September 26, 2008

Poorly Played

See, here was my mistake.

We got into SFO Wednesday night pretty late. I was already tired from the four-hour flight from Chicago to San Francisco. And then we sat around to eat some adequate airport food and I really got more tired than energized by it. So when we went to the gate and the flight was delayed, and then delayed again, and then The Wife said "Canceled?"

Yes, indeed, the computer screen announced that the flight from San Francisco to Palmdale had been canceled. I spoke with the gate agent who said, "It's weather." I had inferred before that the flight was dependent on the plane being there, and the plane was scheduled to fly in to San Francisco from Santa Barbara. I know from living in Santa Barbara for nearly three years in college that indeed, there is heavy fog there from time to time. Of course, I've always wondered why fog should be that big a problem to a modern airplane -- do these airplanes lack instruments? Does fog somehow obscure radar? There certainly isn't a problem flying above fog. I can see a hazard on the ground that would slow down access to the airport and the presence of other aircraft on the tarmac, but that's a matter of controlling which aircraft are out there and which aren't.

But that's beside the point now. They cancelled the flight. They have the airplane and I don't and weather happens. And there aren't exactly flights every fifteen minutes from San Francisco to Palmdale. There are three flights a day, and the 10:30 (which was, by then, the 11:30) is the last one. So the gate agent said, "What do you want to do? I can give you a refund or you can get a hotel and I'll put you on the first flight out tomorrow."

Well, I had to be in court at 8:30 the next morning in Stinking Bakersfield. On a case where we'd previously missed an appearance and been subject to sanction. And on a case that was moving into a critical phase. So I felt like I just plain absolutely needed to be there. So I said, "We'll rent a car and drive. Give me the refund."

This was my mistake. If I'd known it would have turned out as disastrously as it did, of course -- but then again, how could I know? All of the misfortunes, indignities, discomfort, and stress described below can be attributed to this mistake on my part. In my defense, I was tired and not fully cognizant of the implications of that decision. Certainly the gate agent made no effort to educate me, whether or not she had an affirmative duty to do so.

After getting $86.00 or so credited to our credit card, we took the SFO SkyTrain to the rental car platform. There, we talked to every agent at every company. I don't think any of the rental car agency clerks actually used profanity when I asked to drive one of their cars one-way to Palmdale. Most were clearly tempted to do so.

The first guy said, "First of all, we're sold out. Secondly, we can't do a one-way to... to wherever you're going. Thirdly, get out. Maybe the guy at Thrifty can help you." Our reception at other counters was significantly less friendly than that. One company would rent us a car for about $250 but we would have to return it to the LAX lot because somehow he thought Palmdale was near LAX, and would not rent to us when he found out we were going to Palmdale. Which is, as we have previously established, is apparently the absolute ass end of civilization.

By now, I'd spoken with one of the partners already, who sympathized with my plight and assured me that the Court would have to deal with me not being there. He reminded me that a cancelled flight is something beyond my control and so the risk of sanction would be very low. No, no one else could cover the hearing, but we'd figure out what to do later, because he thought even my plan of driving down to Palmdale in the dead of night, taking a shower, and then driving another two hours to Stinking Bakersfield was kind of bullshit and way more punishment than the ten-minute hearing would call for. We also talked about my driving directly to Stinking Bakersfield doing the hearing in my traveling clothes after explaining what had happened, but that idea seemed like a non-starter to me. But that idea would require a car, and no car was available.

Thus assured that the court hearing was not going to be a big deal, I decided to revert to Plan A, which was the morning flight back home.

So, we went back to United. Where I learned that they had washed their hands of us. We were out of their system entirely. And here's something I never imagined -- SFO closes at night. Come midnight, they shoo everyone out of the terminal and close it off. The ticket agents, gate agents, and customer service agents all go home.

