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A Nightmare With Northwest Airlines

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This is a narrated account of a close female friend of mine who flew Northwest (NW) Airlines recently.

From long lines at security check-in and delayed flights to unprofessional staff and unclean planes, air travel has turned into a virtual nightmare over the past five years. Unfortunately, my job requires me to travel by air nearly every week. As one would expect, I have had my share of exasperating experiences, but my recent experience with Northwest easily counts as the worst. The incident left me close to tears and really angry. I feel strongly enough about the incident to come forth and share it in public.

I was scheduled to take a flight back to Stewart International Airport from Champaign, Illinois on October 13, 2006. After a long day at work, I reached the check-in desk 27 minutes before the flight departure time. Given that I didn't have any luggage to check and it was a very small airport, I didn't have any problems checking in. I was at the gate in five minutes and boarded the flight.

While boarding, a lady at the gate was making an announcement asking for volunteers to give up their seats. When the boarding had ended, a flight attendant again announced they were looking for volunteers. In response to this, a person got up and volunteered. A little while later, attendants announced they were looking for one more volunteer. No one else got up.

After about 10 minutes or so, a male staff member came up to my seat, and without preamble, shouted, "Miss, you need to gather all your things and get out of the plane right now." Caught by surprise and chagrined by the fact that everyone on the plane was looking at me, I fumbled and asked what had happened and why did I have to get out? He behaved as if he never heard me and merely repeated his exhortation, this time more loudly, "Miss, you need to get out of the plane right now!"

I felt close to tears, feeling deeply humiliated, and unable to think what had happened. Afraid, I quietly followed this guy out. Once outside, I asked him the same question. He again pretended he’d never heard my question and rudely asked, “Which color is your luggage?” He started to make his way back to the plane and I started following him when he turned back and spat, "Why are you coming after me? Get out of here right now!"

When he came back with my luggage, I asked him again about what had happened. He responded, "Miss, you better start marching up the stairs to the gate right now." I asked him why and he said, “this flight has to leave and you are delaying it. You better go up the stairs right now."

I went back to the gate and the lady there said, "I am sorry for the trouble, but you were thrown off because you checked in 27 minutes prior to departure time. The official check in time is 30 minutes."

When I asked her if I was eligible for any compensation, she said I wasn’t because I checked in late. (I talked to the NW customer care representative today and they hinted that I did qualify.) She finally gave me a $300 travel voucher, without asking me if I wanted that or a free ticket.

Shaken, I left the gate and went to the ticketing area. I waited there for a NW agent so I could register a complaint against the guy on the plane. As luck would have it, he was the person manning the ticket counter. More incredulously, he came up to me with my boarding pass and asked me to go back to the gate. I asked him what had changed and he responded, "You better run up if you do not want to miss the flight." He repeated this when I questioned him again.

I went back up through security. The lady at the gate told me, "You know, I did not realize that one person had already volunteered. We are going to put you back on the plane." I was really infuriated by then for they had deplaned me in a manner that suggested it was a security issue, when instead they had merely overbooked the flight. The lady at the gate had the temerity to ask me to return the $300 voucher. I refused, citing the hassle I had to go through. She then acquiesced and said, "Ma'am, you can keep the voucher for your troubles."

She had cancelled that voucher.

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  • Bliffle

    Air flight has become a horror for everyone who must fly coach class. If you can fly first class or business class things are much better, but the cost premium is high: the ticket costs ten times as much (a discount firstclass ticket is only 5 times coach class). What this represents is that coach class passengers have allowed themselves to be abused by the airlines. They foolishly believe that all airlines are the same and all the traveller must do is find the cheapest ticket. Wrong.

    After the foolishness of passengers and the corresponding ascendancy of the worst employees in the companies, the biggest problem is this new “code-sharing” scheme which removes managers even further from responsibility.

  • judith monchamp

    am I the only one who seems to understand that if check-in is required 30 minutes prior to departure, then a 27 minute check-in would, of course, jeopardize your reservation? I think it was handled poorly by the staff, but I certainly understand why this passenger was the one the airline would take off.

  • Hello Judith,

    thank you for your comment. The issue here is more about the way the situation was handled. If it was seen that the woman was late at check in, she could have been told politely that she was late rather than being checked in without a word, then thrown out of the plane in a vicious manner and then being lied to and not being explained the reason behind the eviction and most surprisingly then being asked to reboard the plane in an equally brusque manner.

