Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is a real headache.
For anyone that’s ever flown out of Atlanta, or even caught a connecting flight there, you know what I’m talking about.
The “Empire City of the South” is a transatlantic hub that acts as a connecting tissue between North America, South America, Africa and Europe. Atlanta’s central location makes it the perfect headquarters for Delta (one of the world’s largest carriers), which has helped make it one of the busiest airports in the world.
But for those who are constantly catching flights out of Atlanta, “the airport” might as well be a pseudonym for Hell.
Even just getting to Hartsfield-Jackson can be a real task if you don’t live in (or are traveling from) the immediate vicinity. The airport is about 10 miles south of downtown Atlanta, which is one of the country’s largest commuter cities. Pair that fact with Georgia’s 14-lane interstates all pouring into one another, and a nightmare ensures.
If you’re lucky enough to get through the gridlock and actually get to your terminal, you better hope you still have at least two hours before your flight takes off.
Because, unlike other U.S. airports, Atlanta only has two security checkpoints for domestic flights. That means being herded through the TSA’s humiliation process at speeds that would embarrass a tortoise.
It’s an arduous process that causes an unimaginable number of missed flights and likely a few admissions to the local insane asylum.
But if you think that sounds like a brutal, mercurial hellscape that you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemies, try flying out of Atlanta on the first day of spring break.
That’s exactly what I did – or better, what I tried to do.
Two-plus hours of highway traffic and a security line that coiled around the domestic terminal like a tangled anaconda spelled my doom. My one-way Spirit Airlines ticket to Los Angeles was gifted away to some lucky stand-by passenger and I was forced to rethink my options on the go.
Spirit worked with me (although, not politely) to rebook my flight with a connection in Ft. Lauderdale, Fl. I wasn’t on a strict schedule, so taking a flight at 6 p.m. instead of my original 10:30 a.m. flight wasn’t a huge hindrance. But as I sat at the gate and watched the red-lettered word “delayed” flicker across the monitors, a nervous bubbling began to fill my gut.
I had a small window to make my connecting flight and even a 30-minute delay would mean risking a stay in Ft. Lauderdale for an indefinite amount of time. No bueno.
As the rain outside poured down, I heard more and more delay announcements and gate changes. My palms began to sweat as I checked Flightaware.com on my iPhone in 30-second intervals.
It wasn’t long until my worst fears were confirmed.
This is an announcement for flight ### from ATL to FTL. Delayed 15 minutes.
I approached the Spirit representative at the gate and addressed my concerns. But I was told, “don’t worry. Shouldn’t be more than a few minutes late.”
Delayed 30 minutes.
I fought through the crowd and approached a different Spirit employee.
“Just hang tight sir, we’re having more pressing problems right now.”
A Spirit pilot was apparently late and had forced a flight to Orlando to be stuck at the gate for almost an hour to that point. An old woman in the boarding line actually collapsed at one point, causing most of Spirit’s employees to go into full emergency mode. Meanwhile, traffic at the gate backed up like the queue at Space Mountain.
Delayed 45 minutes. Delayed 1 hour.
I missed the boat – well, the plane.
I began to grow desperate, but remained resolute.
I stormed past what appeared to be a herd of zombie passengers – all moaning, groaning and marching forth in a ubiquitous mob of despair. When I finally made it to the customer service rep, I looked her directly with sad, sullen eyes and made a desperate plea.
Get me to LA. Get me west. Just get me out of here.
When she told me my only option was a flight that left two days later, my spirit was broken (no pun intended). To Spirit’s credit, this particular employee was compassionate, understanding and offered me a full refund on my one-way ticket. Bu after accepting the refund, the hunt was on.
I browsed the web at a furious pace, searching for any way out of my ever-escalating predicament. I rushed to other concourses and scanned the monitors for any departures to LAX. I was even denied purchases from a number of carriers that weren’t at capacity, but weren’t willing to sell me a ticket during the boarding process. Alas, I would find no easy passage west.
Finally, as I sat defeated on the cold hard floor of the concourse T food court, I resigned to search for next-day flights.
The pickings were slim, as it was.
One-way tickets on United and Delta were far out of my price range and were disappearing by the minute. And any low-cost carrier flights were completely sold out.
But just then, when my cause was all but lost, a fragment of hope revealed itself to me in the form of a one-way ticket to Los Angeles from Southwest airlines – priced at $410. I leapt to my feet, yanked out my credit card and booked the flight with the ferocity of 10,000 suns.
And when the confirmation screen appeared on my phone, my exhausted body was flooded with relief. It was almost 10 p.m., and I’d be out of this wretched airport in less than 12 hours.
A one-way ticket at $410 was hardly a bargain, but it was the best I could do. So after a few hours of sleep in a cheap airport hotel, I was finally ready to get off of the ground.
I wasn’t taking any chances. I arrived at my Southwest Airlines gate over an hour early and patiently anticipated the first boarding call. I was scheduled for a one-hour layover in Indianapolis, and from there, a straight shot into Los Angeles with an arrival time of 1 p.m.
But before the first boarding call, I heard a different message pour out through the gate’s loud speakers.
“We have overbooked the flight by one seat,” said the voice. “If anyone wants to volunteer to forfeit your seat, we’ll get you on the next flight out and give you a travel voucher worth $300 plus the total cost of your one-way ticket.”
My ears perked up. I was intrigued.
Of course, I’d spent so much time in the airport, it seemed ludicrous that I’d even consider skipping this flight. But I was curious, so I had to inquire.
After speaking with the friendly Southwest rep for a few minutes, I made the decision to take the plunge. I was assured a first-row seat on the next plane out of Atlanta, and would only be arriving to my destination two hours later than my original itinerary suggested.
I was held off the departure flight to Indianapolis until the very last moment, but when it was obvious that one passenger was still wading through the sea of security, I was told to go ahead and get on the plane. But before I did, the Southwest rep printed me a $50 travel voucher and a couple of in-flight drink vouchers just for my willingness to volunteer.
At that point, I was thinking…I like how these guys do business.
After landing safely in Indianapolis, it wasn’t long before I heard the same familiar message come over the intercom. Once again, the flight was overbooked and Southwest was searching for volunteers to take the next flight, which left only an hour later, but connected in Las Vegas.
At that point, the positives of racking up some massive travel credit far outweighed the negatives of delaying my arrival to LAX another three hours, so the decision was pretty easy.
I volunteer as tribute.
And this time, I reaped what I sowed. I was credited with $300 plus the cost of my original ticket, $410. Add in the $50 voucher and I racked up a total of $760 worth of travel credit, not to mention a handful of tickets for free on-flight alcoholic beverages. I was also given boarding priority on my next two flights and enjoyed comfortable front-row window seats, great for snapping some photos out of the windows on a clear day.
After connecting in Vegas, I landed safely in Los Angeles without delay. And shortly after landing, I started planning where I’d take my next trip(s) with the abundance of Southwest travel I had racked up.
Of course, I know Southwest isn’t the only airline that overbooks and rewards those with flexibility in their travel plans. But the people working their customer service desks were kind, helpful and seemed to truly put forth their best effort to make my trip as enjoyable as possible. The free travel is great, but Southwest truly won me over with its employees.
And in the future, Southwest will always be my first option when looking for airfare.