Southwest Airlines Flight 1699 – the Flight From HELL

I had everything planned out.  This was going to be a perfect trip.  I would go to the PBL Championship finals in Lawton, Oklahoma; and on an off-day I would travel to Oklahoma City and do some sightseeing.

The PBL had my ticket ready; I would fly out of Bradley International Airport in Hartford (okay, it’s Windsor Locks, but that’s like saying Colonie International Airport).  Southwest Flight 1699.  I would fly from Hartford to Baltimore, stay on the plane from Baltimore to St. Louis, stay on the plane from St. Louis to Dallas, and then rent a car from AVIS and drive from Dallas to Lawton, Oklahoma.  The return trip would be Tuesday; drive from Lawton back to Dallas, then fly Dallas to Baltimore, Baltimore to Hartford, and then drive back to the ALB.

I say that WAS the plan.

And then Southwest and Mother Nature combined to screw the plan up beyond all repair.

I arrived at Bradley, parked in one of the terminal parking lots – Terminal B, which is only $8/day – and parked near milepost B4.  Made a mnemonic device to remember where I parked; I was on parking section B4, I hummed a lyric to a Four Seasons song that had the word “Before” in it.  Okay, if you’re curious, the song was “The Night.”   Four of my cameras were with me on this trip – my digital Nikon D700, my film Nikon F100, the Rollei and a split-film-loaded Holga.  That, and enough clothes for five days, and I was ready to go.

I checked two bags with Southwest Airlines, and then went through the security checkpoint.  Since I had an unexpired roll of Delta Ilford 3200 – which would have been destroyed had it gone through the X-ray machines – I asked the TSA guard to hand-check my film, as well as to hand-check the Holga.  All my other materials went through the scanner without any trouble.

My flight was scheduled to leave at 3:20pm.  If all went well, I could be in Dallas by 8pm Central, and arrive in Lawton by car by midnight.

Notice I used the words “if all went well.”

Because this was Southwest Flight 1699.  The flight from hell.

We boarded the 737 in time for our 3:20pm departure.  The plane headed toward the runway.  Then it stopped.

“Folks, this is your captain speaking, unfortunately we’ve received word of massive thunderstorms in Baltimore, and they’ve closed the airport.  We have to go back to the terminal.  We apologize.”

Flight delay.  I can handle this.  No problem.

4pm.  We’re still at the terminal.

5pm.  We’re still at the terminal.  Some of the passengers get off the plane.  Most of them return.  An elderly woman does not return.  Apparently she got confused, and thought she had actually LANDED in Baltimore; even though we were still at Hartford.  We left the terminal without her.

We return to the runway.

The plane powers up.

Then the plane powers down.

“Folks, this is your captain speaking, unfortunately the thunderstorms are still too severe to fly into BWI, and we have to return to the terminal.  We apologize.”

Okay, now I’m getting a bit worried.  They allow us to deplane and re-enter the concourse; some of us go to the airport’s McDonald’s.

I talk to the agent at the gate.  Her name is Miss Miller.  No relation.  “Do I need to worry about my flight to Dallas?”  I asked her.

“No, Mr. Miller, nothing’s flying in or out of Baltimore, you should be fine, you won’t miss your flight.”

“Yes, but isn’t there something where the pilots can’t fly after a certain time of night or something like that?”  I remember that truckdrivers have a certain maximum number of hours they can drive in a day, and I wasn’t sure if the pilots had the same requirements.

“Oh no, Mr. Miller, we fly 24 hours a day, all the time.”

We’re still in Hartford. It’s now 9pm.  The storm in Baltimore has shut down BWI.  I call the Dallas AVIS and have my rental car rescheduled for a morning pickup.

10:00 p.m.  We are now six and a half hours past our original departure time.  Miss Miller motions to us that we need to get back on the plane again, there’s a window of flight available for us.  We rush back onto the plane.

We’re ready to go.

“Folks, this is your captain speaking, the good news is that we have a window of opportunity to fly to Baltimore.  Unfortunately, the bad news is that neither I nor my co-pilot can fly at this time; we have exceeded our Federal limit of flyable daily hours.  We are waiting for another flight team to arrive from Buffalo; as soon as they arrive we should be able to get you in the air.”

An hour later, the flight team board our plane.  At about 11pm we FINALLY get in the air.

At 12:30 a.m., we arrive at Baltimore-Washington Airport.  We arrive.  But now there’s another complication.

Because the flights in and out of BWI have all been canceled and rescheduled, there’s not enough grounds crew to operate the jetways and handle the baggage at the gates.  We’re on the ground at 12:30.  We don’t get to a jetway gate until 2:00 a.m.

