Chris Versus US Airways

Posted: January 4, 2010 in Braak, crotchety ranting
Tags: , ,

Yes, I went on vacation, and did many amazing and wonderful things.  I recharged my batteries, somewhat, and so have ideas for some posts over the next few days, and also a new (series of) novel(s).  I’ll get to all of that, eventually.  Or not.  In the meantime, I’m going to relate a little story about US Airways, as a prelude to the question, “Is US Airways the shittiest of all airlines?”

So, here’s what happened:

My dad got the tickets for all four of us (me, Jeanine, my dad, my mom) — Philadelphia to Jacksonville, then Jacksonville to Miami, all on US Airways.  He’s bought and paid for them online, so we’re going to go to the airport and pick up the boarding passes from the kiosks that they have there.  No problem.  We get to the airport an hour and a half before the flight is going to leave.

The TSA has instituted the new travel safety rules that everyone has flipped out about.  I’m not sure what the difference is — they didn’t check in my pants, or anything, it was all still just “take off your shoes, put your hat in the bin,” &c. — but there’s about eighty million people waiting in the security line, and about four people trying to check them through.

But.  I’m getting ahead of myself.  We go up to the kiosk to get the boarding passes, and it doesn’t work.  Just claims that it’s never heard of a “Bill Braak” and an “are you sure you’ve got the right airline?”  My dad is undeterred — he’s like me, in many respects:  he’s come here to get a boarding pass from the kiosk, and god-damn if we aren’t going to GET A BOARDING PASS FROM THE KIOSK.  It takes five or ten tries before, suddenly and without warning (and especially:  without doing anything different), the kiosk knows who he is.  “Oh, you mean Bill Braak, sure.  Tickets, here we go.”  Hahah.  Liar.

There are four of us traveling, and we’re changing planes once — that means there should be a total of eight boarding passes.  Four to get us to Jacksonville, four to get us to Miami.  And the kiosk prints up…four boarding passes.  “Maybe,” we think, “we have to get the other boarding passes in Jacksonville?”  I’ve never heard of such a thing, but isn’t the world filled with things I’ve never heard of?

Yes it is, but no, that’s not the problem.  What we got were four tickets that would take Jeanine and I all the way to Miami, no tickets at all for my parents.  Where did these other four tickets go?  Outer space?  Identity theft?  My dad goes through the kiosk process again, thinking maybe it’s just gotten confused.  He puts in his name, swipes his credit card, and the kiosk says to him, “Bill Braak?  I don’t know a Bill Braak.  Are you sure you’ve got the right airline?”

I can only assume it was with a monumental effort of will that my dad did not headbutt the kiosk to death right then and there.

About this time, we figured, “Hey, customer service rep, right?  Maybe they can help?”  Now, I know what you’re thinking:  extremely busy time for travel, new TSA guidelines, the airlines probably doubled their usual compliment of representatives to make sure everyone got taken care of in this ridiculous madhouse of an airline.

Hahah, or maybe you suspected the truth:  actually, US Airways halved their number of customer service representatives, according to the arcane laws of “Governing Your Airline to Make Travel as Unpleasant as Possible.”  Here’s what you have to do if you want help from a customer service rep:  you must find someone that is helping someone else, wait for a lull in their conversation, and then BODILY SEIZE THEM AND DRAG THEM TO THE KIOSK.  You cannot wait in line, because the second you stand behind the person that the woman is helping now, someone else will grab her and drag her away, and you’ll never see her again.

We found a guy asking a rep some stupid questions — it was unclear what he wanted, actually, because his luggage was already checked.  He seemed to be undecided about whether or not he wanted to check or carry on his luggage, and dude COME ON, there’s ten thousand people waiting behind you, just fucking pick one.

There’s a lull in the conversation, and we’ve got a simple problem:  the kiosk won’t print a boarding pass, what do we do? Is there a desk we can go to?  Someone we can talk to?  A way to manually locate our reservations?  Is there a place where we can get wireless access to prove that we’ve got them, or something?  These, by the way, are all options that we presented to her after our query was met with a kind of a blank stare.  She goes with us to the kiosk and says, “Okay you print out your boarding pass here.”

