Update, 7/13: While United CEO Scott Kirby previously blamed the FAA, weather, congestion, and Canada for the meltdown, Mr. Kirby tells Politico that he also blames climate change for this summer’s woes.
I flew on a United flight from Orlando to Cleveland earlier this week that had 57 passengers moved onto it in order to connect to Newark due to multiple flight cancellations on nonstop flights between Orlando and Newark.
There’s no word on why climate change seems to be targeting United more than other airlines this summer.
Originally posted on 7/3:
Last Monday, my cousin got married in front of 770 in Crown Heights, NY. While paid tickets between Cleveland and NYC are often a fortune, you can usually get a great deal with miles.
I found my mother and grandfather first class tickets on Delta to JFK using 17.5K Virgin Atlantic miles the day before the wedding and 7.5K BA Avios tickets home from LaGuardia the day after the wedding.
I like having backup travel options, so I used 7K United miles for a flight on Monday to Newark and 8K AA miles for a flight on Monday to JFK.
I always track the planes of relatives’ flights and started getting nervous when I saw the Delta flight circling Pennsylvania, once, twice, three times. Planes only carry so much fuel, so I knew that if they couldn’t get clearance to land in JFK, they would be diverted. And sure enough, I noticed that the destination had changed to Rochester, NY.
My long-standing advice is to print boarding passes and not rely only on mobile boarding passes. That way, you have redundancy in case of an issue with the app or if airline systems go down and can only accommodate people with paper boarding passes. Sometimes on an international connection, an airline might assume you’ll misconnect and delete your boarding pass, though if you have a paper boarding pass, you can still clear security. A screenshot can help mitigate some of those issues, though not for a dead battery. And it’s always frustrating to stand behind someone fumbling with their phone and adjusting their brightness and size settings to get it to scan, never mind the times that it gets dropped in the process.
At any rate, my mother listened to my advice, and it paid off. Only people with paper boarding passes were allowed to deplane in Rochester. Passengers with mobile boarding passes had to remain on the plane. She was one of the lucky ones allowed off the plane.
With the FAA showing a ground stop at JFK, they were stuck for the time being. They did attempt to board and takeoff again when the ground stop was supposed to be lifted, but when that was extended they deboarded again.
In the meantime, I noticed my aunt’s Southwest flight from Chicago to LaGuardia had started circling Pennsylvania. She was on a bigger plane, but by the time it hit 7 circles, I knew it was game over.
Luckily, she was diverted to Islip, so she could just split an Uber with other passengers to Brooklyn, right?
Nope. Anyone that checked a bag had to remain onboard while they waited for the ground stop in LaGuardia to be lifted. That’s another of my travel rules, never check a bag if you can avoid it!
Finally, the LaGuardia ground stop lifted, and she was able to take the Long Island Expressway, which has surprisingly little traffic at 4,000 feet in the sky.
The ground stop in JFK was finally lifted at 7:45 pm, but it took over an hour for the flight to get clearance to take off to JFK. It landed at 10 pm, some 10 hours after the original departure time from Cleveland.
For perspective, El Al flight 4 left around that time from JFK and arrived in Tel Aviv at 9:10 pm ET, but all my mother and grandfather had accomplished in that time was getting to JFK.
But hey, it beat the alternate option that I found, taking a Megabus to NYC at 2am:
My turn for fun came on Monday.
I’ve flown on over 1,000 flights but have managed to avoid being diverted on any of them. Would that streak continue?
I boarded the American flight in Cleveland bound for JFK, where JJ was planning on flying on JetBlue from Fort Lauderdale.
After taxiing and waiting 45 minutes, the pilot said we had received a new route and would have to return to the gate for more fuel and then wait in line again for a takeoff slot.
I figured I’d try to bail on this flight and switch to United, but then the pilot said that upon further review, we would have enough fuel and would not return to the gate.
* Recalculating *
* Recalculating *
After another 30-minute wait, the pilot said that upon even more review, we would need more fuel. Was it amateur hour at American?
* Recalculating *
* Recalculating *
Back at the gate, they opened the doors, but the flight attendant announced that anyone deboarding would not be able to get back onto the plane.
Do I bet on American or United to get me to the wedding that afternoon?
I waited for a few minutes, and then United posted a 2 hour delay to Newark, which made the decision easy. I’d be sticking with American.
We refueled quickly and received clearance to take off at 1:45pm.
Chaikel was watching the events unfold in real time at the Chaikel Travel headquarters:
Though Yehuda57 made a timely edit:
Why all the fuel drama?
