The good news for the passengers on Independence Air Flight 1205: The airline was placing them on another flight to get them out on time and avoid an approaching summer storm.
The bad news: Airline ticket agents seemed not to know Independence's computer system well enough to rebook the passengers smoothly.
It was the second day of operation for Independence Air and I was already on my fourth flight, testing the nation's newest low-fare carrier, based at Dulles International Airport. For more than 14 years, Independence Air had existed as Atlantic Coast Airlines, a regional flight operator for United and Delta Air Lines.
It picked the summer to strike out on its own, hoping to avoid weather problems that could befall it in winter. But it learned pretty quickly that summer storms can wreak equal havoc on airports, especially Atlanta Hartsfield and Dulles.
The gate agents struggled to rebook the 18 or so passengers on Flight 1205. After about 10 minutes, the agent looked at me and several other passengers and suggested we have a seat. She would bring the boarding passes to us after she printed them out, she said.
I declined, and instead watched her struggle with the computer. She then asked the customer service trainer, who was too busy working with two other agents to help. Frustrated, the agent pulled out a book titled "Customer Service Training Manual" and tried to figure it out for herself.
About five minutes later, we had success. She handed us our boarding passes for the new flight. Other passengers seemed slightly put off by the incident. "We're happy to get on an early flight," said Lance Retter of Atlanta.
"But they seem a little disorganized," said his wife, Rose. To which her husband responded, "But that doesn't mean they won't be good."
The Retters were forgiving of what may have been only opening week glitches because they were able to purchase two tickets to Dulles for about half of what they would have normally paid. Just three days earlier, they bought two round-trip tickets for $160 apiece. To get those prices, they said, they normally had to book weeks in advance and fly into Baltimore-Washington International instead.
For its struggles in some areas, Independence seemed determined early on to get two things right: its fares, and how it treated passengers.
When a flight from Boston to Dulles was stranded in Boston by bad weather, Independence employees bought pizza for the passengers. There were similar gestures of goodwill on other flights affected by weather.
Taking a cue from Southwest Airlines, employees seemed to enjoy trying to make flights fun. Workers here cracked jokes (written on cue cards). "We're trying to lighten up the atmosphere on board instead of being so rigid," said Stephanie Collett, who has been an Atlantic Coast flight attendant for five years.
Several celebrities who did ads for Independence, including comedian Dennis Miller, rocker Chuck Berry and Washington political couple James Carville and Mary Matalin, recorded safety briefings based on the standard airline safety procedure text provided by the Federal Aviation Administration. But those briefings have never sounded like this.
"If you're traveling with a child, a congressman or anyone else who can't act quickly, put your mask on first and then help them with theirs," Carville said during one of the announcements. After her Democrat husband explains how to fasten the seat belt, Republican Matalin chimes in. "James is talking to the folks on the left side of the plane, because the people on the right know how to fasten a seatbelt."
Independence flies single-aisle, 50-seat airplanes, which means some passengers have to be willing to put up with some discomfort to get those low prices. Courtney Cotta, who stands six feet two inches tall, had to cram her knees against the seat in front of her on her flight to Boston from Dulles last Wednesday. Cotta says she prefers flying Southwest or United Airlines, but she opted to fly Independence Air rather than driving to BWI for Southwest.
"It's a little tight, but I think I can manage for an hour," Cotta said.
Advice for travelers craving legroom: Get a seat in the bulkhead or in the last row of seats. They don't recline (because they're near the lavatory) but at least there's more legroom than with the other seats. While smaller planes will handle the bulk of the airline's service, the airline plans to add four 132-seat Airbus A319 jets in November and will increase its Airbus fleet to 27 by early 2006. The airline plans to use the Airbus jets to fly to the West Coast.
To board or exit an Independence flight, passengers currently have to walk across the tarmac. In 90-degree weather -- as we had last week -- or in rain or snow, boarding flights outside could be uncomfortable. But Independence spokesman Rick DeLisi said the airline soon plans to build canopies at the gates at Dulles, Atlanta and Boston.
DeLisi said the airline also plans to print the gate number on its boarding passes. Unlike other airlines, it did not last week. Travelers had to find a television monitor to get that information. DeLisi said the boarding passes will have the boarding gate numbers on them "within days" and said their absence last week was merely a computer glitch.
Boston-bound Estela Getz of Bethesda discovered something else Independence was not equipped for -- passengers who wanted to read. The airline has not yet finalized its contract to provide general interest magazines. "I wanted to read my Newsweek here," she said.
During the two days of my test, it was difficult to fairly assess the airline's on-time performance because a number of flights were delayed by weather and opening-day festivities. And because most passengers either had carry-ons or checked bags gate-side, it was difficult to tell how the airline was doing on baggage handling.
While the flights during the first day were nearly full, thanks in large part to numerous employees who wanted to be a part of the first-day activities, the second day's flights were less full. In fact, on a noon flight to Atlanta on Thursday, only 20 passengers were aboard.
Still, DeLisi said the airline was "pleased" with the passenger response so far and that it had several sold-out flights on Friday and Sunday this past weekend and for the upcoming weekend.