12 May 2007

World Tour Departure Foiled, Still In America – Why United Airlines Is The Absolute Worst EVER

Be warned, this is a long one but you'll understand why after you've read. Truly a saga...

After a hectic, high-energy day of packing, emailing and saying goodbye to friends and family I arrived at Logan airport a full two and a half hours before my flight was scheduled to depart. After waiting forty minutes in the paper ticket line and helping a poor Brazilian woman find her way (the ticket agents kept telling her she should learn English then come back. Real helpful guys), I made my way to security.

Shoeless, watchless and bagless I watched as my bags were pulled aside due to some “suspicious activity.” That suspicious activity was a bottled water and some Purell that wasn’t in a baggy. “Sir, what were you thinking bringing water into the terminal and why isn’t your hand sanitizer in a zip-top bag?” Now, how do you reply to this question? “Um, I brought the water because it is key to human survival? The Purell isn’t in a baggy because it has its own container?” I just kept my mouth shut. If you know much about me you’re aware of the fact that I don’t have the greatest luck when it comes to airport security.

Now dehydrated and germ-coated, I made my way to gate 15 where the flight info board said “6:29pm.” We were supposed to leave at 6pm. Not too much concern. “It’s only thirty minutes,” I say to myself. “I’ve got a two-hour layover in DC before flying to Argentina.” There are no seats available in the waiting area so I end up sitting on the floor between a newsstand and an emergency exit, making phone calls to friends and family to say goodbye. Time is ticking away and there are no status updates about our flight. There is also no plane at the gate, which is usually a good indicator as to whether or not you’ll actually be flying somewhere. 5:15pm. No plane. 5:30pm. No plane. 5:40pm. The man comes on the squawker and says our plane is still in DC and should be leaving soon but is delayed due to bad weather. I’m actually on the phone with a friend in DC at that minute and ask about the weather situation. “I’m driving by the airport and it’s beautiful outside,” he says. I’m getting suspicious. 6pm. Still no plane and another update from our overly chipper gate attendant Ronnie. They’re not sure where the plane is. It may have left, it may not have left. It was waiting on the tarmac for an hour then took off and had to come back to the gate due to “bad weather.” Apparently flying in overly sunny conditions can be dangerous.

It’s now 6:15pm and I’m starting to get nervous. If this pathetic airline (*cough*UNITED*cough*) can’t find a plane how are they going to get me to Argentina? I decide to go ask good ole Ronny for a personal update. “Sit tight,” he tells me. “You’ll definitely make your connection. I guarantee it.” 6:30pm and all semblance of order crumbles. They’ve now decided the plane is delayed because of a mechanical problem but still have no idea where it is! How do you lose a 50,000 pound aircraft? It’s not like they all look alike. Yours has your name (UNITED) written across the side. Just call someone who’s at Dulles and ask them to look out the window!

This mechanical failure means they’re now attempting to put all of us on later flights. I wait in line like a good waterless and Purell-less American and explain that I’m connecting internationally. He tells me I’ve been made “first priority standby” on the 7pm flight. I go to that gate only to find that it’s totally full and I have a slim chance of getting on. Still, I wait. I’m really kind-of wanting to get to Argentina tonight. Mean Martin the gate attendant (MM for short) makes an announcement that all standbys need to “stand back” while he boards the plane. We do, all 130 of us. Yes, that’s right. The genius at our first gate put all 130 passengers from my original flight on standby for this full flight that only had 100 seats to begin with. It’s now 7:02pm. My connection leaves in two and a half hours. Time is of the essence. MM comes back on the loudspeaker. “People, the plane is full, okay? You gotta go find another plane.” I’m sorry, we ‘gotta go find another plane?’ What plane is just sitting around with 130 seats on it waiting to take us to Washington? I don’t know Mean Martin, because I don’t work for the airline.

