Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Sleeping in the San Francisco Airport



When I looked out the window of Terminal 7 at JFK and saw a United 757 with an open engine cowling and a big puddle on the ground I knew there was going to be a problem. That was even before they had announced a mechanical delay, but it was obvious. I immediately got on the phone with United reservations to start looking for other options home, but without ground transportation, any alternate flights out of EWR or LGA were out of the question. With only an hour scheduled layover at SFO, it was looking like I would for sure miss my connecting flight.

About four hours later, I finally left JFK. I had originally been scheduled on the 6:30 flight. That one left at 10. I went standby on an earlier flight that left at 9:30, but either way, the damage was done and I didn't arrive in San Francisco until about 1 in the morning. My first stop once I arrived in SFO was Customer Service who, as per United policy, are supposed to provide hotel vouchers for cases like this. "No hotels" was the simple answer that I got. According to them, every single hotel in the city of San Francisco was sold out for the night. The more likely truth was that they were out of hotel vouchers for pre-contracted discounted rooms, and didn't want to cough up the extra money to have me stay somewhere else at the walk in rate. However, what was even more disconcerting was that with 5 employees standing around doing nothing and no one else in line, no one even wanted to pick up a phone to help me look, even after I offered to pay for a room myself. I don't really care what the excuse was, the bottom line is that it was United who failed to operate on schedule and they did not live up to their end of the deal. At this point I'd normally walk off, rent a car and drive home, but I was too tired.

Needless to say, I didn't really enjoy my stay at the San Francisco International Airport. It was really cold there and trying to sleep on a dirty bench like a homeless person was kind of humiliating. In case you were wondering, the security announcements still played at 3 am to an audience of at least twenty other people United managed to screw over that night. If you were lucky enough to fall asleep in the first place, if that didn't wake you up, someone coming by to vacuum around your makeshift campsite would. 

Having spent the night in the Hong Kong airport back in 2006, I made it a point to never do it again, but I have to admit Hong Kong was way better. At least it was warmer. Despite my best efforts, this still happened to me...twice. Both times it was mechanical delays that lead to missed connections and both times United really let me down. The first time I was still young, innocent, and naive enough to fall for it, plus it was Chinese New Year, so I'll go as far as to give them the benefit of the doubt that there really were no hotel rooms. This time I didn't have a choice. I tried calling United to find another route home. There were none. I tried taking an earlier flight to get me there sooner. It didn't work. I tried being nice. It didn't help. No amount of begging, pleading, or eventual arguing with a very unsympathetic supervisor got me a place to stay for the night. Neither did my Premier Gold status.

Even though what happened really was no fault of mine, I still feel like a failed somehow. I am a seasoned traveler. I'm supposed to know better. I'm supposed to know the ropes, the ins and outs, the little secrets to help me avoid situations like these. I know that if there is a delay and you want to get on another flight to not bother trying to talk to the gate agent and pick up the phone instead. I know that if United says they are out of hotel vouchers you can go book yourself a hotel room and send them the bill. I've done that before. I NOW know that if you prepare and pack for a day trip and don't take things like your cell phone charger and contact lens solution, you will end up spending the night. That was my bad.
 
It's been a couple of days now that I've been home, and had time to cool off and reflect, but I'm still mad. A detailed complaint has been sent to United Customer Relations, and I already went ahead and forwarded a copy to the Department of Transportation before United even gets a chance to ignore my letter like they have often done in the past. I have reason to believe that based on my status, their mistake, their generosity in the past, and now the DoT's involvement, that there will be a lot of travel vouchers headed my way in the near future, but to be honest I'm not even really that excited about it, because all that means more travel on United. So far this year I've experienced 3 significant delays (one of them with an infant in tow), 3 cancellations, 2 missed connections, and now a night spent in an airport. That was out of 6 trips. At this point, I have more vouchers than I can spend, and when I call to use one, along with wasting an hour of my time on hold trying to ticket something over the phone, I get another flight where something else inevitably goes wrong, which leads to another voucher. At first I thought it was cool they were essentially paying for me to make 1K for small stuff like broken audio equipment on the aircraft and shorter delays. But then the delays got longer and longer, my infant son was split off from my record locator and re-booked on a separate flight, and now after spending a night in another airport, I'm starting to rethink my strategy a little; There is no amount United could issue that would make me want to do it all again!
 
So will I keep flying with them? For now the answer is yes, although I often fantasize about joining the "dAArkside" and taking my business over to American Airlines. Unfortunately, I still have quite a few non-refundable tickets on United for this year, which I'm not about to just give up. Plus I'm a strong believer in second chances (or third or fourth or fifth chances at this point). I fly again in less than two weeks, and for the first time I'm not looking forward to it. In fact, I'm a little scared to find out what they have in store for me next.

Links:
Wronged by an airline? The DoT can help. Go to http://airconsumer.dot.gov/CP_AirlineService.htm
 Sleeping in the airport? You are not alone. Check out http://www.sleepinginairports.net for helpful tips.

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