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BTV ✈ WTF

by Rob Friesel

What follows is a harrowing tale of airline incompetence, an abbreviated travelogue of our recent experience to West Virginia and back home to Vermont. I don’t much care for air travel to begin with, and this certainly makes me want to drop it as a transportation option all together. The short version:

  • Customer service is apparently non-existent in the airline industry;
  • United Airlines doesn’t actually own any planes, they just broker people onto other airlines;
  • Delta Airlines doesn’t pick up the phone, and when they do, it’s just to ask you to wait;
  • and if US Airways financials are down from five years ago, it’s because they’re working double-time to pick up everyone else’s slack.

Let’s begin.

Prelude

About six months ago, we booked some flights from Burlington, VT (BTV) to Charleston, WV (CRW); the plan was to visit family in Vienna (on the border with Ohio). Now, Charleston is a little over an hour from Vienna, but flights into Parkersburg (which is basically two towns over from Vienna) would have been about $500 more per person, if I recall correctly. We are not so cheap that we were seeking the cheapest possible fares[1], but $500 more per person was just highway robbery–especially considering that A. had flown into Parkersburg just two years ago for far less. At any rate, the prelude is this: we booked three round-trip tickets on United, BTV to CRW (with a connection in Dulles [IAD]), six months in advance.

Our original round-trip itinerary. (click to enlarge)

Fast forward to the night before our departure.

Departure: BTV ✈

United Airlines offers an online check-in service on their website; in addition to allowing you to print your boarding pass, the website also allows you to pre-pay for your checked baggage[2]. Now, our actual departure time had been a moving target over the past six months; it seemed as if we were getting an email about an updated departure time every other week since we booked the flight. Not wanting to leave anything to chance, we checked the departure time the night before; noting the adjusted departure time, we checked in online, paid for our baggage, and set our alarms so that we could get to the airport with plenty of time.

Next morning: alarms! throw bags in the car! drive over[3]!

The line at the check-in counter is a little longer than we expected[4] but there is still plenty of time, even if there is only the one very vexed agent at the United counter. She keeps shouting at people, urging them to use the kiosks. We (foolishly?) pay no heed to this urging because we had checked in online; the website had made no mention that we would also need to check-in using the kiosk at the counter—what reason do we have to believe that it would be necessary to check-in twice? The woman is making her slow progress through each group of travelers—which is a bit aggravating, but (again) we seem to have plenty of time, even if time is running out. When we finally get to the counter we hand over our printed boarding pass from the online check-in. She looks at it and gives us an exasperated sigh, explaining that it’s basically worthless and that we still need to check-in using the kiosk. Outraged but stymied[5], we move over to the kiosk.

At the kiosk, we enter the confirmation code that was issued by the United website during the online check-in. But the kiosk displays an error message that says (and this is important) INVALID CONFIRMATION CODE. Apparently, all hell is breaking loose for all of the would-be travelers because when I look up, everyone is crowding up to the counter, trying to get the agent’s attention, everyone with some different bit of complaint or confusion. I finally get her attention and ask: “What does this mean?”

She does not entertain my question; I doubt she listened to me further than was necessary for the most basic comprehension of the sentence. All she says back is: “I can’t help you. You have to call Reservations.” She spits out the phone number and moves on to the next person.

Now, I realize that it’s nearly five in the morning and she is all alone and probably facing a bunch of situations for which she has not been properly trained but… Seriously? “I can’t help you”? Sigh.

With no other reasonable options, I dial the number she gave me and am horrified (though not at all surprised) that what I’m met with is one of those automated voice prompts[6]. So I did the only thing I know how to do when faced with those automated voice prompts: “Help. Help. Give me a person. Operator. Give me a person. Help. Put a person on the phone. I need to get on my goddamn plane. Help. Operator. Supervisor. Help. Help. Help. HELP!” Finally, the automated voice says: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand you. Let me try connecting you to a customer service professional.” It took 90 seconds but: success!

