United We Fly, and Other Lies the Airlines Tell You

Reader, this is just another travel story.  You have heard it all before, and so have I.  But every time I hear it, I am shocked by how many things can and do go wrong when you travel on an airline.  This story is about United, or should I say Continental, as that is where it all began.

We booked our flights well in advance of our trip to Germany.  Complication number one was that we were flying to Munich, Germany, but flying home from Berlin.  Almost immediately, we were in the queue for disaster.  Complication number two was that we booked with Continental, which, before our vacation began, was acquired by United Airlines.  We had a confirmation number from Continental, then one from United, and then another one from United when they slightly changed our flight times. You never know how these things are going to work out, but we took it on good faith that somehow it would.

On the day of our travel, we arrived at Nashville Airport (BNA) with plenty of time.  At the United ticket desk, we tried to put our numbers in the kiosk only to have it stare dumbly back at us.  We tried several more times until an agent finally told us that kiosk wasn’t working.  For heaven’s sake, Reader, would you not put an “out of order” sign on the machine if you knew this to be the case?  Of course you would!

The agent, named Camile,looked us up on her computer.  Poor Camile.  She didn’t know what she was getting herself in to.  She typed and typed and typed.  We stood and watched and waited.  Finally she said our flight out of Nashville was delayed by nearly 4 hours and we would miss our connection to Munich.  No panic, though, she would try to reroute us.  Reader, we stood at the ticket desk for 1 entire hour, as Camile typed and called different airlines to check for seat availability.

Do you know, Reader, that when there is a delay in a big city – in this case, Chicago had a ground delay because of thunderstorms – the repercussions spread wide and far? No one could get to Chicago on time with their original itinerary, so everyone was trying to get to Chicago another way.  It was a cascade of problems getting larger by the minute.  Finally (and remember, this took an hour to figure out) we were to get on our delayed flight and see if the Munich flight was also delayed.  If the Munich flight left without us, our backup plan was to get seats on a United Flight to London, with a Luftanza connection to Munich the next afternoon.  Another option was a direct Luftanza to Munich that night, but the computer would not let Camile book those seats.  We were to get to Chicago, check the original Munich flight, then check the direct Luftanza flight, then check for the London flight.  Reader, have you kept all this straight?

We arrived in Chicago and immediately determined the Munich flight had left.  If there was the slim chance for us to make it, it was thwarted by the long delay getting to the gate.  Our plane landed, pulled to the gate and then sat while we waited for a gate agent, those insidious beings that seem to be always surprised when a plane pulls up to unload passengers.  The gate bridge was not in place and no one was ready to put it in place.  This seems to always happen at Chicago O’Hare.

Finally we deplaned and found a gate agent to check on the direct Luftanza flight.  It was full – no seats available.  We would have to wait 3 hours for the London flight.  Reader, do you enjoy your layovers in airports?  Sometimes, it’s not that bad, but when you started your journey 6 hours previously and have only made it some 400 miles, it can be tedious.  We settled in to wait with the crowds of people whose main endeavor in airports is waiting.  We fit in like true champions.

At 9:00 pm, the flight to London was supposed to be lifting from the earth of the good old USA.  But, we were late in boarding – suspiciously late.  At 9:00pm there are limited flight choices.  The people congregated at our gate.  Seemingly, everyone left in that terminal was planning to board the London flight.  Boarding was announced and we breathed a sigh of relief.  We settled in to our seats –special economy plus seats that we splurged “99$ extra” for the few inches of extra leg room.  We coveted those seats.  Reader, we loved those seats.  We sat on our fabulous seats for around an hour, still on the ground, still at the gate, still, we believed, on our way across the ocean.  It was not to be.

The pilot, who either had a speech defect or was as tired as the rest of us, mumbled incoherently in the communication set. “There is a brruuuaahhhmmmmaaaagggg delay mmmrrrrggggaaaahhhhh.”  What?  Reader, did you get that?  A delay?  Reader, say it cannot be true.  A warning light is on in the cockpit.  The mechanics are coming to see about it.  We are all going to sit tight in our nice extra leg roomy seats and pray.  Reader, such is how we passed 3 hours.  At the end of that time, a perky crew member (note it was not the pilot) came on the intercom and said, “The flight to London in cancelled!”  Just like that – with a little zing in her voice.

