Tuesday, July 27, 2004

(Note: This is the world's longest and most boring blog entry ever)

There are two types of stories that people tell that I just can't stand. I hate hearing about people's dreams ("and then I walked into this house, but it wasn't really a house because the walls were made out of armpits and there was this chicken there, but it wasn't really a chicken because it smelled like Britney Spears...") and hearing people's stories about airline travel gone awry. So, apologies in advance, but here's my story about airline travel gone awry. This will be cathartic for me. The management summary is that United sucks. Gory details are below.

We departed for Burlington, Vermont on Tuesday morning of last week. We were off to spend my daughter's fifth birthday with my wife's family. Scheduling issues prevented this from being a long trip, so we only had 3 full days to spend in Burlington with the family, but they were going to be action-packed with fun activities.

So, Tuesday morning of last week we crawled out of bed early, dragged the kid into the car, and drove down to the airport for the first of the two flights that would bring us to Burlington. Our daughter was excited about going on vacation and sang one of her made-up songs in the airport in honor of the occasion, accompanied by a modern/ballet/jazz/tap/Irish jig style dance.

"Vacation, oh we're going on vacation,
"Yay vaca-a-a-a-a-tion!"

The first flight was uneventful. We managed to entertain the kid with a variety of books, activities, and fire-juggling. We arrived in Chicago at O'Hare with about two hours to kill before our next flight, which promptly got delayed by about an hour and a half. Then it got delayed by another half hour. Then fifteen more minutes. Then ten more. Each time we got a different excuse:

- "The plane is not ready yet."
- "The crew is not ready yet."
- "My pants are on fire."

Finally, the people at the gate just removed our flight from their board and admitted that they didn't know when our flight would leave. My wife sprung into action and stood in the customer service line while simultaneously calling United customer support. They assured her that our flight would take off, but to appease her, they also booked us on an 8:43pm flight to Burlington. Now we were booked on two flights and were unstoppable! My daughter burst into song:

"Oh, our flight is late"
"Late late late"
"We're late late late"

(Granted, the lyrics aren't going to win her any Grammys (Grammies?), but ease up, she's only four!)

We entertained ourselves with all the amenities that O'Hare has to offer: mediocre food and overpriced shopping. I played with various gadgets at the airport Brookstone and laughed at their $8.00 one-hour cell-phone battery charger. What kind of fool pays $8.00 for one hour of phone power, I thought to myself?

In dramatic terms, this is known as foreshadowing.

Soon our flight reappeared on the board at our gate, scheduled to depart at 9:00. We considered bailing on this flight and going to the other 8:43 one, but it seemd silly to travel across the airport, which is literally a full mile, to save 17 minutes. Besides, our luggage was going to be on this flight and it seemed wisest to be on a plane with our luggage. So, given the firm 9:00 time, we stuck with our original flight.

Tick tick tick...

At 8:20 pm United cancelled our flight. The excuse this time was "bad weather". This was clearly a lie. United's other flight was still scheduled to fly to Burlington and besides, the 9:00 flight never even materialized at the gate. They used the "bad weather" excuse becaue they believe it absolves them of responsibility. The weather there in Chicago was good and it was clear in Burlington.

We now had about 20 minutes to travel the mile across O'Hare and get to the other flight. I hoisted the kid onto my shoulders and grabbed the insanely heavy laptop bag, meanwhile my wife wore our insanely heavy backpack and other bags, and we began our epic journey across O'Hare. My wife was fuming mad, but this fueled her jogging. Rage is not often mentioned as a running motivator in the running articles I read, but she kept up a pretty good clip. Amazingly enough, after about half a mile, we got picked up by one of those roaming airport carts. My daughter was giddy with this development:

"Choo choo!"
"We're on a train!"
"Woo woo!"
"We're on a train!"

It delivered us to the gate with over 5 minutes to spare. Although we were booked on this flight, we did not have boarding passes for it, so we had to stand in line at the gate desk. As luck would have it, this flight was overbooked and the very people in front of us in line got the last assigned seats. No room for us. Apparently the customer service rep who booked us on this flight, broke some sort of rule and our booking was unauthorized.

That's it. That was the last flight to Burlington that day. We had been in O'Hare for about six hours at this point and had nothing to show for it. We grimly wandered to the customer service desk and were greeted with a line that was about 100 people long. It was not moving quickly. The wife got on the phone and called into United customer service again. They said that the next available flight to Burlington was 24 hours later. They also refused to pay for a hotel room for the night for us since the flight cancellation was out of their control (bad weather, see?). They admitted no responsibility for booking us onto an unavailable flight.

