Last week I had a unique experience while trying to fly American Airlines from Tampa to Newark via Charlotte. It wasn’t the most efficient way for me to get to Newark, but for only 8,000 miles and $5.60, I was willing to make a quick stop in Charlotte.
I needed to get to Newark on Wednesday to meet up with a friend who was flying in from Costa Rica prior to our trip to Bali on Sunday. He was planning to wait at EWR for me to arrive before we headed into New York City for a few days.
The problem is that rarely with AA do things go according to plan. The best route choice for 8,000 miles was, of course, the late flights, meaning that if something went wrong, there were no more flights until the next day.
We seemed to be somewhat on schedule when our plane arrived at 7:00pm. Our flight was scheduled for 7:05, but around 7:25 we were getting ready to board. I knew the actual flight time was only around 1 hour and 15 minutes, so I figured we were in decent shape. My layover in Charlotte was supposed to be about 1 hour and 20 minutes.
But as is so often the case with American Airlines lately, just as they called the first group up to board, everything went haywire. Initially the gate agent said that the crew from the previous flight smelled a strange odor in the plane, and that maintenance was checking it out. Immediately I had a bad feeling that it wasn’t going to be something simple. What came to mind right away was the recent news stories of AA mechanics purposely delaying flights.
Within a few minutes they made an announcement that everyone should take a seat and they would give us another update in 30 minutes. I will say that the gate agents, and there were 4 of them, were all very helpful and offered constant, although vague updates on the situation.
What followed for the next 2 hours was what seemed like a ping pong game of new departure times. First 8:30, then 8:11, then 8:30 again, then 8:45, then 8:10, and finally 8:45 again. Mind you this was after they had taken our original plane out of service which was parked at Gate F84. They had switched our flight to the Airbus A320 that was parked at F83, but didn’t have the proper crew to operate it.
With the new flight time constantly changing, I checked my options from Charlotte to Newark for the next day, and realized that if I missed my original connection I wouldn’t be able to get to Newark until after 3pm the next day…if I stuck with AA. That wasn’t going to work when I had a friend waiting for me, so I checked my options with other airlines. I found a Southwest non-stop from Tampa for the next morning for a not so small sum of 18,000 points, but it would have gotten me there about 7 hours before AA could have gotten me there, so I was contemplating it.
I kind of calculated that if we didn’t start boarding by 8:15 that my connection was in trouble, so at 8:15 with nothing happening I actually went up to the counter and told the agent that I wanted to cancel my flight. I had booked a one way, so cancelling wouldn’t affect a future return flight. She was extremely friendly and helpful and immediately asked me if I minded flying into LaGuardia Airport instead of Newark, assuming I missed my connection in Charlotte. There was a flight to LGA at 5:57am that would put me in NY around 8am. She said there were plenty of seats available so that was an option if I needed it. I liked the idea, and decided to roll the dice with the flights I had.
While the final departure time in the app remained at 8:45, we didn’t actually start boarding until 8:45. We took off around 9:15, and with my 2nd flight scheduled to take off at 10:35, I knew my connection was in serious trouble.
But with all that happening, none of that was as interesting as the reason given for the foul odor in our original plane. It seems that, according to the captain’s announcement, the odor came from a ground fire that the plane had flown over, possibly an oil truck, on it’s trip down from Charlotte to Tampa. He said that they had eventually determined that that’s where the smell had come from. The smoke and smell from the fire had gotten into the planes air filtration system and caused the foul odor in the cabin. I’ve heard of all kinds of reasons for delaying or cancelling flights, but that’s a new one for me. If that truly was the cause, I actually think it’s pretty impressive that they figured it out so quickly.
To round out the night, as our plane landed and we taxied to Gate D10 in Charlotte, we passed right by C6 as the plane I was supposed to be on to Newark was pushing back from the gate. I was stuck in Charlotte overnight, and my buddy ended up heading into Manhattan without me.
And strangely enough, during all 3 of the captain’s announcements during our flight to Charlotte, he threw in this little tidbit – “Thank you on behalf of the 180,000 employees who made this flight happen”. It seemed forced, and very odd given the circumstances. I would estimate that about half the people on the flight missed their various connections in Charlotte.
The Wrap Up
We’ve heard recently about some scary incidents involving fumes in cockpits, but who knew that fires happening 35,000 feet below can have such an impact on a plane flying above. Given all the recent wildfires in California, maybe this is a common problem for airplanes. I give American credit for figuring out the cause of the odor, if in fact, that was the cause, but I think it’s back to JetBlue and Alaska Airlines for me. I like a drama free life, and the American experience is never without drama.