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Being Trapped in an Airport Bites: Tornadoes at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport

When arriving at DFW, the sky was mostly blue and it was sunny. Things changed quickly.

When arriving at DFW, the sky was mostly blue and it was sunny. Things changed quickly.

It is obvious right? Being stuck at an airport because of delays or a cancelled flight is no fun. Recently, I had a fun little experience in Dallas after flying from Seattle (out of BFI) to Dallas (DFW) for American’s delivery flight of their first Boeing 737 with Sky Interior.

The delivery flight arrived at DFW about 4pm and my flight out wasn’t until 9:15pm. I took my time to get over to the terminal (our flight ended at a maintenance hangar) and since I had the time, I decided to wait stand-by for the earlier 7:30pm flight. I sat enjoying my window view, when all of a sudden alarms and warnings started to come over the speaker system.

“There is a severe weather pattern coming towards the airport. Everyone must go to the center of the building and away from any windows.” This was followed by talk of tornadoes and reassurance this was not a drill. It became obvious the airport meant business.

Some passengers bolted to the bathrooms, which were severe weather areas, and others couldn’t care less and had to be told by employees they must move. I decided to take the middle ground and figured it was a good time to go get some food, which happened to be in the center of the building. While enjoying my airport food (okay, enjoying might be a bit strong), we all started to hear very loud noises in the terminal. Large hail started to fall, making disturbing noises on the ceiling. People who were on planes had to be escorted off back into the terminal.

I couldn’t see outside, since I  was away from the windows, but looking at news reports, there was hail the size of baseballs in the area. Love Field (also in Dallas) reported a tornado that touched down near the airport. After things calmed down about 30 minutes later, the 7:30 flight I was on stand-by for had an updated departure time of 9pm. My original 9:15pm flight still showed as “on-time.” I was #5 on the stand-by list, so decided to ditch my attempt for the earlier flight and started my trek from Terminal D to Terminal A.

DFW has a really slick train system inside security to quickly get passengers to any of the terminals. Unfortunately it does not run during severe weather, so I had about 45minutes to hoof it through the airport. I kept checking screens and flight 1575 from DFW to SFO kept showing “On-Time” as other flights slowly changed from “On-Time” to “Delayed.”

When I made it to the gate at 9:00pm, the flight still showed ready to go and that is when they announced the flight had been diverted to Houston due to weather. American started checking planes that were parked at DFW for damage and realized there were quite a few planes with damage and started cancelling flights. However, the few flights that had their aircraft diverted were still showing as delayed and not cancelled.

A little after 10pm American Tweeted:
“All AA and Eagle operations @DFWAirport are suspended for the remainder of the night due to #storm activity. Appreciate your patience.”

Hmm. That caused a bit of confusion. I tried to tweet to @AmericanAir to get clarification, but they were unanswered and people at the airport kept confirming that our flight was still a go.

Thousands of people at the airport lined up waiting  for hours to get re-booked on flights the next day. Those of us on the SFO flight felt a little bad that our flight was still going when so many were being inconvenienced, but were happy to have our flight. With all the stranded passengers, hotels quickly filled up and it didn’t take long for all the cots that DFW provided to disappear as people started to set up camp.

Even with all the chaos, I have to say that American did a great job keeping us informed since our departure time kept being pushed back. A little after midnight, we were informed our plane was now coming from Oklahoma. I jumped on FlightAware.com and found our aircraft and quite a few others in-bound to DFW from Houston and Oklahoma. Our plane finally arrived a bit before 1am. People already started gathering around the gate ready to get on board as soon as possible. We were told it would take about 20 minutes to clean the plane and off we would go to SFO — finally.

There were a few empty seats on the flight and the gate agent started calling up people from the very long stand-by list. The flight was set to leave at about 1:30am, meaning we would arrive at 3:30am. I started figuring out how little sleep I was going to get, when we got the announcement:

“I have bad news…the plane is here, but we have no crew and American is cancelling the flight.” People reacted like they were just told they had an incurable disease. Some cried, others yelled. I couldn’t help but be a bit angry myself. I had been waiting for nine hours for this flight, while watching thousands of others get re-booked on flights and make hotel reservations. What kind of chance did we have to get on any decent flights to our destinations?

