laguardia airport: new york city’s travel embarrassment

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IMG_2601Imagine an airport that is so dirty you wouldn’t send your worst enemy to use the restroom. An airport with leaks in the ceiling, with arrival and departure boards that look like they are from the Nixon era, and one that lets passengers board an aircraft from a cinder block stairwell accessed by a fire door.

I’m sorry New York. You are an amazing city, my home and I love you, but the world is laughing. LaGuardia airport is an embarrassment.

I’ve flown from LaGuardia many times, but my most recent experience compelled me to write this post. I had booked an 8:15pm flight to Montréal on the “new” American Airlines. I would be traveling on the same day the very last US Airways-branded flights were in the air before being subsumed into the AA branding. My expectations were standard fare: I would like my flight to be on time, with reasonably knowledgeable agents at the airport, at a gate with an agent and a flight info board, with departure boards that reflect the most up to date information, in a reasonably clean and organized terminal. LaGuardia failed in every aspect, as, unfortunately, did the airline. I’ve flown almost 900,000 miles with American, and I’ve never experienced something so bad with them.

IMG_2597I cannot underestimate the chaos of the hours between 6:30 pm and 8:30 pm on my departure night when several flights were delayed. I get it that sometimes flights are delayed, and I’ve been on many. It must be difficult to manage. However, at these moments transparency and communication are key, and on this day there was no updated information, there were no announcements, and passengers were asking each other for help trying to figure out what flights were boarding.

I knew there was a delay with my Montréal flight which was scheduled to leave from “Gate C3” in Terminal B, but not because there was any indication of it at LaGuardia airport. All departure boards and the airport’s departures website still reflected an on time departure. Instead I had to look north to the land of Poutine and check the Montréal airport arrivals information, which correctly indicated a delayed flight.

Among the many layers of chaos, dozens of Montréal passengers almost boarded a flight to Raleigh-Durham because that flight was delayed but also leaving from “Gate C3” in Terminal B. This “gate” was actually an exit door that led to cinder block-lined fire stairs. As mentioned, this was the same gate listed for the Montréal flight on the disco-era departures TV, and, as no updates were given, passengers did not know the Montréal flight was delayed and thusly assumed it was boarding. No announcements were made.

IMG_2600This is when I began tweeting the Mayor of New York City [office and personal Twitter account], the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who run the airport, and American Airlines. [Trusty travel tip: Airline Twitter accounts are run by Public Relations not customer service, so you will usually get a prompt response, especially if you #hashtag the name of the airline and inform the public about what is happening].

IMG_2598In an effort to try to figure out the status of my flight [the departures board still reflected that the flight was on time which I knew was impossible], I went to a nearby gate to ask the agent to update the board. She told me she had nothing to do with the info board [even though she was also from American Airlines]. I then told her of all the passengers wandering around with no guidance or information. As she was clearly frustrated, I told her I knew it wasn’t her fault personally but it would be helpful if she made an announcement. Finally she did. However, the public address system was so bad and the gate organization so nonexistent that most did not hear it. It was at this time that I went to “Gate C3” and yelled, “If anyone is on the Montréal flight it is delayed – it is not boarding now.”

That is when I became the face of the flight to fellow passengers. Just after this happened, another airport worker began directing Montréal passengers to yet another nearby gate for a document check, but it was packed with passengers from yet another delayed domestic flight, and this confused everyone even more. At that time there was no information anywhere about my flight except on the old departure board, which reflected it being on time, which was completely inaccurate.

At this time I found out from an airport worker that the reason for the delay was that my plane had not yet landed. I began spreading the word among the passengers, who by this point knew me as being on the flight. Still no update was made to the 1970s era info boards, and the LaGuardia departures website had also not been updated.

IMG_2599I then went to use the restroom, passing a tub on the floor to catch leaks from the ceiling. I walked in and walked straight out. I’ve used cleaner facilities camping on the ground in the Serengeti.

At this time a fellow passenger motioned to me that the gate had changed for our flight. Again, no announcement was made. Some Montréal passengers were waiting at this new gate, but yet another late flight was boarding. It was at this point that the departures board was finally updated to reflect the delayed Montréal flight. Now the question remained, who were these other passengers at the new gate and what flight were they boarding?

This was truly an epic fail on all accounts and there was clearly no leadership or guidance for all of the workers. They were trying to cope with chaos borne out of airport facilities that were substandard [and I would imagine in violation of some federal law in some book somewhere], a complete lack of coordination, a complete lack of transparency, an utter disregard for client service, and clearly a complete lack of crisis management protocols. I find it hard to believe that there was anyone managing this chaos.

Before you play point/counterpoint, I know that LaGuardia is beginning to undergo a US$4 Billion renovation, but that will not be completed until 2019 at the earliest and likely not for a few years thereafter. This miracle of funding is in part due to a storm of controversy that blew over New York City after Joe Biden, Vice President of the United States, had this to say about LaGuardia Airport in February 2014, “If I blindfolded someone and took them at 2:00 in the morning into the airport in Hong Kong and said ‘where do you think you are,’ they’d say, ‘this must be America, it’s a modern airport…but if I blindfolded you and took you to LaGuardia Airport in New York, you must think, ‘I must be in some third world country.’ I’m not joking.”

Like I Tweeted, Joe Biden was right [@VP on Twitter]. And while this renovation is coming, what is lacking in the meantime is an effective traffic flow plan for the years until the new airport is realized. If the current LaGuardia airport cannot handle the traffic, then the FAA should decrease the number of flights in and out of the airport until such time as it can handle the capacity, and the airlines should rethink their operations.

Until all of this occurs, the world is laughing and New Yorkers are disgusted.

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