So, we trudged down to the Hilton attached to the airport. It was booked up, but I did manage to spend $65 on t-shirts, toothbrushes, toothpaste and deoderant. Since we weren't going to have our luggage for the evening, we needed some way to not stink during the next 24 hours. We had a good funk going after all that airport jogging.

After calling a few hotels, we managed to find a room for a mere $229 near the airport. Grrrrr!

We got the kid to sleep and then we logged onto the Internet to try and find a way to Burlington that would get us there before midnight the following day. We only had three days in Burlington and damned if we were going to lose an entire one of those days in O'Hare. We were willing to spend some money if it could give us that day back.

We found a United flight the next morning into New York (Laguardia airport) and a Jet Blue flight from New York (JFK airport) into Burlington two hours later. Two hours seemed like a reasonable amount of time to deplane, get across town, and board our new plane. The Jet Blue flight we had to pay for out of our own pockets, but it got us into Burlington during the afternoon. We knew that our in-laws would appreciate it if we didn't miss the whole day. So we paid $400 for the Jet Blue flights, happy that this money was going to an airline other than United. United then tried to wrangle a $100 "change" fee out of us since we were now flying to New York instead of Burlington, but somehow we managed to convince the supervisor that WE weren't changing the flight if THEY FREAKING CANCELLED IT! This, apparently, is a subtle distinction for the not-so-astute customer service representatives at United.

The next morning we woke up early (again) and dragged ourselves back to O'Hare. We checked in at the ticketing counter and found that they had no record whatsoever of our booking on the flight to New York. Our previous night's conversation had someone just gone into the ether. Poof! Gone. No record, no tickets.

Then, something amazing happened. I don't know if the ticket agent saw the sadness in my daughter's eyes, or the desperation in my eyes, or the bubbling rage in my wife's eyes. Either way, the agent just decided, without speaking to a supervisor, that she would just go ahead and print us out some boarding passes for the flight. No payment, no proof that we were booked, nothing. She just decided to do it. I had never seen such a thing. We took the boarding passes, thanked her, and backed away slowly. Clearly this woman was not really a United employee. She was some sort of unnatural guardian angel and it spooked us. My daughter summed it up.

"We got ti-ckets!"
"We got ti-ckets!"

So, we slogged to our gate to find that the flight had been delayed by an hour and a half. This was a deal breaker. Assuming that the flight actually took off at the new time (unlikely), this would give us only 30 minutes to change airports in New York. The odds of this occurring successfully were miniscule. Once again we were stuck in O'Hare with no way to get to Burlington. Day two.

My wife launched into her now-familiar United assault. She tried a variety of tactics with various United employees: being nice, yelling, and crying. And the winner is: crying! Upon her bursting into tears, a United representative actually tried to find us a flight. He found us a flight to Detroit and then a connecting Northwest flight to Burlington. It would get us into Burlington at around 8:00pm that evening. That was pretty crappy, but it was our best option. Of course the flight was due to leave in 10 minutes at a gate half a mile away.

We knew the drill. As my wife took down the details from the gate agent, I slipped the backpack onto her shoulders and the child onto mine. We were off and running in seconds. I managed to get my nice new Chicago t-shirt all sweaty less than 12 hours after buying it, but we made it to the flight.

So, an hour and a half later, we're in Detroit. Motor city! We had three hours to kill before our next flight (thankfully NOT on United), so we found a play area for the kid. She, and a couple other kids played "restaurant" using the kid-sized table and kid-sized house. Unfortunately this required a parent to be the customer. So, I played about 20 iterations of "customer" while the wife waged an epic battle against the voicemail-fortified fortress of luggage information. We suspected that our baggage was still in Chicago, but, honestly we had no idea. It could have been in Burlington, or New York, or Detroit (Motor City!). After about 40 minutes of voicemail battles, my wife spoke to something claiming to be a human. They weren't quite sure where our luggage actually was, but they assured us that it had definitely been in Chicago and would probably arrive in Burlington on some flight that day. Meanwhile my "restaurant" experience was going poorly. I had been fed dirt soup, innumerable hot dogs, bizarre cakes, and I died about a half dozen times, only to be resurrected by small children poking rudely at me. Soon it was time to line up for our flight.

"I'm waiting in li-ine"
"I'm waiting all da-a-a-a-ay"

Our non-United flight went smoothly and we soon arrived in Burlington, greeted by the in-laws. We were a mere 25 hours late! Thanks, United! For the pleasure of losing a full day of vacation, we got the privilege of paying about $700 for the hotel, the unused Jet Blue flight, and the shirts and toiletries. Neat.

