Thursday, July 12, 2007

I've been to Hell...

...Courtesy of United Airlines.

Some of you may note I am home a day early. I accomplished none of what I was supposed to do on this trip, and will have to face an irate editor tomorrow. Or Monday. Or when I feel like it.

You also may recall I had a bad feeling about this trip in front. I was so right.

But rather than rage, curse, defame, threaten and generally carry on in the way I have wanted (and been oh-so-close to) for two days, I will give you a chronological account, assembled from itineraries, boarding passes, standby boarding passes. All times are local to where the events took place.

Wednesday, 0400 (PDT): Head to airport, where security confiscates yet another tube of toothpaste (I can't seem to find those trial sizes anywhere);

0530: Board aircraft, strike up conversation with guy in next seat, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserve who is headed to Ft Bragg, and therefore will share most of my journey;

0615: Time to push back from the gate. Pilot comes on the horn, announces "they" have told him the plane needs a brake replaced. New departure: 0730;

0645: Many debark to talk to "courtesy clerks" re: changing schedules of connecting flights. In the case of the Lt Col and myself (and five others) she counsels sticking with the plan, as we will still make connections in Denver to Raleigh-Durham;

PARENTHETICAL DEJA-VU THOUGHT: At this point, a little voice in my head was saying "get off the freekin' plane and go home!" The Lt Col confessed to similar thoughts, and noticed the gate for a flight to Maui. Tempting and, as matters turned out, probably a better choice.

0820: Wheels up, on the way to Denver. No hope in hell of making connection. Pilot firewalls it, makes up time, so we make Denver a mere 35 minutes after the second flight leaves;

1200 (MDT): we are told "arrangements have been made." Now, we fly to Washington/Dulles and connect to Raleigh-Durham. Oddly enough, the Lt Col has been booked on a Raleigh-Durham flight an hour ahead of mine, which he could not make if the aircraft was the Concorde;

1220: We pass two "customer services" lines as we head for the new gate. There are over 100 people in each, and the second line appears to be on the verge of a riot. Much howling and slamming of luggage, etc.;

1255: Dulles flight leaves Denver;

1820 (EDT): Arrival in Dulles. No flights have left for Raleigh-Durham, due to mechanical problems and major thunderstorms in NC. We head for "customer service" booth, line extends to close to 150;

1850: Lt Col remembers that he once good quick reservation help in United's "Red Carpet" Club. We find one, he plunks down 70,000 of his frequent-flyer miles to rejoin. A nice lady actually prints out proper boarding passes for both of us on a flight that leaves at 2145. She also takes one look at our general condition at this point and lays two free-drink coupons on each of us;

1915: We leave the "Club," both in a better frame of mind, pockets stuffed with wrapped cheese slices and crackers. Bets the heck out of pretzels;

1930: Our flight is delayed (ain't that a surprise?), but we stop by the gate for the flight we were first supposed to get (original departure time 1645) and, miracle of miracles, some mysterious code added in the Red Carpet Club produces two fresh boarding passes for a flight leaving at 2000;

1945: We take turns watching our mutual pile of luggage so each of us can hit the latrine, check the bookstores, and so on. While it's my turn, someone steals my briefcase. This will be important later;

2130: Our flight finally departs, arriving Raleigh-Durham at roughly 2240;

2245: I say goodbye to the Lt Col and head to baggage claim, where I am to meet a representative from my hosts. Nuh-uh. Never mind that it is now nearly seven hours since my scheduled arrival time; I assume they have kept in touch with the aerial mayhem going on and have made allowances. No dice;

2315: I decide to call the place where I am to stay. All of the paperwork, contact phone numbers, and a host of other assorted crap were in my briefcase. I cannot even remember my own name at this point, much less the name of the resort.

