Angels and Demons both have Airplane Wings

Submitted by Ben on Fri, 05/29/2009 - 04:22

Public relations is such a fragile thing.  A company can spend millions polishing and maintaining its reputation, only to let you down when it matters most.  Another company can treat you like crap repeatedly, consistently cutting corners in a heartless bureaucracy, and then in one beautiful, human moment make you want to sing their name from the rooftops.  In this particular moment it may still be premature to say which company is which.

But first, the backstory.  I bought our tickets to Italy months ago, in the depths of the recession when I thought prices were likely to be lowest.  I shopped around and found the best deal I could, which meant going through bargain-hunting Web sites, in this case Vayama.  But I've traveled enough to know that on long, international flights, some airlines treat you better than others, so because this is our honeymoon, I spent $100 extra to get us tickets with Lufthansa, a 4-star airline, instead of any of the American airlines, which all rate 3 stars.  I have to say I felt a little smug about it, and probably seemed a little snobbish to Jessie, who pointed out that having never flown overseas herself, she wouldn't know the difference.  There were some puzzling things about the tickets, like we weren't able to reserve seats on all of them... for example, Jessie's boarding pass from Chicago to Frankfurt showed no seat number.  We were assured we could straighten it out once we got to the Lufthansa ticket counter.

One problem: Lufthansa doesn't fly out of Kansas City.  The itinerary from Vayama said our flight from KCI to ORD would be on "SUBSIDIARY/FRANCHISE," which turned out to be United, so we got our boarding passes (minus a seat for Jessie) at the United counter in KCI.  Neither of us had had particularly good experiences with United in the past -- lots of delays and impersonal service.  This was no exception... the plane we needed to get us to Chicago was delayed by weather in Washington -- a city that wasn't even on our outbound itinerary -- and our 2.5 hour layover in Chicago evaporated, leaving us with only minutes to catch the plane to Frankfurt, let alone get Jessie a seat number.

Our plane touched down in Chicago at 9:38 PM and began an excruciatingly slow taxi through the maze of ORD runways to concourse E, while a stewardess informed us that one passenger would still make his connecting flight, to Ohio, but the rest of us would need to speak with a representative either at the gate or at a service desk at concourse C, while meanwhile our next flight was already boarding at concourse B, on time for its 10:00 departure.  As we taxied right past our next plane, both Jessie and I (seated two rows apart) wanted to somehow jump off and run across the tarmac, but instead we had to ride another half mile farther on.  I ran ahead of Jessie to the gate, arriving completely winded and just a few minutes too late.  The Lufthansa representatives at the gate informed me that they held the flight 5 minutes for us, but they could do no more, even though they could see on their screens (they said this, with ill-concealed schadenfreude) that we had landed and were on our way.  I asked them to get us to Rome as soon as they could, but they said Lufthansa only has four flights a day out of Chicago, and the next that could get us to Rome would be 24 hours later than the flight we had missed, and they weren't even sure they could get us seats on it.  They suggested we talk to United, since it was United's fault we had missed the flight, and since United had more planes to work with.

I should mention at this point that we not only had hotel reservations in Rome, we also had museum reservations.  You don't have to buy tickets to Italian museums in advance, but by all accounts it helps.  And it ain't cheap.  And exchanges are far from certain.  And besides, we also had reservations for practically every other day in our itinerary, so what date were we going to exchange them for?  Jessie has dreamed of seeing the art at the Vatican for most of her life, and we had the tickets in our hands, and the thought of having to miss seeing the Vatican on this trip because of weather in a city we weren't even passing through made Jessie quite unhappy.

So off we went to that United service desk in concourse C, which is the one you can only reach by underground tunnel.  But by this time it was after 10 PM, and the desk was closed when we got there, and the custodian didn't know where to tell us to go.  So back we went to the gate in concourse E where we came in.  There were still two young women working there, and they were sympathetic to our situation, but they said they knew nothing about international booking, and everyone who did know about it had gone home for the night, except maybe for someone in baggage claim.  A young man who had been flirting with them when we arrived said that in the break room there was a phone number for the rate office, and that someone would be working there who knew about international booking, so we should call them.  They gave us the number.

