Hard to believe, right? I associate American with slightly tired upholstery, old planes, no plugs (on the planes or in the waiting areas), long flights without food to be had, and a web presence that proudly shouts 2002.
So Wednesday mid-day, as we were supposed to be descending into Dallas — I was planning to hoof my way to a tight connection to Austin — I realized that the cloud mass to my right seemed all too familiar. I had seen it before, more than once, I was sure. Sure enough, the pilot’s voice announced, very calmly, that we were circling, due to tornadoes on the ground.
Tornadoes on the ground?
This was a plane without wifi (of course), though I saw some folks surreptitiously fire up their phones to try to find a signal (and I can’t fault them, though I decided to wait until we were somewhere on terra firma). So we circled a while, and then diverted to San Antonio, where we all sat on the tarmac listening to the same phone recording telling us to call back later because the lines were tied up.
At 2:25 pm it occurred to me to tweet my plight to @AmericanAir. At 2:26 pm I got a direct message (private tweet) in reply.
In the next 36 hours, I had to decide whether to fly back to DFW or deplane in San Antonio (I deplaned, later catching a Greyhound bus to Austin, more about that below); figure out when and how I was returning to SFO; and otherwise navigate an unexpected turn of events caused by 12 tornadoes suddenly scudding across Texas. The whole way I had The @AmericanAir account on Twitter as my wingman.
Some Twitter accounts are staffed by marketing shills; some by empathetic but not particularly adept company reps. I got the 20-year company veteran. She (we eventually talked by phone) was professional, caring, smart, expert, and full of good ideas. Knowing I really wanted to make my talk in Austin the next morning, she didn’t push me to return to DFW. When my record locator vanished from the airline’s website, she reassured me my reservation existed. When my flight was canceled (as I learned from an airlines robocall), she assured me I would be rebooked soon–and I was. When my flight details didn’t show up in my account, she tweeted them.
I only had one time when I felt unnerved: when after deplaning in San Antonio I realized there were no rental cars left, the airport’s cell signals were weak or nonexistent, and the airport’s “information centers” were staffed by cranky good ol’ boys who couldn’t be bothered to help me find a way to get to Austin from San Antonio. “You’ll have to look that up online,” sniffed one of them. For ground transportation I had no angel on my shoulder. I finally found a spot where I could get on AT&T and bought a Greyhound ticket online, then cabbed it to the station.
Now, about Greyhound. I got almost a 50% discount for buying my ticket online. But I can tell you this: most of the people in the dilapidated station were on the analog side of the digital divide; they weren’t in a position to buy tickets online. I demonstrated how an iPad worked to no less than three people; as the bus pulled out (close to an hour late, due to a flat tire — it was definitely not my day for travel karma) I brought up videos of the tornadoes on request of the woman sitting next to me. I am certain the fellow in front of me, who shyly told me he was on his way to another halfway house, could have used the $12 I saved more than I. That online discount only benefits the people who least need it.
I was also scandalized by the poor condition of the San Antonio terminal. San Marcos and Austin had pleasant little terminals. San Antonio was depressing: all scuffed walls and weary chairs. Greyhound is a for-profit company that sells services to the less fortunate in society. People rely on Greyhound because we, in our wealthy society, don’t provide affordable ground or fixed-rail transportation between cities. They could care a little more. A lot more.
Anyway, I had a bit of an adventure, an extra night in Austin, and an angel from Twitter watching over me. Maybe I was meant to be in that Greyhound station, just to be reminded of my fortune on this side of the divide. In any event, kudos to American Airlines for being the one thing I thought it wasn’t — a 21st-century company.