There’s a first time for everything they say….I just wish it wasn’t me that had to experience it so often. Over the years, I’ve sat on runways delayed for no reason in the sun and other times sat on the runway because of Airforce One. With nightmare travel days and travel meltdowns, taxi strikes, train strikes/cancellations, being stranded in London due to snow and so many other travel calamities, I thought I had pretty much experienced most of the downside to travel until last week on my American Airlines (AA) flight to Seattle from Philadelphia. The AA flight delays are never fun and I try my best to avoid them in the PHL hub. Since we are stuck between the New York and D.C. airports, as the middle child we are often tortured with delays due to their airspace.
Generally I have three rules for booking flights:
- Non-stop flight only
- Book the first flight out to ensure I actually get out because (hopefully) the plane is already at the airport from the night before
- Arrive at least a day early for a cruise (domestic) and two days early (international)
Bonus rule: First class is allowed if the price difference is small or the flight is long and annoying (i.e. – will be full flight)
Following two of my key travel points, I booked the first flight from Philadelphia to Seattle (at 8:05 a.m.) forgetting that I needed to leave by 5:30 a.m. and be awake and somewhat cognizant by 4:30 a.m. (ugh!). I was on my way to Seattle for an Alaskan cruise on Holland America with O Magazine (and Oprah) on the Live Your Adventure Cruise, a new partnership between Holland American and O Magazine.
My AA Flight PHL – SEA
Given the too early departure time, I opted for a private car transfer to the airport with Embarque, a subsidiary of Carey Limousine which features hybrid Toyota Camrys and cost less than a black sedan transfer. My driver arrived on time and I climbed in the back seat wanting to just lay down to sleep but sat upright to chat because my day was starting. Little did I realize what was in store for me.
When I travel I’ve learned to plan for the unexpected for the most part so I bring in my carry-on:
- Hardcopy book to read
- Snack/food bag
- Emergency chocolate
- Plethora of magazines
- Lots of Music and Movies on my phone
- Games on my phone
- Gift cards to Starbucks and the airport Spa
- Pullover Fleece
- Cashmere Scarf (can also be used as a blanket)
- Bose Headsets
I arrived to a very busy airport at 6:00 a.m. and quickly checked in on the kiosk to print my bag tag and boarding pass. The line to drop the luggage was quick and I then headed for Pre-Check security. Now in the past, the Philadelphia staff tend to be a bit loud and shout at you which annoys the hell out of me and is the worst impression one should make on travelers at any time of the day. Color me surprised when I learned that they now have a pre-check only side of security for Terminal B/C. At the top of the escalator, there were three friendly staff members directing folks to the practically empty lines (now sorry to be the skeptic, but this was like living in a dream like state and I hope the airport can continue this). There, of course, were a few passengers who got pre-check from the airline who, of course, had no clue as they had water bottles and so many items that even in normal security are not allowed. Pre-Check otherwise was quick.
The American Airlines Lounge at PHL
Again, so far so good. I checked the flight monitor and the flight was on time so I headed for the PHL American Airlines Lounge B/C. I am OneWorld Sapphire due to my British Airways Silver Elite status so I can use the OneWorld lounges in the U.S. for free (totally worth it for my weekend jaunts to London). The lounge is massive and at 6:15 a.m. pretty empty so I enjoyed the quick Wi-Fi and a snack before going to the gate for on time boarding. See at this point, I should have known it was all going too smoothly for me.
At the too small for the number of passengers on the plane gate at PHL, the crowd was half in the gate area and half outside of it blocking the hallway. The gate agent told me to consolidate my handbag, snack bag and backpack into two pieces before she could let me through (annoying given that my snack bag will be empty by the end of the flight). I boarded the flight and easily found my aisle seat in the first row – 1 D. Given my issues in the past, I booked first class for the nearly 6 hour flight to Seattle. This plane only had two rows of first class for eight passengers.
The 8:10 a.m. (EST) flight boarded at 7:40 a.m.
it was scheduled to arrive in Seattle at 11:04 a.m. PST (2:04 EST)
Flight Delays due to Weather
In Philadelphia, there was a cell of storms scheduled to come through the city after 10 a.m. so my flight would only be expected to hit that weather up in the air…..or so I thought.
Weather delays can really test one’s patience. I’ve been stuck overnight (in a fancy hotel no worries) at London’s Heathrow when the entire East Coast was shut down due to a blizzard that dumped two feet of snow on the ground. Other times, I’ve sat in Chicago O’Hare waiting, waiting and still waiting on the arriving plane from a destination that encountered weather delays. So while we can’t control the weather, I’ve learned you can also not apply logic to travel and the weather.
Logic – it’s sunny in Boston, it’s sunny in Philadelphia so why are we sitting on the runway with an hour delay?
Travel Logic – New York Traffic
AA Flight Delay – FAA Ground Stop
With the ground dry, we pushed back a few minutes late but nothing to worry about. We had all seats filled but one. We got in line for the runway (note one really awful part of PHL is the massive line of planes in the morning and evening) and sat waiting…..and waiting…..and enough time to chat with my seatmate in 1F. As the delay pushed on and we inched forward, I could hear the flight attendants talking and then the captain came on to tell us “due to weather in NEW YORK, the air traffic around NEW YORK is stacked up so we are on a ground halt” (ugh, we are not in NEW YORK, but since we need to fly up that way to get to the West Coast, we are part of NEW YORK traffic). We were told we could use our phones during the delay as well as the bathrooms. I logged into FAA.gov to check the ground hold times, I was on twitter asking the AA team for updates, I was contacting friends in Seattle to tell them of the delay.
