Miraculously missing the Christmas meltdown

January 16, 2023

Months ago I booked United Airlines flights on Christmas day to Madrid for me and my family. As the so-called “bomb cyclone” enveloped the U.S. December 22-25, I worried that our trip would be disrupted and obsessively tracked our flights and aircraft.  It was a real Christmas miracle when we found ourselves in Madrid the day after Christmas, having made all three flights to get us there.

Christmas Eve saw record lows in Raleigh at 10-11° F with sub-zero wind chills. No one in our family enjoyed it except our dog. She reveled in the bitter cold, thanks to her thick fur.

We were the lucky ones: no snow or ice, and relatively mild temps. Not the arctic blast, whiteouts, and several feet of snow that hit places like Buffalo.  5000+ flights were canceled on December 23 and many more thousands on the 24th. I expected lots of aircraft and crews out of position with plenty of downstream schedule impacts on Christmas day.

Thus, my compulsive flight tracking.  We were flying a Mesa Air (United codeshare) Embraer E175 Raleigh to Washington Dulles (IAD Airport) and there connecting in less than two hours to a UA 777-300 overnight to Brussels. If all went well, we’d board a third flight the morning of December 26th on Brussels Airways (formerly Sabena) to Madrid, arriving just before noon. 

Somehow, our short flight from RDU to IAD was on time, critical to making the international connection. Flight Aware revealed that our little plane threaded the cancellation needle on Christmas Eve flights IAD/DFW, DFW/IAD, and IAD to frigid Burlington, Vermont. There the plane overnighted before returning (on time) Christmas morning to IAD, and it landed on time at RDU from IAD. It appeared our flight from Raleigh to Dulles would operate on schedule.

I was surprised to find RDU quiet and uncrowded. No lines at the United Premier Access counter, no queue at all at TSA PRE, and few folks at the distant D gates (photo above). Also unexpected were all the Raleigh/Durham Airport stores and restaurants open on Christmas Day.

TSA installed the new turbine-looking 3D luggage scanners at RDU in the fall, and my impression was that they sped things up. Neither did I have to remove a powdered product from my carryon that I take on trips.

We were booked in Premium Economy on the transatlantic leg, fitted with United’s very comfortable seats. However, it’s been many years since I connected via Dulles, and I was curious to see how it went. Gotta be better, I kept thinking, than United’s dog’s breakfast operation at Newark.

We left Raleigh on time and arrived IAD on schedule. A good omen, I thought.

As far as I know, the gangly buses used to move passengers between terminals at Washington Dulles Airport are unique (above photo). I remember them from the 1970s being unreliable. Luckily, we didn’t have to use one that day.

Dulles on Christmas Day was wall-to-wall people, much different from RDU. My first impressions after not being there for decades: claustrophobic low ceilings lit by too-bright, penal institution-ugly fluorescent tubes. Reminiscent of a tired mid-twentieth century Greyhound bus terminal except I remember the bus stations being less grim.  What an embarrassing first sight this airport is to overseas visitors arriving in our nation’s capital.

We made the walk from our arrival gate at one end of the terminal in 17 minutes to the other end (gate C2).  I’ve rarely seen such crowded conditions, with nowhere to sit. Literally, shoulder to shoulder.

We wore masks once at the airport and throughout the flight. Perhaps one in fifty in that wretched place was masked. A few families, but few others. How quickly people forget.

Boarding began at 5:00 PM for a 5:50 PM departure. After six other groups were accommodated, including scores of screaming babies, Premium Economy was allowed to enter at 5:35 PM (misleadingly called “Group 2”). You can see from the photo of the scrum at the gate what a nightmare the boarding process was. Thinking again to 20th century Greyhound days, climbing aboard those big buses was more orderly and civilized.

We were first into the PE cabin and had plenty of space for our luggage, thank goodness. I’d months ago snagged roomy bulkhead seats (20AB) and seat 21B just behind. At 5:50 PM (departure time), people were still streaming by. Even business class just ahead of us was chaotic.

Of course, the romance of flying is long gone—along with a good deal of my warm Christmas spirit by that time.  My holiday cheer had been intact until landing at that madhouse of an airport.  I badly needed a drink, certain to be a joyfulness restorative.