I'd like to say that when we went to baggage claim, we were surprised that our luggage wasn't there, but we weren't surprised. It wasn't there. It wasn't back in some secret Northwest room or any secret United room. The United employee told us to file a claim with Northwest and the Northwest employee told us that United was responsible for finding our luggage. We knew that United had our luggage somewhere, but damned if we could get anyone with any real information. We filled out the required forms. At this point my daughter's songs began to take on a distinctly bluesy flavor:

"Lost luggage"
"Oh! lo-o-o-st luggage"

So we went to our hotel (which was fine, but did smell weird).

The next day we barraged the airlines with calls to the luggage center and trips to the airport. It was a multi-faceted assault, attacking both Northwest and United on both the phone and in-person fronts. We were rebuffed. At one point, some United employee admitted that our bags had somehow escaped their tracking system. She explained that luggage is supposed to get inventoried every hour and they had last performed this act on our bags 36 hours ago. This means that, somehow, our wily luggage had eluded their inventory technicians 36 times in a row and was....well....missing. She was confident, however, that it would be located soon and would then be delivered to us. Hopefully that would be soon. My daughter's birthday was the next day and all her presents were in the luggage.

We were not so confident, so we went to the mall and purchased some necessities. I got a pair of shorts, socks, underwear, and a swimsuit. My wife bought some unmentionables (ok, bra and panties (not so unmentionable, as it turns out)) and jeans. Luckily our relatives in Vermont were able to supply us with shirts. By this time our cell phones were close running out of juice and they were main link to the luggage search. So, I broke down and bought one of those $8.00 one-hour cell-phone battery charges. Woe to me for mocking this fine product.

We called into the luggage black hole every few hours. During one of our calls that evening we were informed by a Northwest employee that our bags had been delivered and our case had been closed. After checking with the hotel front desk, and looking under the beds in the room, we assured her that our luggage had not been delivered to us. She poked around in the computer and said that her records indicated that our bags had been deliverd to xyz Main Street in Barre Vermont at 11pm that evening. This was a totally unfamiliar address about 60 miles away from our hotel. She said that it had been delivered there and now the delivery guy had gone home for the night. I tried to convince her to re-open our case, but she said that only a person at the airport could re-open a case. Unsurprisingly the people at the airport said that only a person at headquarters could re-open a case. I guess this helps ensure that cases stay closed.

Somewhere in all these conversations, a very nice Northwest employee, asks me to wait for a bit, puts me on hold and disconnects me. After 30 very stupid minutes, I called her back and she put me on hold and disconnected me again. Eventually we finished with her. So, all we had was an address and a phone number for an address in some other city, but we had no luggage.

The next morning was my daughter's fifth birthday. I got on the phone as soon as I woke up and began calling the delivery service, the number for xyz Main St in Barre, Vermont, and the various airlines. Meanwhile my wife got the pleasure of explaining to our daughter that her presents were in the luggage and thus would be late. We offered her the chance to go to the mall and get a bonus gift as a consolation prize. Amazingly enough she said she was fine as-is and preferred to go swimming.

I finally spoke to the delivery man and he said that the luggage he delivered was not ours. That means that our luggage was still in airline limbo and not in Barre. I re-engaged the luggage idiots at the airlines and attempted to convince them that our luggage had not been delivered and that they needed to reopen our case.

FINALLY, at around 11:00am that day, I spoke to a Northwest employee at the Burlington airport who found our luggage back in some United storage room. It had apparently been flown in the previous evening and no one knew what do with it (PERHAPS THEY COULD HAVE LOOKED IN THE FREAKIN' COMPUTER????). The woman proudly offered to have the delivery service bring the luggage to our hotel. Being wary of the accuracy of the service, I suggested it might be wisest for me to come get it. She said that the delivery guy was right there and would have it to our hotel in 15 minutes.

30 minutes later, we had our luggage. My daughter danced with excitement:

"Luggage yay!"
"Luggage hurray!"

What did we learn?

1) O'Hare is a massive black hole that will suck in your time, your luggage and your will to live.
2) Luggage is wily.
3) All airline employees will always blame other airlines.
4) Crying gets results.
5) United sucks.

On a final note, when we started our return journey, 24 hours later, our flight from Burlington to O'Hare was delayed, causing us, once again, to sprint across O'Hare to make our flight home. I wouldn't have had it any other way.

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