Friendly Skies

It was supposed to be a delightful trip — it could have been.

Traci planned to spend three days in Albuquerque. She was leaving blustery Chicago (which under normal circumstances is bitter cold this time of year) and looking forward to the mild Southwestern Christmas holiday – she knew pretty much what to expect since she was born and raised back there.

But – as so often happens – the dream is a far cry from the reality.

Traci probably should have expected that this would not be a normal trip. Seems every time she takes a major trip her experiences border on the bizarre. When she took her first train trip across country on Amtrack a number of years ago someone died on the train, then someone threw nails on the tracks and delayed the trip even longer.

This time she was flying. And the trip was to be an easy one.

First tip off that this would not be a normal jaunt, came when we compared the weather. We in Chicago were enjoying temperatures in the mid 40s and sunshine (Albuquerque weather). In Albuquerque, snow started falling yesterday and took on the look of a blizzard throughout the night – dumping snow on the city the likes of which are definitely not normal.  

"Mom, I have never seen snow like this. It's worse than the blizzard that trapped us in Grants when I was a kid. And, it's worse than anything I've seen in Chicago or anywhere else since then."

Albuquerque never has been well equipped for such weather. And, as might have been expected, the airport – and I-40 were shut down in short order. Airlines do deal with severe weather like this at O'Hare and other northern airports and you'd think since they travel in all sorts of locations, they would be prepared even here. But they can't be responsible for Albuquerque's airport which just wasn't able to handle the situation despite an apparent 24 or so hour advance warning.

Traci arrived at the airport well in advance of her departure time this morning — in accordance with United's instructions. But Albuquerque's Airport was having great difficulty clearing the runways. They canceled the flight to Denver (not surprising since Denver had already been snowed in for some time and was reeling under the weight of blizzard conditions). In fairness the Albuquerque Airport did try to open the runway and – right up until just before the flight to Chicago was due to take off – they kept reporting at 10-15 minute intervals that they were working to get ready for takeoff.

Then it happened. The flight to Chicago was canceled. A hundred or so people were stranded.

Now, anyone who has not been in Albuquerque in a snowstorm needs to understand. Snow is crippling there. It shuts everyone down – travel comes to a dead stop. But, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines (two of the major airlines that handle Albuquerque-Chicago traffic) both deal with weather a whole lot worse than this. And, the City had a good 24-hours to prepare — but they just didn't seem able to get their snow plows out and on the job in time to stay up with the onslaught.

Ok, ok weather happens. And, granted, winter is not exactly the best time of year to travel. But, then the bizarre kicked in.

While my daughter was standing in line with more than 100 other people desperate for solutions, getting luggage and looking for alternatives, I called United. The agent graciously put her on flight 7553 scheduled to leave at 1:15pm…plenty of time to get runways cleared…

The agent couldn't call Traci on her cell phone, so I called and got her all lined up then called United back to confirm. Everything was set.

It was, wasn’t it? First the flight never appeared on United's website…and it never appeared on United's recorded updates.  I called and talked to another agent in person. The agent confirmed that the flight was "real" and that it was on time. I assured Traci and she continued standing in line. Throughout the next two hours as she stood in line, we talked back and forth. I called United three times more….each time I was told in no uncertain terms that the flight was set – she would not be displaced – it was on time. Meanwhile, rumors were flying, "The soonest you're going to get out of here [Albuquerque] is January 2nd."

Well, there's not much a person can do except hope that someone will tell the truth…but that rarely happens….and no one certainly is going to stand up and say "the buck stops here".  So you try to find out what you can.

Here's the official website report on Albuquerque weather while all this is going on:

Saturday 30 Dec   Rest Of Today. Numerous snow showers. New snow accumulation 2 to 4 inches with locally higher amounts. Highs in the upper 20s to mid 30s. Northwest winds 10 to 15 mph. Tonight. Mostly cloudy with scattered snow showers in the evening…then partly cloudy with isolated snow showers after midnight. Colder. New snow accumulation 1 to 2 inches. Lows 11 to 22. Northwest winds 10 to 15 mph.

