A buddy and I – two dads on either side of 50 – chaperoned a group of twenty 14- and 15-year-old girls from here in Denver to a soccer tournament in Phoenix (the Desert Classic) last weekend. I write this as a public service to share with the chaperoning public the very real risks of booking group travel with American Airlines out of Denver – and, possibly, anywhere else.
Now, in our day of multiple contingencies for every flight, packed planes, and airlines living on the scheduling edge, most of us who have flown has a good airline horror story. This one, though, registered in the upper reaches of the Stephen King scale.
We were to leave on flight American 2065 3:15 p.m. on Friday, February 7. It was snowing in Denver, but the problems started earlier in the day, with the morning hopper from Raleigh-Durham, N.C. to Charlotte, N.C. That flight was delayed about 90 minutes due to thunderstorms. The flight from Charlotte to Denver, American 990, was then delayed. The text messages about delays started rolling in, until our 3:15p departure was a 5:30p departure.
It was snowing in Denver, and other airlines were also posting delays. But American’s delay wasn’t caused by the Denver weather. Rather, it was the weather in the Carolinas. We boarded at around 5:30 p.m., and soon nothing was happening. At about 6:30 p.m., phones started to ping with text-updates about a “delay” of our flight until 5:30 a.m. the following morning (this is de-facto cancellation, of course). I took this to be a mistake – I mean, what flight gets “delayed” 15 hours? Then we deplaned, and it was real.
Apparently someone on the ground outside had left a cargo door open, which caused the need to repeat a procedure, which caused a five-minute delay, which caused the crew to “time out.” Because American runs a skeletal staff in Denver, they had no backup. We were fucked.
Chaos on the concourse. There was a ticket-counter line that a shouting American employee said would be roughly an hour. We had 20 girls, the two chaperones, and the coach, a 22-year-old former D1 player, a young woman who’d recently moved to Denver. I asked an American guy what they would do for us. The answer: nothing.
“Weather,” he said.
“Weather in North Carolina hours ago,” I corrected, angrily. “You guys knew you were cutting it close and you did absolutely nothing about it.”
He handed me a card with a website and an 800 number. This would amount to the sum total of American’s tangible efforts to make a bad situation they created right. It’s not the guys’ fault: American executives and managers don’t have to deal with the wrath of passengers as line staff does. American’s problems are much more attributable to management and organizational failures than a personnel failures.
My friend and fellow chaperone Evan dialed the number – a 40-minute wait with a callback. We had 20 hungry girls asking what we were going to do. Should they call their parents? American people told us our bags – half of us had had to gate check them – would appear on Baggage Carousel 17.
During the hour and a half it took our bags to show up, Evan and I briefly discussed whether to send girls home and have them back here at 3:30 a.m., noted that some parents were en route to Phoenix already, plus it was snowing, plus it’s already late and tomorrow’s really really early, and decided to take Evan’s suggested course of action and find a local hotel. Evan called his wife to help to figure out a place that might work, we cancelled the catered dinner we’d planned for Phoenix at 8:15 p.m., and contacted the van rental place in Phoenix to tell them no to wait up for us.
Evan finally got ahold of an American rep asking about the possibility of hotel vouchers, seeing as we spent seven grand to get to a tournament with kids in a functional state, which was now in serious jeopardy. The rep explained that he should have stayed in line at the gate.
“I had 20 girls, it was getting late, and the line was an hour long,” Evan said.
The rep made an excuse which, in rough translation, amounted to “tough shit.”
The bags finally came after 8 p.m. The girls weren’t freaking out, at least to us, which I attributed to either peer pressure or a misplaced belief that their chaperones had things under control. We pulled our roller bags out to the narrow Island 3 outside Door 504 West and waited in the wet snow as taxis and livery vehicles brushed up against us from behind and parking and hotel shuttles came and went before us.
It was a solid 30 minutes until a Comfort Suites shuttle appeared. Other passengers were in the shuttle already; 16 of our team and a coach piled in on top of them and each other – in a glorified van that nominally seats 14. I grabbed a taxi for the four remaining players and followed the shuttle the eight miles to hotel. I enjoyed conversing with the cabbie, who then charged me $57 for the pleasure, which I for some reason still rounded up to $60. Evan put roughly a grand on his credit card for six hotel rooms and ordered in pizzas accompanied by with zero vegetables besides a veggie pizza that went more or less uneaten, and we mused how this might affect the girls’ quality of play. At least, we figured, we’d get in early enough that we could get them to the Phoenix hotel for a good breakfast.
We booked hotel shuttles back to the airport for 3:30 a.m., which would get the girls maybe 3-4 hours of sleep. Then, at probably 10:45 p.m., just after we did the bed check, came another text from American Airlines: flight delayed until 7:30 a.m. We did a second bed check; the girls, having the AA app, already knew.
Back in our room, Evan and I realized that we needed to change up the shuttles. The 5:30 a.m. shuttle, the front desk told me, could accommodate about nine people. We opened our Uber apps, which didn’t let us book a timed pickup for the next day; then Lyft, which did let us to a timed pickup. We booked two Lyfts each, spacing them out by a few minutes as the app won’t let you double-book.
The next morning, two of the Lyfts failed to appear, but a heroic act by a Comfort Suites guy (this involved wrapping a white hotel hand towel as a substitute wiper blade to keep the thing from ruining the windshield) enabled us to Lyft and shuttle back to the airport at 5:30 a.m. for the 7:30 a.m. flight.
Security lines were understandably short. Some quick calculations, though, and we realized that, with the 7:30 departure and first game set to kick off at noon in Mesa 20 miles from Sky Harbor airport, we wouldn’t be able to make it to the hotel for breakfast. So we’d stop somewhere quick to feed the girls on the way to Mesa.
At 7:15 a.m., the gate agent announced that the flight attendants were not yet at the airport. They were supposed to have been there perhaps a half hour earlier. They were, instead, at a hotel on Tower Road – perhaps the one we stayed at, who knows. Apparently they were miffed of the extra hours and the early departure and, probably, what a crap employer they were stuck with. So they decided to sleep in an extra hour. At about 7:30 a.m., they sauntered in past us showing absolutely no sense of remorse – rather, something approaching disdain for the 150-odd people they had further inconvenienced, among them twenty 14-15-year-old youth soccer players who needed to get out of Denver, I was reminded of a dog that has just taken a dump on the living room carpet and seems totally good with it.
The flight left after 9 a.m., amounting to a 17-hour plus “delay.” The Colorado Rapids Youth Soccer Club sent maybe a dozen teams down with different airlines; while some delays stretched to 4-5 hours, none of the other carries failed to get planes out on Friday night.
We landed at 11:10 a.m.; Evan and I touched base with a couple of parents who had made the trip and asked them to pick up granola bars and Red Bull to spike the girls blood glucose and caffeine levels enough to get them through the first game. Evan and I Ubered to the excellent A1 Leasing van rental, which got us out quick, we hauled ass back to the airport, the girls piled in, and we busted to the field, arriving at the scheduled kickoff time of noon. The game commenced a couple of minutes later.
I have better things to do than to spend my time writing all this. But I feel it’s important for folks to understand what went down with American and to avoid stumbling into a similar situation. I’m advocating that, for the well-being of its 15,000 families and their kids, the Colorado Rapids Youth Soccer Club explain to in-house and volunteer travel planners the following:
Due to American Airlines’ poor customer service and skeletal presence in Denver, the club recommends looking elsewhere for tournament travel.