We groaned and gathered our carry–ons, left our “99$ extra” seats and returned to the gate area to await instructions.  Reader, can you imagine how we felt?  It was nearly midnight and in 12 hours we had made it just a little north of our originating city.  We felt defeated, but at such a time as this, one must gird one’s loins and push ahead.  We were told that the United staff would call each family name, pass out hotel and meal vouchers, and give a new itinerary that was computer generated.  We just had to wait for the computer to do its thing. We all must take a seat and wait for our name to be called.  Reader, can you guess how many people were on that flight?  150?  200?  Can you imagine how long it would take to call out that many names and have each family drag themselves to the desk, accept their vouchers, express their dismay at the situation and their dissatisfaction at their new itinerary?  It was already past midnight.

We decided to take action.  We wandered the United terminal hallway and found a couple staff members chatting beside a vacant gate desk.  We asked them if they could help.  Now, here is a problem with United that no doubt is the grounding point of many of their issues.  They have a computer system that was created during the big bang.  No one can understand it.  The employees carry cards on a lanyard around their necks so that they can remember how to access the cryptic screens with all the codes and numbers and values needed to make anything helpful happen.  Our new friend set upon this computer system with a vengeance.  She whipped out her string of cards and began plugging away, accessing screen after screen, jotting down code after code, and finally, in the course of 30- minutes, we were booked on the next day’s direct flight to Munich.

We got some meal vouchers out of it too.  The hotel, though, because we were not willing to wait for the bus to drive us out to some dismal off site cheap hotel, was on us.  There is a Hilton connected to O’Hare.  We drug our weary souls there and got a room (and a toothbrush for both of us) and found respite in the clean sheets of a horizontal surface.  The next day, after a late checkout, we set out again for Munich.

Before we boarded the Munich flight, though, we decided to check on our luggage.  Despite assurances that all baggage would be put through to its final destination and we were not to worry about it, we worried about it.  Reader, would you not worry as well?  We went to the United baggage office and spoke to a lady behind the counter.  This lady was not busy; she was simply chatting with a co-worker.  We asked about our bags and gave the luggage numbers.  She said rather brusquely that all international luggage would be checked to its final destination.  I don’t know if that is a memorized line, Reader, but we had heard that before.  She didn’t bother to use her megalithic United computer at all.  I told her I would feel better if she checked the numbers in the system.  This may have been a fatal error.  With a practiced eye roll, she banged some code on the keyboard, looked up at us, and announced it was redirected to its final destination. I wanted to ask her just what her computer said the final destination was, but something made me back off.  Reader, if I had it to do again . . . oh Reader, don’t back off.

The flight to Munich was uneventful, but sadly, we did not get the seats with the extra leg room – those seats we had paid “99$ extra” for. We landed, albeit 24 hours late, but safe and sound.  We went off happily to baggage claim.  Luggage careened down the carousel.  Happy travelers pulled their bags off and went on their way.  I just stood there, scanning the bags for my green LL Bean with the light blue ribbon on the handle.  It never came. Was this just the final kick in the teeth of a travel nightmare?  Was this the last stone in the wall of patience and perseverance?  Reader, at that point, I was too tired to be angry.  I was too tired to be sad.  We stood in line at the lost bags desk with many other people, people who we recognized from that thwarted London flight whose international luggage was also redirected to the appropriate final destination, although not the destination the passenger actually needed it to go. I was handed a black zip bag with some toiletries and an XL white T-shirt that smelled like industrial chemicals. We went to our Munich hotel.  I was wearing the clothes I had put on 3 days ago.

My luggage arrived the next day. The hotel staff dragged it to our room.  It had indeed made it to the final destination of the London flight – London! -butthis was not ideal for the passenger who was going to Munich.  It had a big RUSH sticker on it, right next to a big LHR (London Heathrow) and a big MUC (Munich).  The bottom of the bag, the part where the wheels and the stand allows the bag to stay upright, was ripped up.  It will never fly again.

I, however, probably will.  Despite these sagas, those of us who value travel and exploration will swallow our travel stories and move on.  Someday, someone will find a better way to run an airline and put value of their customers more than the money those customers bring in.  I am waiting for that day. Until then, I will be sitting somewhere in an airport terminal waiting for the next flight. And I will be expecting United airlines to reimburse me for all the mishaps that occurred on this one.