Holidays or not, early mornings at Missoula International Airport haven’t been very festive lately.
Crowds of harried, yawning travelers trying to check bags and board three closely bunched Delta Airlines flights have strained ticket counters and tempers. In many cases, they’ve also missed their flights.
“I travel twice a month and I think I’ve seen it all, other than a plane crash,” Dave Kendall of Missoula said Tuesday. “This is not the kind of random act of craziness. This is a planned debacle.”
That’s because Delta launched a daily flight to Seattle on Dec. 19 that takes off from Missoula at 6:15 a.m. That’s just 35 minutes after a Delta plane to Minneapolis departs, and 10 minutes after another heads to Salt Lake City.
The planes, at least for the heavy travel season, are usually the larger Airbuses, with capacities of 126 passengers or more. By 4:30 a.m., lines are already starting to snake from the Delta counter to beyond the airport gift shop as passengers wait to get their tickets and drop off their luggage.
A fourth staffed ticket computer has been opened at the adjacent Frontier Airlines counter to handle the overflow, airport director Cris Jensen said.
“Dozens of people, adding to up to perhaps more than a hundred, have failed to make their flights because the ground staff cannot handle the volume of people needing to check their bags,” Kendall wrote in a letter to Delta after speaking with airport and ground crew personnel.
Kendall got a first-hand dose early Sunday, when he and his wife arrived at the airport to put their son, Bo, on a plane back to college.
Bo Kendall made his 6:15 a.m. flight only after being told by ground personnel 15 minutes before departure that he couldn’t check his bag. His parents wound up shipping it to him at school in Santa Clara, California, at a cost of $63.12. It’s due to arrive Wednesday, two days after Bo needed his equipment for the first practice of the lacrosse season.
“A friend of ours in line wasn’t so lucky because he couldn’t leave his luggage behind,” Dave Kendall said. “He had to drive three hours to Spokane to catch another flight.”
Kendall called what he saw and heard Sunday “the second-worst case of airline incompetence and malfeasance.”
The worst, he assured Delta, was on American Airlines.
“With the addition of Seattle service and on (Sunday), a very high-volume day, Delta customers experienced much longer processing times than we would like,” allowed Ashton Morrow of Delta’s corporate communications office in Atlanta.
Morrow said Delta “strives to provide first-class service to every one of our customers, and we are working closely with the Missoula airport and TSA to see how delays can be avoided in the future while we continue to grow our service for the Missoula community.”
The situation has caught the attention of a congressman.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., has been in contact with Jensen at the airport and Delta in Atlanta to help facilitate a resolution to passenger wait times, said Marnee Banks, Tester’s communications director.
The new flight from Missoula to Seattle “is great for our economy and great for folks in western Montana,” Tester said in a statement to the Missoulian on Tuesday. “Ensuring that passengers have a seamless and safe travel experience is important, and I’ll continue to work with folks on the ground to make sure that happens.”
Jensen said a couple of issues are at play.
“No. 1, I do think (Delta) is experiencing some growing pains based on some bigger airplanes and also the new Seattle flight,” the airport director said. “The other part of it is the facility challenge.”
Additions and modifications to the original 1958 facility have resulted in a terminal that’s “not intuitive and is not user-friendly,” Jensen said following the announcement of the new Delta flights to Seattle last month.
He pointed on Tuesday to two large columns in front of the ticket counter that do little more than get in the way when things get crowded.
“The facility itself wasn’t designed for these numbers,” Jensen said.
A multimillion-dollar expansion and renovation is planned over the next few years, but for now “we’ll do whatever we can within our limited options,” he said. “At the same time, we hope Delta will do whatever they can within their limited options.”
Kendall and Jensen agreed that the bottleneck is at Delta’s ticket counter, where on Tuesday morning four employees dealt with a steady stream of ticketing questions from customers both understanding and not so much. A handful of passengers booked on the 5:40 a.m. flight to Minneapolis were shut out, but those on the two later planes appeared to board in time.
Ground crew officials for the Delta subsidiary, DGS Aviation, were not available for comment.
“We were worried the checkpoint would be challenged, but it actually flows really well. TSA has done an excellent job,” Jensen said. “If we can just get people checked in. ... Really what we need is for people to get to the airport as early as they can. I know that’s not always easy with these early morning flights.”
Jensen orchestrated a conference call Tuesday in which Delta, DGS Aviation and TSA were asked for input. He said Delta officials are earnest in their intentions to fix the check-in problem.
“I do think that they are giving this their full attention and that they are serious about coming up with a solution,” Jensen said, adding that the airport is “very happy” with the expanded service Delta is offering Missoula and western Montana.
“As we hope to gain more and expanded service in the future, we want to make sure that we are prepared to handle the additional passengers, cars and aircraft,” Jensen said.
Kendall said he is a Delta Platinum flier with any number of “amazing” experiences with the airlines – "most of them good."
He told Delta in his complaint that its employees in those cases “took the initiative to solve an urgent problem and got me on my way.”
Not so this time.
“The unbelievable part of this experience is that the problem was utterly preventable and numerous attempts had been made by the Missoula airport staff to do just that,” Kendall said. “Delta has known about this problem and failed to deal with it while continuing to promise that it can deliver the service it sold to customers. I am not a lawyer, but that sounds like fraud to me.”