I explain the situation (vide supra) to the woman on the phone. She tells me (without having done anything but listen to my story) to try the confirmation code at the kiosk again. I reply that she clearly was not paying attention because unless she changed something in the computer system, that was exactly what I had done to begin with: I had put in the confirmation code and it had told me that it was invalid despite being issued fewer than ten hours before. So she taps away on her end of the phone and tells me that there is a mis-match; that the confirmation code is resolving as invalid because it matches a different itinerary. “It says here that it’s an itinerary departing at 5:50am and your flight is departing at 5:35am.” I look down at the paper we had printed last night; it lists a departure time of 5:35am. I look up at the clock on the wall; it says 4:55am. I explain these two things to her; she tells me that she will try to fix it and she puts me on hold. I wait. And I wait. And I wait, staring at the clock, realizing that they have already begun boarding the plane and that this has probably already taken too long. When she finally comes back on the phone, she tells me to try the confirmation code again. Now it’s my turn to tell her to wait; since there were plenty of folks queueing up behind us, I had relinquished the kiosk so that other folks could check-in. Fortunately, it is only about a minute before a kiosk is free and I step up to the kiosk and enter the confirmation code and… YOU ARE TOO LATE TO CHECK-IN FOR THIS FLIGHT. Just as I’d feared.

Now we begin Phase Two of our awful customer service experience: re-routing. That goes something like this:

“OK sir, I think I can re-book you on a US Airways flight that will go from Burlington to Detroit to Cleveland to Charleston. «hold/pause/wait» OK, I’m going to re-book you onto this Delta flight leaving Burlington and headed to Kennedy (NY) and then on to Atlanta and then Charleston.”

Alternate departure itinerary #2. (click to enlarge)

“Wait. What happened to the US Airways flight?”

Alternate departure itinerary #1. (click to enlarge)

“Well, actually, there were only two seats available on that flight and it’s already too late to re-book you onto that one. So how about that Delta flight? «hold/pause/wait» Well, the Delta folks do not seem to be responding to my request. How about a US Airways flight leaving Burlington and connecting through Philadelphia, and then Reagan in DC, and then on to Charleston?”

Actual outbound itinerary. (click to enlarge)

“Fine. Whatever. Book it.”

“OK, please hold.” «hold/pause/wait»

And this is to say nothing of what times those flights were[7].

After over forty-five minutes on the phone (most of which is spent on hold), we are finally re-booked onto a US Airways flight. And although that should be enough recompense, I cannot help but feel some anger. First, the “I can’t help you” remark from the agent at the United counter set me off. Second, that it took so long to get through to a person on the phone and then that it took so long that we missed the flight. And lastly, we were originally supposed to depart Burlington at 5:50am and arrive in Charleston at 9:44am; now we wouldn’t be departing Burlington until 8:35am (not too bad) but we weren’t scheduled to arrive in Charleston until 4:20pm. So we’re effectively losing a full day of vacation to the re-booking.

But such is our plight, so we’ll roll with it. I look over the flight info and conclude that once we’re through security, we’ll get some coffee and a light breakfast (i.e., a muffin) and then we’ll have a late-ish lunch during our lay-over at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA). Everyone with us so far? Good. I’ll summarize the next two hours at BTV as follows:

  1. We pay a baggage check fee to US Airways because apparently the pre-paid baggage checking fee with United does not transfer along with our itinerary;
  2. We get through security without porno-scanners (BTV doesn’t have them), nor “enhanced pat-downs”[8], but not without having to insist that I get to supervise the agent who rifled through my carry-on bag[9];
  3. We scarf down some too-hot coffee and split a too-stale muffin for breakfast;
  4. We listen to the boarding announcement for our flight, only to have it interrupted as someone trips the gate’s security alarm (which fortunately is deactivated within 60 seconds);
  5. We board the aircraft with a screaming, thrashing 2½ year old who is suddenly and inexplicably and absolutely terrified;
  6. And/but we are at least on the plane and are (feeling some small relief) at last on our way.