Let’s put it this way.  It took nearly eleven hours from the time we initially boarded the plane, to the time we FINALLY got off the plane in Baltimore.  And that’s counting ninety minutes of being parked on the tarmac and waiting for access to the terminal.  In that 90 minutes on the Baltimore tarmac, I read an entire issue of Rolling Stone; perusing articles on everybody from Bill Maher to Adele to Kiki Kannibal.

But I’m not worried.  I’ll probably arrive at Dallas by late morning, I can take some naps on the other legs of my plane flight and I should be good to travel.

I get off the plane.  “When do I reboard?” I asked the agent at the gate.

The agent – Marvin – told me, “Oh your flight to Dallas was canceled.”

Canceled?  “No, I’m on flight 1699 – it’s right there, I just rode in on it from Hartford.”

“No, Mr. Miller,” Marvin said, “Your flight was sent on without you.  Southwest in Hartford notified you of the change and you chose not to get off the plane.”

Notified me?  Notified me of what?  Every person I spoke to at Southwest in Hartford said there was no problem, I would be on the plane all the way to Dallas, no matter how late the flight was.

Just then, I saw the pilot – David Pratt – and one of the flight attendants – Nancy – walk by.  I signaled them to come over.

“Marvin here is saying that I should have been taken off the flight.  I was never informed that my remaining legs of my flight were canceled.  What’s going on?”

Pilot David Pratt then said, “Oh yeah, they actually e-mailed me in the cockpit to get the people whose continuing flights were canceled off the plane.  But we were on the runway at the time and just about to take off, and if we brought you back to the terminal we would have lost our window of opportunity to fly and nobody would have gotten to Baltimore.”

Okay, think about this for a moment.  I was on a plane that was stuck at Bradley International Airport for three minutes short of forever.  And any chance of rescheduling my flight, any chance of contacting the PBL to help me get a new flight, was completely blocked.  And now I was in Baltimore – without a flight to Dallas.

I immediately went to the ticket counter at BWI.  The girl behind the desk, Sonika, was already dealing with 50 other passengers, each one having their connecting flights to Disney World or to a Florida cruise ship or a Jacksonville trip to visit their sister completely destroyed.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, I don’t know what they told you in Hartford, but we can’t do anything here,” Sonika parroted to angry customer after angry customer.

I tried to see if there was any way to get a Southwest flight from Baltimore to either Dallas or Oklahoma City or Tulsa.  The earliest Sonika could get me was something arriving in Dallas Monday night.  Which would have made me late for game 3 of the PBL playoffs – if there was a Game 3 to be played.

Other people were being told – as of Sunday morning – that the only flights they could get to their destinations would leave maybe Monday evening or Tuesday morning.  And since Mother Nature – not Southwest – caused the delays, there was really nothing Southwest could do in terms of restitution.

But see, Southwest did screw up – especially when it comes to my trip.  They told me over and over and over again that even if there was a delay in Baltimore, even with the extensive delays, that I would still get to Dallas somehow.  And when the e-mail came to the pilot about getting the passengers whose flights were canceled off the plane, well if they didn’t get me off the plane or tell me that my flight was canceled before I got to Baltimore, then that’s Southwest’s fault.  Not Mother Nature’s fault.

I had no choice.  My PBL championship game plans were completely crippled.  I asked Sonika if there were any seats available to return to Hartford that morning.  She said yes, and in a few moments a reboarding pass popped out of her printer.

And then I had to go down to the baggage level and make sure that my checked luggage didn’t go to Dallas anyway – that it would either return with me on the flight back to Hartford, or it would be delivered to Albany International Airport – close to my home – as soon as possible.

And that’s when things went from bad to worse.

See, there were nine canceled flights that night.  Each plane had 137 passengers, with an average of 2 or 3 bags apiece.  You do the math.  All those suitcases and knapsacks and duffel bags and trunks were now in a secure holding place.

Including my two bags – of which one was my camera equipment.  The D700 and the F100 were in my camera bag; the Rollei was packed with my clothes.

I returned to the baggage counter and asked the counter person – Diane – if my bags could be pulled out so that they could return to Hartford with me.

“I’m sorry, that’s not possible,” she said.  “Your bags are scheduled to go to Dallas.”

“Yes, but I’m not going to Dallas any more.”

“Doesn’t matter,” she said with the voice of a thousand rejections already spoken that morning.  “We have over 2,000 bags in that secured location, we don’t have enough manpower to go back there and get your bags.  You’ll just have to wait until your bags return from their trip.”

