Zaleski: Not so easy getting into friendly skies

West Fairlee, Vt. We got here, but not until experiencing air travel frustration in what United Airlines used to tout as "the friendly skies." A 4 a.m. start got us to Fargo's Hector airport in time for a flight that not only was on time, it was ...

West Fairlee, Vt.

We got here, but not until experiencing air travel frustration in what United Airlines used to tout as "the friendly skies."

A 4 a.m. start got us to Fargo's Hector airport in time for a flight that not only was on time, it was ahead of schedule. TSA screening was efficient. The officers were as helpful and morning bright as the job allows. They do good work.

Early arrival at Chicago's O'Hare airport was welcome news because the layover until our Burlington, Vt., connection was a short 55 minutes. Early arrival gave us an additional 15 minutes or so. Instead of a sprint, we walked from arrival gate to departure gate. So far, so good.

We boarded the plane for Vermont on time. The door was closed, engines started, and we were off. Or not.

The engines shut down. The aluminum tube got hot and stuffy; air conditioning was off. There would be a short delay, the flight attendant said, while mechanics replaced a part. Not to worry, I thought. A safe airplane is a good thing.

The short delay got long. Long enough so that passengers were ordered to deplane to the terminal. Well, I reasoned, better to wait in air-conditioned comfort than in a sun-baked airplane. Afterall, how long could it be? We were in United's home airport hub and headquarters. Don't ask.

The repair was not minor. After an hour, a gate attendant said there was a new aircraft waiting for us 23 gates away, and we should go there. Well, nothing wrong with a brisk walk in the morning. Heart healthy. Not sure if our rising anxiety was heart-healthy, but you go with the flow. No choice if we wanted to get to our destination. An airplane was waiting, but no boarding call came. Then came the "uh-oh" moment: They rolled in a snack wagon with Sam's Club bottled water and single-serve bags of Cheese-Its and Fritos. Sure enough, the second plane had a mechanical issue. And even as the fix was made, we understood why the snack cart had appeared. The flight attendant left. Her hours were up. The delay would be longer while the airline scared up a replacement. Well, I grumbled, got to have someone to serve lousy coffee and cheap snacks.

We had started out at 4 a.m. We were irritated, but kept our cool. Other passengers had been up since 3. They were getting owly. Like Fargo's Hector, Burlington's airport serves a vast region: Vermont, eastern New York State, northern New Hampshire and southern Quebec. Airport signs are in English and French. People picking up arriving passengers travel long distances. When incoming flights are late, it's a real inconvenience. Thus, the anger that was simmering in Chicago.

At last, the airplane was ready, a flight attendant arrived, and we touched down at Burlington three hours late, which, we were told, wasn't so bad. It wasn't good. The skies might have been friendly, but the problem was the airline had a helluva time getting us up there.

Zaleski retired in 2017 after 30 years as editorial page editor of The Forum. He continues to write a Sunday column. Contact him at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or (701) 566-3576.