    If you prefer being shouted at and lied to and rudely treated, certainly fly NorthWest.


  • DanK

    I understand the situation you were thrust into and your feelings. I am a flight attendant for NW and I can honestly say, we get treated the same way. It is such a shame; too many employees of all airlines forget where our paychecks come from….you, the traveling public. Please remember this, it only takes one bad apple to spoil the bunch. Safe flights to all!

  • nwaltrip

    I am a Northwest flight attendant and sometimes our agents treat us the same way. In defense of our “northwest” agents, the Champagne staff is actually employed by one of our airlinks, Mesaba or Pinnacle, not Northwest. Still deplorable behavior.

  • Bliffle

    Judith is wrong: the 27 minute vs. 30 was just a pretext to avoid responsibility. Probably, what really happened is they sold her seat to another person (double booking is rampant in the airlines industry, in spite of the fact that it seems to most of us that when they sell a seat to a person they are forbidden by fraud laws to sell it to someone else, too). The airlines have NO compunction about lieing and cheating and abusing in order to browbeat you into accepting this state of affairs. Apparently.

    But it’s all a sham and a scam to cheat you out of your legal rights and your hard-earned money, whether that’s done by simple plain outright theft or intimidation. And they continue to get away with it because the traveling public is content to be glued screwed and tatooed by these unconscionable cheaters. Why do travelers continue to put up with it? I suspect that is mostly because the New Class Of Travelers comes from lower socio-economic classes that are accustomed to being badly treated. They are sheep.

    Like most travelers I could recite to you outrages committed on me by these scoundrels and thieves, such as the time they threatened to sue me after I improvised a method to circumvent their malevolent rules when a close and dear relative died suddenly while I was abroad and they refused to change my departure date to return for the funeral but instead offered me a ticket at 10 times normal price. But I won’t do that (I’d almost forgotten about it). And I won’t reveal the name of the cursed airline because that would be mean (but their initials are AA).

    No, I have only to look at todays events. In fact, what has happened to me since I wrote my original comment to this article just a few hours ago.

    At noon I went to “SFO” (short for “Some Freakin’ Obscene airport”, whose name I’ve cleverly disguised to avoid legal consequences from some slimy lawyer hired by a greasy opportunist) to put two 7 yr. old cousins on a return flight to “CDG” (short for “C*ckslicking Dang Goobers” to disguise the real name), to their homes, on an airline whose name will remain anonymous (I’ll just call the airline “UA”, for short. You may think of this as “Unnamed Airline”, if you like). They are flying as “unaccompanied minors” (their tickets display “UNMR” clearly), as they have done before, experienced worldwide travelers that they are at their advanced ages. Standing in the Coach line we were told by a UA employee to go to the firstclass line for expedited checkin, whereupon the firstclass clerk immediately confronted us for being in the wrong line. Easily fixed in spite of the clerks continuing hostile suspicion. Strange, since there was noone in her line anyhow.

    So, perhaps for revenge, the UA clerk demanded we produce the actual paper receipt showing we had actually paid the small charge required for UNMR! Huh! Who has a paper receipt for anything these days? We don’t have a paper receipt, it’s in the Credit Card system someplace. Anyhow, the tickets issued by Unnamed Airline themselves clearly says “UNMR”. And we know we’ve paid the fee because we made the travel arrangement through an excellent travel agent whome we’ve used for 15 years though we could sometimes have saved half price by going online on the internet. But no, we have NO paper receipt showing we actually paid the fee! We argued and involved 4 more UA employees at two levels of management, but NO, they were adamant! No paper receipt no UNMR attendant. Why? we pleaded. Well, they confessed, it was OK with them, but the children had to change planes in the “Freaking Reich Airport” (FRA for short, in a country that shall remain anonymous, but famous for their punctilious adherence to formal requirement), to the “Lunking Heine Airline” for the last leg to CDG, because of a “Code Sharing” arrangement.

    Aargh! Beaten into submission by the sheer bureaucratic improvisatory skills of these maniacs my wife agreed to pay the UNMR fee. Again. If they would give us a receipt so we could recover the redundant fee later. They didn’t know how to issue the receipt. Now another UA person appeared to warn us that the flight was boarded and we were in danger of losing the seats. Oh, and they could not seat the two travelers together, for mumble mumble reason. Desperately, Wife threw money at them and took the children to the gate. I guess they made it OK. UA wouldn’t let two of us accompany them, in spite of two children, etc….