En route: PHL ✈

The flight from Burlington to Philadelphia is uneventful. Plane goes up, plane comes back down. But once we are back on the ground, we bite our lips and begin our mad dash across the sprawling complex.

If you’ve ever flown from Burlington to/through Philadelphia, you know what I’m talking about: the dreaded shuttle bus to-and/or-from Terminal F.

The bus itself is just fine; comfortable enough, and it gets 2½ year old H. all excited (he loves buses). Where the “dreaded” part comes in is that upon arrival, you first must orient yourself; then you must scurry (often quite a ways) to the Terminal F shuttle bus; then as the bus crosses the runway, weaving in and out of fuel trucks and airplanes, you can’t help but feel a bit anxious that you’re going to miss your flight because you still have to get off the bus and navigate the other terminal to locate the gate for your connection.

Luckily, we make it from Terminal F to Terminal B with time enough to fit in a diaper change for H. It is enough to pause and think that perhaps our luck is changing. With a fresh diaper on The Boy, we queue up at our gate and take advantage of the “travelers with small children” provision to duck onto the plane. Once we are actually on the plane (no thrashing this time[10]), we take stock of our seat assignments. 22D? 21F? 4C? Who thought it was a good idea to seat a 2½ year old all by himself? The flight attendants check it out and (naturally) just put all three of us in a row. “We’ll just explain it to whoever was supposed to have these seats.” But it appears that we’re right on time. Departure time: 11:40am.

We pull away from the gate and the captain makes the little pre-flight announcement. “Thank you for choosing US Airways… […etc.…] We are currently number thirteen in line for take-off. Looks like that will delay us about ten or fifteen minutes but we should still land right on schedule.”

Ten or fifteen minutes go by and the captain comes back on the intercom. “Well it looks like we are now number one in line for take-off but we have a warning light that has just come on up here in the cabin. We might have a small mechanical failure or we might just have something malfunctioning in the instruments. We’re going to go back to the gate and check it out. Should only take about fifteen minutes.” No point in panicking. I’d rather be a few minutes late than dead. Right? Better safe than sorry, right? And with that estimated two hour lay-over at DCA, maybe that means we grab a ready-made sandwich and eat it at the gate instead of getting to sit down somewhere. Right?

Back at the gate, the crew asks who has connections. Lots of hands go up. There is a brief discussion and they announce that if your connecting flight from DCA is before 2:00pm, feel free to disembark and a US Airway ticket agent will help get you re-routed etc. I glance over at A.: there goes our lunch… But at least we won’t have the hassle of having to get re-routed again (so soon). So we sit and wait and fortunately the flight attendants take mercy on us[11] on offer a short can of Pringles “on the house”.

About fifteen minutes later, the captain comes back on: “Folks, turns out there was a mechanical problem with hydraulic pump, so it was a good thing we came back to get it fixed. We are clear to try another take-off just as soon as we can get a push crew to shove us back out onto the runway. Should just be a few minutes.” I glance over at A. again: definitely not going to get that lunch now.

And we wait. And we wait.

We wait for close to an hour. At one point we even see a “push crew” outside the window, all of them just standing there; one of the flight attendant’s (looking at the push crew) even mutters with aggravation: “God, I hate Philly.” But after about an hour they do finally shove us out onto the runaway and we get airborne. But we are looking at each other (A. and I) and wondering: are we even going to make our connection now? The estimated boarding time at DCA? 2:29pm.

En route: DCA ✈

US Airways flight 3295 touches down at DCA[12] a little after 2:00pm; if I recall correctly, touch-down was at 2:15pm—but who wants to quibble over a handful of minutes? The point was: we were going to make our connection. We were going to just barely make our connection, but we were going to make it.

So we disembark, rush out into the terminal and (fortunately) our next gate appeared to be less than one hundred yards from where we’d de-planed. So we hurry over looking for gate 35A. And we find… What is that? 35B? 36A? Something like that. We’re looking all over and not seeing our actual gate.

