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Letter to - 6/7/2002

“Never fly America’s Worst” co-workers and acquaintances seemed to always be saying. “They will find a way to ruin your entire vacation. You will sit on the tarmac for hours. They will lose some of your luggage. You will be crammed in seats of great tightness. Their first class is a standing joke. You will miss your connections. You will get held over somewhere in back water USA…..”

Since we had never heard anything good about America West Airlines in the past, there didn’t seem to be any reason to fly with them now. So many people had regaled us with harrowing and frustrating tales over the years about how crappy they were that we had pretty much ruled out ever putting our fate in their hands. But when researching and booking a trip to the Northwest recently, we heard reports that they had turned over a new leaf and were now number one ranked for on timeness and service. That fact, coupled with flight times that exactly fit our schedule and a price that was considerably cheaper than any other carrier, made us decide to give them a try. How much different could they be?

The answer is, just different enough to make the already dehumanizing experience of flying highly unpleasant. Eight other Goliard staffers flew up for the same event using four other airlines and six different flights to get there. The fact that no one else had any problems seems to call to the fore those time tested adages "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" and "You get what you pay for.”

The first leg of the trip set the stage. Having booked the trip weeks in advance over the internet, Piolline and I took advantage of being able to choose our seats, positioning ourselves near the front when we had to make connections, and in adjacent seats so we might use the time to settle a long standing dispute about who plays superior cribbage. After checking in and giving our word that we weren’t carrying any luggage for strangers, we headed for the plane only to find upon boarding that the ticketing agent had separated us for some unexplained reason not to mention had moved Piolline all the way to the back row. Since it was only supposed to be a thirty minute flight we weren’t all that irritated. That is until we got underway.

We took off on time from Tucson headed for Phoenix, ascended shakily over the city, and seemed about to reach cruising altitude somewhere over Casa Grande when the plane suddenly banked sharply to the right and the pilot’s voice came on. “Ladies and Gentlemen, due to mechanical problems with the landing gear we are afraid we are forced to return to Tucson. It’s nothing to worry about.”

Disconcerting. Not to mention that we were over half way to our destination when we turned back and could have assumedly landed just as easily in Phoenix with broken landing gear as in Tucson from where we had just taken off. Then, us passengers could have continued on our way and left the airline to worry about fixing their broken plane. Instead, we returned to the same gate from which we had departed just moments before and were greeted by some ridiculously bubbly woman who came on board to say that we needed to deplane and not to be surprised if we found that it was chaotic in the terminal seeing as how three of their other planes were also stuck on the ground. How many America’s West planes could have been using the airport around that time? Four or so at the most? 75 percent grounded? The terminal, as advertised, was teeming with disgruntled passengers.

As the lines formed and the bubbly woman bubbled over with platitudes and worthless information, our watches soon showed that the plane we should have been on from Phoenix had left for Portland without us. Our 100 dollars of tickets to a baseball game that night and one chance for the year to see our favorite team in action were assuredly going to waste. Strike One for America West.

After waiting around in one wrong line or another for a couple of infuriating hours, we finally came face to face with the bubbly woman herself who gave us forms to fill out and vouchers for a free lunch, assuring us that America West was very sorry and we would be compensated for the inconvenience. The voucher turned out to be good for a meal to be consumed on that day only, of a value not to exceed six dollars, which isn’t much but is something and may have helped ease the frustration had we had any time to enjoy it. Instead we were informed, in a tone that let us know we were extremely lucky, that we were booked aboard another flight leaving immediately and we needed to be on our toes when we arrived because we would have only ten minutes in Phoenix to make another connection for Portland. To emphasize the point we were told that if we missed this connection, which was something we had no control over, we would probably be stuck in Phoenix for the night, a place, it’s worth noting, that we could have driven to ourselves in half the time we had already spent screwing around with America West. When we got on board we found that our seats were again right at the back near the bathroom and not together. We would be the last ones off.

