Friday, August 7, 2009

The Silver Lining

Purchasing airline tickets is a task that gets more onerous all the time. This latest batch was definitely no exception. We seem to be paying more and more for increasingly lousy service, bad connections, and long layovers. Our tickets for our trip to Washington had connections in Chicago, Las Vegas, and finally Seattle. The return flight was a red-eye, arriving in Chicago at 5:30 a.m. All this for $378, not including all the taxes and fees. Any better connections or times put the cost somewhere north of five hundred bucks. With four of us flying, that added up in a real hurry.

When we arrived at the airport on Monday, we could tell immediately that something was wrong. The lines at the ticket counter weren't particularly long, but the ticket agents looked harried and there were lines outside the usual cattle stalls. The 6:00 flight to Chicago had been cancelled and they were trying to re-route a planeload of passengers on other flights. I overheard an agent telling a passenger that she could not get her on a flight until two days from now. We managed to check in for our 6:45 flight and then waited in the gate area.

The plane eventually filled up and left, right on time. Only we were not on it. The flight was way overbooked and we were the unlucky ones to not have seats. We waited by the desk while the agent tapped madly on the computer. There were perhaps a dozen other passengers in the same predicament. The next available flight, she finally told us, was at 2:15 and consisted of three flight segments on three different airlines. On the last segment, she could not get seating assignments, we had to check in again.

As if to head off any questions about being bumped from a confirmed flight, she handed me a brochure on passenger rights and said we had a choice of free tickets to anywhere in the USA or cash compensation. I told her we would take the cash.

So, back to the United ticket counter to submit our claim, then to another line at the American counter to check in for the first leg of our new flight.

Rather than waiting five hours at the airport, we went home for a while.

Abigail was becoming quite confused by the whole thing. In China, we went to the airport, got on an airplane, and flew to our destination. Here we went to the airport, waited in several lines for a few hours, then went back home. A few hours later, we went back to the airport and finally got on a plane.

So we flew to Chicago on American, to Minneapolis on United (Abigail calls it Many Apples), and to Seattle on Alaska Airlines. Our luggage took the earlier flights to Chicago and Las Vegas.

When we arrived in Seattle, we went to the United baggage claim desk as we were told way back in Grand Rapids. The lady there gave us the run-around for a while and then sent us to Alaska Airlines. Alaska Airlines clicked and tapped on her computer for an interminable amount of time, never locating the town of Zillah to send the bags to. She finally got her manager who took one look at the computer and told us, "This code means that the bags are sitting at this airport." She printed out proof of this and sent us back to United. United took a look at the printout, then our baggage claim ticket and told us we had to go to US Airways. US Airways was located by Carousel 9 (we were near 18) which was a fair distance to walk, particularly in a crowded airport.

When I arrived at US Airways, the line was long and they only had one agent working. I spotted the bags in a corner of the room. I then estimated the amount of time required to properly check with the agent to clear the bags. It was distressingly long. I waited until the agent was concentrating on her computer, grabbed the bags, and ran from the room. It felt a little funny, stealing my own luggage, but the luggage ordeal was already at an hour and a half and Dad was waiting outside in the van, with the back door open and all the carry-on bags half loaded to make it look to the parking police that he was actually loading bags in the loading zone. An hour in a five-minute loading zone was pushing it a little bit.

We made it home a little after 1:00 am (4:00 am Michigan time). 24 hours to travel across the country. It took us only 26 hours to travel to Beijing, China.

But the silver lining of the whole thing was: United refunded us $300 per ticket.

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