Sunday, September 25, 2011

No Fly Zone

We hate to fly. No, not because we get airsick or are scared of crashing (although who doesn't get a little nervous during take-off and landing?!?). Rather, we hate all of the potential ways we can get screwed over.

Sure, the idea of flying is great. It's amazing that we can wake up in Memphis and be in another part of the country--or world--in just a few hours. However, it's also incredibly frustrating, right from the beginning of the experience. Like everyone else, we are annoyed with the ever-rising cost of tickets and endless fees. I can't count how many times we've chosen an itinerary only to have the price leap hundreds of dollars by the time we're ready to commit a few days later. But, after swallowing that exorbitant expense--and in all honesty, forgetting about it--we typically reach our destination without incident. All that changed this summer.

Really, we were due for some complications. We've certainly tested fate more than enough. We've rushed through security at the last minute. We've run through the airport to make a connecting flight. We've slid into our seats as the flight attendants go over the safety precautions. So, yes we were due.

When you think of it that way, it's really no surprise that we've had a bit of, um...difficulty flying this summer. In fact, when we got bumped from our flight to Norway, we took it all in stride. Karma, right? The airline promptly rebooked us, compensated us for our troubles, and sent us on our way. When our luggage didn't arrive at our final destination, we were confident that it would only be a matter of time before we were reunited. Four days--and lots of money spent on international phone calls to resolve the matter--later, and we finally were. While Jon remained fairly calm, I was a mess, and my good-natured acceptance had been shaken.

However, we considered it an isolated incident. Just an unfortunate consequence of computer problems. After our next trip, it was hard not to believe that some evil forces were working against us. Our travels began innocently enough. It was to be a quick trip to Nebraska for a cousin wedding. We booked our tickets early enough and were able to fly into our actual destination of Lincoln, which is typically more expensive than Omaha. Security was a breeze and we boarded the plane without another thought. The plane even pulled away from the gate. Until it stopped. And pulled back in again.

It's hard to complain about safety, so there was really nothing to be said when the captain explained that maintenance was checking out a suspicious gauge. We "de-planed" (such a funny word) with the rest of the passengers until the matter could be resolved. All in all, it only took about 45 minutes to diagnose and repair the problem, so we re-boarded. However, that was just enough time to miss our connecting flight out of Chicago. We were informed we would not make our flight to Lincoln...which happened to be the last flight of the night.

With little other choice, we resigned ourselves to a night in Chicago. For whatever reason, the airline didn't have any hotel vouchers available, but luckily we were able to stay in the USO at the airport. We were booked on the first flight to Lincoln in the morning (still giving us plenty of time to make the wedding, thank goodness), which was another reason to stay so close. The USO volunteers were so welcoming to us weary travelers, and even though there were no beds, they helped us get settled in the lounge. So, there we were: me on a lumpy couch and Jon on the floor, trying to get some sleep to the soothing sounds of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which happened to be on TV at the time. All in all, we slept okay...until waking up in the middle of the night surrounded by sailors. Apparently a group of "kids" had just completed basic training and were on their way to their various training locations. They were clearly excited--especially for 3am--which frankly was a bit annoying until I realized that we were the only non-Navy personnel in the joint.

Needless to say, we didn't have a problem waking up and headed down to pass through security once again. Minus my eye twitching uncontrollably, we were no worse for the wear. Until we read the giant Departures board. Our flight to Lincoln? Cancelled. It was about this point when I started to get nervous. But we're seasoned travelers, so we quickly picked out at least three flights to Omaha that would still "get us to the church on time." Walking with purpose to customer service (again), we were informed that we were already re-booked on one of the Omaha flights. Like the best-laid plans o' mice and men, our trip had gone completely awry. But we made the wedding and had a nice story to tell.

Our story on the return trip was not so nice. We made it out of Lincoln just fine, returning once again to Chicago O'Hare. We had a lay-over and so did what we normally do at O'Hare: head immediately to the Goose Island bar for some overpriced beer. It had started raining, but the storm was brief, so we didn't give it much thought. We headed down to the basement where the hoardes of regional economy jet peons were waiting and discovered that multiple flights had been delayed. But ours was still on time, so we settled in to wait. And wait. And wait. We got excited when the gate agent announced that our flight had arrived...and were disappointed to hear that our crew had not. We were assured that they would get to the airport soon, so after briefly debating taking the overnight train back to Memphis, we ultimately decided to wait it out. It was only 7pm, after all. Sneakily, in 30-minute increments, our flight continued to get pushed back. We grew restless. The prophetic passenger next to us predicted that by the time the crew arrived, they would have run out of flying time.