On a normal day, the flight to JFK looks like this:
But we took the scenic route instead, making for the most time I’ve spent in the air from Cleveland to New York. Luckily I got upgraded thanks to my AA status.
I did bet on the right horse, though, United wound up canceling the flight I had booked to Newark.
And I was able to pull up just in time to hear JJ emcee under the chuppah, so all’s well that ends well.
I can’t remember the last time all 6 of my band of brothers have been in one place, but hey, 5 out of 6 ain’t bad!
It was close to the end of the wedding when people’s plans started unraveling.
Several people at the wedding came over to me to ask for help with canceled flight rebooking, and I offered some suggestions. But soon after that, wholesale cancellations were made for the next day.
I was booked on a mileage flight from Newark to Orlando via Cleveland the next morning to take my son to summer camp, though that was canceled. That was OK as he still had a friend and his father on that flight, and I had a backup flight that I booked with British Airways Avios on American the next night.
I do have to give United credit to my wife, my friend on that flight, and United flight attendant Laura for celebrating Rafi’s 12th birthday on that flight to Orlando though.
My cousin was on that canceled Newark-Cleveland flight as well but had no backup flight. United was fully booked until Friday, so she decided to rent a car and drive home. That was lucky as rental cars in the city soon sold out.
I decided to hang onto my United flight rather than redepositing it for miles, as it would be worth its weight in gold for me. That’s because United offers an awesome next flight guarantee to Global Services members when they have a canceled flight. Even if a flight is sold out, as long as there’s an empty seat on the seat map, they can get onto that flight. I was planning on flying American home but kept that United reservation active in case I needed it.
American canceled my brothers’ morning flight back home to Cleveland, so they drove home Tuesday morning with our cousin.
I was booked on American to fly home with my mother and grandfather Tuesday night, but as we were about to head out for the day we were informed that our flight home had been canceled.
The next available flight wouldn’t be until Friday, and by then, there were no flights left that day on United:
But United was able to rebook me to Cleveland at 6:40 am on Wednesday, despite all flights being sold out until Friday.
JJ had fun documenting it in our Instagram Stories:
But could I still find a way home on Tuesday?
I turned to DDF admin and Cleveland based travel agent Chaikel and his Chaikel Travels team, and they worked some magic to hold a seat on American in first class for me from JFK to Cleveland at 5:25pm, though that seat wasn’t for sale anywhere else.
With that held reservation, I called American to ask if they could use that seat to get me home.
That got a lot of pushback.
I was booked via British Airways, so they first said to call them. I pushed back on that as American had canceled my flight.
Then they said I was ticketed in coach and they couldn’t rebook me in first, but I noted how the system had automatically rebooked me in first class on Friday, preserving my original upgrade.
Then they said you can’t get upgraded when booked via British Airways. I guess they don’t read DansDeals.
But finally, they said as the system had mistakenly upgraded me, they would honor my first class rebooking, however, there was no way to use that seat. The best they could do would be to cancel the held reservation and try to grab it in my original reservation before it was taken by somebody else. Sure enough, that worked, and I was rebooked from JFK.
We had a delicious lunch at Abaita, home to some of the best upscale kosher dairy food in the world.
JJ did a profile on them via our Instagram stories you can check out here.
The wood fired mushroom pizza is mouth-wateringly delicious:
And the artichoke pizza will take you right back to Italy, where the head chef hails from.
I don’t care for olives, but the Tunisian Olives with labneh and a garlic confit are just bursting with flavor and are very addictive.
The Arancini on the other hand has a far more mild flavor and seems like it’s missing something in comparison.
The wood burning oven-fired lasagna is just phenomenal.
The Black Fettuccine with roasted wood ear mushrooms is the stuff that dreams are made of.
And the Green Paparedelle is yet another amazing pasta dish:
We went to the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Ohel, where I try to visit whenever I’m in NYC and then I went to JFK to catch my flight. But just as I walked into the terminal, I got the message that my flight was canceled.
The app rebooked me in economy at 11 am the next day. I waited in the priority line at JFK once I was there, but the agent said the cancellations were all due to weather, so they wouldn’t pay for any hotels or other costs, though credit card protections do cover those. She also couldn’t get me on an earlier flight or my mother or grandfather on an earlier flight than Friday.
The weather in New York had been perfectly clear, but that didn’t stop the airlines from blaming everything on the weather and Air Traffic Control to avoid paying anything.
In the meantime, both of JJ’s flight to Fort Lauderdale and my Aunt’s flight to Chicago were canceled and rebooked for Friday.
