Friday, October 26, 2012

"Ladies and Gentlemen this flight has been cancelled"

When you're flying US Airways, and things go pear-shaped, you are on your own.

I say this not as an indictment of the company, but as a warning that you get what you pay for.  Let me stress this right off the top: 90% of US Airways employees that we dealt with in our return from Rome debacle were friendly, pleasant to deal with, and totally unable to assist us beyond providing rote information.


The wife and I were booked on US 721 scheduled to leave Rome(FCO) at 13:10 arriving in Charlotte(CLT) at 17:17 on Tuesday.  We then had a connection onto another flight arriving Houston at 21:45.  I had Wednesday off of work to give me one day to rest, clear my system of jet-lag and be ready for work in the morning.  Unfortunately things did not turn out as planned.

Prior to our flight there were two flights that cancelled flying out of FCO.  One British Airways flight to London(LHR) due to fog, and one Lufstansa flight to Berlin (SXF) due to a mechanical failure. When we got to the baggage claim we were advised that our previously 2/3 full flight was now 3/3 full, and that we would also need to check our roller boards through to IAH.  Fortunately, I didn't have anything but dirty clothes in my luggage, and my wife just had clothes and baubles in hers, so we dutifully checked our bags (after ensuring we wouldn't incur any additional checked-bag fees) and went through the rest of the security process.

Boarding, was smooth.  I had previously purchased preferred access for both the wife and I so we were in boarding zone 1.  I had done this with the expectation that we would then have plenty of room to stow our roller-boards in the overhead bins.  Obviously I had not anticipated the flight cancellations, or the fact that US Airways 30+ year old 767-300's had what are quite possibly the worst overhead storage bins in the world.  To say these planes are old and antiquated is not adequate.  There were ashtrays in the armrests for Chrissakes.  To say that my seat was lightly cushioned is being generous.  Fortunately, I had brought an ergonomic seat cushion to spare me the torture of a 9 hour rear-end acupuncture section.

Cushions firmly in place the wife and I buckled in and waited for push-back.  And we waited, and waited.  About 15 minutes past our scheduled departure time I realized things were starting to bottom out.  I turned to my wife, noted the time and said "Uh-oh".  The wife nodded and I waited for what I suspected was coming.  Almost immediately after that we heard from Captain Ron (not his real name).  The good Captain informed us that there was a fault with the radar system and that mechanics were working on it so we should be on the way fairly soon. Shortly after that he informed us that the problem was fixed, there was just some EU paperwork to complete and we'd be on our way.

All of this sounded good, except that it wasn't fixed and we weren't on our way.  The fault resurfaced, the mechanics opened things back up and (after approximately 1 1/2 hours) decided that the problem was a faulty part that needed to be replaced, for some reason however, the replacement part in question could not be located.  All of this eventually led to the announcement in the title.  Full cancellation.  The Flight Service Manager then came onto the intercom, informed us that we would be deplaning and heading to baggage claim where we would receive instructions about how we were going to get home tomorrow.

One of the curiosities regarding irregular airline operations is how docile the crowd can become. You're typically dealing with one of two scenarios:  Either everyone follows directions and proceeds calmly, or there's one or two people who decide this cannot be tolerated and decide to cause a ruckus.  Fortunately, in this case, everyone did as instructed and we were off the plane and at baggage claim fairly quickly.

According to instructions, the "plan" was for us to retrieve our bags and then receive re-booking information from the helpful US Airways staff that would be ready to assist. Unfortunately the "plan" did not filter down to the staff on the ground.  After retrieving our bags the crowd (around 200 strong from a full 767 FWIW) turned around to an empty US Airways booth.  At this point our shaky group decorum started to crack.  Customers were getting angry and there was nowhere to vent their spleen.  People started muscling past other people, I thought a couple of senior citizens were going to come to blows and the general calm was moving rapidly into the yellow and orange threat levels.

Fortunately, I had a working cell phone, so I dialed up US Airways customer service who gave me a number to call for just such an occasion. Within 20 minutes (and after trying to explore every option) I had two seats booked for me and my wife leaving the next day at 12:30 arriving finally in Houston at 21:45.  Unfortunately all of my efforts to get us out that day were thwarted due to us being the 3rd flight cancelled at FCO that day.  Every option was full.*

As I finished my ticketing the first US Airways worker had the misfortune of walking through the 721 posse.  It was now 20 minutes after we were told someone would be there to assist us and the natives were restless.  Unfortunately, this young lady was NOT someone who had information.  She told everyone that someone would be around in about 5 minutes with information as to what to do.

