Car reservation

Travelers deserve better than airline debacles

Our flight back to Chicago from Sarasota was one of thousands that have been canceled during the first weekend of April. Sarasota Airport is small. It got hotter, louder and more crowded as we worried and waited.

Saturday morning, we learned that an engine repair had slightly delayed our flight. A 90-minute weather delay followed. Then a five hour delay was added, with no reason given. Then our flight was cancelled.

Stuck in the searing chaos, we tried using the rebooking links provided by United Airlines. We have had no success. Not a single representative of any airline was in the lobby.

We returned to the main office where a United Airlines representative was. The line was packed with travelers as stressed as my husband, our two teenagers and me.

Disturbing news leaked on the line: no flights until Tuesday. We couldn’t even get a late check out from our apartment that morning. We knew we would not find accommodation until Tuesday.

I got a rental car reservation on my phone. We moved to the rental car line where we waited three hours. I prayed there was still a car by the time we got to the front of the line. I was afraid to drive the 20 hour drive home after a full day of anxiety and confusion.

I also worried about the people around me – the elderly, the disabled, families with young children. All struggled to solve problems without access to help, staff, information or resources. Everything seemed so unhealthy, out of control and dangerous.

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Other travelers gave me hope. Kindness was everywhere. The travelers supported each other. They were patient. They helped. They offered all the information they had. They held each other’s place in line. They understood when children were melting, crying, vomiting, running around or screaming. For all the stories I’ve read of passengers misbehaving on flights, that’s not what I experienced at Sarasota airport.

When I finally got to the rental car line, I felt like a winning contestant on a game show: an SUV was available for us! The friends we made in line congratulated us. It was wonderful to be on the road but also confusing to have waited so long at the airport just to start our long journey.

The conclusion I came to, on the long drive home, is that the airlines don’t deserve us. Airlines knew the spring break season would be busy, so they raised their prices and continued to sell tickets. The industry appreciated ticket sales record. They knew they were short-handed and they continued to sell tickets. They are fully aware, too, that Easter will be a busy travel seasonand they will no doubt sell as many tickets as they can without worrying about the welfare of their passengers.

Now I’m involved in the project trying to get a ticket refund. The process takes me hours. It looks deliberately confusing. I feel like I’m back in another long line.

We can’t stand air travel so much. We pay for tickets generously, always trying to decide if it’s worth paying extra to make sure they’re refundable. We arrive at the airport two hours early. We pack our bags carefully according to federal safety standards. We relinquish control and ride with whatever delays and cancellations come our way. We rent cars when we arrive at our destinations. When does all that expense and preparation outweigh the convenience of air travel?

I’m starting to realize that we have a better option, an option that gives us more control. Even a long drive is a cheaper and more liberating option. Driving through Atlanta in the middle of the night was beautiful. Seeing the sun rise in Nashville, Tennessee was glorious. The open road is calling you, because the sky is no longer so friendly.

Eileen Hoenigman Meyer is a freelance writer in Oak Park, Illinois.