Then we hear our names over the intercom. “Last call” and “final boarding” and all that. They know we’re coming at least; but this is it. They are calling us out by name over the intercom. A sharply dressed man sees the panicked looks on our faces and points us to some stairs. “35A is down those stairs,” he explains.

And off we rush, down those stairs.

At the bottom of the stairs is not actually an airport gate. It’s a pair of doors leading out to a shuttle bus (not unlike the dreaded Terminal F Shuttle at PHL), only this one has a gate agent with the full suite of computer and scanning equipment. She scans our boarding passes and… Well, it seems to take an awful long time to scan those three boarding passes, but she finally waves us through, gesturing to some hand-written notes on the boarding passes and explaining that “these are your seats—the printed ones don’t actually exist.”[13]

Waved through the doors, we board the shuttle bus which promptly… meanders through clusters of airplanes, pausing at each one. The driver seems lost and confused. Everyone on the bus is agitated.[14] Finally, we spot our car seat being loaded onto a small Saab prop plane. “That’s it!” we shout. And sure enough, the bus driver gets confirmation over the radio that that is in fact the correct plane.

We board (trying desperately to restrain our thrashing 2½ year old who does not much like being out on the tarmac) and are in the air within minutes. Seems we will finally reach our destination.

Arrival: CRW ✈

Wheels hit the runway in Charleston at roughly 4:20pm. This is approximately 5½ hours after we should have arrived. We have eaten basically nothing all day. We feel dirty and are in sour, miserable moods. A. and H. were already basically ill and/or feeling ill, and are now well on their way to being full-blown sick. But we’ve made it.

Intermission

Our trip with family has been effectively shortened by a day—and all because United couldn’t issue us a legitimate confirmation number to start with, and then could not be bothered to give decent customer service at the check-in counter. The fact that everyone was ill (to the point where A. even took a trip to the walk-in clinic one morning) is not something that we will hold against the airlines. But hey, it’s worth mentioning, for the sake of putting the right amount of color around what has happened.

Departure: CRW ✈

Our scheduled departure from CRW, for our flight back to BTV, was 10:14am. We checked the flight info the night before, to make sure that there were no delays etc. All set, looking good. And then after some unrelated panic that morning[15], we checked the flight info again (delayed by 15 minutes) and got on the road.

We arrived at CRW around 8:30am; plenty of time to spare. We hop over to the counter to check-in at the kiosk and punch in our confirmation code to receive the following message: FLIGHT CANCELED

My jaw hits the floor. I take a moment to compose myself. The gate agent sees us, asks if we were supposed to be on “the DC flight” and explains that it was canceled due to a mechanical failure with the airplane. She reassures us that we have already been re-routed to a flight on Delta. It goes through Detroit[16], but that’s the only connection before we get home to Burlington.

Thus do we slide over to the Delta gate. The agent taps away at her computer; she frowns and tries again. Apparently, she makes no progress. She has a short chat with the United agent; the United agent insists that we’ve cleared their system and have been re-booked on Delta already; but the Delta system has us flagged as pending or some such thing. The Delta agent assures us that everything will be fine, even though it’s “a little unusual”. We go ahead and get our baggage checked—our big blue duffel and H.’s car seat. Meanwhile, we wait for our tickets to actually clear the Delta system. We wait and wait. The Delta agents tag our bags and toss them onto the conveyor belt. We still haven’t cleared their system. We wait some more. We still have not cleared the Delta system; we still do not have boarding passes. Our bags are whisked off behind the curtain to get loaded onto that out-bound flight to Detroit.

We wait for almost an hour at the Delta counter (2½ year old H. running all over the place) before the trouble becomes clear. We should not have been re-booked onto the Delta flight at all because the Delta flight was already over-booked.

