When last I left this story, I thought I was on my way home. A group of moderately happy travelers, we were boarding an airplane in Boston for San Francisco after seven hours of delays and false optimism on the part of United Airlines. I went off to buy one of those airport salads, knowing the coach-class “food” wouldn’t get me all the way home.
But as we were starting down the jetway, there was another announcement: The flight was canceled. No explanation given, just “Please see a customer-service agent,” none of whom exists. My speculation based on overheard murmurs and looking for uniforms is that they couldn’t put together a full cockpit crew. Of course, they could have figured that out a few hours earlier.
Now a weary but amicable crowd became and angry mob. Voices were raised, and people looked for someone to blame. Alas, there was no one. We all ran — and I mean ran — in different directions. Some to the Customer Service counter. Others went to the main ticket lines at United or its competitors. A few started to work their cell phones or laptops. Out at the main ticket counter where about one hundred of us went only to stand in an unmoving line, a United employee finally showed up to yell to the assembled crowd, “If you were ticketed for flight 177 please go home and call United’s reservation number. There is nothing we can do for you here.” That’s it. No information about our options or United’s policies, and no advice for those for whom home was at the other end of the canceled flight. (Regardless of who pays, are there any hotels nearby, for example?) It was one of the worst examples of customer service I have ever witnessed.
I knew that there was no way to get home last night on United so not wanting to leave the airport and navigate the unknown hotel situation, I headed over to Jet Blue. I got the last remaining seat on a flight to JFK with a connection to Oakland. The only problem: The flight was scheduled to leave in five minutes (but delayed to thirty-five) and my suitcase was checked with United.
I ran to baggage claim, quickly found the bag, went back upstairs and found the Jet Blue baggage-check line far too long to make it on time. So I rushed out and handed the suitcase to curbside check-in. Rushed back into the terminal, through security again — still carrying my tuna salad! — and dashed for the gate. Phew! I made it, or so I thought. But no, the flight was delayed an hour, which meant I would now miss the connection at JFK and be stuck overnight in New York instead of Boston. Not much choice, though. I was committed to Plan B.
Landing at JFK, I learned that the OAK flight was delayed 20 minutes which seemed like enough time before they closed the door, but then I discovered that to get to Gate 24 I had to take a shuttle bus. Run some more, salad in hand.
At Gate 24, now drenched in sweat, another delay. The flight was delayed an hour due to traffic flow restrictions. Okay, time to at least catch my breath and gather my wits. At least I was heading home.
After the hour, we boarded the sold-out Airbus A320 and taxied out, into the heavy snow at JFK. (It was now about 9pm EST.) But I had told my wife via phone not to be too optimistic. On the way in, I noticed that snow accumulated on the wings very quickly, so I knew we’d have to de-ice before takeoff. Sure enough, the pilot announced we were “number two for de-icing.” This is done at the last minute, just before takeoff, so I started to settle in for the flight. But no, 90 minutes later, we still hadn’t been sprayed.
We finally took off from JFK for OAK about 12 hours after my originally scheduled departure from BOS. It turned out to be the last Jet Blue flight out of JFK last night. But sure enough, the Travel Day from Hell wasn’t over. What else could happen? First I had the front-row bulkhead seat, so there wasn’t any room to stretch out my legs for the next six hours. And directly behind me? Of course! It was the 300-pound mother with her first-time-traveling infant. You’d think the crying and screaming twelve inches from my head for six hours was the bad part, but you’d be wrong. The worst was whatever she was doing all night long with the tray table. Must have been some sporting event; that’s all I can imagine. Glares and gentle comments didn’t help. She managed to slam that table (or bounce on it) at every opportunity I had to sleep. Ugh.
Finally, at 2:45am, after about 20 hours of travel, I met my wife at the curb and headed home for a good night’s sleep. Glad to be home.
Update: United has refunded me half of the round-trip airfare for this trip. Unfortunately, the refund is less than half what it cost me to buy a one-way ticket home on Jet Blue, but at least UAL didn’t stick me with the ticket or a rescheduling fee.