Diane filled me in on the itinerary.  My bags would go to Dallas, where they would wait for five days until they were – obviously – unclaimed.  Then they would return to Baltimore, and then once back in Baltimore, the bags would go to Hartford at some point.  Then I could pick them up in Hartford.

At the same time, a couple of other passengers were trying to get their bags – those passengers needed to get on a shuttle from BWI to Reagan National Airport, and it was the only flight they could get to Jacksonville that day.  Two other passengers were having a major freakout – one of the bags contained medicine for her daughter, who would need that medicine very soon.

This is where a baggage handler named Glenn enters the picture.  Glenn stopped what he was doing – whatever that might be – and asked each person about their bags and any identifying tags or marks that would make it easier for him to find them.  Some people tied ribbons on their suitcase handles.  Others had attached goofy luggage tags.  He took their baggage claim tickets and said he would try his best to find their luggage.

Glenn walked over to me.  “You said your bags are going to Dallas?”

“Yes.  And I need to get them back because I’m going to Hartford in about two hours.”

“Okay,” he said, taking my baggage checks.  “Describe them for me.”

“One is a Quantaray-branded knapsack, black with blue and grey trim.  The other is a duffel bag with the Albany Patroons logo on the side.”

“Okay,” he said, “I got it.  Just one thing, though.”


“What’s a ‘Patroon’?”


Twenty minutes later, Glenn came out of the secure holding area with everybody’s luggage – including my two bags.  Fantastic job by Glenn.  He even refused the tip I offered him.

It’s now 7:00 a.m.  I have 90 minutes before my plane flies out of BWI for a return trip to Hartford.  I gotta get up to the ticket counter and re-check these bags for Hartford.  The line to the ticket counter is extraordinarily long, full of passengers who were re-routed and had their own re-routings.

I get my bags up to the counter.  Looking at my reboarding ticket, I punch in the six-character alphanumeric ticket code into the computerized kiosk.


Oh great, I’m operating on 20 minutes of sleep, I probably mis-typed it.  I re-entered the code.


I asked one of the ticket people, Gwen, if she could help me.  Gwen looked at my boarding pass that I previously received from Sonika.

“We have a problem here.”

Oh God please.  No more problems.

“Did you know your ticket is a stand-by ticket?”

Stand-by?  Waitaminnit – you mean to tell me Sonika gave me a ticket that may not even get me out of this God-forsaken airport?  I could be stuck here like Charlie on the MTA in that old Kingston Trio song?

“Hold on,” she said, “Let me do something here.”

Ten minutes and a few keystrokes later, she printed me a new ticket.  A confirmed ticket.  God bless Gwen.

Now I gotta get through security – AGAIN – and I make my return flight to Hartford with 5 minutes to spare.

And the flight back to Bradley International Airport?  Quick and sunny and not a stitch of trouble or hint of delay.  In other words, it was the flight I should have received GOING to Baltimore, not the one I received LEAVING Baltimore.  24 hours after I lfirst arrived at Bradley International Airport, I was in my car heading back up I-91 for the Massachusetts Turnpike.

So let’s figure this all out.  I was on a flight that took 11 hours to get from the Hartford terminal to the Baltimore terminal.  And I was told that the continuing legs of my flight were canceled – after I arrived in Baltimore, when I should have been given the opportunity to decide what to do IN Hartford, or at the very least in the air from Hartford to Baltimore.  I can’t control what Mother Nature does; but there should have been a contingency plan available with Southwest to get as many of their passengers rerouted – or at least given them the opportunity to do so.

I ended up missing the PBL championship finals because of this.  This was a situation that could have been avoided.  Instead, I was trapped on a plane that went nowhere, I was told different things by different Southwest agents in a nasty case of left-hand right-hand communication, leaving me stuck in the baggage claim area of Baltimore-Washington Airport on Sunday morning, with about maybe half an hour of sleep and no food since the tiny bag of peanuts I had on the flight.  And I had to go back through the security checkpoints.  And I had to get back on a flight from Baltimore to Hartford.  And then I had to drive two hours from Hartford back to Albany.

Hey.  I’ve had good moments on a plane and I’ve had bad moments on a plane. But nowhere – NOWHERE – should I have undergone the complete cluster-fluster that took place this weekend.  At the very least, Southwest Airlines owes me plenty of free flight tickets.  Hell, not just me – they owe every passenger who flew on Flight 1699 on Saturday, April 16, 2011 from Hartford to Baltimore free tickets as well.

Come on, Southwest.  You lost a lot of customers on this flight.  Here’s your chance to make things right and win us back.