Monday, February 26, 2007

United Flight 6410: Another Airline Snafu

Southwest Airlines, which usually knows what it's doing, recently decided to fly again to San Francisco Airport, after being assured the expanded airport was not subject to as many delays, weather and otherwise, as in the past.

But judging from what happened to me Monday on United Airlines, Flight 6410, San Francisco to Burbank, Southwest ought to reconsider.

On a day when it was raining, but not too hard, most of the day, San Francisco Airport was very slow. Planes were taking off and landing, but not at any kind of rate which would satisfy the exacting on-time standards of Southwest. Most flights were late in takeoffs by an hour or two.

But that was not all of the problems of United Flight 6410, as it turned out. And the experience raised questions as to whether United really has recovered from bankruptcy and is a fit choice for travel.

The plane was due out of San Francisco at 1:51 p.m. and due in at Burbank at 2:59 p.m. In fact, it didn't depart until 5:10 p.m., and it landed at Burbank at about 6:10 p.m.

Part of the problem certainly was the weather. I was sitting near the United check-in counter for the flight, and it seemed from the many story changes of the ticket agent that United was improvising between 2 and 4 p.m.

During that time, we were apparently scheduled out on two different planes, with three different crews assigned. There was a period when every passenger who came up to ask about the status of the flight was told something slightly different.

First, the agent said, our plane was on the ground, but a crew member was late in reporting. He would be in in a half an hour, and we would be out by 3 p.m., he said.

Then, it was an entire crew that was missing. It was coming from Sacramento and would be in to San Francisco at 2:17 p.m. Then, we would board in 15 minutes.

Then, that crew disappeared, and now we were going to fly with a crew flying a plane in from Salt Lake City. The plane on the ground was no longer in the equation, and the new plane and crew would be in at 2:53 p.m.

At about 3:20 p.m., that flight arrived. But now it was going to be a new crew that would take us to Burbank. That crew did not arrive for awhile, and then it took 20 minutes to check the plane.

United improvisations did keep most flights operating, even if late. While I was waiting, United cancelled only one flight, and that was to Monterey. The airline offered ground transportation to those passengers to the Monterey airport.

We finally boarded our flight at 4 p.m. But our troubles were not over.

At 4:05 p.m., the pilot announced that a power pump used to ignite our turbo-prop engines (this was a rather small, Canadair-produced plane) was not functioning. "It will be five or 10 more minutes," said the pilot. "We're bringing in an auxiliary power pump."

A half hour later, I overheard a member of the ground crew say, "It's not starting," and a few minutes later the pilot came back on the airplane's P.A. system and announced that the auxiliary power pump United had produced didn't work either. "We're sending over to Delta Airlines, and they are loaning us a pump," he said.

But another 20 minutes passed and the Delta pump didn't show up. Now, the pilot told us, "Delta is clear across the airport. We've asked them to hurry up."

However, the pump did not arrive until the co-pilot, identified by the stewardess as David Robinson, got off the plane, had a short discussion with the ground crew, finally visibly threw his hands into the air out in front of the plane, and went back into the terminal to use a telephone. Throughout this part of the delay, the United ground crew seemed lackadaisical. Perhaps they had suffered too many salary and benefit reductions during United's protracted bankruptcy.

I don't know what the co-pilot said on the phone, because I wasn't there. But about 10 minutes later, the pump arrived, and it was able to start the engine immediately.

We still sat at the gate for another 10 minutes. Time is apparently not much of a factor at United Airlines.

But we finally took off, and at least the baggage delivery at the other end of the flight, in Burbank, was fairly prompt.

During the delays, the United stewardess was quite accommodating, and offered everyone soft drinks and snacks.

But still, I am forced to the conclusion that United doesn't have working replacement equipment, isn't very candid about how long delays are liable to last, and is forced to improvise, ultimately successfully, but only after hours of delays.

Southwest, in my experience, would be better.

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