When it rains at the airport here, it’s hard to find a passenger more pathetic than someone trying to get to Fresno.
I trudged up to the designated baggage carousel at San Francisco International Airport last Sunday night, less than eager to join the bedraggled looking group of travelers gathered for a promised shuttle bus to Fresno. The 30 or so people looked tired and defeated, as if they were about to join a chain gang. Once again, a flight to Fresno wasn’t going anywhere.
The reason: the dreaded “Canceled due to air traffic control conditions impacting our flight operations.”
The cynical among us interpret that as: When the weather gets a little unsettled at SFO – notorious for delays even when the rain isn’t heavy (as it was this night) or the fog barely there – the smaller regional flights get canceled first so that larger (and more lucrative) national and international planes can fly.
The even more cynical whisper: This flight probably didn’t have a large enough percentage of seats filled, so it was more economical to cancel it.
And when a flight such as this one, which was supposed to depart at 6:52 p.m., is canceled because of weather, the customer service agent merely sighs and says: No hotel, no meal vouchers, no nothing. Oh, and the next Fresno flight isn’t until 2:15 p.m. the next day.
SFO doesn’t just pick on Fresno, of course. (On this night, the Sacramento flight was canceled as well.) And other cities manage to get their licks in, too. Cancellations and delays can plague Fresno-bound travelers in Los Angeles, Denver, Dallas and Phoenix, all of which are Fresno connections for United and American flights. I’ve been stranded in all these cities at one time or another. (I don’t fly Delta, so I can’t speak personally for Salt Lake City, but I’ve talked to others who’ve been stuck there.)
But for whatever reason, SFO seems the best opportunity for a stopover in Traveler Hell. According to flightaware.com, the afternoon San Francisco-Fresno flight was canceled four times between Dec. 8 and Jan. 19. During that same period, it was more than an hour and a half late 15 times.
Here’s the frustrating thing: The potential for disruption has only gotten worse with the recent retirement of the smaller turboprop planes used by SkyWest, which serves Fresno under contracts with United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines and provides the lion’s share of flights to and from Fresno. Now it’s an all-jet fleet. As my colleague Tim Sheehan reported in December, that has meant a tradeoff for passengers: fewer options on the schedule but faster, more comfortable aircraft.
Before I go on, let me say that I am a fierce proponent for Fresno Yosemite International Airport. When flight schedules work, it is much easier to fly in and out of Fresno than drive to Los Angeles or the Bay Area. Yes, sometimes it costs more to do so, especially on some domestic flights, but I’ve also discovered that a Fresno fare is often in the same ballpark as flights out of the Bay Area or L.A. And not having to drive three hours each way and pay more for parking can be priceless.
It used to be that if a flight was canceled or significantly delayed at LAX or SFO, say, you had a chance of being able to get onto a later flight. Now that chance is greatly reduced.
I also think it’s important to support our airport. Good air service is a quality of life issue. If I had the ear of the aviation gods, I’d ask for even more flights – and the entrance of Southwest Airlines to the market.
But I’m very frustrated about the recent all-jet changes. It used to be that if a flight was canceled or significantly delayed at LAX or SFO, say, you had a chance of being able to get onto a later flight.
Now that chance is greatly reduced. With smaller planes, for example, there were usually three to four San Francisco-Fresno flights a day, for example. Now there are only two, at least this time of year.
And consider what it’s like now to try to book a flight out of Fresno through Los Angeles on United. There’s only one flight a day in this season at the not-so-convenient time of 1:15 p.m. So much for going through LAX to New York and arriving at a reasonable hour, or trying to get an international flight without a lengthy layover.
There are two United flights a day going from Los Angeles back to Fresno, but they’re both in the evening. If one gets canceled, guess what: You might have to wait another day to get home, unless you want to rent a car. (On a more optimistic note, United seems to be offering good options to Denver, with three daily flights from Fresno in winter and four on the timetable for summer.)
For my canceled flight last Sunday, I admit I was already a little cranky. I’d started in Athens, Greece, about 20 hours before, and after one of those slowly-dribbled-out four-hour flight delays dues to mechanical problems on my Frankfurt-San Francisco leg, the last thing I wanted to see was my Fresno flight canceled.
Because I was connecting from an international flight, I didn’t hear about the shuttle at the gate, and the first customer rep I talked to didn’t inform me. It wasn’t until I’d asked to speak to her supervisor that I learned a Fresno ride was possible. (The lesson: Always ask about options.)
My fellow travelers were cranky, too. When the United employee showed up with a beleaguered-looking sign that said “Fresno,” asking us to follow her to one of the shuttle buses, she wasn’t exactly going to win a popularity contest.
The 12 other passengers who squeezed with me into the shuttle, one of two, weren’t in a mood to bond. The three-hour ride was sullenly quiet, except for the guy who complained about the crying baby.
All this said, I don’t want to be a total whiner. With airlines today cutting flights to boost passenger loads, air travel can be rough no matter what airport you fly from. On the plus side, I got home safely, which was the important thing. And I was thankful, actually, that the airline provided a shuttle bus for a canceled flight – something I’d never experienced before.
I don’t know if there’s an easy solution to any of this, either, unless all the people who drive from Fresno to bigger airports changed their ways, thus filling up those bigger jets and requiring more flights each day. Oh, and perhaps throwing in a new runway at SFO, too?
Still, I’m going public with my frustrations. If nothing else, it makes me feel a little better to vent. By the way, if you’re so inclined, share with me your own Fresno air travel woes by email or at www.fresnobeehive.com. I can collect them in one place – and maybe even pass them on to someone who might make a difference. And, at the very least, I’ll commiserate. Sometimes all you want to do is just get home.