Involuntarily Denied Boarding and Other Airline Tales

by Susan Getgood on October 7, 2012

in Rants, Travel

United Airlines Boeing 777–200 taking off at A...

United Airlines Boeing 777–200 taking off at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Live long enough, and travel enough, I guess you CAN experience every possible travel delay the airlines can foist on a traveler. And in my life I have had some doozies.

The trip back from my college semester in Paris. Flying into JFK in a snowstorm, where my mom was meeting me to fly back to Boston together. The weather was so bad, they bussed us from JFK to Logan in the wee hours of the night.

The trip from Boston to Raleigh-Durham through Newark about 16 years ago to see my first show dog in the ring. We were delayed out of Boston in the morning, so I missed the connection in Newark. But because I was using a frequent flyer reward ticket, they wouldn’t rebook me on another airline. They did rebook the other 2 passengers in the same situation on flights departing within the hour. I had to wait until a 5pm flight, which  then had mechanical difficulties. We were boarded, then unboarded and moved to another plane and another gate. When we finally got on a plane some 2 or so hours later, and in the air, we ran into a weather situation and were almost diverted to another airport. Luckily we were finally able to land  sometime just before midnight, a full 12 hours after I was originally supposed to  arrive. I didn’t fly that airline again for nearly 10 years,  largely because they did not treat me very well at the initial delay. I think they gave me a $10 food voucher or something. Not even a free pass to the airline club,  so I would have someplace comfortable to work  for the roughly 8 hours I had to wait for the Raleigh-Durham flight.

A flight where the turbulence was so bad the plane literally DROPPED, enough so you could see that the flight attendants were rattled.

A flight from London to Boston that got 2 hours out and then turned back because a lavatory was broken. And we had to stay on the ground in the plane while they fixed it. I wrote a letter to the airline  about that one and asked for some extra frequent flyer miles as compensation.They didn’t give me as many as I asked for but they did give me some.

An interminable 6 hour or so delay on a flight from Zurich to Boston when my son was 1. Once again we were in transit, having left Paris for Zurich in the morning, with an expected hour or so connection in Zurich. Ta da. The scheduled plane had mechanical difficulties, so they had to wait for an inbound aircraft coming (as I recall) from Israel in order to accommodate all the passengers. The airline was very gracious, and gave us decent meal vouchers for the delay, and its airline club looked the other way and let us in on the basis of my frequent flyer status with a US airline (with which they did NOT have reciprocity) because they could see we were on our last nerve with a one-year old. Who wasn’t feeling very well, and that was the biggest problem. We started running through diapers and clothes at an alarming rate — and I ALWAYS overpacked the diaper bag. In those days, they did NOT have diapers at the airport shops. Great gifts and all the duty-free one could want. But no diapers.I think we used our last diaper on the plane and as soon as our bags came off the conveyor I was digging in my suitcase for the spare ones.

The flight from Boston to San Francisco that was delayed on the ground for 3 hours while they fixed the oven so we could have the warm cookies. Seriously.

The trip back to Boston from BlogHer 08 in San Francisco with my mom and son. The red-eye out of Oakland  was cancelled , which we learned AFTER we had returned the rental car. And the best alternative  was a  flight the next evening out of San Jose. The  ticket  agent was delightful. She  rebooked us, and let me use her  PC to book a hotel room near the airport in San Jose. It was hellish but made a whole lot better by some really nice people along the way, who you can read about in the post I wrote afterward.

Sometimes my bags have flown farther than I. I’ve had trips where one bag arrived and the other was delivered hours later (that was in the old days when checking bags was free). When we were leaving for Africa in 09, my bag didn’t come off the hours-delayed BOS to JFK flight right away, and we were panicking about our morning departure to Johannesburg. We had flown in the day before because the connections didn’t work in the am. That one turned out ok — my bag turned up about 10 minutes after everyone else’s. On another recent trip back from a speaking gig, my bag flew to Boston via Boise, Idaho.

Many times I’ve managed to get the last flight out before a storm, or just barely made a connection. I remember one flight from Nashville to Providence, from one speaking engagement to another, where I barely made the last flight out of Nashville before a major eastern seaboard storm. That trip was particularly anxiety-ridden, as my ticket had been seriously screwed up by the airline’s reservation agents, but the airport ticket agent fixed it. Other times I’ve ended up flying home to a different airport than I flew out of. Not so bad when using a limo service but a real pain when your car is parked at the (now wrong) airport. One of the things I like about the off-airport parking service I now use (The Parking Spot) is that they will move your car to/from JFK and LGA.

But I had never been “involuntarily denied boarding.” Until this week on my way home from the Blogalicious conference in Las Vegas. My flight out of Las Vegas was delayed by a ground halt in Las Vegas due to the arrival of President Obama and Air Force One. Which meant the connection in Dulles was tight. Very tight. I ran from terminal C to terminal A, and made it with about 5 minutes to spare. Since I did not have a seat assignment, I checked in at the gate and the gate agent told me to hang tight. Once it looked like the flight had mostly boarded, I asked again, and was told to just board, and take any seat.

I was almost on the plane when the agent came running down the jetway, told me I was NOT on the flight, my flight wasn’t until tomorrow. As I exited the jetway, back in the boarding area, I saw someone else getting what must have been the last standby seat on the flight. The last flight on United to JFK Sunday night.

The gate agent who pulled me back showed me his terminal displaying my reservation for a flight the next day to JFK at 12:40pm, and tried to take my boarding pass  to give me a new  one. I wasn’t having any of that, said I wanted to speak with a manager.  I had a boarding pass for the flight, my bag was checked through for the flight , and I wanted an explanation beyond “See, you are not on this flight.”

It occurs to me that someone who didn’t know that the airline has obligations to passengers stranded IN TRANSIT  (as I was) might have just taken the boarding pass and slept in the airport. I wonder how often that happens?

Anyway I hung tight for the manager for about 30 minutes.  When he finally got to me he explained that the flight had been oversold, and they had no volunteers, so in the priority lottery, I lost. Because I was  involuntarily denied boarding, they would cover my hotel room, give me a meal voucher and compensate me based on a formula derived from the cost of my flight and the length of the delay. And I would be rebooked on the next flight at 8:20 the next morning, not 12:40 in the afternoon. I then had to hang tight for about 2 hours  so they could get the compensation check cut, as that is part of the regulation, and there were 3 passengers from a flight to Newark that had to be processed before me. The rules say they have to issue the compensation at the time and place boarding is denied.

Eventually, I was on my way. Spent an unrestful night at an airport Hyatt  which gratefully had  deodorant, toothbrush and toothpaste  as my toiletries  (and clean clothes) were in my checked bag (which probably was already  at JFK by the time I got to the hotel.) The room was actually great. I was just so worried I wouldn’t wake up in time for the flight that I didn’t sleep very well.

And the compensation was quite fair. The whole thing was a PITA and I still would have preferred getting home on time, but it wasn’t the worst air flight I ever had.

That dubious honor goes to a trip back from a speaking engagement in Milwaukee, when I either had a 24 hour bug or food poisoning. All the way home, if you catch my drift. And there’s no way I can blame that on the airline….

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