Road Trip 2017 #1 – Flights and Fury

Last year’s Summer vacation comprised driving – in a big circle – from the Philly ‘burbs to Chicago and back, taking in 8 states (six of which were new to me) plus the nation’s capital.  This Summer, we decided to undertake another road trip.  Our journey would take us from LA to San Francisco via Arizona, Utah and Nevada.  Clearly, therefore, this time our road trip involved flying and then renting a car.  Normally I would not bother relating any details of the flights because those are pragmatic journeys and not really part and parcel of the vacation.  However, especially given it has been a while since I had a proper rant on my blog, I am going to share the stress that bookended our vacation.

Perhaps because our flights had been purchased with air miles, the airline felt it was acceptable to keep changing our flights right up until the week before we were due to travel.  We ended up with a very early morning flight out of Philly (one of the first flights of the day) and a very (almost too) brief stopover in Chicago before catching the next flight to Santa Ana in California.  When we arrived at the airport at stupid o’clock, we found that there were no staff on any of the check-in desks.  Or anywhere else for that matter.  It was like a ghost town except for the long, snaking queue of increasingly frustrated passengers.  When some personnel did finally clock in – very slowly and while chatting among themselves – they were among the most singularly unhelpful group of people I have yet encountered at an airport (and I have a lot of airport horror stories).  None of the electronic self-check-in machines were fully operational – either the screens were off, were glitching, or the printers kept jamming – yet every single passenger was told they would have to check-in that way and that they could not approach the desk until luggage had been tagged.  Of course, the printing of the luggage tags was the final step in the self-check-in process that was not working.  It was one of those “snake eating its own tale” circular arguments trying to get any member of staff to intervene in any way.  My children have been able to taunt me with the phrase, “But did you tag your bags?” ever since, knowing it will elicit the Pavlovian response of making my blood boil.  Meanwhile, the clock was ticking down and getting closer and closer to our departure time and we had not been able to either check in our luggage or get through security let alone make it to our gate.  When I pointed out this time pressure to one member of staff, she sneered at me.  Verbally and visually.  I had no blank poker face at that point as I mentally envisioned poking her in the eyes.  Finally, one of the bone idle staff members decided to reduce the ever-lengthening queue of disgruntled, stressed, and fizzing passengers by assisting at the few self-check-in machines that were operational.  Luggage finally tagged and dropped off, we sprinted to security.  That rigmarole took as long as it usually does and then we were sprinting again to our gate.  We just made it to our gate in time for boarding.  Stressed and puffing was not how I wanted to start my vacation.

On the return flight, it was a similar situation redux.  On attempting to check-in online the previous day, my husband discovered that only five of us were booked on the flight.  We checked our booking online and in hard copy to confirm that there should indeed have been six of us booked on the flight.  The one who had been skipped was our youngest son.  A tedious phone call later revealed the problem – some glitch nobody bothered to explain meant that our youngest child had been assigned a different record number from the rest of us but we were assured we should still be able to check him on to the flight at the airport since we had now been furnished with two booking numbers.  Lies.  All lies.  Back to dealing with those self-check-in portals again and, while San Francisco airport actually had ones that functioned, we could not check our son onto the flight.  The reason we could not check him in was because he had been designated as an unaccompanied minor.  Yup.  Having been separated from the rest of us by some sort of computer glitch, the airline had decided that an 8 year old was flying alone – despite five other people with the same unique surname travelling on the same flight, despite no record of him being booked as an unaccompanied minor.  We joined the queue for customer assistance.  It was another early morning flight and the clock was again ticking and adding pressure to the situation.  Staff managing the queue asked why our bags were not tagged yet.  I think I burned a hole in someone’s forehead with my laser stare.  Once at the head of the queue, we were directed to a particular desk.  Alas, the staff member on the desk refused to help us because she was only processing actual unaccompanied minors, not fake ones.  We were told to rejoin the queue.  Imagine that my face has turned a shade of puce, that my teeth are gritted, my jaw clenched, and my fists balled and you will be spot on for my demeanor at that point.  I somewhat loudly and angrily pointed out that this whole mess was a problem they had created and that they therefore needed to present a solution.  We were whipped across to another desk where someone checked us in, accepted our baggage (with labels she printed), and then we were on our way.  More sprinting to security.  More sprinting to the gate.

Now, firstly I am aware that this rant is very much about “first world problems”.  Secondly, neither of these challenges with flights curtailed the enjoyment of our vacation.  In all instances, we made our flights on time and our luggage arrived at the same time as we did (its loss was a risk given the tight turnaround time in Chicago).  However, all of the stress and friction was completely unavoidable had some people just done their jobs with greater diligence, had the front line members of staff presented themselves as helpful and flexible.  We happened to be funding the tickets with air miles but, regardless, flying for most of us is still a luxury and seats on an aeroplane are big ticket items.  We expect some degree of service in return for that financial investment.  Instead we are crammed onto flights like battery chickens and treated like a nuisance when something goes awry.

Deep breath.  Rant over and out.  Moving on.

*PS  My husband thinks my moaning about this is disproportionate and that I should choose to focus on the positives of having made all of our flights on time and them all taking off and landing on schedule.  This is because he travels frequently for work and a flight actually being on schedule is a very rare occurrence.  He, therefore, suffers from low expectations and gets to experience the thrill of things actually going right.  I, on the other hand, as someone who is not a frequent flyer, expect the service I have paid for.  Nothing more and nothing less.  I, therefore, stand by my rant as justified.*

13 thoughts on “Road Trip 2017 #1 – Flights and Fury

  1. It seems to get harder and harder to fly these days. If things were slow in the interests of greater security, that would be one thing, but the amazingly poor customer service that you describe seems inexcusable. I share your frustration–it’s hard enough when traveling alone and the chance of complications seems to increase exponentially when it involves more people.

    • I have no complaints about how long security takes. It is annoying and definitely complicated when travelling with children but I understand the rationale and appreciate the need for that degree of scrutiny in the interests of passenger safety. But there is just no call for staff to be willfully unhelpful, rude, or disrespectful. I was even more annoyed by them, of course, because the problems we needed help with were because their company had screwed up so they created problems and then expected us to resolve them. Ridiculous.

  2. There is so much negative press about our airlines these days. Something is amiss in their customer service training. Still…look forward to hearing more about your western travels !

    • I wondered the same thing. We actually talked about the fact that we probably ought to consider ourselves lucky that we were not dragged from a plane kicking and screaming. The bar for acceptable customer service on airlines seems to be at a low.

  3. I am looking forward to hearing about your adventures here in the West, but I will say that your airline rant is justified. I won’t go into my own about the airline industry, deregulation, or the dark side of capitalism but I will say that it’s a shame that we have reached a point where we feel it’s a success if we’ve just managed to get on the plane and then gotten off in one piece. Such a dismally low bar makes me feel that we are truly losing our humanity bit by bit.

  4. Eeeek, this makes budget air travel in Europe look like a picnic! I’m glad you were able to make all your flights though, and I’m excited to follow your adventures in the west… I did a similar trip a few years ago, so it’ll be great to revisit those places!

    • I hope it turns out that we visited some of your favourite places. Budget air travel is the pits. I almost expect shoddy service from them. I expect better from other airlines though. It’s just like being on a bus in the air. The staff who were on the planes were uniformly pleasant and helpful. It’s the ground staff who need a kick in the butt.

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