Tuesday, February 28, 2012

up in the air

I think it's generally good to accept fault where fault is due (or is most probably due), but--and I don't use this phrase very often--this wasn't my fault.

On Monday I flew into Boston to give a talk at the Wellesley College Hippocratic Society's Annual "Women in Medicine" lecture. The talk went wonderfully, and thank you so much to those lovely ladies (and all those departments!) for hosting, it was truly such a humbling honor to be back giving a talk in the same tiered lecture hall where, once upon a time, long ago, I sat there pretending to understand Organic Chemistry. I would have liked to have spent more time on campus--and my original intent was, indeed, to get to campus well before noon, so I would have the afternoon to walk around, visit old haunts, take pictures, and visit the bookstore for loot (I have my fair share of Wellesley outfitting, but I wanted to get some sweatshirts or whatnot for the kids, because I think there is probably nothing as cute as seeing little boys dressed in Wellesley gear), but as it was I didn't arrive on campus until less than an hour before the event began, and here's why: I missed my plane.

OK, so that sounds bad, like I overslept or something, but listen! Here's what actually happened! Let me say first that I am a historically neurotic traveller. When they say get to the airport two hours before your domestic flight, I get to the damn airport two hours beforehand--I like to think of it as leaving enough buffer time for two disasters. (I'm very "worst case scenario" in that way. Typical anesthesiologist.) It was a little busy at Hartsfield Intergalactic Monday morning (lots of business travelers, I guess) but I got my boarding pass at the kiosk and the security line moved through quickly enough so that I still arrived at my gate more than an hour before departure.

When they started boarding the plane, I moved to the front near the desk and waited for them to call my zone. First they boarded First Class. Then Zone 1. Then Zone 2. Then (wait for it) Zone 3. There were still a lot of people standing around--I assumed for Zone 4 (my zone) and a boatload of people waiting to fly standby. This flight, as well as every other flight to Boston out of Atlanta that day, was significantly overbooked, to the point that they were offering $400 vouchers to people willing to volunteer off the flight. I waited for them to call Zone 4. I also looked at the screen overhead to see if they were calling Zone 4. It only listed Zones 1 through 3. Then--this is the part that I thought was weird--the lady who was calling the boarding zones left her desk, walked through the boarding gate and closed the door. Guh? Maybe something was happening on the plane, I figured, and she didn't want to leave the door open in case non-ticketed passengers tried to rush the walkway.

But then she didn't come back.

I walked closer up to the desk, waited for the be-dreadlocked guy standing there to look up from whatever he was doing, and politely (I thought) asked him when they were going to board Zone 4.

He looked at me blankly. "The plane is gone."

I blinked. "Gone? Like...gone?" Maybe I was misunderstanding.

"Yeah, the plane just left. Where were you?" he asked me accusingly.

I looked at him in disbelief. "I've been standing here right next to you for the past 20 minutes! I was waiting for you to call Zone 4!" I pointed to my ticket, where "Zone 4" was clearly labeled. "You called Zones 1, 2, and 3, but I never heard you call Zone 4!" I gestured to the screen overhead, which was, indeed, also only displaying "Boarding Zones 1, 2 and 3." You never called me! You never called my zone to board!"

"Plane's gone. Don't know what to tell you." He shrugged, looking away, bored of the conversation already.

I had not been distracted. I was not on my phone. I was not wearing earbuds. I was standing right next to the gate. I also would like to note (and these are just things that I observed from the OTHER THREE FLIGHTS that I tried, in vain, to get on on standby) that during this particular boarding process no one ever said anything like:

"Boarding all zones."

"Final boarding call for flight XXXX."

"Paging passenger Au, final call for passenger Au."
(I saw this on other flight where passengers didn't board on time but were checked into the airport--I, too, had checked in at the kiosk earlier that morning so in theory they should have known at least that I was there)

Could I maybe have not heard them call Zone 4 because I was, I don't know, daydreaming? Possibly. Could that have unfortunately have coincided with them also not displaying that same information on the screen overhead? Again, possible. Could I have missed ALL of those announcements, the boarding all zones, final boarding, them CALLING MY NAME if I was literally standing right next to the person making the announcement? Possible, I suppose, but I have to say, highly improbable.

