Escape From Orlando, or, How American Airlines Screwed Me

I want to begin by saying this: American has always been good to me. And up until a certain point, they handled the debacle that was Flight 1660 from Orlando to Chicago mostly with competence and grace.

The journalism convention had been marvelous (different post pending on that) and I had a late flight out of Orlando, connecting through O'Hare to get home to St. Louis. My good friend Mark was on call to pick me up at the airport. I survived Orlando's horrendous security line, losing a hair clip to the scanner, and managed to snag a cup of Cuban coffee on my way to the gate.

Trouble was brewing. The plane had not yet left Miami because of a mechanical problem. Now, I try to be fairly sanguine about such things: I'd rather they fix the plane than let me become a smoking hole in the ground. But I was getting nervous, because I only had a 55-minute window to change planes at O'Hare.

The American staff told us that anyone with a connecting flight should come see them at the desk. The line of about 20 people formed immediately - and stayed. As in, it did not move. I was still waiting for my turn 30 minutes after they called for us, and I was second in line. We started making jokes about leaving our suitcases in line so we could sit in the chairs.

I surrendered dignity; I have plantar fasciitis, and while I can walk good long distances for a woman of my size, standing still causes great pain. When the daggers began stabbing into my heels, I sat crosslegged on the floor of the airport next to my suitcase.

After at least two extended delays, I finally got to the front of the line - from my place as second, remember - and was told there was no flight on any airline that would get me home to St. Louis tonight. This was disappointing, but not unexpected; it was a pretty late flight. They offered to put me up overnight in Orlando or fly me on to Chicago and put me up there. I chose to get to Chicago, because I was scheduled to work the next day in St. Louis and had an event to cover. I figured if I could at least get to Chicago, I had a screaming chance of making my afternoon assignment.
Time marched on - or shambled, dragged, inched - and still the plane had not left Miami. The staff - who were unfailingly polite and reasonable, by the way - offered us meal vouchers for airport restaurants. This was very nice, because we were all starving and the snack bar had already closed. The American gate agent came out with meal vouchers and began passing them out - then ran out. She vanished, saying something about needing to print more of them.

We sat and waited, watching restaurant after restaurant close up, making jokes. I tried to get the hashtag going: #hangryhangrypassengers
 She came back, handed out more meal vouchers, and ran out again before she got to me. This was when I started to smell a rat. Seriously, there weren't that many people on the plane.

On the third try, she gave me a meal voucher. We were only a few gates from the tiny food court, but every restaurant was closed except one, and it was set to close in two minutes. I scrambled in just in time, and other passengers who came after me ended up on the tram to other concourses in the hope of finding food. I have no idea if they succeeded or not.

For myself, I was at the tail end of an extended business trip. This was an incredibly valuable conference of great importance to myself and the chapter I represented, and a terrific opportunity that was largely funded by the chapter. Ordinarily I could not afford a business trip to Florida. In fact, I had barely been able to afford feeding myself and my transportation around Orlando, and was down to six dollars in my wallet unless I wanted to break out the debit card and swipe from rent money.

After dinner, it was back to the gate and charging my phone, keeping my husband and my friend Mark apprised of my lack of progress, and sharing good-natured jokes with my fellow passengers. No one was flipping out, no one was angry. We were all a bit chagrined, perhaps, and tired. But when the staff announced that the malfunctioning plane in Miami had been swapped for another plane and it was about to take off for Orlando, we broke into cheers and clapping. Seriously, I'm all for a plane with wings that don't fall off.

The new plane landed, and the Miami people escaped, looking as exhausted as we felt. They boarded us quickly, and once we were in the air, they offered us free booze (first drink only) as an apology. I also overheard one of the flight attendants saying they had waived a union restriction to stay on duty this long; they were on 15 hours and counting. I believe in giving credit where it is due, and these people really tried.

Also to be credited: the baggage people. I had been asked to gate-check my carry-on way back when I was sitting cross-legged on the floor in line, and agreed to do so. The Miami plane arrived at a different gate than we were originally assigned, however. As we boarded a different plane at a different gate, I said a fervent prayer that my suitcase would actually make it to Chicago. I was utterly delighted to see it on the baggage claim carousel.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. We landed at about 1 a.m. in Chicago, and the gate agent met those of us who had missed connecting flights and needed hotel vouchers.