At this point things are getting rowdy. People are irritated and understandably so. MM says there is nothing he can do and that we all “need to go see Edna at the Customer Service desk.” The masses begin to herd, everyone doing that awkward adult walk-run thing so no one thinks they’re trying to race but they really are. I stay behind and approach MM to explain my situation. He tells me to stay here and he’ll help. THIRTY MINUTES LATER he returns and picks up the phone. I begin to open my mouth and he gives me the universal “Shh” sign. I am totally flabbergasted. He spends the next ten minutes chit-chatting with his ‘gurrrrl’ Rhonda at gate 22 saying things like “shoot Ro-ro, it’s crazy over here” and “Oh no she didn’t.” Yes she did Mean Martin. YES SHE DID. Now help me! Meanwhile, Edna was nowhere to be found, which brought all 130 angry people back to my line.

It’s now 7:40pm and Martin is ready to do his job again. I hand him my ticket. He punches about 300 keys (What are they doing when they push all those buttons? When in life have you ever punched so many computer keys to accomplish such a small task? Who needs to press enter 75 times?) and purses his lips as if to say, “you’re not getting to Argentina tonight.” My full itinerary now appears on his screen and he sees that I have an around the world ticket, which has resulted in about 1 million air miles. Suddenly everything changes and Mean Martin transforms into “Only Slightly Mean Martin. “I’m sorry sir, there’s nothing. I have a flight at 8:10pm to JFK, which gets in at 9:15pm and would allow you to connect to a 10:10pm flight to Argentina (I’m liking what I hear until the dreaded transition word comes) BUT it leaves in less than thirty minutes so I can’t put you on that flight. If you had only gotten here five minutes sooner…” I cut him off there and lay into him about his casual convo while all 130 of us stood and watched. I’m getting steamed and the people behind me are chiming in. “Yeah! Yeah!” Only Slightly Mean Martin is quickly turning into “Scared of a Mob Scene” Martin.

At this point I’ve accepted that I’m not getting to Argentina tonight but would still like to get to DC so as to be 24 hours early for my connection. Martin agrees with this idea and supposedly books me on the 8:45pm flight to DC.

I trek back through the terminal to my next gate, only to discover that I’ve not actually been given a seat but am on standby once again! I immediately approach the desk and tell Tom that Martin, his coworker, told me I had a seat. Tom goes into some boring, pointless, I-don’t-care shpeel about how I’m not going to make my connection anyway so I am “not a priority for the four standby spots” and should just “take the free hotel, watch a movie and fly out tomorrow.” The gloves come off. About to explode on the inside, I keep my composure and begin to outline every detail of how I have spent the last six hours of my evening, finishing with “so the least you can do is get me to DC.” He pulls up my full itinerary and once again things change. He tickets me for the flight. I’m in seat 6A.

I sit back down and watch as my original flight – the one where the guy couldn’t find the 25-ton flying metal object also known as our plane – goes from being delayed to totally cancelled because the pilot doesn’t want to fly back to DC. Complete pandemonium ensues. I’m at least feeling slightly relieved, as I have a confirmed seat to DC, where I can spend the evening with my friends in an apartment I know. You may think the saga ends here, but you’d be wrong. I board the plane and sit down in 6A. A man gets on and asks if I’ll switch with his wife in 2D so they can sit together. I agree. After all that I’ve been through the least I can do is help this couple out with the hope of improving my karma.

So now I’m in seat 2D listening to Kelly Clarkson’s “Never Again” on my iPod, reading about hiking the Appalachian trail in “Horizons” magazine thinking about the comfort of the night ahead; a friend is picking me up at the airport, we’re going to rock out at his apartment and I’ll even be able to borrow some clothes and deodorant (I may have forgotten to mention that while I didn’t make it to Argentina, my bag did. It was on the 7pm flight to DC and would then be shuffled through to Buenos Aires). They close the door and the plane starts backing up. We stop abruptly and start to pull back into the gate. The Captain comes on over the loudspeaker: “There was a small problem. We’ll be just second.” At this point I’m not really caring, just as long as I get to Washington. The door reopens and Tom appears. He grabs the intercom and announces to the whole plane, “Is there a Kyle Taylor on board?” I raise my hand, thinking there was a problem with my luggage or something. Tom approaches me. “We ‘duped’ that seat. Sorry, that’s airline lingo (he chuckles annoyingly). We ticketed you in a seat that was already assigned to someone. You’ve got to get off the plane.”

At this point I was at a total loss for words. Who do you know that has ever been asked to get off a plane after they had been ticketed an actual seat? What did I do in an earlier life to warrant this punishment? The madness didn’t stop here. Because it was a small regional jet I had to “gate-check” my carry-on only now, the door to get to the luggage was jammed. “Can you just get that bag when you get to DC tomorrow,” Tom asked. Tom was obviously suffering from some sort of temporary – or more likely long-term – mental deficiency to think that I was going to spend another night in Boston with NONE of my luggage, including my laptop and a rather expensive video camera. So I stood there on the airplane ramp for a good twenty minutes watching as four United employees struggled to find a way to get my bag from the tarmac back to me, and didn’t feel bad about it at all.

Then it was back to Edna at Customer Service to get my hotel vouchers and meal coupons, followed by a long walk to the free hotel shuttle, where I waited thirty minutes only to be told by an attendant that that shuttle had stalled out at the previous gate. No, seriously. I couldn’t make this stuff up. No taxis would take me because it’s only a two-minute ride so I had to walk the mile and a half to the Hilton. Luckily, the Hilton understood customer service. The lovely check-in woman apologized for all the drama that had ensued and had fresh strawberries sent up to my room, which was absolutely beautiful – a far cry from Paris’ jail cell. I told her I planned to sit in the hot tub. She informed that the hot tub was out of order because the health center was being remodeled, and back to reality I flew. I ordered room service (paid for by United), watched an episode of Desperate Housewives and drifted off in my fantastic pillow-top mattress-equipped bed, surrounded by half-a-dozen down pillows.

Because United was able to get my bag to Latin America, I had with me about a thousand “Dream It. Do It.” Buttons and a good 500 business cards, but no change of clothes or deodorant, which meant putting the same outfit back on this morning. I grabbed a quick OJ and banana (also billed to United) and hopped on the shuttle, which was now actually running.

You might think things got better at this point, but you’d be wrong. I was able to get my ticket but, true to form, I was “randomly” selected for additional security screening, leading to a full investigation of my carry-on bags which, if you remember, were full of buttons and business cards. “Why are you carring so many buttons sir,” the wide-set TSA employee asked me. Once again, what type of question is that and why does it matter? “Um, I’m giving them away around the world,” I replied. “Uh huh,” he uttered, suspiciously, before swiping them with a bomb residue swab.

Twenty minutes later and I am now sitting at my gate, waiting for my flight to DC. I’ll spend the day there before attempting to get to Argentina again. I can’t help but wonder, did this really happen? More importantly, what has customer service come to in America? How can an airline employee speak to a customer – another human being for that matter – the way I was spoken too? How do you lose an airplane, and how do you give someone a seat then make them get off the plane? I’m the one who missed four meetings, a media event and a rock concert in Argentina because of your incompetence, United Airlines. Get it together!

I’m starting to think I may be the crazy one or something…Anyway, here we go, ready to try the whole world tour thing one more time. I ask of you though, when is enough enough? When are we going to stand up to these airlines and to TSA and say “NO MORE!?”


Shabab said...

Hi Kyle Bhai!

UGHMy fourth attempt at publishing a comment.

Anyways, I can't believe that no one wrote a comment to that! I mean, WOW! You havre such bad luck with airport security! The part where Mean Martin comes into the plane and says "Is there a Kyle Taylor...?" I literally laughed out loud :) I'm so sorry for all the troubles. Anyways, good to know you're in Buenos Aires at last. The little kids are so darn cute (Kissing Babies on the Forehead and sumfin sumfin...) Good thing you didn't add Bangladesh to your itinerary. Imagine having to give up your passport to the police because they demanded it (without any reason) and refused to give it back unless you paid them a huge 'boksheesh' (translates as 'tip' though in context may often be closer to 'bribe'). But hope to see you in Bangladesh someday! I would've said 'you ain't seen nothing yet' but reading all your experiences in the States, Bangladesh may be better off in some respects!!! :P All my prayers and best wishes with you wherever you go.

Love from Shabab.

Rockwell said...

Just another reason why United is on my no-fly list and has been for years.

Better luck as you navigate the far south.