Sometimes we take for granted certain miracles of technology that are available to us. With that in mind, I don’t want to sound ungrateful in the following paragraphs when I disparage a company that can lift me, simultaneously with hundreds of other individuals, several miles into the sky and allow me to travel one fifth the length of the equator in under a day, but the weird thing is that, taken in a vacuum, they do that part pretty well. It’s all the other parts, which normal people often do right without thinking, that they screw up on. So given that heavier-than-air flight is amazing, Delta manages to find new and interesting ways to screw it up.
The flight that I just took with Delta was by no means the worst flight I’ve ever had: I can think of at least three off the top of my head that were more stressful by orders of magnitude. But those three were stressful for reasons more-or-less beyond the control of the airline. This flight didn’t have to be annoying, and yet it was.
It starts in Ft. Lauderdale with a hydraulics check. Not the end of the world, but we depart about 20 minutes late, when I have about an hour and a half to switch planes in New York. Given that I wouldn’t know whether or not I have to switch terminals until I get to JFK, this is mildly problematic. Of note: before the 20-minute delay, someone came over the P.A. to tell us that the plane wouldn’t move until we were all seated, in a tone of voice that said “well if we don’t take off on time, it’s your fault.”
It gets really ridiculous, however, in JFK. Boarding is almost a full hour before takeoff, which actually isn’t a complaint: because the flight is to Israel, we have to go through security a second time prior to boarding. The extra time was probably necessary. But keep this figure in mind: the first passengers boarded at 6:30, and takeoff is supposed to be 7:25.
Around 7:30-ish (I wasn’t looking at a clock, but let’s give the crew the benefit of the doubt and say it was a few minutes before 7:30), an announcement comes on in the same admonishing “it’s your fault” tone saying that we’re a few minutes past our takeoff time and that everyone needs to sit down if we want to minimize the delay. Oh yeah, and no portable electronic devices. Everyone sits down, but we don’t move. We continue to not move for about half an hour before we hear another announcement.
There’s a problem with the fuel, it will be another 15 minutes. Please no portable electronic devices. I ask a flight attendant if he knows what’s going on. He says that they don’t know how much fuel is in the airplane, and they need to know that before they can move.
“Yeah, I’m not really sure what’s going on either.”
After several more “this should be another fifteen minutes”es, it was 9:25 before we moved from the gate and 9:40 before we took off. That’s a full two hours and fifteen minutes after takeoff time, which was three hours and ten minutes since the first passengers entered the plane. That is, it took over two hours to figure out something that most cars can tell you with the turn of a key.
Now, I want to get back to the “miracles of technology” thing, because the actual error, while very, very silly, happened on a Boeing 747, which is one of the largest self-propelled craft ever to get off the ground. I don’t know what kinds of instrumentations and borderline-magic are involved in this feat of lifting a full-to-capacity 747 into the air, which happens hundreds of times every day.
But, this is one of the largest self-propelled craft ever to get off the ground. The people in charge of it should know what to do when something like this happens. Particularly Delta, a company which should have more experience in handling plane delays than any other airliner in the world.
Instead of being honest and saying “We don’t know how long this is going to take,” they periodically told us that it would take another 10 or 15 minutes. Every so often someone told us, every time admonishingly, that we needed to be seated, with our seat belts fastened, and that all our portable electronic devices needed to be in the off position, or else we couldn’t move.
I wonder what that flight attendant’s reaction would have been had I told her, in that same patronizing tone, that the airline needs to be able to keep track of its most basic fuel accounts, or else we couldn’t move.
During our two-hour delay (three-hour wait), nobody from Delta came by with drinks or peanuts/pretzels/whathaveyou. We didn’t get any indication of what we should do or expect. Apparently if you went to one of the galleys you could get water, but it took a while before people started figuring this out, and I imagine many people didn’t even realize this was an option.
