The Pepper clan flew to Martha's Vineyard Thursday (Julia gets carsick, so we couldn't drive that far). We arrived at LaGuardia an hour early, sailed through check-in, and found ourselves at the gate wondering where our plane was -- late. It showed up, perhaps 25 minutes late, and they announced that now we would wait for the flight crew. What? It's not like the crew were 5 minutes late. Assuming it takes a normally new flight crew just 10 minutes to take over the plane, they should have been there 35 minutes earlier if the plane was on time. That's adding insult to injury, although fortunately we weren't connecting to anywhere (from Martha's Vineyard? Where?). Then the plane sat on the runway for a while, which is just normal screwed-by-airlines SOP.

Coming back today, though, was much worse. Our flight was supposed to take off from Martha's Vineyard Airport at 12:18pm. We got there by 11:30, and checked in. I had "reconfirmed" on the phone both times, but it was useless as you can't go through the TSA screening without actual boarding passes, which you can't get by "reconfirming" on the phone. I tried doing it on their website, but lost the cellular connection before I could perhaps print the boarding passes (cellular service on Martha's Vineyard would be a joke, except there's nothing funny about it). Presumably this might help in some unusual case, such as if we were late arriving for an overbooked flight and they were deciding who to boot, so we won't count wasting my time with reconfirmation as a screw-up, but while waiting in line to get a boarding pass it felt like one.

The flight normally takes about 50 minutes, so the plane should have been away from the gate and taking off when we were checking in. I went back a few minutes later to ask a question, and was told that the plane actually had not taken off yet, due to a serious mechanical problem (which the rep thought had since been fixed), but was expected to do so soon. We told the other people waiting for the flight, who universally asked "Why didn't they announce something?!?" Apparently the USAir personnel decided not to announce anything until they heard that the plane had taken off, so they could provide an ETA. This was clearly the wrong decision, as we were all angry to be kept in ignorance -- nobody had any idea there was a delay until I passed the word. I had verified the flight was supposedly on-time earlier that morning. The rep said, at least twice, that they would have cancelled the flight from LaGuardia completely, except that there were so many people waiting to take it back from the Vineyard. This of course made us wonder if they were about to cancel it entirely.

At this point it was 12:45, and we had been there over an hour. We didn't think the plane could possibly take off, fly from LaGuardia, unload, and be ready to board before 1pm. We were all aggravated and bored. I asked the rep when the flight might board, and he initially said 1pm, then hedged by suggesting that if we left, we should be back by 1:45. Rather than sit in the airport for another hour, we went to the Martha's Vineyard Glass Works, and watched them start making a glass sculpture.

At 1:27, I called USAir to ask if the plane had left LaGuardia. The rep told me that the flight was expected from MVY to board at 1:50. I asked if it had taken of, and she told me it was expected to board at 1:50. I said she'd already told me that, but had it taken off yet? She told me it was expected to board from MVY at 1:50, and land at 3:01. I explained that she had already told me this three times, and I wasn't asking that question. She got it, and put me on hold for 10 minutes. When she picked up again, she apologized, told me she couldn't give me any more information (#8), and told me the 1:50pm projected boarding time was the best she could provide. This call took 14 minutes and 1 second according to my Treo, so the 4th time she told me "1:50pm" was at 1:41.

We drove back to the airport (arriving at 1:47, again per my Treo), and noticed it was emptier than when we left. I asked the woman behind the counter what was up (thinking the flight had been cancelled and everybody had left), and was told it had left "10 minutes ago", so the plane must have landed by 1:30 at the absolute latest, and been fully boarded and taxiing for take-off at 1:41, when the phone rep was telling me it the flight would be boarding at 1:50!

Let's recap (#1-3 were Thursday; #4+ were Monday):

  1. The plane to MVY was late getting into NYC; we don't know why.
  2. The crew was even later getting to the plane.
  3. The plane sat on the runway -- I don't know if this was happening to everybody at LaGuardia, or we missed a window.
  4. The plane from NYC was late leaving (unspecified "major mechanical fault" -- that's reassuring).
  5. No announcement.
  6. The airport rep told us to be back by 2:00, then 1:45.
  7. The phone rep was completely unable to find out if our flight had even taken off. If she'd gotten this information, we would have scooted back to the airport immediately.
  8. The phone rep kept telling me our flight would board as late as 1:41, after it had already boarded. If she had given me correct information when I called at 1:27, we apparently could have made the flight.
  9. When the plane arrived unexpectedly, they loaded up everybody they could find, but not everybody. They did not wait for us, even though we had picked up boarding passes at the airport, I'd spoken with the rep behind the counter at least 4 times, and he had told us to come back at 1:45. Being late is annoying, but leaving early is great if all your passengers are on-board. If you know you have missing passengers, and you have an opportunity to beat the (revised) schedule, don't take it. The plane we eventually got was a Saab 340B, with 34 passenger capacity. If the 12:18 was the same model and full, the missing three of us were 9% of the passenger complement. They should have waited the 10-20 minutes, to the announced time, before leaving. Note that this is a tiny airport. They have two "Gates", which means two planes can be going through the TSA check-in at once, but everybody walks through the same chain-link fence, out onto the runway, to board the planes. 34 passengers is a large plane for this field. We arrived on a 19-passenger plane, and before we left, we watched a Cape Air flight which completely filled up with a single family. Getting us onto the plane once we showed up would not have been a logistical nightmare, as it could at LaGuardia.
  10. The airlines love to collect personal information and give it to the US Government. But USAir did not call my cellphone to tell us the plane landed ahead of expectations; they didn't even call our home number, which would have been useless but shown that someone was making an effort. Nobody was.

In retrospect, it seems most of this is the fault of "USAir Express, operated by Colgan Air" personnel in LaGuardia. They were late getting the plane and crew to the gate (we of course have no idea why). They were late leaving (we don't know the nature of the "major mechanical fault", or if it could/should have been caught earlier, or if the LaGuardia crew were in fact fixing a problem they found, which flew in on the previous flight from MVY, but it was in their laps when it left late). They didn't tell the MVY or phone agents what was going on, or even when the flight left. Had this information made it to the phone reps or automated computer system which exists to track this sort of thing, we would have made the (delayed) flight.

The MVY people found a plane at their airport, dumped everybody they could find onto it, and pitched it back to LaGuardia. The woman who rescheduled us onto the next flight (which left at 3:40) was visibly embarrassed at the fiasco, but by the time we spoke to her we had already missed the flight. She said they never even knew the plane was in the air, until it landed. That's beyond poor communications.

Congratulations, USAir (Express, operated by Colgan Airlines) -- I am impressed -- you found more ways to screw up than I thought possible.