(This is my copy of a slightly-edited version of my column, "Are airlines suffering from terminal chaos?" first published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch's Commentary page Sunday, Aug. 13, 2023)
After standing overnight for 11 straight hours in an interminably long line at United Airlines’ Terminal B in Denver, my wife and I had ample time to ponder the underlying causes of America’s ailing air transport system. But all we really wanted was to get back home to Richmond – a sleep-deprived journey that wound up taking more than three days stuck in or around Denver International Airport (cancellations there appear to be so commonplace that Coleman camping cots were available near the gates and upstairs seating).
Like thousands of other traumatized travelers in late June – whose ranks stretched from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Chicago’s O’Hare to our own group of Colorado travel hostages -- we suffered more than our share of physical and mental trauma due to United’s ham-handed response to weather-related flight cancellations.
Yet, with the likelihood of extreme weather leading to more air-travel meltdowns, there’s probably no point in crying over spilt Ibuprofen. Instead, I’d like to offer some lessons for fellow travelers and constructive suggestions for policymakers, including President Biden.
First, I should note one high-profile exec who managed to avoid the seemingly endless lines and sore feet of summer: United CEO Scott Kirby. In late June, he reportedly took a private jet from Newark out to Denver to see what all the fuss was about. Kirby, whose total 2022 compensation reportedly topped $10 million in 2022, later apologized, calling his privileged behavior “insensitive to our customers who were waiting to get home.”
You can say that again, Mr. Kirby – and you probably will—until United and all major airlines quit treating such systemic chaos as rare, one-time events.
Of course, it didn’t help the collective morale in our all-night forced march to an understaffed “customer service” desk (two reps for a rotating line that was at least 150 yards long) when a United rep announced after sunrise, “If you are a 1K member, you can go through this line.”
In other words, after a night of shared suffering, the airline gave preferred customers first-class treatment (with special agents in two lines) while the rest of us were left to shuffle in silence. (Full confession: I started booing, but my wife shushed me up.)
I could share many other dark tales from the travel crypt, starting with the panic attack I witnessed on UA Flight 757 from Denver to Washington-Dulles International Airport when the plane’s air-conditioning faltered and the cabin temperature climbed.
“I’ve taken all of my medications!” a young woman cried. “I must get off – now!”
Then there was the courageous woman with a leg injury who held onto a wheelchair as a United employee tried to yank it away.
But what would be the point? Maybe you’ve seen worse or even saw us on CNN ( “It’s never good when you’re on CNN,” my son wryly noted).
Instead, allow me to offer some possible solutions to this serious problem that’s bound to get worse, especially during holiday travel:
Look – as Biden might say – I don’t expect a complete overhaul of our troubled aviation system -- especially when United can tout earnings of $1 billion during the second quarter of this year despite cancelling flights like ours. According to the Associated Press, we were hardly alone: 3,800 flights were scrubbed during the last two weeks of June.
Still, in an industry that prides itself on safety and preparation, why not prepare for what’s becoming the new normal? Unless United and its peers become more proactive, you can expect to endure a post-modern version of Dante’s inscription, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
Only instead of entering the gates of hell, you’ll find yourself in something far worse: a “customer service” line that seems to stretch into eternity.
Chip Jones is a former Richmond Times-Dispatch business reporter who covered airports and airlines. He’s the author of four works of historical nonfiction, including his latest work, “The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South.” He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chip Jones is an award-winning author, journalist and former communications director of the Richmond Academy of Medicine. The Organ Thieves is his fourth book.