Finally, at 10:30, the dreaded announcement was made. Our flight had been cancelled. Our neighbor was correct. The crew had spent too long in the air and were mandated by law to take a break. By this time, the train had left and there was no way we could make it to the Greyhound terminal. Even the Mega Busses were about to leave. We had no other choice than to join the ever-growing line of disgruntled passengers in the customer service line. We knew that Jon would be late for work the next day (fortunately I was at the beginning of a three-week break from classes), but were upset to learn that the earliest we could get confirmed seats to Memphis was 9:30 the following day. 9:30pm. Defeated, we headed back to the USO (no hotel OR food vouchers this time).

We attempted three times to fly stand-by, even volunteering to travel separately so Jon could get back to work. Finally, a more helpful customer service representative informed us that we just needed to get out of town. She routed us through Huntsville, Alabama so that we could get back to Memphis approximately 24 hours later than scheduled. When we added up the time, we realized that we had spent more time at O'Hare than we had in Nebraska, 33 hours to 27.

With such a bad travel taste in our mouths, it was with great trepidation that we embarked on our next trip, a mere three weeks later. Another cousin wedding, but this time in Seattle. We wisely opted to avoid Chicago and flew through Denver. It felt like deja vu when the captain came over the loudspeaker and informed us that there were mechanical problems on our airplane. Murphy and his law were hard at work and the airline decided to switch aircraft. Fortunately, we had no checked baggage, so we were able to get on another flight a few gates away. But the damage had been done. We were delayed again.

Yet, we made it to our final destination and had another fun time at another wedding. Potential disaster struck again on the return trip when after Jon received his boarding pass, I received the dreaded "departure management card." Even though I had reserved and purchased a seat, it wasn't guaranteed. I will never understand this dirty airline trick. Usually, everything works out fine, but based on our recent experiences, we weren't very confident. This is precisely what had happened to us when we tried to fly to Norway. How the airline can give away a seat is beyond me. I get the fact that they don't want to fly a half-empty aircraft, but there is no excuse for such blatant over-booking. The flight was boarding and I was still on the "yellow list," not quite stand-by but not quite confirmed. I had readied myself to fly at a later time (which would have been okay since I didn't have to teach until the following Tuesday), when suddenly, my name was on the "green list" with zero explanation.

We spent another three weeks recovering from this flight before heading out of town again, back to Nebraska, but this time for a football game (see future post). Learning a little from our mistakes (which I blame mostly on bad luck), we refused to fly through O'Hare again and even found a direct flight. Since Jon has been spending a lot of his time working in southeast Missouri, he was equally close to Memphis and St. Louis. We were able to book a direct flight from St. Louis to Omaha, which left fewer opportunities for errors and delays. We certainly had to drive a lot more (I stayed an extra day on both ends in Missouri, so as to not have to make the Memphis-St. Louis drive all at once), but it was nice to not have a lay-over. Our flight out of St. Louis was only delayed 30 minutes, small potatoes these days. Once again, our trip was worth the hassle, as we had a lovely time with family.

However, we panicked briefly in Omaha on the way out when the ticket kiosk spit out not one but two "departure management cards." Apparently the airline's policy is to issue the final 15 seats at the gate. I guess we should have checked in on-line...but excuse us for staying with a relative who still has a rotary phone. Thankfully, we did get seats--crappy middle seats in the back, but seats nonetheless.

After this last adventure, we have made a pact. While we love you all dearly, there will be absolutely NO least until Christmas.


Anne Bennett said...

Kristin-I love your writing style. Glad I caught this post on my follower list today since I was thinking of you after your cute Facebook post to me earlier in the day.

We too got stuck in O'Hell, I mean O'Hare for 22 hours. It was one of the most frustrating times I have ever spent traveling...and ridiculous, too.

Love... Thanks for staying in touch!

Spoon said...

Thanks, Anne! I'll return the compliment as I enjoy your blog posts as well. I just can't keep up. :)

While I'm sorry you also got stuck at O'Hell (I'm stealing that), it's nice to know we're not alone. Just another addition to bad experiences there.

Joseph said...

The thing that always bugged me is how much flight costs vary! We booked a flight to Portland that cost $800 4 months in advance. Luckily those got canceled and we were able to get a refund and book cheaper flights only 4 weeks in advance for $260.

You'd think the earlier you book the better, but not so. Apparently the cheapest way is to book your flights 4 to 6 weeks in advance, and (here's the key) book the flights on a Tuesday or Wednesday between 1 and 3pm. It doesn't matter when the flight leaves, as much as when you book them. And I know that makes no sense... but I tried it and they were consistently cheaper when I checked at those times (and cleared my browser cookies so the websites wouldn't know I'd already been there).

Spoon said...

So frustrating, Joe! Thanks for the 1pm-3pm tip, though. I had heard about the Wednesday thing, but not those specifics. And great idea about clearing the cookies. So sneaky! By the way, what did you think of Portland?