The woman at the rate office was indignant that anyone should have given us her number for something unrelated to her job, but she looked up our bookings.  She said that since the tickets had been purchased in bulk (i.e. through Vayama) from another airline, there was nothing United could do -- the tickets had no cash value, so there was no way to know what to exchange them for.  "They have cash value to us," I assured her, "EXCHANGE THEM FOR TICKETS TO ROME."  I told her that Lufthansa had said it was United's fault we had missed the flight.  "Honey, they would have said it was our fault if their plane was late," she assured me. 

She seemed very sympathetic, and I was all set to thank her for her trouble, but before letting me go she said, "Can I ask you a question?  Why didn't you leave Kansas City earlier?"  I was speechless.  She continued, "I mean, everybody knows you're supposed to allow 3 hours before an international flight.  Why didn't you arrange a longer layover in your itinerary?"  At this point I lost it.  "This is our first trip to Europe," I said, "Our layover was two and a half hours.  How were we supposed to know that two and a half hours was not a long enough layover, and that three would have been?  It doesn't exactly say that on your Web site!"  "You bought your ticket in bulk," she countered, "not through our Web site."  "But I've been to your site, and it doesn't say that!" I insisted.  "It's just common sense..." she began, and I hung up.

At this point we were crushed.  We'd have to begin the fight again when the ticket desks reopened at 6 AM.  Neither airline would put us up in a hotel because the delay was weather-related, but they gave us coupons worth an unspecified discount at an unspecified assortment of hotels.  I booked a room for a reasonable price at the Candlewood Suites (which we had fond memories of from when our basement was flooded with sewage, no seriously, fond memories), and we headed to the baggage claim to see where our bags had wound up.

Now, this is where the bureaucracy finally started working in our favor.  The first guy we talked to could have just said forget it, you're not getting your bags back tonight, but instead he said it wasn't his job and sent us to the baggage service desk.  There a woman named Patti glanced at our claim checks and said, "The bags are being held in International departures -- they'll be sent on to Rome on your new itinerary."  "We don't have a new itinerary yet," I pointed out.  She tapped a few keys and handed us a sheet of paper.  "There's your new itinerary," she said.  We were incredulous -- the flights were on United, getting us into Rome on the morning of our Vatican reservation, more than eight hours before Lufthansa's best offer.  "But they said we couldn't do that because we bought our tickets from Lufthansa," I protested before I could think better of it.  "Oh, shoot, you didn't tell me that," said Patti.  "Well, let's see if I can check you in."  Tappity tappity: boarding passes.  And Jessie and I even had adjoining seats! And they were business class -- we were flying business class to Europe! "The worst that can happen now is that I get yelled at tomorrow," said Patti.

We were overflowing with gratitude.  Jessie said, "If we were planning to have children, we'd give you our firstborn!"  ("I've got some of my own," said Patti.)  I said, "If you're ever near Emporia, Kansas, give us a call!" and gave her my card.  What else could we do?  Put in a word with her supervisor and risk exposing some wrongdoing that would cost us our tickets?  Better to wait until after the trip for that...

We're not out of the woods yet; we have to change planes again in Washington -- the same airport that cost us yesterday's connection -- so there could be another delay.  And even if there's not, we won't quite make it to the Vatican in time to use our reserved tickets, so we may have to reshuffle our itinerary in order to fit everything in.  But at least we haven't lost a whole day in Italy, just a night, and we can sleep on the plane.  So for the moment, a baggage clerk named Patti has us singing United's praises, and Lufthansa has lost some of its good reputation with us.  We'll see where they stand in two weeks!

Moral of the story: the airline may care how much you paid to fly, but the baggage handlers just care about getting to the destination.  Follow the luggage!

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