I’m officially pissed at Northwest Airlines

Northwest Airlines is officially stupid and refuses to fly me straight back to MSP from Montréal (where I’ve become sick) and instead insists on making a sick person fly through DC to get to Minnesota. And they’re charging me $200 for the privilege. Ugh.

Nothing like faceless bureaucracies to really help a guy out when he’s ill.



Take Northwest Airlines (or Delta or whatever the hell they are at the moment) as a shining non-example.

Last Tuesday I flew to Montréal for GECCO (one of the really big conferences in my research area). I was supposed to fly to DC yesterday for an NSF review panel today and tomorrow. I would then fly back to MSP on Wednesday.

Unfortunately I became quite ill yesterday morning, starting with diarrhea, and then adding vomiting just in case I hadn’t gotten everything out of my system. As a result I took what I thought was the fairly wise decision of not flying to DC for the panel. The one relevant study I found indicated that after surveying 1,000s of people, they only found one would actually wanted to sit for several hours in a small tin can thousands of feet in the air next to someone who was busily ejecting all their gastro-intestinal contents. And that one lucky customer thought they were Napoleon.

So, you might think that I was doing the airline industry a favor by not bravely struggling to the airport, puking at the ticket counter, and racing to the toilet the moment I boarded their flight.

They apparently see it differently.

The folks at the NSF have kindly told me to skip the whole panel thing and go home and recuperate. Most of the panel’s work is being done today, so there’s not much point showing up tomorrow, etc., etc. My insides are behaving today, but I’m still quite weak and run down, so I’m planning to stay here the rest of the day and head home tomorrow.

I called Northwest Airlines to see what we could work out. Twice. Same stupid answer both times.

They insist on flying me back to MSP via DC “because that’s how my original ticket was set up”. I’m sick. I just want to get the hell home. They have a direct flight to MSP from Montréal. Put me on it. Please?


“Can I put you on hold to see what we can work out with ticketing?”


<Polite language that translates to “You’re screwed.”>

And they wanted $200 in penalties for the privilege of six hours of travel instead of two. Oh, and the chance to see the inside of DC National again for a bit. Thanks. Really. Thanks.

200 frickin dollars to put a sick person on the slow boat to Minnesota. This is the finest customer service money can buy, apparently.

I did this twice, with identical results.

I was so pissed the first time that I announced that I was going to buy a one way ticket from some other airline (any other airline) and hung up. I’m generally extremely polite with these people, because they’re powerless drones passing along bad news they have no control over. I suspect on their scale of asshole-ness, I was still really polite, but I did feel a little bit bad about it after I hung up.

A phone call was placed to the center of all wisdom and common sense (aka WeatherGirl), and we discussed the situation. It would in fact cost me over $500 to fly back on another airline, and that had a stop in Philidelphia; the best non-stop was over $800.


Crow was therefore eaten, and I called Northwest back and said I’d take the $200 “deal” (hence the second call).

Ugh again. And to DC I go.

Because of the DC leg, there’s no plausible routing that gets me to MSP for the last (3 hour) shuttle ride back to Morris. The current plan is for my remarkably generous family to drive out to pick me up (7 or 8 hours of their life I don’t get to bill to anyone). Otherwise I’ll start shopping around contacts in the Cities and see if someone will let a sick puppy sleep on a couch tomorrow night and take the shuttle Wednesday.

I’m sure there are a thousand reasons by their bureaucracy “needs” me to go through DC, but none of them make a damn bit of sense. I’ve heard this sort of “logic” before, and it’s the same stuff lazy software developers use to justify why something “can’t be done”, which what they really mean is “We can’t be bothered”.

I suspect the big issue may be that the middle leg (Montréal to DC) is on United, and United is gonna want a pound of flesh from Northwest regardless. So instead of working with me, or trying to work with United, Northwest insists on making United fly me to DC so the corporate accounting plays out in the end.


At least I have a good health care plan. Watching this amazing Bill Moyers interview with Wendell Potter makes one despair for the capitalism that is running rampant across the globe, and all the misfortunates being trodden under foot in the process. In that perspective I’m damn privileged.

I think I’m going to eat some more of the fruit from this morning’s breakfast and take a nap. I’ve got a long day tomorrow and need my rest.

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MSP Humphrey terminal: A modern ghost town

The Hubert H. Humphrey terminal at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport was eerily empty and quiet today.

A modern ghost town
When I fly to conferences I tend to take the low cost carrier, whatever that happens to be. Much of the cost is coming out of my pocket, and I’m cheap (’cause the conferences never are). For GECCO [1], AirTran was the winner, with a price a hair under $200 round trip, which was quite a lot less than I was expecting to pay for the flight. One little tidbit I didn’t really appreciate until several weeks after I booked the flight was that AirTran flies out of the Hubert H. Humphrey (HHH) terminal of the Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) airport, and I’m currently adrift in the empty, echoing terminus of HHH with a handful of fellow travelers.

For those unfamiliar with MSP, the vast majority of flights use the Lindbergh terminal, and I suspect many people pass through MSP with nary a clue that the Humphrey terminal exists. I think I’ve only flown through HHH once before, on a Sun Country flight to a conference several years ago, and I’d pretty much forgotten what it was like over here.

I knew I’d have a couple of hours to kill at the airport between the arrival of my shuttle from Morris and my departure, and I figured I’d grab some lunch and try to continue revising our GECCO talks. This, however, failed to take into account my departure from the Humphrey terminal instead of Lindbergh. The Lindbergh terminal is a nice airport, with lots of restaurants (some of which are pretty decent) and even a passable book store or two. HHH is a small terminal (10 gates) servicing a ragtag group of low cost and limited traffic airlines.

It’s like a ghost town, but with airplanes.

There was almost no one here when I arrived. Only one of the dozen or so AirTran desks was open, there were no customers in sight, and I was able to just walk right up. Security also only had one queue open, but there were only four or five of us going through at the time, so it was again “Step right up and off you go”. The waiting areas were almost completely empty when I got here, and now (probably 30-40 minutes away from boarding) have a smattering of folks.

All this is most definitely to the good, especially when compared to some of the chaotic and stressful check-ins and security checks we’ve had in some of our recent flights.

The downside is that there are pretty much zip in the way of services or staff. There are a whopping two coffee/sandwich shops in the whole terminal, one on either side of security, and one bar/restaurant. After that we’re down to a magazine rack and a few vending machines. And the coffee shop inside of security didn’t have anyone at the till when I first came through.

Arguably less good, and certainly weird. No one’s going to mistake it for Heathrow or O’Hare, I promise you.

The real bummer, of course, is that there’s no free wifi here (or at the Lindbergh terminal). $4.95 for an hour, or $7.95 for the day.

Wonderful. Almost as wonderful as the fine $3 sandwich that cost me $7 for when the coffee shop finally opened up.

I’m looking forward to not flying for quite a while (perhaps as much as a year!) after I return from this trip. It’s nice being other places, but getting there isn’t always loads of fun, and it tends to suck environmentally.

1 GECCO = Genetic and Evolutionary Computation Conference, one of the two or three big international “mega” conferences in evolutionary computation. To be honest GECCO is much bigger and more circus-like than would be my preference. I’m much happier at smaller gigs like EuroGP, but that’s during the school year, and at an awkward time, and a lot more expensive to get to, so I’ve attended a lot more GECCOs than EuroGPs :-(.

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