Our United flight left the gate at Washington Dulles one hour and ten minutes late. The captain said good winds and speed would make us “only an hour late” as if that was a good thing. He didn’t have to worry about a connecting flight to Madrid.

The pilot admitted UA held the flight at IAD for late inbound connecting passengers and slow loading of bags without regard to anyone’s Brussels connections. He sounded exasperated that his company had not kept him informed of the delays.

Service on board started with a drink cart. Ruth and I asked for champagne, which wiped the smile from the flight attendant. “I’ll see if we can bring you some,” she replied, curtly. Meantime, she poured white wine for Ruth and a G&T for me.

She never returned with champagne or anything else. So much for Christmas cheer after a flight delay caused by her employer, I mused.

Thereafter, a meal of sorts arrived: “Pasta or chicken?” No explanation of what either was.

Ruth had the temerity to ask the flight attendant which she recommended. “Both are good,” came the quick and well-practiced, canned response.

Admitting defeat, we took one of each. Neither entree was worth describing; even so, “good” is not an adjective that springs to mind.

Meanwhile, I thought, where was that champagne? It never materialized, nor did the promised second round of drinks. Much later, after the meal was cleared, I went hunting for a flight attendant. Having given up on the bubbly, I asked for another G&T. I was met with a frown and a brittle, “Okay!” Eyes averted, back turned. What a crew! I thought.

After that, nothing except small bottles of water.

Certainly, a Christmas night flight to remember in all its small but cumulative slights and poor attitudes, beginning with the Third World airport to sloppy boarding to inefficient gate departure to rude and indifferent on-board service to late arrival.

But United’s premium economy seats were comfortable. Absolutely no complaints there. It was the human element of the shameful operation and the absence of pride that made it a sad and tiresome experience.

I chose United because the fare was significantly cheaper than Delta and other carriers in Premium Economy. I suppose, in a way, we got what we paid for, and so I blame only myself for expecting a higher standard. Probably unrealistic. Next time I’ll spend more to avoid flying United Airlines.

Truth: I don’t expect much more than the roomier seat when flying in Premium Economy. That said, PE comes at a premium price, and for the higher fare, I do expect civility, efficiency, and a modicum of service. 

Coming home, we were on Lufthansa (United codeshare partner). With better service, thank goodness.

Descending over London, I wondered what the BRU airport would look like, my first time back in several decades. I thought it was sure to be better than United’s ruined C and D concourse at Dulles.

One tiny tidbit of positive news for regular UA international flyers is the plug adapter now provided with the onboard headphones in the PE cabin (see photo). About 2019, United converted its fleet to plug receptacles with one small and one large opening which thwarted the use of Bose noise-canceling headphones that are far superior to those provided by the airline in business and premium economy. I couldn’t find an adapter plug that worked until then. So, thanks, United. It’s now packed with my Bose phones.

We landed in Brussels still an hour late but made our connection on Brussels Airways to Madrid.  Big relief!  I’ll save describing the BRU airport and the intra-European BRU/MAD flying experience until next week. 

On balance, I was pleased that the UA operation on Christmas day and overnight successfully transported us from Raleigh to Dulles to Brussels to Madrid.  Especially given the context of contemporaneous nationwide air service meltdowns resulting from the enormous winter storm and bitterly cold weather that played havoc with every airline and many airports.  We got there, and that’s good.  The downsides of the creaky, creepy old IAD Airport and the indifferent United onboard service in so-called “premium” economy IAD/BRU were, in hindsight, less important.  But those negatives do stick in my memory and don’t make me smile and want to fly United again.


One thought on “Miraculously missing the Christmas meltdown

  1. Just a fun bit of trivia. From the Washington Airport Authority web page:
    Concourse C/D was built in 1985, two years before the Airports Authority was created. The original structure was the first midfield concourse at Dulles to service aircraft via jetbridge gates. It was conceived as a temporary facility.

    Of course the “temporary” facility has only been used for 37 years and counting.

    Fun bit of trivia — The AeroTrain (subway) station for terminal C is long walk from the terminal — it is where the “permanent” terminal C will be built. [Which is not currently planned]

    Washington Dulles a tale of two extremes — C/D (and the bus station like commuter operations in A) versus the much newer Terminal A/B — with high ceilings, nature light and a LH lounge with direct access to your gates.


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