Hmmm…. Checking several weather websites revealed little more. In fact, Albuquerque’s snow seems to be the biggest secret of the moment. Reports indicated clearly that Albuquerque was enjoying balmy weather and the storm was well east of the city.

The third time I called United, I asked to have a manager confirm the status of Flight 7553. There was no question about the flight. The manager confirmed that:

1. the flight is set

2. the flight is on time

3. Traci is confirmed to be on that flight

Then, it hit. Traci called me. "Mom, the ticket agent told me there's no such flight. When I told him that you had firm confirmation — he said 'I know.'"

It seems Traci wasn't the only one who was led to believe that there would be a way to get home…and who discovered that, instead, they would have to figure out how to spend the night in the city because they aren't going anywhere anytime soon. The hotels are booked there's no way to check in for another 3-4 hours and there probably won't be much chance of getting settled comfortably this night.

By the middle of the afternoon a friend managed to get Traci into a motel – she spent her money for a cab to get to it. Now she's traipsing out in the snow in her tennies looking for an ATM so she will have money to get back to the airport tomorrow morning — so she can "try" to get on a flight home on standby….and maybe – if she can't get on standby she will have a flight that isn't canceled tomorrow mid-morning. But, then, 7553 wasn’t supposed to be canceled either….

There's no human being short of agents outside of the US (they tell me they’re in Manilla) to discuss issues. Try as they might – they have no clue what it is to deal with Albuquerque snow or try to resolve travel issues in the US. The Albuquerque Airport says United is not taking calls there. Chicago O'Hare airport is unable to direct callers trying to reach a US United representative to an appropriate number.

I have a list of 11 phone numbers all call centers of one kind or another, most are recorded messages or simply unanswered. None of them give me access to a real person at United to discuss the mishandling of this situation or explain how the phantom flight 7553 mysteriously got canceled. Or the possibility of getting my daughter back to Chicago before the New Year.

It's clear that Albuquerque's airport has been brought to its knees. This isn't the first time snow has played havoc with travel in Albuquerque. Anyone who lays blame on United for that is a fool. Most all of the airlines are canceled — and the roads are closed. United cannot be accountable for acts of God.

It is a shame, though, that

  1. the official weather and United websites all have been guilty of giving incomplete and woefully out of date information (not one of them indicated the severity of the situation in Albuquerque);
  2. the websites and call centers in Manilla appear to be the travelers' sole source of information outside of whatever is barked over the loudspeaker at the airport in attempt to minimize the mounting anger and frustration endured by hungry, tired stranded travelers;
  3. When the chips are down, the traveler had better be prepared to tough it just like their ancestors in the wild and wooly west.

We all know S[tuff] happens. And I wouldn't raise cain except that this is yet another example of the upside-down and backwards business climate here in the US. It's yet one more example of the corporate monster being inaccessible and unavailable while their customers try to manage like so many cattle, to do the best they can. Customers, after all, exist for the well-being of the company contrary to the old-time tradition of companies existing to serve the needs of their customers.

There was a time when it wasn't "every man for himself" — when a person could go to the service provider and find a resolution to a difficult situation that is nobody's fault but still needs to be dealt with. There was a time when people weren't left stranded to fend for themselves as best they could in a strange place.

At the moment, though, it looks like those rumors that were flying earlier this morning may be true. Traci may indeed not make it home until January 2nd.  

Why even mention all this? I thought it might be of interest to anyone who's thinking of traveling during the winter?  A word of caution — allow plenty of time to arrive at your destination?  A suggestion that Spring isn't that far away – and it’s much easier to travel then? 

Nope. Just a reminder that S[tuff] happens. And even in the 21st century, travelers need to be reminded … Flying the Friendly Skies… You travel at your own risk.    

Author: 7577JMM

Retired - Published Author, Editor, Webmistress, Artist, Musician