the trip from hell

The Journey

I don’t think it’s a very big secret that United Airlines overbooks it’s flights. But sometimes their blatant shenanigans are outrageous.

(Al never mentioned DS vomiting multiple times throughout all this – isn’t travel romantic?)

Originally we booked our 2009 US Christmas trip in March. Nancy used our favorite reliable travel agent in Naarden, Helma. Helma found us a reasonably priced flight on Virgin. Atlantic-with a plane change in London Heathrow. Then in October, we received an email from our travel agent indicating that Virgin had cancelled the London Chicago route, but we were not to worry as we had been rebooked on KLM and United flights. This was slightly less convenient for us as it meant our neighbors needed to bring us to Schiphol at 5AM to be on time for the first leg of the flight. Thank goodness we had passed through Heathrow before and knew to only take minimal carry on luggage (we only had one backpack a piece).

When we arrived at Schiphol we were directed to an agent after trying to use the automatic check-in kiosk. It took some time at the counter but after some concerned looks we were able to check in to the flight to London. The KLM agent behind the counter mentioned a problem in that there was an indication that Andy did not have a US passport. She also informed us that she could not check us in for the connecting flight to Chicago as it was with another carrier.

After 45 Minutes our KLM flight arrived at Terminal 4 at LHR. United left from Terminal 1 so we proceeded to the bus connection. to Terminal 1. Upon arriving and passing the security check we stood at the United check-in counter.

After a lengthy wait in line we stood before an agent. After looking at our papers and keying several codes into the computer terminal she looked back at us with some concern. She told us there was a mistake in the booking and we should go see the Virgin agent in terminal 3 to get it straightened out as Virgin was the issuing agent. She said she could put us on standby, but the outlook was gloomy as all flights were over booked to Chicago and many people were already waiting. (Nancy glanced back at the girl’s nametag at this point it was “Emma” – because experience has told her that the next person most likely would ask ‘who told you that?’)

So we returned to the bus stop and reboarded the bus to Terminal 3. We passed through another security control, which of course involved getting the laptop out, taking our shoes off and passing through the metal detector. Then we headed towards the Virgin Agent.

After another lengthy wait in line we were directed to the Virgin ticket agent. The agent promptly informed us that the problem was with the travel agent (highly unlikely, Helma doesn’t make mistakes – that’s why we’ve used her the last 20 years) and he could not help us. At all. He also said that all of the flights with all the carriers were fully booked to Chicago and it would likely be several days before seats would be available to Chicago. He could offer us a hotel coupon but only after we returned to terminal 3 to get put on standby with United.

By this time Nancy had left several voice mails with all of the agent’s numbers she could find. But since it was Saturday our hopes of contact were dim as we knew that the offices were.

But the phone rang and somehow Helma was on the other end of the line. She said there was no way it was an agent problem but she would call her Dutch booking agent to see what they could find out. In the meantime we headed back to the bus transfer to Terminal 3.

Another bus ride. Another line. Another security control. Get the laptop outtake our shoes off, and take our place back in the line at the United counter. After a wait in line we once again stood at the counter looking at another smiling ticket agent. He put our names on two stand by lists and informed us not to worry about our bags as they would (wink) follow us where ever we went. And with that happy thought we went to wait until the gate opened so we could wait in standby and watch our flight leave.

Gloominess and cynicism was starting to set in as we went for food and drink with the little amount of UK currency we had.

We received another call from Helma who informed us that the problem was with United and she and the ticketing agent Roelof were very angry. She said the United had canceled our seats an hour earlier (!!!) and she suspected some shenanigans from United to deal with their overbooking problem. She said we should be very angry with United and to go back to the counter and raise a fuss. She would send us an SMS (text message) with the reservation details so we had some evidence of the United’s mischief. I decided to sit tight and await the outcome of the first standby before escalating and raising our voices.

When the gate number was announced, we walked towards it heads down. It was looking more hopeless when I asked what the standby possibilities were. We received dour looks all around.

So I decided to stage the next escalation. I went to the gate counter and proceeded to explain our story and providing the newly obtained reservation number. This resulted in some curious looks as the supervisor started to make some calls. She instructed us to sit over to the side and she would get back to us.

Our hearts sank as the first class passengers began to board the flight. At this low point we were called to the counter and handed 3 boarding cards.

This was curious because this was before the calling of standby passengers. Was it their concern of my impending threat of an escalation? Or was it their realization that we had uncovered some dubious behavior of canceling our seats in favor of direct United customers? We probably will never know and were not about to stir things up by asking, We are happily sitting in our seats at the back of the plane on the way to Chicago. 😉

(sent from Al’s IPhone)

(Now you know why I keep a link to our travel agent on this blog, she is worth her weight in gold)