Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Lassitude at LaGuardia

I can't name an airport I love, but I can tell you one I hate: LaGuardia.

I have flown there often because I have family in the New York area and can't recall a single trip where arriving at or leaving from LaGuardia wasn't an uncomfortable undertaking. It's as if the people running the place have decided to see how bad they can make the travel experience in the hopes they might drive business away, which would mean they wouldn't have to work as hard.

In the last decade, none of my flights in or out of LGA has been on time, and that perfect record remained intact this weekend. Our flight was kept on the ground in St. Louis for about a half-hour because of some thunderstorms close to New York. Weather-related delays are always a risk, and blame can't be placed on the airline or the airport for that. However, once we made it to LaGuardia, we then sat on the tarmac for 40 minutes before being allowed to park at the gate that, our pilot informed us, was open and waiting for us.

The problem: too much ground traffic, so the pilot literally couldn't drive the jet to the terminal. LaGuardia is so busy that they can't move all the planes around and keep them out of each others' way.

That's inexcusable.

Monday, our return flight was no picnic either. The problem started with one of those employees whose job it is to make sure everyone approaching the screening area has a boarding pass. These are not TSA agents charged with security, they are mere airport ushers, but the one we encountered decided she was more important than that.

She looked at my suitcase and told me I couldn't carry it on because it was too big. I assured her it wasn't, since I had brought it to New York three days earlier on the exact same model of airplane (MD-80) I was about to board to go home, and it always fits in the overhead compartment. She insisted I put it into the baggage size tester box. It fit just fine in all dimensions except that the wheels stuck out about 1/4". That was all the evidence she needed to refuse to allow me to board with my bag. I tried to explain that this suitcase has traveled more miles around the world than she ever will, and always fits. Despite the now two-dozen people in line growing impatient behind me, she would have none of it and would not let me pass, telling me I'd have to check my bag. I toyed with the idea of leaving it there and telling her to keep my dirty laundry, but I also had some of my wife's clothing inside and so I huffed off to the ticket counter.

I have never seen this situation handled this way at any other airport. Usually, if there's any question about carry-on size, it's raised at the gate, where an airline agent judges what will fit and what won't. And, if your bag is too big at that point, they will gate-check it for you at no charge.

Which brings up another point. Being forced to check my bag cost me $25, the fee American Airlines charges (yet another reason why I try to fly Southwest Airlines as often as possible -- unfortunately, they don't have a STL-LGA nonstop). I also had to endure the poorly-run baggage check-in system at LaGuardia, which involves standing in one long line to get to an automated kiosk, then standing in another long line to give your luggage to an agent who applies the appropriate tags, then carry it over to a third line at the TSA drop-off area, where there were approximately seven gazillion other bags waiting to be screened.

It's a wholly inefficient process -- and this was in the middle of the day on a Monday. You can't imagine how much worse it is on Friday and Sunday nights when more people are traveling.

Throughout this procedure, from the airport usher to the baggage check-in personnel to every other employee I encountered, not one of them was treating customers with respect, kindness, or helpfulness. It was if our mere presence was a huge imposition. I'm sure their jobs are tedious and repetitious, but if you're on the front lines like that, part of your job is to make the experience as positive as possible for your customers, not to make them feel like they're ruining your day.

Once that fiasco was completed, my wife and I cleared security and made our way to gate D3, where we encountered more LaGuardia incompetence. Our flight was sold out, but there were far too few chairs in the area, so fully half of the passengers had to stand around. There were virtually no electrical outlets to plug into and no wi-fi to connect to, big oversights in these digital days. It was impossible to understand the continuous stream of announcements being made throughout the airport which added to a cacophony of noise in the terminal that would make a jet engine cover its ears.

Eventually, we did get out of the terminal, down the jetway, onto the plane, and into the air -- 20 minutes late, of course!

These may all seem like little things but, piled on top of each other, they add up to a business that seems to have little concern for the comfort and convenience of its customers. Yes, LaGuardia is a busy airport, but it's not as busy as Atlanta's Hartsfield or Chicago's O'Hare or Phoenix's Sky Harbor or Las Vegas' McCarran, all of which handle more travelers every day yet manage to make traveling a lot less stressful than their New York counterpart. Even St. Louis' main terminal at Lambert Airport does a better job -- and it's still cleaning up from being wiped out by a tornado a few weeks ago!

The only explanation I can come with is that the people who run LaGuardia don't actually fly in and out of their own airport, eschewing the areas populated by the public in favor of a back entrance, so they don't know how painful it is for their customers. Perhaps they can consider me a not-so-secret shopper, and this is their failing grade.