Sun-burnt and exhausted, August 8, 2016 was the end of 2 weeks of a much-needed vacation; my internet-connected flight back to the USA welcomed me home with countless work emails and urgent requests. After an hour of barely making a dent in the hundreds of emails, I needed to get my fix of cat videos, memes and to catch up on the news – CNN’s headline had four simple words that still haunt me Outage grounds Delta flights.
I was in-flight on DAL40 returning from Australia when Delta’s data center suffered a power outage that caused a system-wide ground stop and havoc for days – this was the truest definition of IROPS. According to Flightradar24, I was one of a handful of Delta flights in the air (heading for the USA). All domestic and international Delta flights that weren’t in-flight were held at the gates because of the outage. While the outage never caused any risk to in-flight safety, the experience getting home was the worst experience I have endured in the 10 years of jet setting.
The flight had just under 2 hours remaining before landing at LAX, and I was likely the only person on a fully loaded Boeing 777 that had any idea of what we were about to experience. I showed the flight attendants the article, and the purser’s response was frightening “We have no clue what to expect when we land.”
Descent into madness
Delta flight 40 landed safely at LAX around 7 am with the usual arrival announcements; there was no mention from the pilots or flight crew of what was happening or what to expect.
The instant I turned my cell phone on I received a flurry of notifications about my onward flight to TPA: It was delayed but departure time kept changing.
I called the reservations line (at the time, a Platinum Medallion with priority phone access) and was shocked to hear there was a 3.5 hour hold time to talk to an agent. By the time we began to deplane, it was clear that unless your destination was LAX, you’re not leaving for a while.
I was “stuck behind the eight-ball” since the nation-wide ground stop began hours before my plane landed. Every hotel within a reasonable drive of LAX was sold out; It seemed like no one ever planned for nationwide IROPS.
Delta ticketing, special services, and sky priority queues had thousands of pissed off customers trying to get to their destinations – this was the lead story on all news stations. I managed to find a customer service agent in the LAX Sky Club who put me on standby for a different flight “in the unlikely event my original flight gets canceled.”
Hours came and went, morning became afternoon and then night – stuck at LAX. Almost every flight was canceled because of missing pilots, missing flight crews, or missing planes; nothing stung worse than having pilots, flight crew and a plane but seeing your flight canceled due to duty timeout.
Once evening became late night, my frustration turned into exhaustion. I grabbed a spot on the floor and tried to get some sleep. I concocted a nest out of my carry on items and napped for what seemed like minutes. The constant yelling, announcements and audible frustration from fellow passengers awakened me many times; people just wanted to get home.
The situation crossed a critical threshold around 1 am when all of the terminal shops and restaurants (almost harmoniously) closed and left for the night. Anxiety turned into desperation when people could no longer get food or drinks – we were left to fend for ourselves. Around 3 am, the Los Angeles fire chief was considering evacuating the terminal due to the sheer overcrowding and barely controllable crowds.
I had been living in the same clothes for what seemed like a lifetime; Once the terminal stores re-opened, I bought new clothes (since my luggage was checked to my final destination); I wanted to feel less-homeless.
For shits-and-grins, I whipped out my phone, and checked how much it would be to Uber back to Tampa, FL. $3,200 wasn’t a bad price – I considered it on more than a few occasions.
Today’s goal was to get to the east coast – At this point, I didn’t care where – just closer to home. After holding for hours (again) to get through to the reservations desk, I had tickets to DTW, MSP, ATL, and TPA; all eventually canceled. I was re-booked on a flight to JFK, which (surprisingly) had a plane, flight crew, and pilots. It was one of a few flights that took off that day (with me on it).
I landed in JFK and was greeted by much of the same shit-show as LAX – thousands of pissed off passengers and very few flights taking off. I didn’t have the patience to fight anymore. I found availability at a hotel in NYC and got my first full night of rest (thank god).
Another missed day of work and another wasted day of PTO. I called into reservations and was met with 45 minutes of hold time; a glimmer of hope that things were returning to normal. Being in NYC, I had advantages to get home; I could fly out of EWR, LGA or JFK to get to TPA with some non-stop flights, but the remaining connecting in ATL and DTW. The first few flights were canceled due to the missing crew, but I was able to get to ATL by late afternoon. Through some miracle, I managed to make the last flight to SRQ, which got me close enough to home to call the trip over.
I arrived home to much-needed silence – no screaming passengers, no overhead paging announcements blaring in the background. I sat on my bed with a fist full of boarding passes as a testament to one of the worst travel experiences I have ever experienced.
My checked baggage arrived on day 4, having been sitting in TPA baggage claim for 2 days (sigh).