Testing Times With A Favourite Airline – Hubert Williams

Testing  Times  With A  Favourite  Airline

By  Hubert  Williams

Boston, Massachusetts — More than half a century ago, the then Editor of the “Guiana Graphic” newspaper, Alfred H. Thorne, uniquely used the likely unreliability of a trusted riverboat to determine the fate of a reporter who had committed a serious error in an article published that day.

Mr. Thorne, a demonstrably loyal subject of the British Empire, was a great admirer of the then young monarch Elizabeth 11 and the Royal Family. He was therefore livid when his newspaper, most popular in the colony of British Guiana, published a complimentary report on the Queen’s younger sister, but said “Her Majesty Princess Margaret” (it should have been Her Royal Highness).

So far as Mr. Thorne was concerned, heads would roll that day: those of the reporter who wrote the text, and the senior staffer who edited it, applied a headline, and positioned the story on a page for publication.  

A taxi was sent to the home of the sub-editor (who having worked the previous night was still asleep) to transport him to the office where he was fired. The reporter sought to plead a case in his defence, arguing that he had been with the company for many years and this royal gaffe was his first serious error.

Now, “Mr. X”, said Mr. Thorne… You live on the west bank of the Demerara River and have been constantly using the ferryboat MV “Queriman” to cross the river into Georgetown…Have you not?… “Yes, Sir”… If one day the ferryboat were to go down with you in it, would you still consider it a good ship…? And the reporter sealed his fate by replying “No, Sir”.

These recollections are prompted by my own recent experiences, in rapid succession, with my long preferred airline for international travel: now I am faced with a Mr. Thornean quandary of whether I should still consider American Airlines my airship of first choice.

I had long “partnered” with AA and have logged more than 300,000 air miles on its aircraft, but recently, in three consecutive long journeys out of Boston, each was memorable for the drama it provided.

The first, November 9, 2010, to Barbados for a 70th birthday and first-hand look at damage by tropical storm Tomas; the second, January 14, 2011, again to Barbados with family members going to a wedding; the third March 24, 2011, to England for an 80th birthday.

Some details are being provided of each, which extends the recollection into a long tale.
The first began 16:30 hours November 9 at Logan Airport when I challenged the check-in clerk’s charge of $60 for my two suitcases. AA argued that the Logan-to-La Guardia segment was ‘domestic’ (hence the charges) and the JFK-to-Barbados segment  ‘international’ with two free checked bags.

My case was that I ‘booked’ Boston-Barbados, would have preferred not to overnight in New York… that my doing so was a convenience for the airline which had no direct Boston-Barbados flight. I then demanded AA pick up my double taxi fares (La Guardia to accommodation and next morning accommodation to JFK) and hotel charges. The matter reached supervisory level, and the $60 was refunded.

That was just the beginning. With Eagle Flight 4505 boarded and ready to depart, the cockpit announced we were No. 53 in line for take-off. We left 90 minutes behind schedule.

Next morning, though the highway was not congested, I reached AA’s check-in counter at JFK 70 minutes before Flight 1385 was scheduled to leave for Barbados. The flight had already closed and stand-bys accepted.

The options AA presented were (1) Overnight again and take tomorrow’s direct 1385 to Barbados, incurring an additional $150; (2) take today’s flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico, departing at 13:59 and connecting with one leaving for Barbados at 19:55 – for an additional $50. I chose (2), though I would have much preferred had I not had to pay anything.

Precious time was wasted just waiting at Gate B39…part of it within the covers of the current Time and Newsweek magazines. At 12:30 I stood, stretched and looked across the broad expanse of this huge facility – at planes arriving and taking off. Our aircraft was already at B39, the rotor blades of the left engine moving gently, those of the right motionless. I noted this to another passenger, but then felt I might be creating some concern over nothing, I immediately remarked that engine action or lack of it would surely have been by the crew’s choice.

Boarding was begun at 13:27. With all carry-ons stacked, overhead bins closed and passengers settled and belted in their seats, the flight appeared ready to depart at 13:59, as scheduled.