The new U.S. rules are such that at a 2.5 hour runway delay, you must return to the gate. We were nearing that time out so I knew we were going to get out of line and go back to the gate (this was first). The captain announced the same but adding that he had been given a new route around the traffic but we don’t have enough fuel to do it so we need to go back to the gate to refuel and get a new departure time. So we left the line and drove back to the gate. It was now after 10:30 a.m. and we had been on the plane and in our seats for nearly 3 hours (or half the flying time to Seattle). I asked the FA if the crew would time out and she said “no, we have 13 hours” (also good to pick first flight to avoid a crew timeout).
AA Flight Delay – Back to the Gate
The flight attendant announced that once we were at the gate, at about 10:35 a.m., passengers could get up and stand. If passengers were interested in going back inside the terminal they MUST take all carryon with them and would not be allowed back on the plane until we had a new departure time. Some chose to get off the plane to find food, stretch their legs and use the restrooms. I’d estimate that 20 people deplaned during the delay. And then we waited some more……
I was on Twitter with AA asking “when are we leaving?”, “why is this happening to PHL when the FAA ground stop is at NEW YORK airports (LGA, JFK, EWR)?”. The twitter team came back with a “your departure time is now 11 a.m.” Ok, ½ hour isn’t too bad I thought. I said to the woman next to me, “here are the new times” and the man with his wife behind me said “how do you know that?” I said “the twitter reps told me” and he condescending replied while laughing “if it’s on twitter it must be true”. (AA Twitter team said they were sorry and gave me points so who’s laughing now?). Reps for AA came on the plane to talk with the captain and flight attendants. As the airline doesn’t cater food for the flight attendants only the pilots (which is ridiculous – I learned that and so much more in flight attendant Heather Poole’s hilarious book “Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet“). The lead flight attendant requested the local AA rep to find her food in the terminal (she wasn’t allowed to leave the plane) for her crew. He came back with a pizza. During this time as I was eavesdropping on the conversations of the crew and ground staff, my AA app was updating with many departure times – 11 a.m., then three more time changes.
During the gate delay, passengers were surprisingly calm and understanding that we had no control over this horrible luck of delay on top of delay. Thankfully, there were no babies on board. I can only imagine if this flight were headed a few other places that the plane would be full of very vocal and very unhappy people.
I had my plethora of magazines, my book and my snack bag. By now, first class would have been served breakfast food in the air (not that I eat it) and when those who deplaned were let back on board a few minutes after 11 a.m. when they thought we had an 11:15 departure time, most were carrying food with them. I’ll never understand why anyone boards a plane without food, water, magazines, etc. That one empty seat was taken by the young guy who missed the flight. Now we had a full flight.
AA Flight Delay – A New Departure Time
We finally got a new departure time, the AA local reps left the plane, we were asked to find our seats and get ready to depart. Fingers crossed. It was now a noon departure as we made our way away from the gates again and headed to the runway. This time the line was shorter and we moved a bit quicker (for PHL that is). As the plane made the turn onto the end of the runway, I was exhausted as it was nearly 5 hours after boarding time that we started down the runway for takeoff. It was 12:35 p.m. as we made our way up in the air.
Philly to Seattle – We Made It!
The flight to Seattle was pretty normal and smooth but we were all squirmy having been on the plane (and in the seats) too long due to the AA flight delays. As we landed, the flight attendant said “Welcome to Seattle, we made it!” while the passengers clapped in joy. We arrived after 4 p.m. PST (after 7 pm EST) which meant we were in our seats on that plane for nearly 12 hours for a 6 hour flight. As we exited the plane, the gate was full of passengers who also endured the long AA flight delays waiting for our plane to arrive to take them to Philadelphia. They looked haggard as well having started their day like me; only to end up sitting at the gate for hours waiting. At baggage claim there were many cruise line reps waiting on us and (hopefully) holding the ships as our flight had many cruise passengers for the same day cruise. I, at least, wouldn’t sail until the next day.
So my long journey to Seattle ended and I was exhausted, up since 4:30 a.m. (EST) and it was now after 7 pm (EST). Lucky for me, I read all of the magazines I brought with me, started the book and ate my entire bag of snacks – banana, turkey/bacon sandwich on pretzel bread, bag of chips, cookies (which I shared), apple slices and chocolate. Now I had rush hour traffic in Seattle to deal with while I had to also adjust to the time difference and stay awake despite my body telling me to find the nearest corner and sleep.
AA Flight Delays – Dealing With It
Flight delays suck whether due to weather, dumb travel logic, sunny skies, mechanical, etc. Ground stops are no fun either but put in place for safety, I get that. The next time you travel, I hope it goes smoothly and you don’t encounter a horrible day of delays like I did. But if you’ve learned anything from my experience – bring a snack bag and some forms of entertainment on all of your flights just in case. Also download the AA (or applicable airline) app, bookmark the FAA.gov flight delay site and understand the American Airlines customer service provided for AA Flight Delays.
Seattle Travel Tip: Fly on a window seat on the left side of the plane to Seattle and on the right side window from Seattle for views of Mt. Rainier to remind yourself why flying is so magical (without the flight delays of course)