This struck me as an irritation, but in this day and age of automatic and flat-earth customer service, I was not daunted. I called the United Airlines customer service number and after dealing with some voice-mail hurdles I spoke to my new friend Ratnaprabha. I think. Ratnaphrabha's name was completely unpronounceable to me and while she was courteous and tried to elocute as well as she could, she also had a bad habit of mumbling and probably figured that I wouldn't record her name anyway. So I'm doing my best to remember her name.

Anyway, Ratnaprabha told me that it would be no problem, she'd reserve a spot for us on the 8:30 flight to Palmdale and she would reserve the spot for us. Then she said that it would take several minutes for the arrangements to process through the computer, so I should check with the computerized check-in terminal in fifteen minutes or so.

Fifteen minutes later, we went to the ticketing lobby of the terminal (the only unsecured area open to the public at this time) and tried to use the computer to check in and print our boarding passes. We were hoping to get into the terminal itself where there were at least padded seats. But the computer said there was a problem and indicated that we'd have to speak with an agent.

I called back in to the customer service center, and this time my new friend from beyond the seas was named (I think) Namdev. Namdev basically said that he had no idea what Ratnaprabha had been talking about, the tickets had been refunded and that was that. "But Namdev," I protested, "Ratnaprabha told me that the credit would be reversed and we'd be on the next flight." "Please to be apologizing, sir, and I am sorry for your predicament, but there is nothing I can do. Perhaps an agent there at the airport can help you."

Thus, we had to wait, four hours, for the ticketing agents to show up. The counter opened at 4:15. So we had to wait.

There were only two places open at that time. One was some kind of a diner, which was in a different terminal concourse, and we would have to take the SkyTrain to get there. For some reason, The Wife was absolutely opposed to taking the SkyTrain anywhere. So the only other alternative was the 24-hour Subway on the top floor of the United concourse. We found a booth in the corner and waited like homeless people for four hours. I tried sleeping by stretching out on a chair to support my feet while I laid down on the fast-food pressboard bench of the boot. I took off my outer shirt and used it and my briefcase as a pillow. In this manner I was able to sleep for about fifteen minutes at a time, until the astonishingly loud loudspeaker reminded me, again, that we were in a Homeland Security Threat Level Orange Alert and I should keep possession of my bags at all time and not accept anything to carry from people I did not know. My neck is still sore and weak from this mistreatment, nearly 48 hours later.

And there were creepy people there at the 24-hour Subway on the top floor of SFO terminal concourse three. Some were other stranded passengers, who like us tried to sleep on the astonishingly uncomfortable seats. Others were maintenance crew. They were all okay. But the homeless people drifting in and staring at us made me a little bit uncomfortable. I didn't say anything to The Wife but I also didn't want to have both of us asleep at the same time with some of these types there. When one of them finally left around 3:00, I felt like the rest were harmless enough and minding their own business (probably looking for somewhere to sleep for a few hours, themselves) that we could chance it. Not that a lot of sleeping got done.

Tired and cranky, we wandered down to the rapidly-forming line of people needing ticketing service at 4:15 a.m. in the ticketing lobby, and had to insist on seeing an agent rather than using the computer that had failed us so miserably the night previous. Our ticketing agent, Alberto, played around on his computer and told us what Namdev had said a few hours before. But he said he could sell us new tickets to Palmdale. For close to $500 each. I wasn't even sure we had an extra $1,000 in available credit, at the tail end of our vacation, to buy tickets at that price. He said he'd hold on to the seats for us and let us see what else could happen.

I called the CSR's across the seas again. Manoranjan was, like his predecessors, very courteous and had access to all of the previous transactions. But he told me, in so many words, that Ratnaprabha had been smoking crack and I'd have to pay full price for the tickets because it was less than seven days before the flight.

