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Flying Is Hell These Days

Duncan and I are flying home from our brief vacation today, and while the vacation itself was great -- mountain biking in Whistler, catching up with old friends in Vancouver and Seattle, seeing The Police in concert -- the flights on both ends have been wretched.

Our plan last Saturday was to fly into Seattle, rent a car there, drive up to Vancouver for dinner, then drive up to Whistler and check into our hotel. We arrived in Chicago to find that our flight to Seattle had been cancelled, and that there were no seats on the next available flight. The best United could do was to get us into Seattle five hours late. By that time, it would have been 5:30 PM, and we would have faced five to six hours of driving plus a dinner break. So, I suggested, why not just fly us into Vancouver instead? There was an earlier flight with seats available, and by not driving from Seattle to Vancouver, we'd end up just about even. They agreed, but it meant (for rental car purposes) that we had to fly out of Vancouver on the way back as well. So be it. My one concern was our bags, but the Red Carpet Club agent assured me that there was plenty of time for the baggage people to change their destination and get them to the right plane. Fine.

Of course, we arrived in Vancouver without bags. The baggage agent assured me that the bags would either be on the next flight to Vancouver, or were on their way to Seattle, and that either way, they'd be delivered to us in the middle of the night. Fine.

Of course, our bags didn't show up during the night. This led to multiple phone calls to United's baggage service line. Unlike the elite flier phone lines, the baggage service call center is located in India, staffed by people who read from apologetic, supplicating scripts, but who are empowered to do exactly nothing. They told me that at least one or two of our bags, and possibly all three, would be delivered that afternoon. Fine.

Of course, our bags didn't show up that afternoon, and anyway, we didn't want to miss our day of mountain biking, so we went ahead and purchased clothing for the day (for which, theoretically, United will partially reimburse us). Our bags showed up in the middle of the following night, almost 36 hours late, and just a few hours before we had to leave.

Today we're flying back home. It has been a long day already -- we didn't get out of the parking lot after The Police concert until after 11:00 PM. With a 6:20 AM departure, and a two-and-a-half or three-hour drive, it didn't make sense to stay in a hotel, so we had dinner along the way, pulled into a rest stop for a bit, and arrived at the airport just after 4:00 AM. The flight to Chicago was fine, but we arrived to discover that for the second time on the same trip, our connecting flight had been cancelled. High winds are causing problems all throughout the East, leading to hundreds of cancellations. We're on standby for a flight at 4:30 PM; if we don't make it onto that, we'll be placed on standby for a flight at 6:00 PM; and if we don't make it onto that, we'll be placed on standby for a 9:00 PM flight. If we don't make it onto that, we're stuck here for the night, with no bags -- they're going onto Raleigh-Durham with or without us. And no hotel voucher, either, since it isn't the airline's fault. And if we have to fly back tomorrow, we won't be flying together -- there weren't two seats available on the same flight until tomorrow night.

Flying really is hell these days. The scary part is that I'm experienced, have been through this sort of thing, have an idea of what to expect, and have elite status with multiple airlines. How rough is this on the average traveler?


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It's very rough.

Last year a connecting flight I had from Vegas to Portland, ME was canceled (due to weather issues so no vouchers). Having overheard this from the stewardesses talking amongst themselves on the plane, I was at least fortunate enough to be in the front of the line at the ticket counter after a sprint there. The best they could do, the agent said, was a flight 24 hours later. I was even willing to fly to Boston instead and have my wife pick me up (this was about 9 or 10pm). After I got my ticket I still couldn't really believe it, so I got back into the still-short but not-for-long line and got a different agent. I explained my needs and what the other agent had said. Magically, she got me on a 7am flight the next morning.

I was too paranoid to leave the airport, not knowing Vegas at all, so I just hung around all night with some other stuck travelers. The agents were still sorting out problems with people at midnight.

I never flew a lot, but even I can see how much less fun flying is these days, between customer service issues and security theater.

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