The Chaikel Travel team managed to find some options for JJ out of JFK at 11 pm and Newark at 2 am, so with nothing else to do in the meantime, we went to Mike’s Bistro for dinner.
Most of our recent dining in NYC has been at Tabernacle and Barnea, which are typically incredible experiences and are 2 of my favorite restaurants in the world. But it’s been many years since we were at Mike’s, so we decided to try that out this time.
They have eliminated tipping by hiking their prices to fairly eye-watering levels. It’s an interesting approach, though it was rather hard to get water refills, so I’m not convinced that it works?
Mike’s legendary corn soup is still perfection in a bowl:
It’s tough to find top-notch kosher ramen, especially now that Narutto Bowl has closed, but this Ramen dish had the perfect level of umami flavor:
The lamb dumplings are good, but the sauce is probably the highlight of this dish:
Crispy Eggplant and meatball, the eggplant is quite good, though the meatball is very ordinary:
The highlight here is still the Duck Gnocchi, which is out of this world:
JJ ordered the French Onion Veal Chop, which he found to be rather bland, but improved once he requested the house veal sauce for it:
I had the short rib, which I’ve loved in the past, but this time it tasted much more like cholent meat than I remembered from years past. That’s unfortunate.
But the yam fritters were just as delicious as I remembered them:
As we were finishing our entrees, JJ was notified that his 11pm JetBlue flight from JFK had been canceled.
I went to check on his United flight at 2am from Newark and saw it was “reverse delayed” to 9:45pm!
Worse yet, JJ had just posted on an Instagram reel that airlines can reverse delay flights and to be ready for that at the airport, but without knowing which airport to go to, he was in between JFK and Newark Airport in Manhattan.
Could he make it to Newark to catch a flight at 9:45pm? Probably not, but we hustled out to try anyway.
He made it to the gate at 9:45pm, but as I suspected, the flight was delayed again. In the end, he flew the rare red-eye to Miami, departing at 12:40am and arriving at 3:23am. But at least his flight took off!
I spend the night at the unmemorable Renaissance Newark Airport.
Did I ever mention I much I despise wall-mounted toiletries? It’s even more fun when you go in the shower only to find the shampoo isn’t even there!
I took the 5:15am shuttle to Newark on Wednesday morning and made a quick stop at the new United Club, which, even before 6am had a massive line for customer assistance, though not nearly as long as the line in the terminal.
At the gate, the agent announced that our plane was over-fueled and we were waiting for them to take fuel out of the plane.
Well, that’s a new one out of the airline excuse handbook that I hadn’t heard before, so points for creativity!
Over 60 people on the flight were routed via Cleveland in order to catch a connecting flight to Fort Lauderdale. Luckily for them, the same plane would be continuing on to Fort Lauderdale.
Eventually, our refueler did show up:
But then I got a notification that our flight was now awaiting a new crew.
I noticed that United now had first class seats for sale on the next flight, so I booked it and called United to see if they could cancel that seat and protect me on it on my existing award reservation in case my current flight was delayed further. Flight protection is something United offers to their top-tier elites, so the agent did that for me.
Note to parents, this is what happens when you give your male son the middle initial A:
The flight was indeed delayed further, so I went over to the gate for the 8:40am flight, which was a mess with no agent present.
United seemed woefully understaffed during their meltdown.
Worse yet, United had deleted my 8:40am backup flight from my reservation, so it was back on the phone with customer service.
When I went to board I was still on hold and the agent there said she had no record of me on the flight and directed me to her supervisor. She told me that there was no way to get me on the flight and the system was locked out an hour prior to departure. Luckily, the phone agent was able to get me onto the flight and generate a boarding pass for me, as it was too late for me to check-in on my phone and clearly the gate agents were not going to be my ally.
Indeed, the Newark supervisor was livid when she saw me boarding, muttering how they were not supposed to be doing that. Alas, I wound up in a middle seat in coach due to that fiasco. But yes, I made it home and survived to tell the tale. 😀
The 737 Max8 had United’s new entertainment system with Bluetooth audio, which was very easy to use and a pleasure to ditch the wire. I can’t wait for this to roll out onto more planes and airlines.
I kept checking for alternate flight options for other people still stuck in NYC.
My Aunt’s canceled Delta flight to Chicago meant she was scheduled to fly on Friday to Chicago via Boston, where she would have to change to a United flight.
That sounded crazy and after much refreshing of Google Flights, I eventually found 1 seat on a Delta flight from LaGuardia to Milwaukee on Thursday. I bought that for her for $700 and called Delta to see if they would be able to cancel the new reservation and grab that seat for her to use instead of the Friday connecting flight.
It took the agent several minutes to grasp what I was asking for, but then said that they couldn’t change the destination from Chicago to Milwaukee. I was livid. They had her waiting in NYC for days and couldn’t switch her destination airport by 67 miles? I asked for a supervisor and explained what I was asking for again and got approval for the switch, but she warned that she might lose the Milwaukee seat in the process of canceling it.
I gave the go-ahead to take the risk and it took far too long, but after nearly an hour she completed that switch and my Aunt went right to LaGuardia.
While she had a confirmed ticket, Delta didn’t have a seat assignment for her and the website listed her as a standby passenger. I typically fly American and United, so that was a surprise to me, but Delta confirmed that she would get a seat assignment at the gate.
But when she got to the gate they were asking for 6 volunteers to get bumped. I found it surprising that Delta would sell a seat on a flight that was that oversold. I told my Aunt that if they didn’t find volunteers that they would be liable to pay 4 times her $215 ticket price in cash, so not to take any offers for less than that.
Bidding started at $200 and she asked me if she should take $500. I said to offer $1,000 and a confirmed seat on the next flight to Chicago. The agent said to wait and see and sure enough, the bidding went up to $1,000 and she received that and a confirmed Comfort+ seat to Chicago 2 hours later. The $1,000 wasn’t cash, but could be used for Visa, Mastercard, AMEX, Delta, Amazon, Target, Nordstrom, Starbucks, or many other gift cards.
On her flight to Chicago they once again needed volunteers to get bumped, and started the bidding at $200. She told some people that were considering it to wait for better offers, which they did and were quite pleased as the bidding reached $800.
Alas, this time they weren’t willing to offer a confirmed seat on their later Chicago flight that day, so she passed on the rolling bump compensation and was happy to be reunited with her family some 2 days after she was supposed to be home. Back in my single days I remember getting rolling bumped off over half a dozen flights in a row from Chicago to Cleveland before I had to get home for Shabbos the next day.
My Mother and Grandfather enjoyed their extended vacation in NYC together and finally got home Friday morning.
United CEO Scott Kirby told employees that he blamed the FAA for the delays, though he made sure to note that he wasn’t specifically blaming the current administration:
Kirby himself took a private jet from Teterboro to Denver on Wednesday to go to his vacation home there when his airline couldn’t get him there. It was a tone-deaf move that angered employees and customers alike. The captain of the ship was there when they hit the iceberg and was abandoning ship to find another carrier to take him on vacation?
He has since apologized for the move, though this may prove damaging for him in the long-term.
Transportation Secretary Buttigieg shot back that United was significantly worse than other airlines this week:
With the exception of United, airlines have recovered to a more typical cancellation/delay rate as of this morning, after the severe weather earlier this week.
FAA will continue to work with airlines to help them minimize disruptions during the busy 4th of July travel weekend. pic.twitter.com/xp77qHyWpI
— Secretary Pete Buttigieg (@SecretaryPete) June 29, 2023
Kirby later shared an update on LinkedIn with details of what went wrong and what United is doing so that it doesn’t face a repeat of last week.
DDF members shared some experiences of their travels this week. Joel’s flight from Newark was delayed and the pilot announced that kids could come sit in the cockpit while they waited. Pretty cool!
His flights wound up getting canceled by United on Monday and Tuesday.
Zevi16’s flight was delayed 15 hours before getting canceled.
MeirS was supposed to leave Newark on Sunday, but was stuck there until Wednesday.
A friend told me that their Spirit flight from Detroit to NYC was canceled and the next flight that had space for his whole family wasn’t for 2 weeks!
Another friend’s kids were supposed to take Spirit from NYC to Detroit for summer camp, but wound up having to charter a bus for them and their friends to make it to camp.
When you are in an irregular operation situation like this, just grab whatever you can and keep working to improve on it. Availability changes from minute to minute, so just keep checking for what pops up.
At one point, JJ was prepared to take an Amtrak to Boston to catch a flight from there. The main thing to do in these meltdowns is keep moving!
If the airline app won’t let you change to a flight that you see for sale, book the flight if your airline has a 24 hour cancellation policy, and work with the airline to cancel and grab that seat for your itinerary with a canceled or delayed flight.
Avoid checking baggage if at all possible.
And bring a paper boarding pass with you!
Airlines have overscheduled their flights and are understaffed. The FAA and Air Traffic Controllers are woefully understaffed. Hubs have been cut, so when issues arise, there isn’t enough slack to make up for it. These are long-term problems that won’t be fixed anytime soon.
Good luck out there during the peak summer travel season!
Were you affected by the meltdown?