We went back to Alberto, and explained that we weren't willing to pay $500 each for tickets we'd been credited $45 each the night previous. He said that he wasn't sure what else might be done. I mentioned to The Wife the possibility of buying $1,000 worth of tickets and later suing United for the difference, and the likelihood that United would not even show up to respond to a small claims suit at all so we'd be very likely to get a judgment. But it would be several months before we could collect on the judgment. The Wife expressed concern about our animals and indeed, I was concerned about them too since our house sitter had left the keys in the house at 5:00 that evening. There was no way the dogs could control their bladders that long, although we figured they would survive missing one feeding time.

I don't know if this had any effect on Alberto, because he had seemed genuinely sympathetic to us from the beginning and gave the impression of wanting to do what he could to make it right for us. Either way, he seemed to suddenly think of something, and told us to please wait for a few minutes. He left and spoke to someone who I think was a supervisor for about five minutes, then he came back and said he wasn't going to make any promises but that he wanted to see if he could make something happen. We told him to go for it and waited. It took another ten agonizing minutes of watching Eduardo type and then he said, "Wait, I need approval." He walked away and a few minutes after that, he came back with a manager who typed in something and went away. Then Alberto typed a few more minutes and said that he found us two tickets on the flight for $160 each.

"Sold. You're America's greatest hero, Alberto." We bought the tickets and then The Wife fell paranoid that this flight, too, would be canceled. But there would be another flight at 10:00, so if that flight were canceled too, I knew we'd have some significant bargaining power.

That should have ended our troubles. But we had to clear security again. And our families had given me two bottles of wine -- one of which was something I'd never seen before, a 1997 Chianti D.O.G.C. Classico, which was obviously a noble bottle. (The other bottle, from my in-laws, was a nice enough bottle, a label we'd had before, and it was nicer more because they remembered the label and that I liked it, although it is not particularly pricey.) When we went through security again, the TSA said that we couldn't take wine in our carry-on bags. The Wife had already made it through the security screen and was waiting on the other side; I had not yet passed through the metal detector and was confronted by TSA flaks with "You can't have bottles of wine in your carry-on bags."

"What do you think they sell in that store right there?" I said, pointing to the wine store with hundreds of bottles of wine on display -- in the secured area of the terminal.

"You can't take wine through this security checkpoint, sir. You'll have to check your bags."

"Fine." I sent our smaller bags on to The Wife and grabbed the two other bags to go back and check them at the ticketing counter. Unfortunately, both cell phones were in the smaller bag, so I could not communicate with The Wife.

I got both bags checked, and had to pay $15 each for the privilege of doing so. Then the ticketing agent asked why I was checking bags after I'd already checked in and been issued boarding passes previously. Then she informed me that I couldn't check bags with wine in them unless the wine had been professionally packed. There was a place in the terminal that would professionally pack the wine, but they didn't open until 7:00 a.m. That wouldn't be for another hour and a half.

Well, I knew full well that I couldn't leave The Wife on her own in the airport terminal for an hour and a half without letting her know what was going on. Especially after everything we'd been through already. She'd absolutely freak. So, I couldn't take this princely bottle in my checked bag, and I couldn't take it in my carry-on. Sure, security in Chicago hadn't said "boo" about the wine, but I wasn't in Chicago any more. I would have to forfeit the wine.

I gave it to Alberto.

The rest of the trip was unremarkable. We got home, The Wife cleaned up after the dogs (thanks, honey!) and going in to the office was absolutely out of the question. We went to bed at 6:30 which was about as late as we could stay up after this ordeal.

Yes, I'm sure United Airlines apologizes for the inconvenience. But United's employee Alberto has singlehandedly saved his company from getting sued by a very pissed-off lawyer. His supervisor will also get a warm letter of praise on my law firm's letterhead in a few days. Which will go under separate cover of the letter of complaint that will also go out on my law firm's letterhead. But I'll leave it at that; I think $160 extra in airfare is probably an adequate price to pay for my momentary mistake in judgment in asking for a refund before I'd secured a rental car.

Just another travel nightmare which has become par for the course when one flies the friendly skies.

No comments: