Well … that Sucked. Why Next Oshkosh, I’m Flying GA

Are you a fan of dark humor? Then you have to read the Redbird Flight Simulation team’s travel tale of woe, courtesy of American Airlines.

American Airlines MD-80
American Airlines MD-80.American Airlines

I recently had one of those experiences that reminded me of the freedom and convenience that general aviation provides those of us who have embraced it as a way of life. It was late July, and to those of us in the aviation industry that means one thing: It’s time to pack up and hit the road, bound for a small Wisconsin town on the shores of Lake Winnebago for “The World’s Greatest Aviation Celebration.”

I arrived at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport at 6:30 a.m. for my 8 o’clock American Airlines flight to Chicago O’Hare. I met up with my traveling companions, checked a few bags and headed to security. Being TSA PreCheck is pretty nice and rarely presents a reason to complain, except when the hump in front of you can’t figure out why the metal detector keeps going off. (Pssst, lady ... IT’S THE METAL BRACELETS FESTOONING YOUR ARMS.) I normally don’t meddle in the affairs of others so I inhaled deeply and kept my comments to myself. Luckily on the fourth time through they figured it out.

I finally made it past the reenactment of Dumb and Dumber and was on my way to the gates, confident that I was going to stay positive, and dare I say excited about our upcoming migration north for EAA AirVenture. All I needed was some coffee. A quick stop at Austin Java for a triple-grande non-fat mocha should do the trick. Upon arriving at the counter I’m told that the espresso machine is broken. OK ... no mocha ... no problem — a scalding cup of burnt black coffee it is.

I took my coffee to the gate and patiently sat, sipping that black nectar of the gods whilst patiently awaiting my turn to board the MD-80 bound for Chi-town. At 7:30, a brusque female gate agent announced that boarding would begin soon. Like lemmings, we all stood and gathered in the boarding area, listening with rapt attention for our group number to be called. I'm in Group 2, so my group should be the second one called I figure. Oh wait, I forgot about the Executive Platinum members, and the Gold Card holders, and the One World Ruby and Sapphire members. Six groups board, each with a slightly less ostentatious metallurgical or geological designation than the last, and we are finally to Group 1.

Francine (the name I have decided to give the brusque gate agent to protect her identity ... and because I don't know her real name) announces that the airplane’s overhead compartments are now full and that all carry-on bags must be checked at the gate. Well ... all right. I really didn't want to leave my carry-on in the hands of those baggage destroyers beneath the terminal, but I guess I have no choice. A quick bag tag and I was on my way. I boarded the plane, got settled in for our on-time departure ... and waited.

"It's getting a bit hot in here," the stranger snuggled uncomfortably against my right shoulder said.

"Sure is," I agreed. "I wonder why the pilots haven't turned on the air conditioner yet."

No sooner had the question left my tongue than the pilot’s voice came over the intercom.

"Folks, this airplane doesn't have an APU ... uh, an auxiliary power unit ... it, uh, supplies power to the airplane while we are on the ground, so we can't start the AC at this time."

Well that answered that question.

"We tried to start the left engine," the pilot continued, "but the generator didn't kick in ... yada yada yada."

They tried and failed to get the engine started a few times before calling maintenance, at which point they tried a few more times, now with a mustachioed man in a yellow vest looking over their shoulders. I imagine that yellow vest guy was running through some standard Tier 1 support items like "Did you try to reboot it?" and "Are you sure it's plugged in?" Alas, nothing. Thirty minutes or so passed when they finally decided to deplane the passengers. As we clambered off the plane I looked back at the now half-empty MD-80 and thought to myself, "Well on the bright side, there is room in the overhead bins now." Like I said, I was determined to stay positive.

Back at the gate we took our recently vacated seats and waited to be called to start the boarding ritual again. We started to look for other flight options but struck out. Everything was either sold out or canceled. Meanwhile we were being showered with assurances from the gate agents as well as the flight attendants and even the pilot that it shouldn't take too long — an hour tops. That hour turned into two ... then three ... then five ... then 10. A mental picture of the mechanics outside passing the time by smacking the engine with a four-pound, neon-orange dead blow hammer amused me. The realization that we are still sitting here because some suit in Dallas had crunched some numbers and determined that it would be less costly for American Airlines to inconvenience a plane-load of paying customers than to bring down a working replacement airplane extinguished my amusement.

At 5:30 p.m. I decided to visit the counter again to see if there were any other options we had missed. The line had finally died down and there was only one elderly gentleman in front of me. As I was waiting, the maintenance crew called it quits, threw their hands up and decided this hunk of junk was a lost cause. The flight was canceled. Good thing I queued up when I did because at that point a mob of tired, angry travelers suddenly appeared behind me, frothing at the mouth, waiting for their chance to speak to Barbara (also not her real name), the sole gate agent on duty.

