(and without question, I am partially to blame…)
Hardened by years of travel as a quasi-road warrior, I thought I was ready for anything. Yesterday proved to be one of my biggest challenges yet. If you are not focused now, you better come back to this post later–it is going to be dense and long.
The day stated off well-enough, with a 0625 flight from Ontario to Houston on Continental. Even with a 20-minute delay to start the flight, we landed in Houston ahead of schedule. Ontario is a bit far from my house, but traffic was light in the morning, I was able to quickly dodge the full body scanner lane, and my upgrade cleared four days prior to the flight. Breakfast was excellent (scrambled eggs with herbs and mushrooms, cheesy potatoes, ham, sausage, fruit, yogurt, and cinnamon roll) and I had an interesting conversation with my seat mate.
The next flight was a United Express exPlus flight from Houston to Minneapolis. Seeing UA-operated service to non-UA hubs is rare at IAH, but because Continental’s pilot contract prohibits CO from selling seats on regional jet subsidiaries with more than 45 seats, UA has had to step in on a few routes to serve cities that cannot profitably support mainline service but have more capacity demand than a ERJ-145 can offer.
The weather was foul in Houston (and across much of the United States yesterday) and just prior to boarding a 2hr, 20min ATC delay was announced. That presented a problem because I was on two tickets (ticket #1: ONT-IAH-MSP, ticket #2: MSP-ORD-FRA – thankfully both issued by UA) and I would now miss my connection to Chicago. To complicate matters, direct flights to Chicago were full and the next flight to Washington Dulles with availability was not until 1700.
I proceeded outside security to the United ticket counter and was beckoned over by an agent who shall remain nameless. She was nice at first and worked to try to get me on the non-stop Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt departing around 1600. Although that would have been in economy class, Lufty would have got me into FRA in time for work today. But for some reason, she could not swing it and told me there was nothing else available today. I had already done my homework and suggested going through Dulles on the 1700 flight, connecting to the late flight to Frankfurt.
You could see a light go on, as her eyes lit up and she said, "Ah, that will work and I can get you business class out of Dulles." But then she looked at her wrist watch and said it was time for her to go work an earlier (and oversold) UA-operated flight to Dulles and she handed me off to a colleague (who will also remain nameless) who wasn’t nearly as helpful.
While the first agent had set up the ticket to be exchanged, the new agent took a look at the ticket and started shaking his head. In a high-pitched whine, he proclaimed he would not touch the reservation because I was on two different tickets. He stated, "I could lose my job for this. I’ve been working way too long to do this."
I found his response and demeanor very sad. I was not asking him to take part in any monkey business–I was simply trying to get back to Frankfurt and happened to be on two UA tickets instead of one. I know for a fact he would not have lost his job for re-booking me through Dulles, and I think his frightened mannerism was just masking his laziness. I concede that UA agents no longer have the latitude they once had (and this will get even worse after the merger), but they are still empowered to take matters into their own hands during irr/ops.
I knew that arguing would be futile, so I smiled, thanked him, and proceed back through security (again avoiding the full body scanner by choosing the lane on the far right) where I planned to seek out the same agent who had initially helped me. She was indeed working the Dulles flight and I waited patiently until the flight went out before asking for her assistance. She was surprised to see me and asked what happened. I explained that her colleague had been unwilling to help and asked her to complete what she had started earlier.
Suddenly her demeanor changed. She quickly blurted out, "Well, if he can’t help you, I can’t help you." Calling her by name, I explained (very respectfully) that she was wrong, but her mind was made up. She quickly excused herself, saying she going on break.
Thankfully, a UA Service Director was nearby and offered her assistance. In two minutes, she had me on the 1700 flight to Dulles and 2151 flight to Frankfurt. I thanked her for her service, mentioning that her colleagues had been unable to do what she had just done with a few keystrokes (she simply changed my MSP-ORD coupon to IAH-IAD and my ORD-FRA coupon to IAD-FRA). She shook her head and apologized, wishing me a pleasant journey to Frankfurt.
Back in the President’s Club, I added myself to the upgrade list for the flight to Dulles. First class was booked full, but there were still a few passengers who had not checked in yet (though over an hour remained until departure). Then the fun really started.
I pulled up the upgrade waitlist from Continental’s website (I was at the top of the list) and saw that the flight was now delayed by 35 minutes. With a revised arrival time, my connection dropped to 32 minutes–too close for comfort. I spoke with a CO agent in the club about other options, including the non-stop CO flight to Frankfurt, but was told that the non-stop flight only had seats in BusinessFirst available. (And?…)
The agent refused to book me on the non-stop flight (and I can’t blame her, I was on an economy class ticket) and suggested that I check with United about getting on the non-stop flight. I called the 1K desk and got a very nice agent who looked into getting me on the desired CO flight, but ultimately told me I would have to pay the ~$2K upcharge. I called a few more time and got the same answer each time, so I guess (and appreciate that) UA is holding the line on re-booking passengers in premium cabins on partner flights.