That poor gate agent. He had to know the news wouldn’t be taken well. After the announcement, two guys came storming up and just started yelling at him. I guess the cops had to be called over, but I wasn’t sticking around. 160 people just found out their flight was cancelled and most started lining up at the gate. I headed down the terminal to find a shorter line and luckily found one.

At this point I knew I wasn’t going to make it to SFO in time for an event I had scheduled, so now it was time to try to make it back home to Seattle.  When I told the agent that I wanted to get to Seattle, the agent next to her looked over and said, “Good luck with that!” Sigh.

I have to say the agent I worked with was a trooper. She obviously was working way past her hours for that day and has dealt with many upset folks. Even though I was tired and frustrated, I tried to be as polite as possible. At first it looked like I might be stuck at DFW for a day and a half, but after some creativity she got me a flight to Orange, CA (SNA) on American and then to Seattle on Alaska — sweet.

Cots were gone and I heard rumors that people were having to go way out of town to get a hotel room. My new flight wasn’t leaving until 2:40pm — over 12hours later. Luckily, the airline gods were smiling on me. While at the counter a nice elderly gentleman was standing next to the counter. He was turning in a hotel voucher since he decided to camp out at the airport. I asked if I might have it and she gave it to me — for the first time in a long while, things were looking up.

Since this was a weather-related incident, American wasn’t picking up the tab, but it did guarantee a room and at a discounted rate. After calling to confirm there was a room (only one left) and hailing a cab, I was settled into my room by 3am.

It was a very long and frusterating day, but I fell asleep with a big smile on my face. I had the ability to take a shower and a nice comfy bed to sleep in and that was more than most people in my same situation could say. Cancellations are not fun for anyone, but they are part of the huge transportation infrastructure we have in America. Even with the weather causing the issues, I heard so many people blaming the airline. Do they really think that American wants to cancel flights? Keep their employees up extremely late and lose a bunch of money? Heck no. I was disappointed that I was missing my planned event, but I had to stop and realize it could have been worse. People at the airport I was talking to were missing bigger things like a wedding and even a funeral.

Passengers get away from the window during tornado warnings.

Passengers get away from the window during tornado warnings.

Yes, with our flight, American dropped the ball. They should have known there would be no flight crew and just cancelled the flight hours prior to give us all a better chance. Even while placed in a difficult situation I had to keep reminding myself that the airline business is extremely complicated and when an airline’s main hub gets shut down and you have people managing thousands of passengers, crew and employees, obviously some things will fall between the cracks. Airlines do not have the ability to be fully staffed at all times just in case situations like this occur.

With all the weather issues and thousands of flights each day, it is pretty amazing this doesn’t happen more often. Yeah, it might have taken me almost a day and a half to get home, but it is still better than driving. Just because I might love the airline business, doesn’t mean I have to love every aspect. Luckily experiencing cancellations like this is a rare occurrence.

Have you had an interesting cancellation story? Did an airline really go out of their way to help you? Or hurt you? Please share in the comments.

21 comments to Being Trapped in an Airport Bites: Tornadoes at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport

  • Cheri

    David,

    So glad you were OK! I am been on many trips just like this, often traveling with my children alone when they were young. I also witnessed so many people harassing the gate agents. Once I was stranded for 2 days in St. Louis during a big winter storm. I was traveling alone and was thankful that I was. I helped a woman who was traveling with her 2 young children, so she could take a bathroom break, etc. She had way more stress than I did at that point. Things happen. Weather happens. Mechanical malfunctions happen. You handled it perfectly….take a breath and realize not everything in life is under our control. It is stressful, but move on. Life is short!

    Cheri Neil

  • Great story, and way to maintain your patience. I had this happen around the Christmas holiday at JFK when the great winter blizzard struck. I was scheduled to leave for Madrid on Dec. 27th. I figured things would be chaotic, so I decided to go to the airport a day early in hopes of grabbing a flight before the storm got really bad. Air France refused to put me on an earlier flight, but assured me that my scheduled flight was set to go.

    I (voluntarily) camped out in the airport overnight. The next morning, I found out that my flight had been canceled. I contacted the Air France customer service number and they told me that they rebooked me on a Dec. 30th flight. I told them that this was unacceptable, as I would have to return Madrid within two days of my arrival. They then offered me a same day option on Delta Airlines direct to Madrid. I accepted their offer and continued with my plans to hang out in the airport.

    Moments later, Delta canceled the flight. I contacted Air France again to see if they had alternative options. They had nothing that was acceptable. Angry and disappointed, I asked for my money to be refunded and left the airport.

    I was very angry with Air France primarily for not agreeing to put me on an earlier flight when they issued advisories for the impending snowstorm. Air France called me shortly after I left the airport, but I let it go to voicemail. I called them back and they offered me a Dec. 28th option on Air Europa. It was a reasonable offer considering how much I wanted to go to Madrid to celebrate New Years, and that I was only losing 1.5 days from my originally scheduled departure.

    The agent I spoke with was very helpful and sincere, and made me feel that she and Air France were committed to getting me on a flight despite how much the blizzard paralyzed the area and the airports. That demonstration of service and commitment instantly made me a big fan of Air France. I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome.

    What I’ve learned is that things happen, be it flight delays and cancellations, something I really want being out of stock, a train being delayed, or anything that results in me not getting what I expect. Sometimes we have to pause and put things in their proper context. Unforeseen circumstances are a fact of life. We just have to take it in stride.

    I think many airlines do their best to accommodate passengers when things don’t go like clockwork. We’ll eventually get to where we’re going. It’s awful to see someone become irate with an attendant over something that’s out of the agent’s control. This is my threshold. I’d much rather be patient and polite with an agent in hopes of finding a happy medium. It usually results in the best outcome for everyone.

    “Everything is amazing right now, and nobody is happy.” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8r1CZTLk-Gk

    • Also, as a concession, Air France changed my return flight from Madrid to Paris Orly to CDG. That was a big convenience in an of itself to not have to make my own arrangements to travel between the two Paris airports.

      And, I never lost my opportunity to fly on the Air France A380 Superjumbo!

  • Dorothy

    Wow, what an adventure you had, David! So glad all came out well! Tornado! is such a scary word these days. I just watched “Everything is amazing right now, and nobody is happy” on youtube – how totally TRUE!!! Thanks for sharing that with us, Mark W. From now on, when I start to complain about my flight I’ll remind myself that I am “sitting in a chair in the SKY!”

  • [...] Being Trapped in an Airport Bites: Tornadoes at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport [...]

  • AK

    In 2005, I was flying Delta from LAX-BOM via JFK and CDG. I was 16 y/o at the time and was flying alone (but had flown alone to India with a sibling before). The 2nd leg was a JFK-BOM flight with a stopover in CDG. Normally, that plane would drop off passengers in Paris, pick up Mumbai-bound passengers, refuel, and go. When we landed in Paris, the Paris-bound passengers got off the plane and they told the rest of us to stay on. After about 15 minutes, a Delta FA announced on the intercom that all passengers had to get off this plane because there was an equipment change. We all got our belongings and got off the plane onto a bus on the tarmac. The bus took us to the terminal where we underwent another security check (even though we had come from the USA and had not left any secure area) and left us in the terminal where there were absolutely no Delta agents around to help us.

    The screens showed that the CDG-BOM flight had been canceled. All of the passengers went around the airport to see if there were any Delta agents, but there were none. Unfortunately, this was in the middle of August when the entire country of France is off (airport personnel as well), so there were not any Air France/Skyteam agents there to help us either. A couple of keen ears head an announcement en francais that mentioned the words “Mumbai” and “trente,” so we headed over to gate 30. There was a flight to MAA (Chennai) there and a few Delta gate agents, so we asked what had happened to the flight to BOM. Unfortunately, it had been canceled because there was already a Delta jet there grounded due to floods and Delta was not allowed more than one aircraft at the airport. This was the first we had heard of any cancelation, about 30 minutes after being let off the plane.

    Somehow, someway, Delta told all passengers headed to BOM to be rebooked on the flight to MAA and that further connections would be dealt with there (which was not as big a problem for many people because MAA connects to similar cities as BOM, but was frustrating for those of us who had BOM as a final destination). Since this was before the age of superphones and wifi at the airport, there was no way of contacting relatives, so Delta offered to call passengers’ contacts if we gave them a number. I gave the number of relatives in the USA.

    Got on the plane, arrived in MAA around 3am. Unfortunately, my bags decided to take an hour to arrive so I could not get booked on a flight back to BOM until 9am. Ground staff at MAA were extremely helpful, mostly because they were Jet Airways staff and not Delta/Skyteam staff. Ended up having a wonderful MAA-BOM flight on Jet Airways and arrived in BOM about 12 hours after I had intended. After reaching my Indian relatives house, I got a call from the USA from relatives who had received a call from Delta 5 minutes before saying I was still in Paris.

    Delta absolutely dropped the ball on that one. Absolute lack of communication with passengers who had to go through an airport that was not supposed to be a true stopover but just a refuel stop. But I guess I must have forgiven them along the way because now I’m medallion with them, go figure.

  • I admire your patience Dave. And the way you describe it for others.

    I’ve had situations that tested my patience and taught me sometimes the only thing I can control is my own attitude. And it makes a difference on whether it’s a good or bad experience for me.

    In your particular situation, with tornadoes confirmed on the ground nearby in the Dallas metro area and baseball-sized hail falling on airplanes, that could have easily been so much worse. People looking to cheer themselves up could just have been grateful that it was only a 1-day or so delay. When the airport at St Louis was hit by a tornado, it remained closed for days. Planes were damaged and needed repair, not just inspection, before returning to service. If it had happened at a ginormously busy airport like Dallas, that would have been a major disaster that hurts my head to think about, likely including injury and death. And it nearly did happen.

    Also be thankful for improvements in ground radar, on-board weather radar and low-level wind shear detection equipment. No planes flew in that storm because the pilots, dispatchers and ATC had enough information to make the right decisions. Those lessons were learned the hard way at Dallas in 1985 with the Delta 191 accident. Since we learned what to look for, thunderstorm microbursts have not brought down any more airliners since then. Flying became safer because of those lessons.

    • Thanks Ian. It is frustrating when people get upset because an airline won’t fly a flight. On one point they think airlines are only out there to make profit at their suffering, but then get upset when airlines lose profit for safety. It is a very interesting business for sure.

      David

  • MVFlyer

    Good story…reminds me of a time some years back when I was flying out of Minneapolis back home to San Francisco. As we were driving to the airport, the same thing that happened to you occurred: tornado warnings, large hail, torrential winds and rain. I was supposed to connect through Denver on United, but the plane to Denver was already cancelled coming out of Chicago, so I knew I wasn’t going there…went to the United counter, and cajoled them to put me on a Northwest non-stop to SFO, which they did. That plane was coming out of Newark, and was being held there til the weather cleared. Any plane already on the ground in MSP was toast due to the hail–they would have to be inspected before flight, so I figued my best bet was to get on a plane that hadn’t left its destination yet.

    To make a long story short–chaos ensued at MSP–the flight that was supposed to leave at 9PM didn’t get out until 2 AM, they changed gates on us 5 times, and people were getting very testy. What sticks in my mind, though, was our gate agent, who resolutely refused to leave us in the lurch–she told me she was supposed to go off at 10 PM, but she stated, almost proudly, “You are my passengers, and I don’t go home until you get on that plane!” I never particularly liked NW, but this one gate agent had the right idea (not to mention the fact she made a pretty penny in overtime).

    One funny thing on the flight, which was uneventful as the weather front had pushed east: there was a very elderly flight attendant (one of the other FAs told me he was in his 70s), and he fell asleep in the jump seat as we were taking off. He slept for a good two hours as the other FAs didn’t have the heart to wake him up!!!

    • Thanks for sharing. I think that goes to show that a single individual can really represent an entire company. It is too bad that so few people who connect with customers at that level feel positive passion for their jobs.

      David

  • R Lopaka

    Gee,US Gov is gonna have to start fining tornados that cause delays. In HNL we were closed for a huricane (Iniki),I came in from NRT that morning,& for the Big Isle earthquake in the 20+ years I was based there. No tornados,fog or snow storms.

  • Jonathon Nield

    You should see the damage to my car that was parked at Love… ugh

  • John

    I LOVE it what Storms go through o’hare, and the sky is clear in wisconsin, because i live directly on the approach pattern for MKE (during east winds), and occasionally you will see a 777, or a 747! its cool :)

  • [...] end up relating to weather, which the airlines have no control over. Yes, it frek’n sucks, I have been there, done that and hated it. Even if the airline might drop the ball on a few things, it is not easy organizing a huge [...]

  • [...] finish adult relating to weather, that a airlines have no control over. Yes, it frek’n sucks, I have been there, finished that and hated it. Even if a airline competence dump a round on a few things, it is not easy organizing a outrageous [...]

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