It's probably important to mention, at this time, that in Italy time is more of a suggestion than an absolute.  5 minutes can mean anything from 5 minutes, to an hour.  Around an hour later (15:30) three ladies came up with sheets of paper pointing out that we've had a service disruption (uh, yeah!) and that US Airways apologized for the inconvenience and if you would please contact the 1-800 number provided they would assist you with re-ticketing.

So now the issue had become one of phone service.  In fact, approximately 2/3 of the passengers did not have cell phones that worked in Europe.  There was a lot of resulting scrambling, some mild (and not so mild) cursing and a general feeling of helplessness that hung in the air.  Mini groups started forming around the cell phones that did work, and I'm guessing that some people eventually got seats, but most went out to the check-in area and tried to deal directly with the agents there.

At this point I'm going to have to leave those people to the annals of history.  I'm hoping they all eventually got flights, and I tried to help some make phone calls on my phone.  But the financial realities of International roaming charges meant that I couldn't help everyone.  If any of you are reading this, I hope you eventually made it out.

At this point the wife and I decided we might be better off breaking away from the herd and charting our own course.  We now had a flight booked, but no place to stay the night and no US Airways personnel that seemed to understand our eventual need for sustenance and shelter.  Eventually however, we ran across one of the ladies with the folders full of instruction sheets.  We decided they might be more informed than most so I went up and asked them what we were supposed to do for lodging.  We were instructed to follow the signs to the Airport Hilton and they had all of the details and would handle our room and meal vouchers.  Progress!

Everything from that point was fairly routine.  We got directions to the Hilton ("It's just up the stairs and a 5 minute walk") proceeded to walk for 20 minutes before arriving in the lobby, received our room keys and meal vouchers and proceeded to go up to our room and relax for a few.

At this time it was around 17:00.  We weren't yet ready for dinner so we went to the hotel bar and ordered most of it.

One final Day One note:  The meal vouchers were not good in the restaurant, they had set up a buffet in one of the ballrooms offering pasta, pasta and pasta.  Since the wife has Celiac disease and cannot eat pasta, we did not use the vouchers and paid for our meal in the hotel restaurant.  Judging from the feed back from those who ate the buffet we made the correct choice in skipping over-cooked pasta and cold fish in tomato sauce.

After we ate it was up to the room for some much needed sleep before flying out on day 2.

Day Two was less eventful.  We arrived via shuttle at the airport early, checked in, got our boarding passes only to find out that the Preferred Access I paid for didn't transfer over to the first leg of our flight.  Instead of boarding zone 1, we were in boarding zone 6.  When I approached the gate agent to inform her of this she told me that "Preferred Access does not exist in Rome".  She continued this lie even after I showed her yesterday's cancelled flight boarding passes that confirmed it did.  I explained to her that I paid good money for this and expected to receive what I pay for.  I was then informed that if I did not like it, I could not fly or contact US Airways when I got home. Obviously, I just opted for the latter and the wife and I were among the last to board.  Unfortunately, our bags had to be stowed 1/2 a plane away from us so we were also the last to deplane as well.

The flight from FCO to CLT was fine.  As the plane took off everyone on board started clapping.  As we landed in CLT they clapped again.  As we arrived at the gate everyone stood up and waited to deplane.  And we waited, and waited.  After about 15 minutes of waiting we were told there was a problem with the JetWay (Not US Airways fault, but CLT's) and that we were going to be towed to another gate for deplaning.  Amazingly, no one tried to claw their way out of a window or through the floor into a cargo bay.

Like a Christmas miracle, right as the towing vehicle arrived, the JetWay healed itself and we reverted to plan A and made our way through customs.

Here's where the power of Global Entry and Pre-check security is demonstrated.  Despite being the last off the plane, the wife and I were among the first through customs and security.  We were in the front of the line to re-check our bags and went through CLT security with no line.  We had plenty of time for dinner, a couple of adult beverages and to freshen up before leaving to IAH.

Unfortunately we had more time than we bargained for, because our flight to Houston was delayed about one hour waiting for the plane to arrive (It had been delayed at it's origin because of a mechanical problem.  If it was the radar I was going to laugh, but I never found out what it was for sure). It was a little surprising to see this because this appeared to be a newer Airbus 321.**

Finally, at around 10:45 PM Houston time we arrived in Houston, gathered our bags, and made it home around 12:30 AM.  We grabbed a few tacos at Taco Cabana, ate, and I ironed my clothes for work and went to bed.  I was up the next morning at 6:00 AM to go to work, stepped out to my car and the battery was dead.

I made it into work around 10 AM.

On my next trip I'm flying United Airlines again.  It will be nice to be home.

*One note: At FCO they stop flying to the US at around 4PM, there was a Lufstansa flight to Frankfurt and a United flight to Newark, both were at capacity.  It's very limited what you're able to do to get to the States in the afternoon at FCO

**One big Boo to US Airways.  Their new planes have zero IFE.

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