Monday, November 19, 2007

A day in the life of . . . courtesy of American Airlines

2:30pm. I leave the haven of The Setai in South Beach Miami for a five-hour flight (my first) to Peru. I'm flying there to be honored by the faculty of Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas and welcomed as an Emeritus Professor in Communications. This trip involves a forty-minute minute speech to faculty (in full regalia) followed by a lecture to the students and a visit to Quorum Nazca Saatchi & Saatchi. It is the first time an incumbent Saatchi & Saatchi CEO has visited the agency and on the books is a one-hour presentation to clients, new business prospects and the business community of Peru. It's going to be a hectic day, starting at 7:30am and finishing at 10:00pm. Still, it is combining things I really care about – academic learning, recognition and a chance to influence smart students living on The Edge. It’s also going to be an opportunity to celebrate a far flung outpost of the Saatchi world and a new business pitch. I promised the Peruvians in Cannes last year I would do this to honor their winning three Lions at the Cannes Festival; an incredible achievement for this edgy little country.


4.00pm. We board American Airlines 917 on time, which in itself is a minor miracle. One hour later we are de-boarded when “the guy driving the tow truck pulling us out of the gate noticed there was hydraulic fuel leaking from the plane”. Good on you American Airlines for such tight engineering and security checks. Lucky the tow truck operators are so very highly skilled nowadays. So our plane is going nowhere. Naturally, there's no spare part to be found in Miami and we have to find another airplane. Thanks to American Airlines giving us regular incorrect data on take-off times, we had to huddle by the gate.

9.00pm. We are airborne in our second piece of equipment, four hours late, with an arrival time of 2:30am at Lima Airport, giving me about three hours sleep before kick-off the next day. The plane is even older than the first one and, on the inside anyway, is falling apart - the seat next to me has two big pieces of red adhesive tape looking like a crime scene saying the seat is broken. Everybody is becoming somewhat anxious, particularly a group of 60-year olds from the UK who have been traveling for 30 hours, speak no Spanish and are clearly lost. They are matched only by a French group of a similar vintage speaking only French. The crew are tired and stressed and the worst is yet to come.

1:30am. 4-1/2 hours into the flight, from just behind me, comes a smell reminiscent of a microwave being turned on after not having been used for a couple of years. It's the smell of smoldering electricity. I can tell you it is not the fragrance of champions when you’re at 35,000 feet flying over Central Latin America. The air hostess reports it to the captain. Now American Airlines might have very average equipment, but they obviously have highly skilled tow-truck operators and air hostesses. Obviously, safety is now their daily responsibility. The result? The captain announces that an air hostess has identified an electric smell and as this was clearly unsafe, “We are about to make an emergency landing in Guayaquil”. That was it.

The plane grows silent and down we go. I knew Guayaquil was in Ecuador and I knew Ecuador was next door to Peru, and that sums up my total knowledge of all things Ecuadorian.
We make it to the airport and are surrounded by a batch of ambulances and fire engines. The captain disembarks, leaving us sitting out there, comforted that the air hostess is still on the plane. I figured that as she is clearly the expert on all things security, we obviously aren't going to explode.

The captain comes back in an extremely disgruntled mood. “I’ve been on the phone to dispatch in Dallas and I am not taking this plane over the mountains. I know this will aggravate many of you, it’s been a long day already, we’re very stressed, you’re very stressed and this plane is going nowhere.” With that, he leaves the aircraft and we are put into the hands of… um…no one.
Eventually, we get off the plane and onto a bus that takes us to Guayaquil Customs. When we get there we are told we will be staying overnight - given the lack of a plane that worked and a crew that were stressed - two pretty important things for air travel.

3.30 am. We are shipped into the Grand Hotel Guayaquil (have you noticed that when names make big claims they most often protesteth too much. Comfort Inns aren’t comfortable, Grand Hotels aren’t Grand and Holiday Inns are no holiday.) The Grand has to come up with a couple of hundred rooms off the cuff in the early hours of the morning and there is no one from American Airlines in attendance. That means no one can tell us what is happening or what will happen next. In the meantime, the hotel is busy matching up strangers to share rooms, because even the Grand Hotel at Guayaquil finds the last minute booking of 200 somewhat difficult to accommodate. I’m not the best roomie, although my last experience with Philip Sycamore certainly beat my prior one with John Kirwan. Fortunately I am able to plead a contagious disease, which means I am given my own room.

8:00am. After three hours sleep and many phone calls to alert everyone, I check the American Airlines website to find that the famous flight AA 917 was “in transit and expected in Lima at 8:32pm”. A mere 22 hours late, but I liked the precision of getting the arrival time down to 32 minutes past 8!!

Reception tells me that we are leaving the hotel for the airport at 1:00pm. I forgot to mention, of course, none of us have any bags, which are still on the microwave plane. We have no toiletries, no clothes and no idea of what is happening. I grab a cup of coffee and face the day on the main street of Guayaquil. I was lucky enough to bump into Mi Comisario, which I hope is affiliated with Wal-Mart. Since it uses the selling line “Siempre, De Todo A Menor Precio. Siempre” that translates into "Always Low Prices. Always", which is a lot like the old Wal-Mart line. For less than $10.00 I got a tube of Crest toothpaste, an Oral B toothbrush, a full-size can of Gillette shaving foam, a Gillette Mach III razor, and a Gillette roll-on antiperspirant. I head back to the hotel to shave and shower, and emerge a happy chappy. Ah, the little things in life.

We still have seen no one from American Airlines and have no idea what time the flight is taking off or our arrival time in Lima. Everyone seems to have forgotten us except the coach drivers, who were told will arrive at 1:00pm to take us to the airport and on to the next stage of our adventure.

1:00pm. Still in Guayaquil. Now 23 hours into the journey.

Anyone want to ask me why American Airlines and the US Airline Industry is not a Lovemark?

4 comments:

R.W. said...

No need to explain Kevin. It´s obviously a sad customer experience for anyone.

PS. Hope u are finally in your final destination.

Piotr Jakubowski said...

Unfortunately, your situation has become quite the norm in the US. I remember getting diverted (twice) during my flight on United from LA to Chicago. We ended up landing in Des Moines, then took off again and landed in Indianapolis where they had us spend the night. Needless to say, I had just connected from a flight from Asia and my anger was indescribable.

I also remember a Northwest flight from Detroit to Tokyo. My reading light didn't work, and my tray table was broken (I ate my meals off my knees).

I guess in the US, it's the lesser of a few evils, and they should be happy that there is no domestic competition from the likes of Singapore Airlines, Emirates or Virgin Atlantic.

garricks said...

...and that's why I haven't flown commercial since the '80s. But my life allows me to avoid teh flying. Sending good thoughts your way for a safe end to this nightmare of a trip!

Kempton said...

Sorry to read about your horrible American Airlines experience (both part 1 and part 2). It is a bit shocking to read tow-truck operators and air hostesses (as oppose to maintenance crew) discovering safety critical problems. Scary.

P.S. For some reason my feedreader picks up your part 2 of your story before it is officially posted. Feels like reading tomorrow's newspaper. (smile)