Thursday, September 27, 2007

To Fly or Not to Fly [Part 1: The England Experience]

China labels 2007 as the Year of the Golden Pig; I believe that I shall name it as the Year of the Delayed Airplane. Recent headlines have been trumpeting the fact that airline delays are the worst in 13 years and passengers are frustrated. There has been some coverage regarding this new Passenger Bill of Rights concept, but I highly doubt that this Bill is making the people stuck on the tarmac for 3 hours feel any better. There have been hearings on the Hill regarding the issue, and even President Bush is saying that delays need to be addressed.

I travelled a lot this past summer; thus my lack of posts for many weeks. During my hiatus, I had two flight experiences, and both of them left something to be desired. I am somewhat undecided as to how harshly I am going to judge each airline over these encounters. My parents have sworn they will never fly British Airways again as long as they live based on the July experience, but I am as yet undecided. I am also undecided regarding my US Air experience. Perhaps those of you reading will have an opinion to share ...

Flight Problem 1: British Airways, London (Heathrow) to Washington, DC (Dulles)

To set the scene: My parents (in their late 60's), my husband, and I (2 months pregnant) were going to the airport directly from a cruise ship. We had no way to check-in online online for our 5:30pm flight, but as we were arriving over 8 hours ahead, we had no concern about this.

We arrived and immediately encountered the first issue; there were about a thousand people waiting to just get inside Terminal 4. As it turned out, there had been a
Fire Alarm earlier that morning, and there were now just too many people to fit into the building.

After about 30 mins of effort, we got into the building, only to discovered that British Airways was only allowing people into the queue lines -- including the kiosk lines -- based on their flight times. They told us to come back at 1pm. We had nowhere to go, so my parents huddled miserably on a bench. But being pregnant, I needed to get to some food so my husband and I painstackingly began to weave our way, with our 4 bags, through the mass of angry flyers, to the pub on the lower level.

We finally make it to the Pub. Ate some food. Sat.

We trudged back up to the4 massive lines of BA queues. BUT NOW, you can't queue until 3pm, the BA attendants told us. However, the kiosks were now available. My parents had no interest in trying to use the 'computers', so my husband and I queued up for the self-service kiosks.

After meandering through 10 different verification screens, our efforts were rewarded with the message:
"Go see Customer Assistance."

So, with our 4 bags in tow, we located and then entered the "Customer Assistance" queue.

After 30 minutes, it was our turn. In about 2 minutes, she declared that she couldn't help us and that we needed to get into the "Customer Service" line. No joke. Assistance and Service are two different queues.

So, back into the queue we go. At the same time, my parents have finally been allowed into the normal queue. So they are watching us nervously from their own line as we are playing musical-queues.

So, after 30 more minutes, we make it to Customer Service.
There are no seats for you, she tells us matter-of-factly.
"We give priority to those checking in online, so I'm afraid we can't currently assign you seats. The flight is very overbooked. Here's a coupon for a coffee. Come back to this counter at 5pm."
Wait ... our flight is at 5:30
"Oh, no worries. You'll make it."
My parents were still in their line, and got the same news about 15 mins later. We let them have the chairs at the coffee shop, while my husband and I sat on the floor.
They were nervous wrecks; I wasn't feeling all that well at this point.

Back in queue at Customer Service.
YES! We have seats!

Off to Expedited security. This means that the queue is 100 people, not 1000.

By the time we got through, the board said "closing gates"
My husband and I ran as best we could to the gate. Then we tried to be very slow, as my parents were behind us. They made it to the gate, but my father was white as a sheet, the running wasn't really what he needed with his health issues.
white as a sheet

So, we got into the plane, and that's when we discovered the silver lining of the day. BA upgraded us from "World Travellor" to "World Travellor Plus", which had been a $1000 difference when we priced it online. Unfortunately, my husband and I had been placed on opposite sides.

Everyone looked tired and worn out; a lot of people had been running like us. Some random man sat next to me, while some woman sat next to my husband, not looking all that happy. The cabin was quiet.

I stood up, and called across the aisle, "Excuse me, would you mind changing seats with me? That's my husband; we've gotten separated."
She immediately perked up, "Oh, OH YES. YES. You're next to MY husband, yes I want to change seats with you!"

In a blink of an eye, we had each darted across the aisles to the other side.
There was about 5 seconds of silence and then EVERYONE was asking EVERYONE ELSE to switch seats, and it soon became very obvious that nearly every individual in that section had been bumped into new seats, and the seats had been assigned completely randomly. In about 10 minutes the dust had settled, and everyone seemed very happy. If we could do that ... why couldn't' the computer?

The rest of the flight was uneventful.

But ... the stress leading up to it was no fun at all. Would YOU fly BA again? My parents won't, but I'm not so sure ...

No comments: