The woman stood in front of the United Express counter at the Dane County Regional Airport and started quietly keening.
"I don't believe it," she whimpered. "Every time I fly. I don't believe it."
In fact, it was eminently easy to believe. Counting on a United Express flight to take off from Madison on time is wishful thinking. But it was the check-in clerk's response that offered the added flourish, the blustery, self-satisfied note of sadism, which makes the airline so inimitable.
"Ma-a-am," the clerk drawled, eyeing the sad consumer like an old-school Southern sheriff sizing up his first civil rights sit-in. "Am I going to have to call security?"
Welcome aboard. Flying in or out of Madison? As an excessively frequent flyer, my tips are pretty mundane. I can recommend the Continental Express nonstop to Newark or the American Eagle nonstop to LaGuardia, if you're flying to New York, if only because once you take off, the sole thing standing in the way of landing vaguely near your destination is another plane.
And if you're hoping to make another flight, avoid O'Hare at all costs and try to fly Northwestern through Detroit or Minneapolis, Delta through Cincinnati, or, best of all, Midwest through Milwaukee. You'll either be connecting through the airlines' major hubs or through less-jammed airports, which means you're not as likely to get lost in the shuffle.
But my best time-tested travel tip and my only absolutely certain one, if you're trying to escape Wisconsin, is this: Whatever you do, wherever you intend to go, do not book a flight on United Express through O'Hare. Period. The odds are you will get delayed, you will miss a connection, or your flight will be canceled. The odds are you won't get anywhere you're hoping to go, anywhere close to the time you thought you would.
And this isn't mere anecdotal misadventure talking. Look at the statistics. A Feb. 25 Wisconsin State Journal story on airline delays found that in 2006 alone, 169 United Express flights from Madison to Chicago or Denver were canceled, 163 flights to Madison from Chicago or Denver were canceled, 48.95% of flights from Madison to Chicago or Denver were delayed, and a whopping 58.3% of United Express flights into Madison from Chicago or Denver were delayed.
Part of the blame for this sorry record has, of course, to do with O'Hare itself, an overcrowded, mismanaged airport with its own record of dazed ineptitude. But the United Express story is more than a study in mismanagement. What becomes oddly fascinating, for anyone trapped in the United holding pattern, is the signature style of defensive arrogance that the airline has mastered and that may be a grim foreshadowing.
As we increasingly see the fallout of Bush's boyish crush on monopolies, this style, in fact, could become the norm. Once a company owns a route or a region (hello, Charter Communications) it can bully the customer all it wants, because no one is competing for the corporation's affection or profits.
Experiencing the full effect of that blatant disregard for consumers is always shocking. And the shocks for Madison flyers keep coming. I was one of the resigned fellow travelers standing behind the keening woman that Feb. 17 in the Dane County airport, and she was only expressing what most of us were thinking.
The United Express flight to Chicago was scheduled to leave at 6:14 p.m. and arrive at O'Hare an hour later. I had to connect to a Copenhagen flight leaving O'Hare at 10:05, and almost everyone on the flight was counting down to their own connections. But the United Express check-in desk was blithe.
"I'm not sure when the flight is leaving now," the clerk told me, after she decided security probably wasn't essential to take down the whimpering woman. "Maybe it will leave at 7:15, and maybe it won't leave until 9. We don't know. But until we do know, you need to go up and wait at the gate."
At the gate no one was talking, probably because no one was present. Then another United Express representative casually strolled by and mentioned, in passing, with an air of bored nonchalance, laced with a whiff of the goading hostility that only airline clerks and the entire country of France have mastered, that the plane wasn't going until at least 9:30 that night. And maybe not at all.
Everyone stampeded back downstairs to rebook. For me, that meant essentially rescheduling an entire trip's worth of appointments and interviews, and missing a deadline. But I was used to it.
"Trying for tomorrow?" the desk clerk cracked, tapping at her computer. "I don't see anything at all." But suddenly it didn't matter. The representative from upstairs materialized back downstairs with a new announcement, tossed off like another casual aside to anyone lucky enough to be standing within earshot of his new verbal bomb.
"The plane is now leaving in 10 minutes," he deadpanned.
"Think you can make it?" his cohort cracked, having developed United's patented insult comic delivery, as we all raced back up through the now-clogged security line, ripping off shoes and waving boarding passes.
What was remarkable about this familiar incident wasn't so much the delay itself. It was the equally familiar lack of communication and apology and help from any actual airline employee, from the start of the stop-and-start delay to the frantic moment of boarding, when everyone crashed into the flight with an urgency that recalled the last group of civilians fleeing Vietnam.
And that was a good trip, in comparison to other United Express experiences I've collected. It's hard to choose the most blistering and surreal, but one does stand out.
I was returning from a long weekend and, at O'Hare, hoping to make a connecting United Express flight to Madison. The threat of snow, represented by one fluffy cloud, had unleashed a domino effect of delays. We were following a familiar drill, waiting by the gate until further notice.
My fellow passengers on the Madison flight occasionally walked up to the United Express representative to ask for updates, and his answers were so whimsical they bordered on the hallucinatory. "It will leave in 10 minutes." "It will leave in an hour." "It will leave shortly."
But, as various passengers noted, there was no actual plane at the gate. This didn't seem to faze the representative, and, in fact, nothing did. After waiting three hours for the imaginary plane, one of the stranded suddenly rushed back and announced the inevitable. "The rep just told me the plane was canceled, some time ago."
"Why," I went up and asked the clerk, "didn't you announce the cancellation?"
"Why," he parroted, "don't you get out of my face?"
The herd knew their only option was a rental car or the last Van Galder bus, and they raced as a group to the exit. I followed, but I also, in the most incidental way, turned my head to the left as I rushed down the terminal and saw, like a sad joke, a gate posting a Madison departure, leaving in five minutes, wholly unannounced by a United Express representative and missing from O'Hare's own departures board. When the plane took off, only three of the original 30-plus Madison-bound passengers were on board.
Delays are one thing. Essentially dumping a stranded plane-full of passengers, without even the laziest attempt at assistance or compensation, is a study in sheer contempt. As bad as other American corporations can get, it's hard to think of any other industry that so consistently fails to give you what you paid for. (My attempts to contact any United media relations officials in response to this piece failed.)
At least the United Express desk clerk had it right when she invoked security, though she isn't the one who should be calling in the guards. It's local consumers who need some beefy protection.