Sunday, September 30, 2012

What is Your Worst Flight Experience -- Can You Beat Gary Shteyngart's?

I fly a lot as many academics do.

I enjoy travel tremendously and have lived in several European countries and am presently back in Gothenburg, Sweden, as a Visiting Professor.

I do, however, tend to favor certain airlines, not only because of their frequent flier benefits, but also because of previous positive experiences and, if I may say, "service." Of course, there are also tricks such as avoiding certain airports, packing up the right snacks, upgrading to a more comfortable seat, etc.

Just this past Tuesday, I had a wonderful flight on Delta from Boston Logan to Amsterdam Schiphol and the food was delicious. I have been doing this flight regularly to get to Gothenburg but did manage even a transit through Heathrow last March, which was not bad given the new terminal E -- glossy with good food and shopping.

Gary Shteyngart in a piece for The New York Times writes about his recent 30 hour nightmarish, Kafkaesque trip across the Atlantic on flight 121 from NYC to Paris on American Airlines (that is how long it has taken me to get from the East Coast of the US to New Zealand).

It was a horrific journey and I give him a lot of credit for sympathizing with those who were crying and who are older and could not make it to various gates in order to get onward with their journey from hell after they finally landed in London (although they should have been in Paris), and  after having to return to NYC after being mid-way across the Atlantic (something about the altimeter not working -- one does not want to end up swimming with the Altantic salmon).

It took us 6 and a half hours this past Wednesday from Boston to Amsterdam and it took him 30 hours on American Airlines from NYC to Paris, "compliments of American Airlines," with a bus tour in Heathrow. Note -- he and the other suffering passengers were trying to make it to Paris!

When the passengers on his flight broke through the barriers in London, I had a feeling of deja vu, since last October I had a similar experience, but in Paris, which I wrote about. I felt like Tom Hanks in the movie, The Terminal.

In a recent post I wrote about the importance of competing with quality and The Economist has a great article on The magic of good service.

As for my worst travel experiences (I won't name the airlines):

1. I had a Sydney to Sydney flight. It was the pilot's birthday and we lost an engine over the Pacific, so after several hours after taking off from Sydney we made it back to Sydney. At least we were treated to a lavish turkey dinner. The next day, many passengers had switched to Qantas so our plane was almost empty and we could stretch out and the news made CNN but we did eventually make it to LA.

2. About 3 years ago I was to give a plenary speech in Auckland, New Zealand. After crossing the US, we were stuck on the tarmac at LAX because of really bad storms for 4 hours. I got to know the stewards and stewardesses quite well chatting with them in the back of the plane. Finally,  after about 12 hours plus of "travel" I was finally over the Pacific. Auckland is fabulous and the trip was still worth it as was the conference!

3. Flying from Ithaca Airport to Bradley Airport (Hartford-Springfield) when we even had such direct flights, our wheels would not go done  on one of those charmingly named Fokker planes. I had just proven a theorem and was finishing up writing a paper so in a weird way I was "happy.."

The passengers on the plane were completely silent when the pilot announced that our wheels would not come down and we kept on circling and circling and dumping fuel. Bradley airport  was cleared and I saw bright yellow fire trucks lining up.

I knew that this was not a good sign.

Somehow we magically landed and then my husband told me that they were serving refreshments for the "survivors of the victims."

I had been flying to Ithaca regularly since I had been serving on the National Allocations Committee for the Cornell University Supercomputer Center (the good days).

That was the last time I ever got on a Fokker plane.

I'll save more flight stories for another day.

Happy travels!