We go forward with this, because we think that she’s going to watch the process and thereby divine some cause and solution to the problem that only an employee might understand.  This is a mistake; the second our attention is occupied with the kiosk, she flees.  And, in case you were thinking that the problem was that WE were rude, and she was really just going back to help that idiot decide to continue to check his already-checked baggage, she didn’t go back to help him, either.  Instead, she stood next to one of the two other employees at one of the baggage check lines, and looked over his shoulder as he checked people’s luggage.

We realize what’s happened, try to find someone, anyone, that can persuade the kiosk to recognize who we are.  The question has become one that’s almost existential — a kind of kafkaesque war with the airline’s stubborn bureaucracy as we, surrounded by ten thousand other yelling people, demand the simple acknowledgment of existence.

I don’t know where my dad went next, because I was furiously trying to get some kind of confirmation code for our reservations on my phone’s tiny, unreliable browser.  I believe he bullied his way to the front of the US Airways Express Elite Traveler Gold Club line — and, in case you were wondering, the answer is: “No, the Express Elite Traveler Gold Club line has not been made superior to Regular Shithead Traveler.  US Airways has just worked hard to make Regular Shithead Traveling as horrible as possible.”

He manages to get boarding passes from them after a heated argument in which they assure him, REPEATEDLY, that he can get his Regular Shithead Traveler boarding passes from the Regular Shithead Traveler Kiosk.  He returns to us with the remainder of his boarding passes, and we hightail it to security.

The security line is very, very long.  This is because:  it’s a very busy time of year.  The TSA has instituted new (?) travel safety rules.  There are FOUR PEOPLE working the security checkpoint (one looking at your ticket, two looking at the X-ray machine, and one guy waving you through the metal detector).  And, apparently, everyone in line is some kind of moron.

“Wait, I have to take my shoes off?  What do you mean my belt set off the metal detector?  Huh, I can’t bring a bottle of shampoo on the airplane?”  NO YOU FUCKING IDIOT.  Every comedian for the last nine years has made a joke about how you can’t take a bottle of shampoo on the airplane, and for fuck’s sake, really?  You can’t go for an hour and a half without WASHING YOUR HAIR?

Anyway, part of the problem was that the airport had left the Super-Elite Special Traveler line closed, on account of how we were all obviously Regular Shithead Travelers, as evidenced by the fact that none of us wore Gucci slip-on airport shoes.  After some time, a FIFTH employee was added, the Elite Special Traveler line was made available to regular mortals such as us, and we began to move faster.

Not quite fast enough, still, to make our flight, which we missed by one minute.  Now, here’s some advice.  It’s pretty intuitive to look at your ticket, see 9:05 printed there at “departure”, and think that 9:05 must be the last possible minute that you could be getting on the plane, because after that, it’s leaving, right?  No.  The plane leaves at 8:55, peculiarly enough, a number that is not printed anywhere on your ticket.  Other people know this, I did not.  Live and learn, I guess.

Whatever, we’ll just catch the next flight, they can transfer our tickets, right?  All we have to do is find the US Airways “Customer Service” desk, which is in a different terminal, and staffed by some very sour faced people.  I can’t blame them for being sour, they probably hear a LOT of complaints, working, as they do, for US Airways.  Now, I just want to remind you:  yes, they don’t technically have an obligation to replace our tickets if we miss our flight, BUT the reason that we missed our flight is because their kiosk DIDN’T WORK.  It’s not like we were some lazy gadabouts, waiting until the last minute to board the flight, or we were drinking in the airport bar or something.  We were attempting to make use of a service that they provided (in order to employ fewer people) and then couldn’t find anyone to help us when their machinery malfunctioned.  So, in my opinion, yes, they do have an obligation to find us another flight.

Next flight to Miami:  oversold.  Second flight to Miami:  oversold.  Third flight to Miami:  oversold.  We waited through each of these, five hours in the airport, along with an increasing wave of people who had bought tickets for a particular flight, only to discover that no, in fact, not only were there no seats available for them, but apparently there NEVER HAD BEEN.  Why “overselling” a flight doesn’t count as fraud is beyond me, but I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be fucking illegal.