The entertainment system was not turned on. Oh, here’s another “miracle of technology” tangent: this is the first trans-atlantic flight I have taken since making aliyah (which puts the count at over a dozen flights total) that did not have a personal entertainment system. That’s right: there was a big projector screen at the front, and everyone had to watch that. Now, yes, the technology to give each person their own private LCD touchscreen is amazing and shouldn’t be taken for granted, but this is twenty-goddamn-eleven. Half the people on this plane had their own private LCD touchscreen in their pockets (but we can’t use those because they are “portable electronic devices”). A plane this antiquated shouldn’t be hauling people for flights that go over 10 hours in this day and age.
But back to “the entertainment system was not turned on.” You know that blue screen that has all your flight status information that goes from metric to standard to a map showing were you are? We had that to stare at for two hours. Keep that in mind.
So we finally take off and after the plane levels, dinner is served. I was handed a kosher meal. I didn’t realize that’s what it was, but out of politeness I handed the first tray to the older gentleman sitting next to me. Only after I did that did the flight attendant ask if I had *ordered* a kosher meal. I had not. This is another one of those things that’s slightly more complicated because it’s Israel, and really this is probably the most nitpicky of complaints that I have about the flight, but it seems to me that this kind of operation leads to the situation where people who *did* order kosher meals do not get them.
Then they turn the entertainment system on. It’s a sitcom starring the janitor from Scrubs and the wife from Raymond. And… it has commercial breaks? Weird, but I guess it’s not too annoying and maybe it helps them with revenue at the margins.
After that show is… a ten-minute advertisement for vacationing in lower Manhattan starring Michael Bloomberg? Didn’t we just *leave* New York? Why are they showing this to us?
I took off my headphones when the next program, ostensibly a tech review show, started with praise for the HP Touchpad.
I think there was then another advertisement, and then Glee. With commercials.
1) Delta, how bad is your financial situation that your entertainment, by minute, is more advertisements than entertainment?
2) I realized about halfway through the episode that they were probably showing the season finale of Glee. What about the people who, I know this is weird, might want to actually watch the rest of the season first instead of having the finale projected on a large screen right in front of their faces where it’s kind of awkward to look away?
Then came movies. In English. With Hebrew subtitles. That were too far down the screen. For me to see. From my seat.
Somewhere around here I realized that, hey, I hadn’t seen any blue-screen status or location updates in a while. In fact, I hadn’t seen any since we took off, and I wouldn’t see any for the rest of the flight. Which is to say, the only time I knew how far away we were from our destination or our flight speed, both those numbers were constant.
Oh yeah, and the last movie was put on with not nearly enough time to actually watch it before we landed. Seems to me that’s a pretty elementary mistake to not make. But then again, maybe they just didn’t know the flight status when they started it.
Last complaint: food.
Apparently Delta’s plan during a 10-hour flight is to only give us food right after takeoff and right before landing. That seems fairly short-sighted in a “tray tables in their upright position” sort of way, but it feels to me barely even tenable considering that means about 8 hours with no food or beverage service.
At one point I go up to one of the galleys an say, innocuously, “isn’t it kind of weird that we’ve been on the plane ten hours and the food and beverage carts have only come by once?”
“Oh, no, the whole flight is ten hours, and we’re going to come around again.”
“Yes, but boarding was three hours before takeoff. We’ve been on the plane for ten hours.”
They gave some excuses, and I let it slide in an “I don’t want to make a big deal out of this, I just wanted to make sure you were aware that I’m not happy” sort of way. Apparently there were tiny sandwiches available, but they were up in the galley and you had to come and get them. Nobody told us that this was the case. And when food service did come a second time, it was a hot pocket and some fruit. And beverage service was limited to water, tea, or coffee. This is with an eight to nine hour interval between meals, during a period of time when access to food was under the complete control of Delta.
Long story short, I say after 1,700 words, I don’t know why Delta is still in business. Old airplanes, obnoxious ads, and an inability to manage situations that should be reasonably expectable. I feel like Delta has created a business around being the only choice, and then making sure new options can’t enter the market.
So next time you have to fly long distances, choose an airline that isn’t Delta. Any airline that isn’t Delta. You’ll be glad you did.