascade problems for, say, Halifax.