Then came the captain’s announcement: the left engine had started, but the right would not. I had noticed that prior to boarding without realizing there was a problem, and so I wondered how come the captain was only now making the discovery.

The announcement said the appropriate personnel would  make checks, identify the problem, and effect repairs. Passengers were not required to disembark. Two-and-a-half hours later, the captain announced repairs completed and their adequacy verified by the competent authorities, but that in consequence of fuel burned during testing there was need for an additional 100 gallons.

The flight departed JFK 16:22. My immediate concern was whether the 19:55 San Juan flight to Barbados would be delayed in accommodation of the late departure from JFK. It was not, and I spent the night on the island. Fortunately, the Luis Munoz Marin Airport has the most conveniently located hotel of anywhere I’ve ever visited (a brief walk from airport check-in counter to hotel check-in desk) and I stayed the night, compliments AA.

The next day was Thursday 11th… I was to attend an event on Friday 12th… AA could not provide me a seat into Barbados until the Sunday (November 14th). It offered the option of going to Miami then onto another AA flight directly to Barbados, which I accepted.

For the second, on January 14, I was out of Boston early on the Eagle’s Embraer, which offers about the smoothest ride among small  jets, to connect with AA1385 out of JFK to Barbados, on which my daughter, husband and their small son were also traveling.
About 90 minutes into the flight came an urgent inquiry: Is there a doctor on board? My daughter and another female doctor responded and attended a female passenger in the rear of the aircraft who was showing symptoms of a heart attack. The flight diverted to Bermuda.

Emergency personnel were awaiting our arrival at Hamilton, boarded immediately, prepared the patient for gentle disembarkation, and rushed her off to hospital.
However, flight resumption was not immediate. Fuel used during the diversion had to be restored; and the refueling operation took time and extreme care, as passengers remained aboard throughout.

Once resumed, the flight was uneventful, though two hours late into Barbados.
The airline sent written appreciation of the participation of the two doctors and awarded them ‘frequent flyer’ miles.

In the third episode, on March 24, 2011, I was on AA Flight 108 from Logan to Heathrow in London. After a few gate changes, passengers began boarding the Boeing 767-300 aircraft on schedule at 18:35.

I was comfortably seated, belted up, with carry-on overhead. A number of other passengers had also come aboard and were similarly settled.
A stewardess then approached me and said what some of the other passengers had already been told. “Sorry Sir, there has been a slight delay and the flight will now depart at 19:40 instead of 19:15. You will have to disembark.”

Before going through the door I inquired of the cockpit team the reason for the delay. It was explained that with excellent flying conditions forecast, the flight would arrive at Heathrow 40 minutes ahead of schedule (about 05:20). That would create a problem because Heathrow Airport was enforcing a curfew on landings before 06:00.

Thus, our flight, should it depart as scheduled, would have to go into a 40-minute holding pattern over London until cleared to land – a considerable fuel waste.

I asked whether AA was not aware of these matters before the passengers were invited to board, and got a smile as my response.
Those who had boarded and were then ‘invited out’ resumed our seats at Gate 31 to await further call. When eventually it came at 19:07, the process was continued to completion and Flight 108 headed out over the Atlantic to the northeast of Boston.

After only 20 minutes of the intended 6 hours 31 minute flight, Captain Larry Booz announced there was a problem: Of the three altimeters in the cockpit, the captain’s was malfunctioning. Under federal aviation regulations, all three altimeters (the captain’s and the two co-pilots’) must be operational and functional.

Flight 108, which had already attained its cruising altitude of 36,000 feet, would be returning to Logan. In about 30 minutes we were back at the gate.
The faulty altimeter was replaced with a new one. The operation was completed and the new equipment tested by 21:20. Then there was the operation to restore fuel utilized by the 50-minute turnaround in the aborted flight.

