This is the first (and nearly last) part of the story of a trip to Thailand in November 2021.
Booking The Flights
I had previously booked a trip to Phuket, Thailand with American Airlines frequent flyer miles for later in the month. The best flights I could find were from New York on Japan Airlines, one of American’s oneworld alliance partners. Those flights would have required getting a separate ticket form my home in Charlotte, NC to and from New York and the return from Thailand involved changing airports in Tokyo. Shortly after booking the Phuket trip, things changed.
The Thai prime minister announced that on November 1 Thailand would open to air travelers from certain low-risk (wealthy) countries with an effective quarantine of only one night. There were 46 countries on the list originally. It is now up to 63 the last time I checked. To make a long story short, I was able to rebook the original ticket for the same number of frequent flyer miles from Charlotte departing November 1 and there were no redeposit fees or other penalties.
The new booking offered two significant advantages: (1) there was no need to get a second ticket; and (2) it avoided having to change airports in Tokyo from Haneda (HND) to Narita (NRT). Changing airports in Tokyo would have involved the hassle of a 90-minute bus ride and potential complications due to Covid entry restrictions in Japan. Done!
American Airlines Halloween Meltdown
Departing on November 1 solved a couple of problems but, as luck would have it, other problems popped up. Over Halloween weekend American Airlines operations suffered major disruptions. American cancelled more than 2,000 flights. It blamed the problems on high winds at Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), American’s largest hub. American (like many airlines worldwide) utilizes a hub-and-spoke system rather than a point-to-point one. Instead of offering primarily direct flights from point A to point B, in a hub-and-spoke system airlines bring passengers from many cities to one or more hub airports where they are aggregated on flights to their intended destination.
A hub-and-spoke system lets airlines market more destinations to non hub cities. A major drawback to the system is a problem at one hub can cascade and multiply across an airline’s entire operation when planes and crews are out of position for their next flights. The high winds at DFW on October 28 created a ripple effect throughout the system. American’s ability to recover was probably hindered because airlines have generally increased their number of flights faster than they have recalled or hired employees and the disruption occurred near the end of a month when many flight crew members have reached their monthly on-duty time maximums. Blaming all of the disruptions on weather is convenient because then there is no legal requirement to compensate passengers.
Several times over the Halloween weekend I checked the website and called American to confirm that my early Monday flight was unaffected.
Charlotte (CLT) Departure
On Monday morning, the CLT website showed TSA screening wait times of about 20 minutes. That is in line with what I’d expect on a Monday morning at CLT. Although it was an international flight that required check in at the airport to verify the necessary travel documents, I figured I’d only need to get to the airport about one hour before the 07:24 departure.
Due in large part to an unusually long wait for a Lyft, I got to the airport at 06:45. I was horrified to see security lines that stretched from one end of the ticket counters to the other. The TSA wait time was more like 45 minutes to an hour or more. I’ve been traveling a long time for business and leisure and recall seeing security lines like that only in one other airport. An American ticket counter agent attributed the long security lines to a lack of TSA workers. From what I could see, it looked like all of the security lines were manned and operating.
At that point, it seemed like the chances of making the flights to Thailand were nil. I have no photos of the security lines because I was probably in shock and was using the cell phone to call American Airlines customer service.
American Airlines Elite Status To The Rescue!
The ticket agents weren’t much help. Their primary responsibility is checking in passengers. The best thing to do seemed to be to call the American Executive Platinum line and/or speak with an agent in the American Airlines Admirals Club post security. I prefer to speak with an agent in person. In this case, however, speaking to someone asap was most important.
There was about a 20 minute wait for a phone rep. While on hold I scoped out the security line for the E Concourse. I’m a little ashamed to say that I melded into the line at what appeared to be a little more than half way to the front. It was easy and almost unintentional in the chaos. The security lines were packed together in the small passageway in front of the ticket counters, and people had to navigate between the lines to get to ticket counters.
I spoke with an Executive Platinum rep while in the security line. She made my week! I was rebooked on the next flight to Chicago and the rep even got a first class seat for me! CLT and Chicago O’Hare (ORD) are American’s second and third largest hubs. American operates nine daily non-stop flights from CLT to ORD. The rebooked flight was scheduled to arrive at ORD about 55 minutes before the Japan Airlines flight’s scheduled departure. That was plenty of time because both flights operated from Terminal 3. In the U.S. there is no passport control checkpoint for departing international flights.
Whew! Although I was unlucky to have been affected by the American Airlines meltdown, I’m very happy and lucky to have gotten another flight out of CLT in time to make the Japan Airlines connection at ORD. Having access to an American Airlines customers service line with the shortest wait times was very valuable in this situation. If the airline you are flying has a lounge at your departing airport and you are in need of assistance during a major travel disruption and don’t want to be on hold for hours, consider buying a day pass for the lounge. The reps are going to be among the best, and having an immediate face-to-face conversation with the rep you are seeking assistance from can be worth much more than the price of admission.