Finally, WE suggest to the Customer Service desk (and I want to make that clear:  customer service behaves exactly the way you’d expect a recalcitrant genie to, or the way those old text-based RPGs did on the computer:  they’ll answer exactly and ONLY the question that you ask, provided you ask it precisely), “Hey, what if we took a different plane to a place that was NEAR Miami?  Like, could we get a flight to Ft. Lauderdale, instead?”

“Oh, of course.  Let’s transfer your ticket.”

You’ll notice the question we failed to ask, which was answered for us when we arrived at the gate:  “This flight is in an OVERBOOKED situation” (never, by the way, is it, “Sorry folks, but WE’VE overbooked this flight.”  It’s always a situation that occurs, as if by strange miracle or by the work of malignant gremlins), then they offer you a $500 voucher if you want to give up your seat.  If you do accept the $500 voucher — less money, by the way, than the actual cost of your ticket to Miami; I think it’s about as much as two round-trip tickets to Ohio — after, and ONLY AFTER, you accept the voucher, then they’ll tell you that the next free seat to Miami is in FOUR DAYS, fuck you very much, good luck finding a hotel with the rest of the suckers!

The situation, as you can see, was untenable.  We puzzled at it.  Finally, we managed this clever solution:  we found four seats available on AirTran Airlines on a flight out of Baltimore the next morning.  We could go to Baltimore, stay the night, and fly out then.  Okay, okay.  Book the tickets while everyone is getting on the 6:00 PM to Ft. Lauderdale.  Jeanine looks up and notices, “Hey, the next flight leaving from this gate is going to Baltimore.  Let’s see if they can change the tickets that we have, and that way we can just fly to Baltimore right now!”

Good idea!  Hahah, no, unfortunately.  I go to the Customer Service desk this time, see this same sour-faced old lady we’ve been trying to talk to all day.  “We’ve got tickets to Miami from Baltimore,” I said, “We want to exchange our current Miami tickets for Baltimore tickets, for that plane, right over there.”

“You got tickets.  On another airline.”  She says this to me, as if I’ve made some exquisite faux-pas.  As though acknowledging the existence of the possibility that someone might go to a place via a means other than US Airways is not just ridiculous, but actually offensive to her sensibilities.  I have betrayed her.

“Well, we tried to get tickets on your airline,” YOU KNOW WE TRIED, YOU WERE THE ONE WE TRIED TO GET THE TICKETS FROM, “but you haven’t got any seats on any flights for the next four days.”  WHICH YOU EVENTUALLY TOLD US, IDIOT.  “This flight is going out though, there’s clearly no one on it, can’t you just switch our tickets to this one?”

Now, this is the kicker of the story.  Everything else, eh, meh, maybe, whatever.  It wasn’t exactly their fault that their system didn’t work as planned.  It was very busy, sure, so maybe there wasn’t someone to help us.  The TSA was responsible for the problems at security.  Overbooking the flights — well, that’s pretty much their fault, but it’s not like we didn’t know they did it, right?  But this, coming up, this is some ridiculous shit.  Holy fucking balls, oh my god, this shit is ridiculous.

“No,” she tells me, “you can only go to an equivalent city.  Or else you have to pay the ticket change fee.”  She does not elaborate on the ticket change fee, and I can see by her sour face that she assumes that, now that she’s said, “fee” I’m not going to want to do it.  But you know, maybe I would.

“How much is the ticket change fee?”

“A hundred and fifty dollars,” she says.

Well, that’s not so bad.  It’s about as much as it would cost us to rent a car, which is how we’d get to Baltimore otherwise.  Then I remember that she’s like an evil genie.  “Is that total, or per ticket?”

“Per ticket.”

Really, you fucking idiot?  You didn’t think I was going to want to change ALL FOUR of my tickets?

She checks with the woman next to her.  “They can’t change a ticket from Miami to Baltimore, right, without paying the change fee.”