    Gee, I hope the kids make it OK. If they don’t I assume they will take it with their usual aplomb and wait things out and solve the problem, experienced as they are with idiot adults. Even if Unresponsible Airlines inadvertently sends them to the Frookin Republic of Africa by accident.

    Oh, and Unreasonable Airlines is the same outfit that bumped these kids from their scheduled flight at FRA two weeks ago to a 3 hour later flight (probably to accomodate an overbooked traveler) without telling anyone of the concernmed family members waiting at either end of the flight. Then they lied and said the CDG to FRA flight was late, necessitating the swith, although I personally had checked the arrival time at FRA two weeks ago and it was actually early.

    Well that’s what’s happened in the last 6 hours.

    I confess I might have been bitter and angry. I might not have been sufficentally composed to write this note. But I stopped at Roberts of Woodside afterward and found a very interesting 2001 Corbieres remaindered at $10. Never a reknowned or celebrated appelation, nevertheless the intrepid traveler may have found several charming Corbieres over the last 30 years that are quite delectable. This one reminds one of, oh, say, the 1984 Beaucastel, which is now available only at an extreme price, redolent as it is of botrytus and the most pinot like flavors of Chateuneuf. Well, if you want to steal any of the remaining 5 bottles of this tasty wine from the midst of the, perhaps unjustly slandered, “wine lake” you better hurry on over to Roberts as I intend to be there myself early in the morning.

  • Bliffle, that is Unquestionably A Freaking Rotten Airline, IMHO

    You deserve comment of the day, despite your bad experiences

  • Clavos

    I spent thirty years in a career in airline administration.

    The gate agents mentioned in the article would not have survived their probationary periods in either of the two airlines for which I worked.

    NWA is widely known inside the industry for having the worst employee/management realtions in the business; which could explain, though not excuse, those agents’ behavior.

    On the other hand, Southwest Airlines public contact employees are for the most part, pleasant, cheerful, and efficient.

    The difference of course, is how the staff at Southwest is treated in the workplace. They are respected and empowered, with a positive relationship between management and line employees.

    Because of this, even though Southwest actually has lower pay scales than many other carriers, their employees are, on the whole, happier.

    Disclaimer: I did not work for either Northwest or Southwest.

  • “How was your flight?”


    Any other answer means it sucked.

  • Kristin

    As a 17 yr FA for NWA all I can say is welcome to my madness. To be fair however….NWA really does not service the fore mentioned station.
    That does not excuse the bad behavior of the gate agents (out source I might add).
    Bad blood with labor and management is common at ol’NWA.
    I hope you will continue to fly NWA and find the good apples who try to laugh at “the man” and make the customers laugh,joke, sit back and enjoy the flight….but please remember to bring the correct change.

  • I fly very rarely. The last time I did was probably back in 2002. But I am flying again in December. Delta Airlines. Real good price for the RT tickets. But I am rather wary of what sort of aggravations will greet me when I arrive at the airport…

    I hate flying, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the actual flying, either…

  • Angie

    Please know that by this comment I in no way support the manner in which this customer was treated and if I were her I would avoid NWA. The station in the story was not run by “NWA” but by one of their regional carriers pinnacle or mesaba. As someone in the business affected by whats going on out there my comment is this, you get what you pay for. You have a lot of choices on who to fly. When going outright for the cheapest fare what do you really expect? A little insight for you all, NWA is concerned with getting you from point A to B. Customer service is no longer important to them. How do I figure that? They have laid off/let go of most of their experienced front line staff for the more cost effective route of outsourced staff. Of which they pay salaries at $9/hr. Who is taking that job? someone professional? someone who cares? NO someone who is there to collect a pay check. They don’t get paid enough to care and after all, if your previous flight was cancelled was it their doing? Why are you yelling at them then? At $9/hr how much power do you think they really have in making sure you get what you want? Now does that make it ok to be rude? NO! But to consumers and NWA alike, you get what you pay for. Nwa continually shoots themselves in the foot and some how continues to limp along with 1/2 of it’s employees out sourced and the other 1/2 that are “career” people trying to hold on with a little bit of dignity while not being able to cover thier mortage anymore. Or flight crews that can only afford one meal a day and they get that meal only if they’re lucky enought get more than an hour on the ground in a particular station during their 13 hour duty day that is followed by a measly 9-10 hr rest period. Yet I think for the most part the flight crews carry on quite well. There are always the few bad apples, that’s life unfortunatly anywhere you go. That is the story inside NWA, not the regional carrier the woman was referring to in the story. But I have noticed customer service is lacking in a lot of places in the good old US of A. We have created our own monster, we want more and we want it for less. That doesn’t really work in economics folks. Thanx for letting me put my 2 cents in.