People who know airline stuff (Blue, I know you work on an airline, though a different carrier than the one I was on)--what do you think happened? Did I do something wrong? I think the most likely scenario is that they were way overbooked and they just gave away my seat. How they could have done that when I had already booked, paid for, and claimed my seat, I cannot say. But I spent all day at the airport yesterday. It was, uh, a subpar experience. Luckily (and thank goodness for the wonderfully efficient people at the Hachette Speaker's Bureau) they got me onto an early afternoon plane to Philly, with a 40 minute connection to Boston. And I made it in on time and then everything was Swellesley. But that's why I have no pictures of the campus to show you. Well, except for this one picture of my accommodations at the Wellesley College Club, which were cozy and charming and overlooking Lake Waban.

Thank you, Wellesley, I miss you already.  Again.

And screw you, Delta.

* * *

I'm 20 weeks this week, and getting Ye Big Olde Anatomy Scan tomorrow. This is the first time that Joe will actually be able to come with me--it was hard enough even scheduling one of us (me) for an appointment during the first two pregnancies; working both of our schedules into the mix would have been a pipe dream. (To be fair, we were both in residency when I was pregnant with Cal, and with Mack, Joe was in fellowship--generally two stages of life not conducive to ducking out midday. I think the only reason I was able to make my own appointment for Cal's anatomy scan was because I was on a NICU rotation at the time and everyone there was super-paranoid about congenital malformations and therefore more than happy to cover me for the half an hour that the ultrasound took.)

(Don't let this be a call for you guys to tell me stories about congenital malformations, by the way. I've seen them too, and am paranoid enough on my own, thanks.)

Anyway, here's to hoping that everything looks sweet, and that we get some nice pictures out of the deal. We'll post some of the better ones up here, of course. It helps that Joe got the scanner back up and running again. He gave me some long explanation of how he did it, but I stopped listening after he said, "So all I did was..."

Hope everyone out there is doing well.


  1. First off, Delta is a fine company...they in fact got me home today not only 14 hours before I'd have arrived on my own airline, but they somehow assigned me an entire row all to myself even though I was the last person to board the plane...which I felt some guilt about as there were not only paying customers 3-to-a-row all around me, but also other Delta employees who were non-revenue flying on their own airline crammed in together right across from me.

    But I'd just worked red-eyes all night and was supremely tired, and was not about to look this gift horse in the mouth. So I laid myself down across all three seats and slept for 5.5 hours as they hauled my oblivious bum across the country and deposited me 15 mins from ye ole humble abode.

    So I am a fan of Delta IN GENERAL. They do a good job overall, and are huge compared to my airline. Also,primarily because they have a hub in my hometown, they make my life easier on a regular basis as I get to and from my base in JFK.

    But you are correct..."they" dropped the ball on this one. I don't know why/who/how, but that guy who just said "Plane's gone. Don't know what to tell you." was clearly not demonstrating the values I'm sure corporate leadership would have wanted him to. He's a tiny dust mote in the vast Deltaverse, and if he was the gate agent making the announcements, I'm guessing it was him that dropped the ball and didn't have the honor to own it.


    So sorry that happened to you! Traveling is frustrating in the best of times, and when you're pregnant and have a big commitment and time-frame constraints, it's even more stressful. Glad the good people helped re-route you. I'm sure your talk was fantastic and entertaining and a hit with all who got to hear you. Also, I'd write a note to Delta and tell them about your experience.

    but WHAT?! No 20 week frontal/side shots?! ;-) ♥

  2. Jesse7:28 PM

    I've had problems with just about every airline but I've never heard of that happening before. I'm kind of surprised though that you actually waited for "zone 4" to be called rather than simply "cutting" when you noticed that no one else was coming forward and they usually just call zone 2, 3, and 4 in rapid succession. It's probably a good character trait to follow rules closely but following the rules to the degree you did is pretty unusual and likely represents some sort of pathology.

    With regards to Delta, I recommend reporting this politely but in detail to customer service. They will probably give you some sort of voucher, maybe like $50 or $100.

  3. Well, I don't know if I'd call it "pathological," (though perhaps extreme obediance is in the new DSM-V) but to be fair there were still 20-ish other people standing around the gate waiting after they called Zones 1 through 3, so I don't think it's crazy in context to think that they were were other "Zone 4" residents waiting to get called. If I was the only person still waiting at a totally empty boarding gate, then yeah, that would be weird, but there was still quite a crowd of us there. (I realize in retrospect that some of these may well have been standby hopefuls.)

    As for my flight back--the boarding pass I took a picture of at the top was actually from my return flight this morning--I was in "Zone 4" again, and you can be sure that, not wanting to replicate the mistakes of the past, I shoved myself on with the Zone 3 denizens.

  4. That story just made me livid! I would definitely write to customer service and get some kind of voucher (even though you probably don't want to fly Delta again anytime soon)(Do you have a choice in Atlanta?).

    I hate that any airline employee's default response to a customer missing a plane is "Tsk, tsk, should have been on time". I recently flew through Atlanta and missed my connecting flight due to weather. In line at customer service, it was clear SO HAD EVERYONE ELSE. The lines were out of control, and when we finally got to the front we heard the customer service agent say condescendingly to the people in front of us, "Here are your new tickets. Next time, be sure to be at the gate on time." I'm sure that guy was circling the sky above Atlanta/sprinting through the airport instead of being at his gate FOR FUN.

  5. Carrie7:56 PM

    I thought Southwest was the only airline who did the annoying boarding by group thing (I hate scrambling for a seat).
    It definitely sounds like someone dropped the ball-especially given that Zone 4 never appeared on the monitor. I'd definitely write a letter. Mrs. C, my 8th grade English teacher taught us that a well written letter of complaint can get you lots of cool stuff. She used to bring in the letters and free Nikes or vouchers her well-worded letters earned her.

  6. Anonymous8:03 PM

    Carrie - your teacher was right. A well written letter has gotten me everything from vouchers for plane tickets to getting scripts on the house from the local CVS when a pharmacy tech was downright rude to me as I was dealing with my sick 18 month old child. So go for it Michelle!! Write your letter.

  7. I travel a lot, and Delta is by far my least favorite airline (although USAirways is also up there). My experience with them has never been good.

    Frontier, on the other hand, has cookies. What's not to like?

  8. Ooooh, this reminds me of the time that I got stonewalled from my flight on Frontier because mysteriously in Sacramento, you must check in 45 minutes - not 30 - before your flight (I am the opposite kind of traveler... time sitting at the gate is time wasted! ;-)). So when I arrived 40 minutes before my flight (to my credit, in the nearly empty Sacramento airport) to find a sign on the counter that announced that I would not-so-much be departing as planned, then could find such a rule nowhere but on said sign, I wrote a nice email and got a nice voucher in return. So write! :)

  9. Haven't had good experiences with airlines in the USA, unfortunately, especially after having flown Asian airlines like Singapore Air or Cathay Pacific, or Japan Airlines. A med school classmate of mine who is married to a pilot working for an American airline (not Delta) said that morale is pretty low in many of the airlines there (this is straight from the horse's, or in this case, the pilot's, mouth) so customer service has suffered.
    I would write a complaint to Delta. Maybe they'll give you free miles, (if you dare fly them again!)

  10. Anonymous8:52 PM

    got lotion? that is some serious dry thumb

  11. You should definitely write them and call them. I always fly Delta and have only had one bad experience (rather, my brother, who got bitched at by a flight attendant- definitely the most bizarre thing I have ever witnessed, as attested by multiple other passengers as well) but it never involved getting screwed out of a flight. You should get a refund or voucher or something. And you should probably mentioned that you have and will publicize the situation. That should probably get you a better voucher.

  12. Anonymous9:06 PM

    I just finished traveling for residency interviews in January, so don't even get me started on the airlines. Most common event - apparently "gate checked baggage" no longer means "claim at gate" but instead "claim at baggage carousel", and inevitably, since it's the last bag on the plane, it's the last bag off. Most outrageous - one airline (actually might've been Delta!) cancelled a flight as we were all waiting at the gate and announced that they were rebooking everyone on a flight about 45 minutes later at a different gate just so they could use a bigger plane and put more passengers on the flight (this is actually what they said). When I went to customer service and pointed out that the later flight would cause me to miss my connection and politely asked for their help, they informed me that since I had booked my connection on a different airline, they had no obligation to help. Only after I pointed out that they had changed the flight for THEIR convenience and made it clear that I was not leaving the desk until they either helped me or called security did they finally rebook me (on a direct flight, thank you!).

  13. Anonymous9:10 PM

    delta sucks. period.

  14. Nearly a million miler here Doc - always, always board on zone early.They will not punt you if try to get on a zone early (unless they are boarding first class).

  15. Anonymous9:45 PM

    Frigging Delta. I bet Zone 4 was "the suckers who don't really have a seat."

    I was going to tell you about the congenital malformation in our household, but you're right, that's unhelpful. Instead I will let you know that I'll be thinking of you and the babe tomorrow.