We made the next flight by sprinting from the near end of one terminal to the far end of another and arrived sweating to find that our seats were again separated and both the middle seats in rows at the very back of the airbus. It seemed almost fitting somehow that I had a crying baby on one side of me and a drooling, snoring goliath on the other. No food was offered on the flight. Being crammed into a plane is unpleasant enough but by taking the time to plan in advance for a trip, pick your seats so you either have an aisle to stretch out a bit or a window to enjoy the view, bring a cribbage board, and, provided you are suitably nourished and hydrated, the experience can sometimes be bearable. Instead we found ourselves stuffed in the middle seats of a row between large people we didn’t know some of whom were holding little people we didn’t know in their laps, breathing the stench of soiled diapers and wafting chemicals of the nearby lavatory, and all the while suffering low blood sugar because we didn't have the option of eating for seven or eight hours. No views of the landscape below, no room to move, no food, no conversation, no cribbage, no baseball game to look forward to, and a wadded up worthless voucher for a less then six dollar meal we would never get the chance to consume, crinkling in our pockets. Nine hours of travel instead of four. Strike Two.

After spending a pleasant vacation in the Northwest and forgetting for the time about near bankrupt airlines and all things related, we returned to the America West ticket counter in the Portland airport to find Yvonne smiling at us sweetly. Piolline had sacrificed his wallet to the river gods and gone to great lengths to have a passport Fed Exed (which is no easy thing when camping) so that he might have ID for the flight home. Yvonne never bothered to check his ID but did say that her computer showed that we had an unpleasant experience on the flight up. When we assured her that was the case she said she could bump us up to first class. Excellent. We had an hour to kill and headed to the bar for a couple of relaxing beers. Knowing that we had seats in front of the plane, and none to eager to return to America West’s clutches even in first class, we took our time, planning to head to the gate to board about fifteen minutes before departure. As we were settling our tab we heard our mispronounced names blaring over the loudspeaker. So and So and so and so. This is your last call to board.”

Yvonne had come down from the ticket counter and was waiting at the gate for us looking personally insulted by something. 
“Where were you?” She demanded, arms akimbo. 
“Uh we were having a couple drinks. Why?” I asked, thinking her behavior highly unorthodox. 
“How many drinks?” She wanted to know, eyeing me closely. 
“I think I had two beers.” 
“Oh” she said. “Because if you have too many we won’t let you on.” 
What? She had just talked to me a half an hour ago. How drunk could I have gotten? It wasn't like I was going to end up crapping atop the meal cart anyway since there wasn't one.
“And where’s your little friend.” She asked, looking around the terminal suspiciously. 
“I believe he's in the bathroom urinating but thanks for your concern.” I looked at my watch to see that it was still 15 minutes before the flight was scheduled to leave. “What’s the big deal. I asked. 
“Oh the pilot wants to leave early.” she said.

First class on America West is like coach with most other carriers. No hot washcloths to freshen up, no entree choices, no heated ramekins of cashews, or for that matter, decent food of any kind. Just a free Heineken and a little bag of peanuts. At least we had room to play some cribbage.

A week later, a letter arrived in the mail from America West, again apologizing for the inconvenience of the cancelled flight and containing a coupon, which at first glance appeared almost worthwhile but under closer inspection only added insult to injury. The coupon offers 25 dollars off on flights costing between $199 and $299 but stipulates that the ticket has to be purchased at full price and cannot be booked over the internet or be in conjunction with any other discounts. It also says that it can only be obtained at the ticket counter at the airport. 

So let us review. To cash in on this generous offer supposedly made to compensate us for an infuriating day of travel and a missed baseball game, we would have to drive to the airport and book a full price ticket (during a time when online discounts abound) just to save ten percent off full price which nobody pays anymore and amounts to less than what it would cost in gas, parking, and inconvenience just to get to the counter to make the purchase. Thanks for nothing America's Worst. Strike Three. You're Out.

Response from AW

More letters concerning America West

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