Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Air Travel - Can it get any worse?


My wife and I returned to our home in North Carolina after traveling more than 3,500 miles by air and 2,000 miles by car over the holidays.  The visits with our family members went well, and for the most part, the weather cooperated.  I’m grateful for the time with family and for our safe trips, but the service we received on our roundtrip flight from Charlotte to Phoenix was less than gratifying.     
I won’t specify which airline we used.  What we experienced happens on most carriers.  In my opinion, many of the changes to the airline industry in recent years have been made without regard to customer service or convenience.  My wife and I were victims of most of these changes.
I booked our flight six weeks in advance and scheduled it well before Christmas to avoid crowded weekend holiday travel.  With over 80,000 miles in my account, I tried to use frequent flyer miles to pay for the trip but found my miles would cover very little of the expense.  Oddly, I get a lot of emails encouraging me to use my FF miles for magazines and passes to airline lounges.  I guess they’d rather I pay to fly.     
When I went to book the flight online, I couldn’t get adjoining seats for me and my wife without paying extra fees for the available seats.  It seems sitting next to your family members is now considered a “perk.”  I was instructed to wait until check-in to see if adjoining seats were available.  They weren’t, so my wife and I sat 20 rows apart.
We were asked at the check-in kiosk if we wanted to purchase additional flight perks.  We saw no reason to pay for exit row/bulkhead legroom or early boarding privileges.  I laughed out loud when asked to pre-pay for additional FF miles.  We had decided to pack one large bag, allowing us to travel unencumbered without carry-ons, so paying $25 for checked luggage was unavoidable.
We got our boarding passes and checked our bag 90 minutes prior to departure, allowing plenty of time to make it to our gate.  As the departure time approached, the gate area began to resemble a 1965-era Greyhound bus station.  Passengers dressed in everything from parkas to pajama pants, not-so-service-looking service dogs, and runny-nosed kids in double-wide strollers flooded the area. It appeared my wife and I may have been the only passengers to check a bag.  The hundreds of travelers gathering were transporting their possessions in every possible container: backpacks, shopping bags, taped-up Amazon boxes, overstuffed travel bags, and purses the size of duffle bags.  Boarding reminded me of the Oklahoma Land Rush with passengers scrambling to stake claims to overhead storage.  Ridiculously oversized bags had to be checked at the gate, further clogging up the process.    
Thirty minutes later, I reached my seat. Every storage area within several rows had been claimed.  Fortunately, I only needed to find room to park my butt.  As I took my seat, I felt others were benefitting from me checking my bag.  Shouldn’t I get a sticker or something recognizing my contribution?
During the flight, I purchased a $7 gag-in-the-throat sandwich and $2 headphones to drown out the baby crying in the center section to my right.  The guy seated next to me pulled out his backpack from under his seat at least a dozen times, violating my space.  It was four hours of my life I’ll never get back.   
After landing and waiting 15 minutes for my wife to work her way from row 32C up the jet bridge, we arrived at Sky Harbor Airport luggage claim.  Although we’d boarded a non-stop flight from Charlotte to Phoenix at 9:00 a.m., we soon learned our bag boarded a non-stop flight to St. Maarten in the British Virgin Islands.  Even though we checked in 90 minutes early, the baggage handlers didn’t use the time to get our bag to the correct plane.  Airport code PHX must get confused with SXM.
I was impressed the airline knew where our bag was, and assumed it would just be a matter of putting it on the next plane back to Phoenix.  It was to be my first miscalculation of airline competency.  Following comments by the lost luggage agent about our bag reaching the better vacation destination, we were given toiletries in a zip-lock bag and a website address to track the status of our luggage.
After waiting nearly one day with no update, I called to insist that someone from the airline contact the airport in St. Maarten.  The bag was still there!  It took a total of 2 ½ days for our luggage to be returned.  During this time, the airline’s lost baggage website never reflected a change in status, and no one from the airline called us.  I assumed our $25 baggage fee would be automatically returned.  Wrong again!  I was told I needed to fill out an online request for the refund.
We were only in Phoenix for four nights and five days, so not having our luggage for most of our visit was a significant inconvenience.  It seemed reasonable to expect we wouldn’t be charged for baggage on our return flight to Charlotte.  Once again, I was wrong.
Our return flight was an hour late out of Phoenix while we sat in a crowded waiting area at the end of a terminal servicing five gates. The backup in flights had the area resembling a refugee processing center.  Eventually, we and our bag made it back to Charlotte.  As we loaded onto the waiting parking lot transportation, I was glad the next leg of our holiday journey was by car.    

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