  16. Ahhh this post makes me miss Wellesley. Looking forward to my 10 year reunion in June. . . So bizarre about the missed boarding call. I know it's annoying but I'm "that person" who walks up regardless of what zone's being called and they just let me go!

  17. My wife is going in for HER 20 week anatomy scan tomorrow as well! This is our first child though, and because we are geniuses of timing, her due date (July 21st) will be at the start of her intern year... Luckily she is going for a family medicine residency, and they tend to like babies okay there.

    17 days till Match!

  18. Anonymous12:06 AM

    So THAT is what the college club rooms look like! I've always wondered. Thanks for the inside view.

  19. I had terrible experiences with Delta during my residency interviews. Actually, the only airline I liked was Southwest - no frills, no hassles.

    Good luck on your scan tomorrow!!!

  20. Therese9:04 AM

    So sorry for your airline experience. My husband is a pilot for another airline but they don't fly anywhere near us, so he uses Delta weekly to commute to JFK. He has interesting stories on a regular basis from his own airline and others of poor customer service. Sometimes it just happens and unfortunately, looks like you were the victim this time. They definiitely should have called all zones, and paged missing passengers. My husband has actually gotten a "non-rev" seat before when gate agents didn't do this step. It benefited him but not good for the paying customer. I would suggest writing a letter or e-mail to Delta to tell them what happened. HOpefully they'll compensate you in some way.

  21. Michelle, we had a similar travel experience once. We were taking a small plane and the airline was boarding two flights at the same time from the same gate. We were in the line and moving forward. There were some inaudible announcements in the background, but when you are in a moving line toward your plane, what could go wrong? We get to the front and they say "didn't you hear us say last call for that flight a few minutes ago?" Um, no, and even if we did wouldn't we have GOTTEN IN LINE in response. Then they said that it was too late. We were understandably confused because we could see the plane a hundred yards from us sitting on the tarmac. We asked why we couldn't just get on, since we had tickets and were right there (IN LINE). Nope - once the door closes it is too late. Stupidest interaction with airline personnel I have ever had. Luckily we had the kids with us, so we had to keep cool.

  22. By the way, your thumb (assuming it's yours and it's a thumb) needs chapstick...

  23. Too true--there is nothing cuter than little boys in Wellesley gear.

  24. We avoid Delta like the plague.

    Our last time through Atlanta they cancelled our flight to Nashville about twenty minutes before it took off; they oh.so.helpfully offered to get us on another flight TWENTY FOUR HOURS later. We couldn't get a rental car, so we got a taxi and met our college age kids in Chattanooga... And, no...it's NOT cheap.

    I've also spent four miserable hours on the tarmac of the Augusta (yes, you read that right) Airport courtesy of Delta.

  25. Anonymous10:29 AM

    You should get a voucher at a minimum. If you were bumped involuntarily, you are entitled to the cash value of your ticket.

  26. I agree with the poster who said to board a zone early--since we moved (moved back, for my parents), to GA, my dad has flown Delta almost exclusively and that's what he always has me do... start moving closer to the gate before my actual zone is called (and since I'm always using his SkyMiles when I fly, I'm always in the last zone). That being said, definitely get in touch with customer service and hopefully you'll get a voucher for a free flight!

  27. Spork encephalectomy9:11 PM

    Maybe it's a Delta-coincidence, but recently my in-laws had a problem (at Atlanta-Hartsfield) with boarding a Delta flight. When trying to board, they needed to talk with a flight attendant about a piece of fragile carry-on, and were hustled to the side. The thing is, there were 75 passengers and they brought a 50-seat plane. As my in-laws were waiting (pulled out of line), their seats were given to other waiting passengers. Everyone else got $400 reimbursements, but they did not because they "refused to board." When trying to talk to customer service, they were informed that Delta did not have a customer service desk at Atlanta. Angry and dejected, they then were walking away and, two gates away, was the Delta customer service. The story continues, but it's getting too long. Anyway, fly Frontier! They not only have cookies, but they're *warm* cookies.

  28. Anonymous11:13 PM

    Might also complain and link your post on Delta's twitter feed. Their agents really respond to twitter questions, which was their main way of responding to the cancellations involving Hurricane Irene last year. It probably wouldn't hurt for them to read the indignant comments of your readers.

  29. Anonymous5:59 PM

    The fun of being an OB getting your own anatomy scan is that you read these things all the time, so you are playing the hold your breath and follow the scan game!!!

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