Before I can panic, the agents assure me that we can easily be re-routed onto a (surprise!) US Airways flight; it would leave CRW quite a bit later, but at least there would be only one stop. “But my baggage…” The US Airways agent assured me not to worry about that, that they would take care of it “out back” before it was loaded. She helped us get checked in. She asked us about what baggage we had already checked with Delta; she issued us some claim tickets and explained again that they would take care of it, that Delta could not have issued us claim tickets for our bags because we had never actually had tickets with them. (OK…) And with that, we were given our boarding passes. For a flight not departing until 12:45pm.

So we stopped and had a leisurely breakfast.

And took our time through security (no searched bags this time though).

And waited at the gate for a couple of hours.

Adjusted (and re-adjusted) return trip itinerary. (click to enlarge)

I’ll skip some of the tedious details here; it doesn’t seem worth going into how the signs were mis-matched, nor how the airplane seemed to just sit there for a couple of hours.

When the time came to board, we watched out the window as they loaded the baggage onto the airplane. But where was our big blue duffel? Where was our car seat? This was not good.

As we queued up to board, the agent at the gate turned out to be the same woman that had helped us get checked in. She explained that they had called Delta several times but had never gotten a response. “We’re really sorry,” she said, “but your bags will take that alternate route. You’ll want to pick up the bags with Delta[17] when you get into Burlington.”

So we boarded the plan… and waited while they de-iced it. And finally we were off. Not quite on time, but close enough.

En route: DCA ✈

We touched down at DCA at about 1:50pm. We cringed and hurried off the plane, onto a shuttle bus. And then hurried through the terminal to jump onto yet another shuttle bus. We made it to the gate just as they were announcing that it was time to board.

It felt like another dodged bullet. We all exchanged looks and sighed. Take-off at 2:35pm; we were going to make it home.

Arrival: BTV ✈

We touched down in Burlington at about 4:00pm. We made a plan: A. would take H., sort out the diaper change, and go get the car from the long-term lot; and I would deal with the airline baggage claim nonsense. With that in mind, we split up.

I scouted out the baggage carousel first, just in case. Nothing there. So I thought back to what they’d told me in Charleston: you’ll get your bags from Delta. (Or United.) I went to the United counter, where I was met with resistance. “US Airways physically carried you—so they’re the ones legally obligated to track your bags.” I re-explained the situation and stood my ground. “Besides, there is no one at the counter right now—could you at least check?” So the agent checked the United back room. Nothing. She checked the Delta back room. Nothing. She took me over to the US Airways counter and explained the situation to the supervisor there. The US Airways supervisor looked up the baggage claim numbers in the computer.

“Were you guys in Savannah at all?”

What. The. Fuck?

"Dude, where's my luggage?" (click to enlarge)

Guess who went home with a “delayed baggage” claim receipt?

Epilogue

I’ve had “delayed baggage” before. In 2000 when I had a similar (to this) experience coming back from London? My bags got “delayed” but were returned to me within 24 hours. In 2007 when we took a beach trip to NC? Our bags got “delayed” on the way and were returned to us at the beach house within 24 hours. So I was not immediately worried about our bags. Annoyed? Yes, but the fact that the US Airways folks seemed to have at least some idea of where in the world our bags might be did give me some confidence. Even if that “some idea” included a city in Georgia over 700 miles from where we thought our bags were going, and almost 1,100 miles from where the bags should be. Meanwhile, some 32 hours or so after reporting our baggage as missing… Well, let’s just say that I would like to know (specifically) what US Airways means when they classify the “delayed baggage” claim as “open”. “Open” as in you just haven’t delivered it to me? Or “open” as in it’s en route to Burlington from somewhere else? Or “open” as in you have no idea where it is now?

So we stew. And play more waiting games. And grumble about which airline deserves the brunt of our wrath. And try to plot out what specifically we’ll say when we finally get hold of those customer service professionals from United.

But mostly we’re just glad to be back home.