However, as passengers settled in for resumption, there came another announcement: A woman passenger had decided that the whole episode was a bad sign for her. She did not wish to continue on Flight 108 and asked to disembark. Following her removal, a further 30 minutes went by before her checked luggage was located and taken off the aircraft.

And as I sat there I marveled at the marked differences in people’s perception:  Here she was in the care of a captain who had proved his competence, who had weighed options and decided not to take chances, who had put the safety of his ship before schedule, and who would ensure the safe delivery of his passengers to their destination.

Yet she was getting out and opting to travel on some other flight, with some other captain of whom she knew nothing and who would yet have to prove himself to her.
It really does seem that for some people safety and security are always assured somewhere else.

Flight 108 finally left Gate 31 at 21:57, nearly five hours after I first arrived at the airport, and it took off at 22:15; with the best aircraft dinner I have had in a long while being served shortly thereafter.

As forecast, it was an exceptionally smooth flight to London where I had a great two-week visit and returned to Boston via AA on April 7; and was surprised sometime afterwards to receive an AA expression of regret for the inconvenience occasioned and a compensatory 3,000 Advantage Award miles… although it does seem that three times in a row should have required something much more substantial.

Now to return to the thinking of Mr. Thorne, and the question is:   After all these experiences occurring in a virtual flood, should AA still be considered my carrier of first choice?

And the answer:    I believe that if I were to consult the ghost of one long departed, Mr. Thorne’s counsel would be that despite the hiccups and the delays, AA always got you there safely; and he would add that as you yourself would have said to the woman who departed Flight 108 – STICK WITH WHAT YOU KNOW.
====  ENDIT  ====

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  • Hubert Hintzen  On May 17, 2012 at 3:42 am

    Mr.Hubert Williams, it has been some time that I have been able to read such a story. Your logic presents old style Guyanese education and was indeed very enjoyable. As for Your Mr. Thorne, I had the pleasure of meeting him once, and since he qhickly dispatched me to a junior to handle my business, my discussion with him lasted about one minute (he seemed, if I remember correctly in a bit of a dither). I pray that you do not have anymore experiences with AA. Maybe you should try Virgin into Gatwick next trip to London. They are my preferred line, but I also fly U.S. Air. I like you did have a few experiences one example was returning to the US from London, we got to Kennedy about 4.00 pm, flew around in circle for two hours, went to Connecticut to refuel, and rejoined the flying circus, eventually landing about 8.30 pm, joined a line od waiting aircraft, eventually disembarking around 10.15 pm. To top all that off, when we collected our suitcases, mine had bee ripped open, rewrapped with tape (guess that was to prevent loss of contents). Needless to say neither British Airways, Kennedy Airport or Heathrow Airport would assume responsibility for the damage and I was left holding one damaged suitcase. I never flew with British Airways again, nor have I used Heathrow or Kennedy. For me now it is Newark International to Gatwick, then train into Paris or on to Amsterdam.

  • Cyril Balkaran  On May 17, 2012 at 6:55 am

    Globe trotting might not be the desired objective of any one who has a hectic travel by air itinerary. Today the airlines and the airports are in a mess. Can you imagine that the global airspace at anyone time or day has over 50,000 jets making their ways to the final destination!The other day it was boasted that the Anglo french Concord and Superjumbos took only one hour flight time from Heathrow to Brazil.But guess what you lost more that 3to4 hours at the ground level going through the different clearances that were meant to fly us safely to our final destination.I don’t know when there will ever be baggage free flights or Security free check flights in the future! One understands the greater implications of lost time in waiting for take off and landing rights. The spent aviation fuel and depleted OZONE layer are the hidden costs to our civilization and their expanding world population. Its somewhere close to 9billion souls inhabiting this planet we call home. The Airlines that put safety first and that has a proven track record is always the prefered airlines that will make my day. We can never be too sure when these records can change. Let’s enjoy the things we are sure of in these days of uncertainity. Air travel is certainly not my Hobby. Have a good and great day folks. Continue the interaction and my regards to our Editor, Cyril Byran.

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