Meandering Man: Airline App’s a Lifesaver

This was the beginning of a 4+ hour delay with a view: watching the mechanic disassemble the engine cover … and keep disassembling … was the visual cue I needed to change my flight.

Yes, There’s an App for That – Dad About Town

It was a perfect, clear-blue, sunny Saturday, tailor-made for taking to the friendly skies.

It was only a week ago, but my, how the world’s changed since.

I’d managed the trick of hosting my Cub Scout pack’s annual Pinewood Derby that morning, going from weigh-in to awards to teardown in a tight two and a half hours, with a stopover at home to unload all the stuff in the garage, change clothes, and grab my hefty suitcase for a week’s trek to London and Amsterdam.

One big positive to living in a small city like Sioux Falls is that it’s never more than 20 minutes or so to the airport, and typically no more than 10 to get through security, even with an international destination due for stamping on my passport.

So I found myself in the usual place, whiling away the hour or so (I thought) before boarding. Knocking back a tall cold one at the bar, nibbling on a turkey and bacon club while sorting out the tasks I’d tackle on the road that week.

My perfect itinerary was pecked to bits with the usual early warning — a notification from United Airlines on my trusty iPhone app that our flight was experiencing a slight delay.

I downed the last of my beer, packed up the laptop and headed down the short hall to my gate to take a better measure of the situation.

Airplane under repair at gate United Airlines
Though I was hesitant to change my flight, at first, it became clear from our excellent sight line right at the gate, watching our plane’s meticulous disassembly, that switching to the later flight to Chicago was probably the best bet. The app made it easy.

Standing in Line? Holding the phone? You’re Doing it Wrong!

Even before I’d left my cozy perch at the bar, as I waited for the bill, I popped open the United app to check my options.

My connection in Chicago was set to deliver me to London by 8 Sunday morning. That sounded pretty good — being able to tuck myself in, nap away jetlag, and appear the next day at the office fresh and ready.

The app reported our delay in Sioux Falls was due to a mechanical issue. And estimated our arrival at O’Hare at about 6 — after my connection was set to depart. So I had to change that.

I quickly found the next available connecting flight, which would deposit me in London no later than 11 a.m. Not bad. I selected my seat, near the front of economy. No worse than I’d had before.

The question was whether to hold on to my current flight from Sioux Falls, which would give me a nice two hours or so to make sure I made my connection to London. Or, jump ship for a later departure from Sioux Falls, which had the benefit of an operable plane, but also would cut my sprint from one side of O’Hare to the international terminal to a tight 30 minutes.

I held off on the local switch, and made my way to the gate.

The line was already a dozen or more folks long, with two agents patiently chatting to each, in turn. From the windows, we could clearly see the lone technician on the tarmac, stretching above his head to work at some screw or bolt under the wing. “Geez, can’t they get the guy some type of lift to get him above the area he’s working on, give him better leverage?” one of my fellow delayed passengers asked.

No offense to the skillset inherent to working on flying machinery, I took a look at the guy and wondered whether I’d trust him to install my dishwasher, let alone get us in the air in a reasonable amount of time. I decided to avert my eyes and pop open the laptop at the next gate over, keeping one eye on the United app for updates.

As the minutes turned to hours, the line at our gate deepened. Occasionally, my friendly, like-minded passenger-in-delay would come over and offer an update on our mechanic’s progress. About two hours in, he’d changed to a sitting position and had managed to remove most of the covering on whatever he was working on. I did not sense the type of progress that was going to get us out of Dodge.

For the passengers dutifully forming the line, I wondered aloud: “Have any of you tried the app? It took me, like, two minutes to change to a later connecting flight.” In response, grim determination to stay in that line. OK, OK. I guess I’ve been there before, too.

Helpfully, my app chirped up at about this time. The updated delay was going to push our flight’s departure time past the later flight to Chicago from Sioux Falls. So I made the switch, keeping my same connection to London, anticipating the mad dash to the international terminal, but feeling at least a fighting chance of getting to O’Hare and the starting line for my sprint.

It was a good half hour before those in line were able to make that change. By then, I’d nailed my first-class upgrade. And shortly after, there were no seats available. As my flight pulled away from the gate, some 3.5 hours after my original departure time, my original plane still sat at the next gate over. I breathed a thanks, and a good luck to them, and settled in for my next 9 hours of travel.

I can’t be smug about this. Only practical. Because I’ve been on the other side. In the years before I got smart, enrolled in mileage programs (plural, since I inevitably take Delta and American on the odd flight I can’t get a reasonable deal from United), and downloaded the app, I simply shrugged at airline headaches, riding them out. Or else, jumped into heart-pounding hours-long phone conversations, or mind-numbing miles of lines at the counter.

My storm-related delays in Nashville last year on American really just drove home the point: the agents of the airline, in the airport and over the phone, have the exact same information we do when we utilize the app or go online. So: beat ’em to the punch. Or, at least, jump in a line of one on your phone instead of several dozen in the airport and at the switchboard.

There’s something incredibly liberating, and a lot less stressful, in being able to manage your trip right from your phone. Even down to hopping from available seat to seat in the day or so before you depart (not to mention watching for a good empty row on an international flight). It’s regaining that little bit of control you’re otherwise lacking on the road that makes up for an awful lot.

Now it seems odd and untimely that I’m writing about travel, when most of the world has closed its borders in the wake of the Corona Virus pandemic. The app served me well, again, Thursday morning in Amsterdam as I woke to overnight messages from my wife and loved ones following the President’s error-prone and vague address the night before. I was able to punch in searches via my app, reviewing the few earlier options to head home, but allowing myself a later connection to Sioux Falls to allow for any extended headaches through security and customs.

(Actually, incredibly, on Friday there were no new measures, and the time was comparable to any other international return I’d had. By Saturday, of course, that wasn’t the case. And while I feel lucky, I also feel the unease of a system that has not quite been hammered carefully into place, much like the equipment malfunction of a week ago, but with more serious consequences.)

So, a pro tip from this traveler: download the app. Use it. Avoid the counter and the phone queue. Take control for yourself. There are, after all, plenty of other details to worry yourself with on the road. For example: the Nook I keep managing to leave in the seatback pocket. If only there were an app for that? For now, I’ll trust the app to the logistical details, and keep my hands on my Nook.

Safe travels, all.

Nook safely packed in carry on United Airlines
If only the United app kept track of the Nook I keep leaving in seatback pockets. Here, Nook #2, since my eight-years-old one finally disappeared into the travel void, is safely stowed in my carry-on.

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