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Hail

Started: 2011-07-16 07:27:41

Submitted: 2011-07-16 09:29:41

Visibility: World-readable

On Thursday morning, 14 July, I took a leisurely morning run before breakfast and Kiesa, Calvin, and I headed down to Denver International Airport for our flight to Portland to kick off the better part of a week on vacation in Oceanside, Oregon with my mother's branch of my extended family. We parked in the Mount Elbert shuttle parking lot, took the shuttle bus to the terminal (which Calvin thought was part of the adventure) and entered the terminal to see an epic line in front of the Frontier counter. No problem, I thought; they're waiting to check in with a human, and all we need to do is drop our bags (having already checked in online) at the very end of the counter. As we walked past the line I overheard passengers discuss things like "hail damage" and "canceled flights" and glanced up at the monitor to check the status of our flight and saw that it had been canceled.

Kiesa staked out a spot and tried to call Frontier Reservations to get us rebooked on the next available flight, and handed Calvin her iPhone with a couple of toddler-grade apps to keep him amused. I went back to the very end of the very long line and waited to talk to a customer service rep to do the same. (Many of the people in line with me were hedging their bets the same way: calling reservations on their wireless phones at the same time they were queuing.) It gradually emerged that a thunderstorm the previous night had dropped golf-ball-sized hail on the airport, damaging 18 of Frontier's planes to the point where they needed to pull them out of service for evaluation and repair. As a result, every flight those planes would have operated today had been canceled, at least 20 out of Denver and more inbound. To deal with the rebookings Frontier fielded only two agents in the main terminal. Kiesa finally got through to a human after an hour on hold and spent the next 30 minutes trying to figure out a suitable alternative flight, hampered by the fact that we were flying on different reservations because I was planning on returning early, and by my decision to extend my trip through Thursday if we couldn't get out until the weekend. (Frontier's official travel policy seems to imply that this is acceptable, and it mirrors what I've done before for canceled Frontier flights, but the customer service rep Kiesa talked to had to get a manager override to make the change and apparently got away with it only because she said she could do it before discovering it was not officially allowed. We also discussed flying into Seattle, rather than Portland, which would at least get us in the neighborhood, but Frontier does not recognize Seattle and Portland as being sufficiently close to let us change city pairs without incurring the difference in fare -- US$90/each. We considered the option as the least-bad way to salvage the trip but eventually decided against it when we realized the late-night Denver-to-Seattle flight was delayed and would arrive after midnight, PDT. I did notice, later, while reading the Contract of Carriage, that Frontier considers Denver and Colorado Springs sufficiently adjacent that it will consider its mission accomplished if it gets me to COS instead of DEN.)

In the 90 minutes I spent in line, I made it somewhere between half and two-thirds of my way to the ticket counter. Many of the people around me in line took the best offer they got from the phone reps and bailed, but the group behind me decided to take their chances with the ticket counter, as they (according to the phone reps) allegedly had more, different, and/or better local agreements with other carriers and might be able to offer an earlier flight on another airline. (We were offered the same option but I didn't think I'd reach the front of the queue in less than an hour and wanted to cut my losses with a Saturday flight.) Kiesa got us rebooked on an early-morning flight on Saturday and managed to change my return from Tuesday to Thursday. I left the line, weary but relieved to actually have a plan.

I understand many of the pressures that airlines face in 2011, with ticket prices racing to the bottom, operating costs increasing, and flights operating at or near capacity, reducing the ability of the system to pick up the slack from one (let alone twenty) canceled flight. While it disappoints me that I had to reschedule my vacation and waste a day driving to and from the airport, I accept that as a cost of doing business and having the opportunity for widely-available low-cost air travel at all. What upsets me is the way Frontier handled the cancellations: They made no effort to contact us in advance of our arriving at the airport (despite having solicited our mobile phone numbers while checking in, and having my mobile number and e-mail address on file), and managed to field only two ticket-counter representatives to handle more than twenty outbound canceled flights. Their phone support system was also unprepared for the onslaught (before even being able to wait on hold, Kiesa had to call repeatedly only to get a busy signal), and I would have expected the phone reservation agents to have access to as many alternate-airline arrangements as possible, rather than forcing us to make the choice between a mediocre offer on the phone against the possibility of a better offer in person -- at which point even the mediocre offer may no longer be available.

We left the airport (giving Calvin a bus ride back to the shuttle parking lot rather than the plane ride we promised him) and drove into Denver to eat a late lunch at Watercourse (our favorite vegetarian restaurant in Denver) in a desperate attempt at salvaging the afternoon. I briefly considered trying to get in a half-day of work, which might have been possible had we not eaten at Watercourse. We drove home in another thunderstorm and spent a leisurely evening at home.

I went to work on Friday and managed to get at least a little work done. The project I spent the last eight months on is now self-sustaining, requiring very little of my attention to keep going on its own power, usually only involving my sending e-mails that say, "No, you're doing it wrong." My earlier fears of a busy summer may yet prove prescient but at the moment I'm enjoying a bit of calm between the storms and taking the opportunity to retool, document, work on some less-urgent longer-term projects, and write the debugger extension I've been thinking about for six months.

The point is that one should never assume that sucky, disgusting software
is written by first year comp sci majors. There are enough professional
programmers out there to cause a far bigger disaster.
- Randseed (132501) on Slashdot, 08 June 2003