Thursday, 0100: No result from talking to airport police, baggage service people, the woman at the "information" desk or the "courtesy" desk. Flights keep coming in, and I watch carefully in hopes colleagues got caught out the same way, but no joy. Of course there is another baggages area for other airlines some considerable distance away. In hindsight, I am guessing most late arrivals came in via Delta or continental. As I should have;

0230: A large group of passengers come in from a very late American flight. AA personnel hand out blankets, pillows, water, snacks. They graciously offer same to me; I accept;

0300: I decide there is no point in going on with this mess. I am so tired that I cannot safely do what I came there to do, even if I magically make contact with my invisible hosts. I will give up on the event and come home. At which point I call United's 800 number to rebook my Friday flights for today. The operator gives me the reservations number, and asks if I'm in Raleigh-Durham now, When I say "yes" he says "I'm sorry...."

Next unpleasant surprise: United reservations are now handled in Mumbai, and Ms Patel -- I think she said her name was "Connie" -- not only does not understand US geography, but has trouble with the concept of connecting flights. Forget about such exotica as "standby" bookings...I spend ten minutes trying to sort this out, when an airport cop tells me the United counter -- with real humans operating it -- opens at 0400. Goodbye, Ms will never know what I really wanted to say to you;

0415: Counter opens, and the woman there is only a small step above Ms Patel, or Ms Singh or whatever the hell her name was. She books me Raleigh-Durham/Chicago/LA, with a final arrival time of 2015 (PDT). And charges me $100 for the changes;

0520: On standby for the first flight to Chicago. I am the first one there, in fact, and the woman at the counter takes pity and instantly books me on the flight;

0605: Plane boarded, doors close, onto the ramp. Suddenly, plane loses all electrical power. Must have been a circuit breaker; after five minutes, the pilot gets things humming and light up the jet engines. Off we go;

0810 (CDT): First Chicago/LA flight. Full. Forget it. Airline rep swears at me for asking if I should hang around to make sure; A second flight leaves within minutes. Same answer, minus the naughty words;

0830: Another flight to LA is getting ready to board. It too is supposedly full. I grovel, get on the standby list. By now, my eyes look like red locomotive headlights, my hair is beginning to look spiky, and I am deathly afraid I stink. I'm none too coherent, either, mumbling "gotta get to LA" and "I can't take any more of this" over and over. I keep trying to pick up an invisible briefcase, too;

0835: Nice lady slips me a boarding pass after telling sevral people "no can do." I could kiss her. I could also kiss her because she's a major babe who makes that dumb United uniform look, well, hot, but then remember I haven't brushed my teeth for a day either, and think she might rip the card up if I try. She smiles big, though;

0845: Boarded. And I actually get one of those "extra-legroom" seats. As much as possible, I'm almost happy;

0905: Time to go, when the pilot comes on the horn to announce a "mechanical problem," being attended to by a couple of mechanics. After 15 minutes, it is clear one of the lavatories isn't working. They give up, put a "do not use" sign on the door, and we are finally wheels-up at 0940;

1030: I am more-or-less comatose. I gun down a can of ginger ale, six or seven cups of water, sit silently in the middle of the row. At some point, the movie comes on. It is "Blades of Glory" which, if anything, increases my already building nausea. I get the distinct feeling the guy seated on my left wants to put his hand on my thigh;

1100 (PST, as we are over the Arizona desert): The movie ends. I marvel that anyone not trapped in an airplane could watch such awful crap. Makes me want to beat up the next gay I see, an emotion I have never felt in real life;

1151: On the ground at LAX. Grab bag -- and not briefcase -- and head for the shuttle bus, which gets me home speedily (for once).

1315: Showered, shaved, in clean clothes, and feeling like crap. Two days of breathing nothing but airport or airplane air convinces me I have (a) a cold, (b) pneumonia, (c) TB or (d) malaria. Maybe gangrene, too.

1457: And here I am, telling you how I spent my last two days. I have canceled another trip I was to go on in two weeks, and will not so much as drive past an airport until September, when I fly to Montana.

But not on United....


Anonymous said...

Flying commercial airlines in the post 9-11 world: It's not just a's an adventure.


Kashew said...

Holy crap...that's worse than some of MY experiences flying, and I thought *I* took the cake! Were you by any chance wearing green? Each time I've had a major malfunction on airlines, I or someone in my party was wearing green. I'm convinced that wearing green on flight days is asking for trouble.

Glad you made it home in one piece

Justfly said...