Here's where it all went to hell.

She gave us all vouchers for the Crowne Plaza, about 25 minutes away from O'Hare. She gave us directions to the hotel shuttles, which were on the other end of a labyrinth of twisty passages all alike, and assured us that the shuttle ran every 15 minutes and we'd be at the hotel within the hour.

Keep in mind that I'm at the tail end of a conference, I've been up since 7 a.m. after only five hours' sleep, and I've been in constant motion all day. My feet were killing me, and that dinner was nearly five hours ago, so my blood sugar was a mess. Still, I hauled myself and my suitcase out to the hotel shuttles.

The shuttle was not there. There were other hotel shuttles present, but none for our hotel. One of the other guys asked me and a few other strays from American 1660 where we were trying to go, and we told him. "Oh, they stopped running shuttles at 11," he said.

Gobsmacked. I supposed I shouldn't have been, but the gate agent had told us straight up the shuttles were running. There had to be a mistake, I thought as I followed the other strays back to the terminal in search of an American employee.

No one. Nothing. Everyone was gone save one security guard and a janitor, neither of which could point us toward anyone who worked for American. The woman who gave us the hotel vouchers was back at the gate behind security, which was shut down. Even if she were still there, it would have required jumping the security gates, and I think the TSA kind of frowns on that sort of thing.

I picked up the American courtesy phone, and was connected with a ticket agent in Tucson who apologetically told me she could do nothing. I asked her if there was another number I could try to connect me with someone, anyone in Chicago. No, of course not. Then she put me on hold, so I tried the hotel on my cell, holding two phones to my ear at the same time. The hotel clerk told me he was very sorry, but the shuttle driver was gone for the night and he'd gotten calls for the last hour from other people given vouchers and he couldn't help any of us.

American Lady came back and told me my only option was to take a cab. I did the mental math and figured my six dollars wouldn't get me out of O'Hare.

Her "helpful" suggestion was to "humble myself" (direct quote) and ask the other passengers to let me ride along with them.

Seriously. That was her suggestion.

I told her that a) the other passengers were mostly gone, having figured out their own destinies, and b) they were total strangers. She gave me some song and dance about how American had been nice enough to give me a hotel voucher, and I was about done with that conversation. I should add that there was a Hilton actually attached to O'Hare, sitting there mocking me with its closeness and comfy beds. But my phone told me the room would be $349 a night, which is highway robbery, by the way.

There was one poor lost soul left when I was done dancing with American. She suggested we split a cab, so I agreed, having no other choice. As she called the taxi, I hopped on my phone and quickly transferred rent money into the debit account so I could pay my half. Fortunately cabs now take plastic, or I'd still be at O'Hare.

The cab bill was $55. The very nice stranger had cash to pay the tip. I wish I'd gotten her name.

At the front desk, the clerk apologized profusely. He told us both that they have repeatedly told American Airlines that they don't run airport shuttles after 11 p.m., yet they keep issuing late-night vouchers and the night staff at the Crowne Plaza keeps getting the angry passengers. That's when he broke the news that the morning shuttle would be leaving at 10 a.m.

A 10 a.m. shuttle would not get me back in anything like enough time to make my 11 a.m. flight. Seeing my frustration and exhaustion, the clerk comped me a breakfast buffet. It was a small kindness, but it made a big difference at this point.

Four hours. That's how much sleep I got in the end. After all that nonsense, it almost wasn't worth it... but it was, because I got to shower and change clothes. I snarfed down the breakfast, since heaven knew when I'd be able to eat again. Six dollars, remember?

In most cities, stupid rules stop Uber from picking up at airports. That had been the case in Orlando, and you'd better believe I'd tried it when I was stuck at O'Hare. But they can't stop Uber from dropping off at an airport, and that's how I got back to O'Hare. More money out of the rent, but at least it was cheaper than a cab.