Once again, I left the club and spoke to the UA Service Director who had helped me earlier. She also refused to put me on the CO flight and instead proposed a routing through London Heathrow on Continental and Lufthansa. I considered it for a moment but ultimately rejected it–it would have got me in too late in the afternoon for my meeting and there was still a chance I would make my UA flight ex-IAD if I hustled over to the gate. So I thanked the her, returned to the lounge, gathered my belongings, and proceeded to the gate for my IAD flight.
On a positive note, my upgrade cleared–a rare battlefield upgrade clearance on CO. I asked the agents at the gate, dumb and dumber, if I would make my flight and they assured me I would. One agent quipped that "Dulles is a very small airport. Your flight might just be a few gates away." I gently corrected her, stating that IAD is a large airport, CO flights arrive in the B-concourse and UA flights depart from C/D, and that a "bus" (no use saying "mobile lounge") or train is necessary to get from B to C/D. Her response: "Trust me sir. You’ll make your connection." I had a bad feeling as I boarded my flight to Dulles, but with no viable alternative available, I had to try to make the connection.
The flight turned out to be one of the roughest I have been on in years. The seatbelt light remained on the entire flight and I was surprised the FAs bothered to serve meals with all the shaking. Literally, the flight was shaking the entire 2.5 hours. Sadly, our 35 minute delay turned into a 55 minute delay. We landed at Dulles 15 minutes prior to scheduled departure. I still made a run for it, but I missed the flight–I was stuck in Washington until at least the next morning.
While the lines at the C-17 customer service center forked down the concourse, I pulled out my laptop and saw that I had already been rebooked in full-fare business class for this evening. A friend upgraded the ticket to first class for me so I am very excited about trying out United’s 767 international first class service tonight. It will be a first for me.
It was now 2215 and my night was almost over. The CO agents in Houston should not have promised me that I would make my connection and I felt it would be appropriate for CO to provide a hotel voucher for me because of what happened. I was already over at the D gates, so I stopped by the customer service counter there and requested that one of the agents call CO for me and check on a hotel voucher. The agent did and the CO person on the other line promised to check with her supervisor and call back in a few minutes. We waited. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. The UA agent tried calling back and there was no answer. She tried again and tried a few different other CO numbers she had. No answer at any of them.
She fumed, "Continental does this all the time. They just want to dump the passengers on us." Her colleagues to her right and left nodded in agreement. By this time, it was after 2300 and I could see the agents wanted to get home (I was the only guy left and all the flights had departed). I told them I would check with the UA folks at the other customer service line and they thanked me, trying to reach CO once more before I left.
The line was still long at the C-17 customer service center and it took about 30 minutes to get up to front. A UA agent who had just yelled at the previous customer she was dealing with motioned for me to come over. Uh-oh. With a dour look on her face she asked me what I wanted. I told her that I had already been rebooked and just need a hotel for the night. I explained to her the runaround I had been getting from CO and she also shook her head, stated "those idiots," and printed me out a meal voucher and hotel voucher for the Holiday Inn in Sterling, Virginia. Thanks United–I wasn’t looking forward to sleeping in the terminal!
It took over a half hour for the shuttle driver to pull up at Dulles and by that time, there was a crowd of 14 waiting to board the 10-seat van to the hotel. With a thick accent, he suggested "that the ladies sit on the laps of the men." There were some couples onboard and that is exactly what happened. Not the safest ride, but we quickly reached the hotel (where the driver cursed out most of the van, calling passengers mother f—ers when they did not tip him). I gave him $2.
I knew what would happen next. There would be one agent on duty with a long line to check-in. Turns out there were two agents checking people in, but still 20 people in line. By 0140 I was in my room and quickly fell asleep. I should add that I have been fighting a cold this week and had a bad cough and running nose. I doubt my day’s adventures helped to pacify that…
This morning I slept in and used my food voucher to have a breakfast downstairs. Now I am sitting in the International First Class Lounge in Dulles doing some work before my evening flight to Frankfurt.
It has been quite a day and I really could not afford to miss work today, but travel hiccups are bound to happen now and then and I chalk up this trip as another learning experience. With a few exceptions noted above, the folks at UA and CO took great care of me and I appreciate their willingness to work through the ATC delays to get me to Frankfurt. Strictly by the books, I should have been sent to MSP from IAH to sort out the next leg of my trip there, but I am thankful I was able to bypass MSP and ORD (even messier than IAH) and get on my way to FRA. I knew I was taking a chance by booking two tickets (why I did that is another story…) and I hope to book simpler itineraries in the future.
It will be good to be back in the office tomorrow…hopefully.