There are better airlines out there. I know of one airline that would get you from SAN to RDU...of your choice to times, one would have even stopped to connect at BWI. There are some incredible agents there :)
I can't say that we never have problems, but we do a damn good job at fixing problems and re-accommodating passengers. Our dispatch does a good job at making sure we can accomodate passengers that are going to miss their connections. Even gate agents have the freedom to call dispatch and asked to have a plane held or to be sure we can put them on another plane.
And if you had a full fare ticket to begin with, there would have been no change fee.
Sorry about your briefcase, that is horrible.

MrScribbler said...

JF -- I'm sure you've heard all the horror stories...the worst is that the "service" folks (not the ones at the gates, but the ones who sit at their little desks) simply don't seem to give a damn.

Justfly said...

We don't even have service desks anymore. It was rather silly having a long line of people at one spot, when any agent at any gate can help accomodate a customer.
Even our 800 number, which is all with our people in the USA can easily help people, and there are no press this for this, press this for get a real person immediately.

MrScribbler said...

If they can get me to wherever the heck it is I'm going in Montana, I'm flying it.

My new friend, the Lt Col, suggested airlines follow the FedEx mode. I can see each passnger having a bar code pasted to their forehead; one swipe with the reader and any agent knows exactly which plane to put them on to get where they're going!

joan said...

There are no friendly skies anymore are there? What a comedy of errors. You poor thing. What an awful experience.

John said...

The airlines really are screwed since I left. Common sense and creativity are a liablility.
That is the most incredible misadventure I've heard in awhile.
Maybe the briefcase was an error and it will get sent back. I hope so.

John said...

Justfly must work for an airline that sees what the modern model of airline management is doing

sugarcane said...

Holy cow! I would say the only good things that happened were you kissing the hot chick and actually getting back home in one piece.

Oh, and Justfly, what airline are you referring to? I want to fly them next time.

betty said...

What a nightmare trip! I don't fly very often and I sure am glad that I don't..

picaboblu said...

You were 45 minutes from my house! You could have spent the time with us.

The FedEx idea sounds like a winner, they get my packages here a lot more often than I, or my luggage, get where we're going.

MrScribbler said...

picaboblu -- Believe me, you would NOT have wanted to meet me in my Raleigh-Durham "condition!"

The mere thought of seeing that airport again makes me break out in hives....

lowandslow said...

Wow! I've never heard of such a mess. Sounds like that old Jack Lemmon movie, the Out of Towners, remember? Bummmer, Scribbs.

I've flown JF's airline many, many times with VERY good results. Once we were very delayed, but the gate agents brought in refreshments and snacks for us and we even played games for small prizes. It was almost a party. Better luck next time, my friend.

DAL said...

I've taken exactly two trips by air, one a short round trip weekend flight to Toronto on a twin engined prop, and one from T.O. to Orlando with the usual jets.

That was enough, even though I had no problems, aside from an hour wait at customs in FLA.

Flying may be safe, but it's no real convenience aside from time.

MrScribbler said...

l&s -- the best thing about taking JF's airline is that we know who to complain to if it goes badly, no? I'm certain she would have been helpful even though I was nearing the Jack Nicholson "Heeeeere's Johnny!" stage.

I have flown it as well, and have no complaints at all with it.

dal -- What is it with Canadians and Florida, anyway?

The longest wait I've had in customs was a flight into Vancouver, BC. The fact that a full 747 from Hong Kong came in just ahead of us may have had something to do with that....

susananne said...

Am sorry you had such a rough trip Mr Scribs..I havent been away this year but the way the security is at the airports and all the waiting around am pretty glad really. Good to see you back.

Kim said...

OMG - that's a total nightmare!!! Note to self: never fly united. Hey, I was once on a Qantas flight (world's safest airline, mind you) and all the oxygen masks fell from the overhead compartments, the lights all turned off and the gangway run lights lit up, and the man with the big scary voice came on and told us we were losing altitude rapidly and to fasten our oxygen masks NOW! And this was in mid-air. We all sh@t ourselves. Aparently it was a problem with the electrics for the aircon or something....