C'mon, Donald, it's not that much, right? No, I suppose not. Just a week's groceries. Can I feed a family of three on $50 a week? Most of the time, yes. It's not easy, and it's not always the top-flight meals and it's hard to keep up with the Boy's milk consumption, but it keeps us alive. I could understand the confusion around the meal vouchers and after days in Orlando I was used to standing in line and I appreciated the hotel voucher. But I swiped the card because I was sure, absolutely positive, that once I could talk to real humans at American, they'd reimburse me for the taxi fare. It was only logical, after all, since they had promised a shuttle that never came.
The flight home was eventful in a different way. I was in a two-seat row with a gentleman who was suddenly bumped up to first class before takeoff. As I was wondering how I got myself a bit of that action, a man near the back began shouting and ranting. It seems someone had shifted his suitcase a bit in the overhead compartment and he became apoplectic whenever anyone touches his stuff, because he was a veteran and that was his stuff and did that guy want to take this outside? Others started to respond to him, and he became more enraged, shouting at them until calmer voices said, "Don't engage, folks."

The pilot came back to deal with this, the whole "Sir, do we have a problem here?" And the wiser heads decided the best thing to do would be to move The Shouter to a new seat.

You guessed it. Next to me.

Fortunately, I'm used to dealing with obnoxious and crazy; I'm a reporter. He tried to engage with me a bit, and I used the ultimate 21st-century block: earbuds, iPad and and a good book. He gave up and settled into his chair, morose.

And I fled Chicago.

Final arrival was just barely in time for me to change clothes and make it to my assignment: a speech at the university. I was so tired that I swear I could see the Seven Dwarfs dancing across the stage behind the speaker. At one point I realized I'd been typing nonsense for about thirty seconds. I'm amazed that the story was in English.

Yes, I could have called in, and I'm sure they would have been understanding. But then it likely would have been a vacation day, and all my days are spoken for this year. An extra vacation day means I have to cancel a booking, and I try never to cancel a booking. Nor could I afford to, now that I was even deeper in the hole.

It was days later when I finally got myself together enough to file the complaint. See, I'd been tweeting about this throughout the ordeal, first with good humor, then with annoyance. American's Twitter account might be watching, I thought, and then I'd have an actual human to help me.

Not so much, in case you were wondering. Sure, American noticed my predicament. And their helpful advice was to file a complaint once I got home. This is the advice I got while still stranded in Chicago. It's almost as good as "humble yourself."

Here's the funny thing: I love flying. I know, the automatic reaction people often have to these kinds of travel-hell stories is to declare they're never flying again. But I love it. Even with the hassles and the security crazy and the cost, I'd rather fly than drive endless hours just about every time. American has always been good to me, and up until I arrived on that shuttle platform, I was quite pleased with the way they handled an unavoidable mess.

Then American declined to reimburse me for my cab fare.

Yup. The response to my complaint came earlier today, declaring that it was not their policy to reimburse anyone for problems encountered due to delayed flights. So apparently they will issue meal vouchers as the restaurants are closing and hotel vouchers to hotels you can't get to, and that's how they handle customer service? I expected better, and I think anyone who pays the exorbitant prices of an airline ticket (plus baggage fees, natch) deserves better.

I have filed my request for a second review, in the hopes that the first response was a canned autoreply and this one will be read by a human. I hope so, because I would like to fly American again someday. I really did like them. And I believe in second (third, fourth) chances.

I guess that's how I humble myself.

EDIT: American has declined my request for second review. They reiterated their policy that they do not compensate passengers for expenses when there are delays or cancellations. Apparently they also do not take responsibility when their employees lie to customers and strand them unncessarily. For the record, my complaint continues to be centered not on the delay, but on the actions taken (or not taken) at O'Hare surrounding the accommodations.

I am not sure what steps to take next, as I really just want a) my cab fare and b) some assurance that this situation will not reoccur for others, since the hotel clerk's statements indicate this has been a recurring problem.

Comments

  1. I would give them one more chance and then go over their heads to someone. There's got to be a traveler's bill of rights sort of thing that can be invoked here.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I would give them one more chance and then go over their heads to someone. There's got to be a traveler's bill of rights sort of thing that can be invoked here.

    ReplyDelete

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