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My flight arrived 28 hours late

TODAY Travel Editor Peter Greenberg tells the story of how his flight to India arrived 28 hours late.

Earlier this week, Wichita State University issued its annual Airline Quality Rating study. Not surprisingly, most airlines did not fare well. And, not surprisingly, the airline industry was quick to respond.

"The vast majority of customer service issues arise from weather and congestion flight delays," said James May, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association, a trade group. He also blamed an inefficient air traffic control system.

Certainly weather and air traffic control have played a big part in airline passenger frustrations.

But I would argue that flight mismanagement, unrealistic scheduling by airlines and unreasonable connect times between flights are the real culprits.

Consider Delta Airlines Flight 16 on April 1.

Flight 16 is the longest long-haul flight in the Delta schedule, officially listed at 14 hours nonstop, but because of wind conditions, often longer. It goes between New York and Mumbai, India. It's a Boeing 777 that starts in Atlanta as a shuttle flight to New York's JFK, and then continues on the 7,056-mile nonstop to India.

This is a story of mismanagement, stupid and unnecessary decisions, delays, cancellations (not one, but two), anger, frustration and expense.

On April 1, I arrived at JFK three hours ahead of the scheduled 9:55 pm departure time for Flight 16 on a connecting Delta flight from Los Angeles. And 45 minutes before flight time, I headed to the gate.

And that's about the only thing that was on time for the next 48 hours. That's when I discovered we would be late boarding. Why? Ground crews had not completed catering and cleaning the aircraft.

Finally, at 10:30, we were able to board. Twenty minutes later, we were strapped in, ready to push back. Well, not quite. Apparently there was an electronic glitch. In about five rows of coach seats, the inflight entertainment system didn't work. And that also meant the flight attendant call buttons were inoperative. In technical terms, this call button issue is not a part of MEL (minimum equipment list of items that are absolutely required to be working in order for an aircraft to operate). Despite this, a decision was made to fix it. "This thing happened on this exact same plane last month," a flight attendant told me." Not heartening news. We were then told we'd have to wait about an hour for someone from Panasonic to be summoned to the plane.

I went up to the cockpit and asked the captain whether flight attendant call buttons were on the "no-go" list. "No, they're not," he replied, shrugging. "But that's what Atlanta wants to do."

So we waited. By 11:20, it was determined the system could not be fixed and -- and confirming that this was not a No-Go item" we pushed back from the jetway -- nearly 90 minutes late. But our problems were just starting. Because of the ground delays at the gate, we now found ourselves in the world's longest conga line. The captain apologized and said we were number 75 in line. That's right, 75th for takeoff, from one runway at JFK. Now it was time to do the math. Based on a time separation of 3 minutes per aircraft take off, we'd be out there quite a while. As we waited, I noticed plane after plane leaving the line and returning to terminals. The reason: They had waited so long they were short of fuel.

For our flight, that was a good sign. We got to move up in line. But moments later, that's when we got the bad news. At 12:40 am, nearly three hours after our scheduled departure, the captain informed the passengers that we'd be returning to the gate as well. Out of fuel? No, out of time. The crew had now "timed out." They had exceeded their legal on-duty time limits and could no longer fly the plane to India. We returned to the gate.

Of course at 1 a.m., there are no replacement crews, and all other options are exhausted -- any other flights that might have connected overseas to India have long since departed.  We were told we had to stay at hotels that night.

And how many gate agents were there to process vouchers for our forced overnight stay? Three. By the time we got our vouchers and shuttle buses were dispatched, most of us didn't get to the hotel before 2:30 am. And because of time/duty regulations that required pilots a minimum of 12 hours rest, we were told to return to the airport by 1 p.m. that afternoon, for a 3 p.m. departure for India.

When I got to the hotel, I found the pilot, who was also waiting for his room, and asked him to explain duty time in relation to the possibility that we ever could have realistically departed JFK that night. He was clear on the numbers: If the plane had been cleaned and catered on time, if Atlanta hadn't decided to fix an electronics item that was not essential to the safe operation of the flight, we would have made it. How's that for a bedtime story?

Nearly 200 passengers and crew delayed, inconvenienced. Business meetings canceled. Meals missed. Connecting flights jettisoned.

But wait, it actually gets worse!

Ten hours later, we dutifully reported back to the Delta terminal for that 3pm departure to India. Checked in, went through security again. And, on the way to the gate, an announcement. Our flight was cancelled! Again!

Now, the listed reason was mechanical. But by this time, and once again, all the other flight options on other airlines had evaporated.

In the end, after living at the Delta terminal for the better part of a day, I left on Delta Flight 16 on April 2. We left late, again. And then waited another hour to get to the runway. And I finally arrived in Mumbai 28 hours late.

Let's recap:

Why do I call this a mismanaged flight? For a number of important and necessary reasons:

  1. What did Delta know and when did they know it? With a listed flight time of more than 14 hours, Delta management certainly knew that the flight crew was already nearing the margins of allowable duty time before they ever boarded the flight.
  2. Flight attendant call buttons We were not full in coach. It only affected a number of rows. It was not an essential required safety item. If you can't push the flight attendant call button. How about … raising your hand?
  3. When they pushed back from the gate they knew we were 75 in line. Simple arithmetic would have told them at that moment the crew wouldn't make it.
  4. Once the flight timed out, the airline should have called the hotels and called for  buses. They could have easily started preprinting hotel vouchers. Instead, they waited until we were back at the gate and only made the processing time worse.

Now comes the fun part. How much did this cost passengers in terms of lost time, lost productivity, missed meetings? And how much did it cost the airline?

This is not about a passenger bill of rights. It's about a cockpit bill of rights and internal decision making at each airline.

And therein lies the problem of central management. Waiting for Atlanta to make a decision cost everyone.  No one should wait for Atlanta to make an operational flight decision when they do not possess local knowledge of the situation on the ground at a particular airport.

Think about this: The very employees at the airline who have the most public contact are treated on a need to know basis by their own management. If they need to know, headquarters doesn't  tell them! It creates a ripple effect for all sorts of different delays. And in our case, at every opportunity for a delay, the airline acted in a way that was destined to delay us even more.

This is absurd. This is stupid. And, this is avoidable. I, of course, have no monopoly on my story of Delta's Flight 16. My story can easily be matched by thousands of passengers on other flights, on other airlines.

Bottom line: the airlines are stretched too thin, and airline schedules are already unrealistic. One glitch and the system disintegrates, as it did with Flight 16.

At no time did anyone share our sense of urgency. They were all waiting for Atlanta. Next time, perhaps they should wait for Godot.  Something tells me he'd be faster.

Peter Greenberg is TODAY's travel editor. His column appears weekly on Visit his Web site at