“Oh no,” the woman says.  “You’d have to pay a change fee.  You also have to pay the difference in the ticket price, if your ticket is less.”

“But we’re going to Baltimore,” I said — and, seriously, THEY should be paying ME to go to Baltimore — “Our tickets are more expensive.  Are you going to refund the difference?”

Hahahahah.  “No.”

“So, we’d have to pay extra if we were getting more expensive tickets, but you won’t give us money back if we want less expensive tickets.”

She calls a man on the phone to check on this, as well as to double-check the cost of the change fee.  I don’t know anything about this man except that his name is Sean, and if I ever meet him I’m going to punch him in the face until he dies.  “No.”

“So, let me get this whole thing straight.  Your kiosk is fucked up, so we can’t get our tickets on time, and we miss our flight.  You have overbooked every single flight leaving from this airport for both Miami and Ft. Lauderdale for the next four days.  At great personal inconvenience to ourselves, WE manage to locate and acquire tickets to our destination tomorrow NO THANKS TO YOU.  And now we want to change our four tickets for seats that do not exist for seats on that plane, right there, that I can SEE only has fifteen people on it, you’re telling me it’s going to cost six hundred dollars?”


Haha, okay, say it with me folks:

“I am never using your shitty-ass airline EVER AGAIN.”

Question:  Is US Airways the shittiest of all the airlines?

Answer:  I don’t know, but I plan to fly ANY OTHER AIRLINE at all, up to and including Bubba Laudermilk’s Discount Economy Airbus, just to make sure.

  1. K. Liebert says:

    This needs to be submitted to The Consumerist, even if they have already determined that US Airways is the worst airline ever.

  2. Moff says:

    We had a pretty fucking awful experience on Northwest a few Christmases ago. I have a long-standing fantasy in which I’m at a party and some well-dressed asshat smilingly introduces himself as an airline executive (when I lived in New York, it was sometimes the MTA commissioner), and I am filled with Hulk-like strength and just pound the living shit out of him. It’s very un-Christian of me, but good Lord, I fucking hate the whole air-travel industry so goddamn much.

  3. Jeff Holland says:

    You know who’s great? Southwest. They still give you peanuts.

    I realize this is of practically no help to you currently. But still: peanuts! On a plane! Didn’t they see Daredevil? It’s like giving people a choking weapon!

    (That was why they were banned, right?)

  4. wench says:

    I’m so sorry. Didn’t you see the notice? You should really try using the train system from now on. Or driving. A nice, leisurely drive, stopping at bed & breakfasts along the coast, watching the surf roll in….

    Screw the airlines.

  5. threatqualitypress says:

    The trains were all booked. And driving to Florida takes twenty-seven hours — that’s two days of hotel LOST FOREVER.

  6. Jeff Holland says:

    Lets’ not forget the hours of driving in a car packed with four people. Who’d already been stressed to the breaking point by airport politics.

    It would have been a miracle if any of them had actually arrived in Florida.

  7. K. Liebert says:

    Driving to Florida would take 27 hours only if you were driving safely. I’ve done much farther, in less time. It wasn’t even that reckless, and no tickets!

  8. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Wow. I didn’t fly last year and was sincerely curious about how things are holding-up. Thanks for relaying a painful, first-hand experience. You guys took a hit for the rest of us. U.S. Airways has really, (pardon the unfortunate wording), spiraled downward since I flew with them a few years ago. They were slacking then and it was only a year after 9/11. You’d think they’d have scurried to save face and provide the best, possible experience for their customers.

    I’ve liked “JetBlue”. I’ve flown with them three times. They’re cheap as beans, yet each was a smooth, pleasant boarding and flying experience. Incredibly quick and well-organized pass retrieval and boarding system. Their staff behaved as if they were performing services they were actually being paid for. “JetBlue” was still giving-out freebies like music, personal movies and snacks when I last flew with them, which was around the time other airlines were nixing them. They also gave a very entertaining safety warning performance. It was almost like they tried, which blew me away. The value of customer goodwill (especially that of customers who author public blogs) is worth more than a $150 infuriate-honest-customers fees.

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