  • Kristin

    ALRIGHT ANGIE!!!! You go girl. I couldn’t have said id better myself. How long have you been at MWA? I too am tired of 5 day trips 12-13 hour days and no sleep. I wonder how long we will last….

  • Northwest or NorthWORST!!!

    My husband and I were travelling with our 15 month old baby. Because of the difficulty of travelling with a baby we tried to check in from home around 4.00 AM for a 6.40 AM flight. The website let us check in for the connecting flight but not for the first flight. So we went to the airport and headed for the kiosk. This was about an hour before the flight. But the agent at the desk told us that he would be able to help us. Upon looking at our tickets he informed us that the flight was oversold and they will not be able to accomodate us. I told him that we were travelling with a baby and it would be good if they ask for volunteErs…which is procedure. He told me that they will not be asking for volunteers and we should wait for the manager to come back after the flight had left to see if she could accomodate us on another flight. I told him to give us a boarding pass so we could head to the gate and then if someone volunteers, we would be right there to board. He refused and said that we could not be checked in sinc the flight had no seats. We did not think much of it and followed what he said. After coming home, I researched their website which said that should you be invountarily denied boarding, you have the right for a compensation. So I called their customer care department which of course was not a toll free number for past travel complaints, I had to hold for quite some time. When the agent came on she seemed sympathetic in the beginning but eventually told me that I could not get a compensation cause I had not checked in and thus was considered a NO SHOW. I tried to reason with her that the agent at the ticket counter told me that I could not check in and also that I had unsuccessfully tried to check in from home. But she did not budge.
    I dont understand why I am being blames for not checking in when the ticket agent told me I could not, despite being at the counter an hour before the flight.
    I cant believe that the cmpany does not take any responsibility for all the hardships we had to go through because of their fault….first by overboking and then by not following procedure.
    This is not my first experience of poor service with NW Airlines. Last time I had a bad exprience the company apologised and promised that if I gave them another chance, they would make sure they wouldnt give me a chance to complain, so I gave them a chance and got nothing but WORSE. Dont know if I wwould like to travel NWA again. Hope you dont either.

  • William Loeffler

    Northwest airlines stranded me in Detroit. I’d flown 24 hours from Bamako in Mali in West Africa. I flew through Paris to Detroit. I was one hour away from flying home to Pittsburgh, loaded on the plane, when they said the flight had been postponed until the following morning.

    Me and some other passengers called Northwest and got confirmation numbers for a later flight that evening. But when we went to the ticket counter, the woman there said “You don’t have a seat?”

    “But I have a confirmation number,” protested the guy in front of me.

    “That only means you have a reservation,” she said, “That doesn’t mean you have a seat.”

    Long story short, we finally got a later flight after a delay on the runway. They lost our luggage and we didn’t get home until 2 a.m.

    Northwest – never again.

  • Bliffle

    Deregulation has ruined the airlines. We used to fly coast-to-coast in comfortable roomy seats for $250 RT. And I wore a suit and white shirt and tie, too. It truly was Champagne Service. And don’t try to give me that crap about deregulation reducing flying prices: that same flight at the same level of luxury is $3000 today. And 30 years ago $250 was easy money, but in 2007 $3000 is a Big Hit.

    It’s time for guerilla travel techniques. And I’m just the kind of crooked, dishonest, lying b*st*rd that can do it. The benefits of wasting 30 years in corporate America are few, but learning trickery and how to supress any unwanted sense of personal morality are two of them. It helps if you’ve learned how to concoct an absolutely mad plan and then carry it off without laughing and tipping off the gag. It helps to watch Terry Thomas or GWB in action.

  • Ura Nimrod

    Nice made up story. You first state you had no luggage, but then tell how they brought you your luggage. LOL.

  • ryanbandy

    27/30 minutes is not a scam for the record. the cut off is 30 minutes, so that agent has time to get to the gate, print weather, spills, and get you folks boarded. you are very fortunate that they even checked you in for that flight. i agree, that was a terrible way to handle the situation and this guy should be fired right away, but please dont put a steriotype on our airline. ive had plenty of bad experience with other airlines…none with NWA yet, but thats how it goes. some are good and some are bad. same with most things in life.