Barbara humorlessly beckoned me forward. I approached and politely asked about the options to get the five of us to Chicago, Green Bay, Appleton, Milwaukee, Madison, hell, anything would work at this point.

"Well what was your alternate?" She asked me with a straight face.

"What?" I ask. "What do you mean?"

"You guys usually make alternates," she tells me.

"I wasn't aware that I was supposed to file an IFR flight plan when I booked my ticket," I thought to myself.

Before I could respond, Josh (one of my fellow travelers) snapped, "We mistakenly assumed that American would get us to Chicago as planned. Didn't know we needed an alternate."

Not how I wanted to handle things. Catch more flies with honey than vinegar and all that, but I certainly can't fault him for his frustration. It didn't help matters, of course, but I think it was therapeutic for him.

"There’s nothing tonight, except a flight to Phoenix," she said, expertly shrugging off Josh's rebuke.

"Phoenix and then where?" I asked.

"Nowhere. Just Phoenix," she responded.

"Yeah that's not very helpful. Phoenix doesn't actually happen to be anywhere near Wisconsin, believe it or not," I replied.

While Barbara and I continued to discuss U.S. geography, a cacophony of tapping thumbs arose behind me. My companions were busily typing away on their phones, Googling harder that you would have thought possible, looking for flights on other airlines that might have opened up. "Good news!" Josh said. He may not be winning any Ms. Congeniality awards today, but he did come through with an alternative. Southwest can get us to Milwaukee tonight via Atlanta. Flight leaves in an hour, but there are only four seats. There were five of us total, so we were going to have to leave one behind. The rest of us were going on to Milwaukee. We have to get to Oshkosh. There was work to be done.

Pleased with our solution, I turned back to Barbara. "Alright, we have an alternate. Another airline! Give me a refund and my bags and we’ll be on our way."

"So you want to cancel these tickets?"

"Well, can you get me to Wisconsin today?"

"No."

"Then cancel the tickets. We’ll take Southwest."

"Do you want me to cancel the return trips too then?"

"Well, can you get me to Wisconsin today?"

"No."

"Then I don't think I'm going to need you to get me back either."

"Oh. OK. I'll refund your tickets."

"Great, where do we pick up our bags?"

"Oh, your bags are in Chicago."

"WHAT?!?!"

"We sent the checked bags on to Chicago on an earlier flight."

I cannot explain how flabbergasted I was by this decision. What sense does it make to send our bags to Chicago without us? What good does that do anyone? Now you have stranded a planeload of people in Austin without their luggage (including most people’s carry-ons that were forcibly checked.) Big help guys. Thanks a lot!

"So how do we get our bags back, Barbara?" I ask as if I'm talking to my 7-year-old, the honey all dried up and the hope of catching any flies abandoned.

"You can pick them up in Chicago, or you can file a claim once you get to your final destination and we will forward them to you."

So we have a choice. Either we can live and work for the next 48-72 hours without a toothbrush to our names, or we can hoof our asses back down to Chicago to pick them up after landing in Milwaukee. I guess we're driving to Chicago. To say that today has not gone as planned would be like referring to WWII as a “kerfuffle.” While technically true, it doesn't fully capture the scope of things. Frustrated and out of patience I fumed as Barbara processed our refunds.

Finally done confronting the stupidity that seems to be breeding at the American Airlines counter en masse, I ran to the gate for our Southwest flight to Atlanta, not wanting to miss it, only to find out that it too was delayed an hour. Oh good, I was worried that something would go right today.

I got busy rebooking return flights and rental cars. That’s when we realized a flaw in our otherwise terrible plan. Our flight to Milwaukee is now scheduled to land at 1 a.m., one hour after the rental car counters close. I guess we’re staying in Milwaukee for the night after all. Better find a hotel.

Easier said than done. Apparently Milwaukee was home to the Greater Wisconsin Cheese Curd Spitting Contest (or some other great Northern to-do), which meant that all the hotel rooms were booked for the night. All except for four rooms at some roach motel. Should be nice.

So now here we are with only the clothes on our backs, aboard a plane flying east to get north, on our way to Milwaukee where, if we’re lucky, we can hail an odiferous late-night cab to take us to a hotel that probably offers hourly rates. On the bright side though, at least we won’t have to wait at baggage claim.

Oh good, the flight attendant is here with my vodka tonic. What’s that? You’re out of limes, you say? Figures! This is my #RoadToOSH. Next time I’m flying GA.

Charlie Gregoire is vice president of sales, marketing and services for Redbird Flight Simulations in Austin, Texas.