Postscript (Mar. 15, 2011)

It took a lot more phone calls[18] and a whole lot of anxious waiting but our baggage did finally make its way home this afternoon. As far as we can tell, it’s all accounted for and unmolested. So we are more than a little grateful for that. My hat is off to the US Airways folks who pulled off a Herculean and seemingly impossible feat of locating our baggage[19] despite the fact that there was effectively no paper-trail whatsoever. Tomorrow would have marked five days, and after that, we would have started talking monetary renumeration[20]. Perhaps getting the baggage back is a bit of an anti-climax after everything else that happened; but frankly, I’m glad for the excitement to be over.

  1. And we definitely could have gotten cheaper fares, but who wants to make three connections and spend twelve or more hours in airports and airplanes? []
  2. The website even offers a discount for pre-paying for your baggage. []
  3. The airport is only about ten minutes away… []
  4. I say “than we expected” only because really… who voluntarily flies out at 5:30 in the morning? []
  5. A brief aside on the online check-in: I don’t think I’m too far off base to say that if you aren’t going to honor your own at-home printed boarding passes, don’t offer them. Or if you are still going to require people to check-in at the kiosk, make a big deal about that to the end-user before they print out the actual pass. I do not think that it is unreasonable to believe that if you have offered an “online at-home check-in” then that is what it means, not “online at-home pre-check-in meaningless check-in”. []
  6. Customer Service 101, folks: if you are going to force me to use the phone, then you are going to put a person on the other end. It’s only fair. []
  7. And in all honesty, the cities for those connecting flights might not quite line up with what was actually offered. It was all happening so fast. What I can say for certain was that a flight with one connection that was supposed to have us in West Virginia before noon was suddenly putting us through two connections and wasn’t getting us into West Virginia until almost dinner time. []
  8. Though I did witness one performed on a woman who looked rather old and in poor health. []
  9. Seriously folks, if they say that they want to go through your bag, insist that you be allowed to watch. I had to tell the guy to be careful with my camera and lenses. []
  10. Probably because this time around we did not need to actually go down onto the runway and/or walk within spitting distance of propellors. Call me crazy, but I think that freaks a little kid right out of his skull. []
  11. Well… “take mercy on our squirmy and agitated 2½ year old” is probably more like it. []
  12. As a brief aside re DCA: if you’ve ever watched out the window while your flight touches down on that runway then you know it can be a little white-knuckle intense. The flight paths around the District of Columbia are all quite restricted and closely monitored; and then as if that weren’t enough, the approach to at least one of the runways (the one where we landed) forces the plane to come in low over the Potomac river and then make a final sharp bank with what must be less than a mile before the wheels actually hit the tarmac. Like I said: it’s white-knuckle intense. []
  13. Amusing aside: A. later told me that she looked over the gate agent’s shoulder and saw the computer displaying a warning that said DO NOT BOARD in big red letters. My wife (in her infinite wisdom) kept this information to herself and allowed the gate agent to finish massaging the data rather than bring it to my attention. I believe that we can all safely assume that this chapter would have ended badly otherwise. []
  14. Another amusing aside: eavesdropping on the other imminent passengers, it seemed to me as though everyone boarding this particular flight to CRW had been re-routed from other flights. One particular party had been bounced from Florida to Chicago to DC before finally getting back to their hometown. I can only imagine how frustrated they were. []
  15. Remember during the Intermission where I said everyone was sick? Well, that included A.’s parents. And there was some miscommunication about who was well enough to drive us to the airport, and/or whether we should invoke some contingency plan or another. At any rate: we managed to sort that out; though even that was “just barely”. []
  16. Is it sad that my consolation thought was well, that’s probably the only way I’ll get my Michigan pin on GoWalla? []
  17. Except that we would only have flown Delta to Detroit; the flight from Detroit to Burlington was going to be via United. But we would find out later that that was immaterial. []
  18. Both outbound and inbound. And I’m sad to report that by Monday evening I had actually memorized the baggage claim code. []
  19. It turned up in Detroit after all, and made its way back here via JFK. []
  20. At least, that’s what their published policies seem to suggest. []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove.

View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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