Thursday, December 14, 2006

The journey (and boy do I mean *JOURNEY*) to Maui

I’m big on efficiency, so let’s kill two birds with one stone here, both a letter to Alaska Airlines customer service (or content that will form one soon) and a blog entry. And let me just say that the “killing two birds” pun is entirely intentional.

I’m going on a total of four hours of sleep in two nights, so I apologize in advance for bad grammar and a pissy attitude.

I’m writing this as I sit on United Airlines flight #45 en route to Kahului, Maui, Hawaii. As soon as possible, I’ll be switching our Visa account (yes, the one that “paid for” all six of our frequent flier miles for this trip) from an Alaska Airlines account to a United Airlines account. We made that decision as we approached ten hours immersed in the worst travel debacle I’ve ever experienced – and I’m a fairly seasoned traveler. The particular experience has come to be known among its commerades as “the Alaska Airlines Flight #598 Debacle of 12/13/06.” Don’t be surprised if you hear about it in the media when the story breaks!

Our adventure began when the Shuttle Express service picked the seven of us up at our house at 6:30 AM. Danelle’s ticket was purchased separately, but we’d been able to arrange things so that she’d almost be waving to us in the sky the whole time – from Seattle to Los Angeles and then from Los Angeles to Maui. We put Danelle on her Alaska Airlines flight to LA at 10:00 (this picture was taken by a friendly passer-by just before then) and then did a bit of airport mall shopping and leisurely walked to our gate (which had already been re-assigned twice since we’d arrived at the airport), where we were to board around noon.

The first indication of a glitch came when we should have been boarding. The reader board at the gate suddenly read “next update at 12:45.” Shortly after the new time appeared, an agent came onto the PA system assuring us not to worry, that they were aware of the 51 of us heading to Hawaii from LA, and that our connections were not in jeopardy. There was a simple mechanical problem and we’d be expected to take off after a short delay. ‘Cool,’ we thought, and we waited patiently to board, knowing that the leisurely connection in LA would no longer be quite as relaxed, but that all still looked good.

Then the best part of the entire experience occurred: we met Leilani and her two boys, Bubba and Bula (which aren’t their birth names, apparently, but are definitely their “real names”), natives of Maui, heading home. We became quick friends, commiserating and lamenting together about the delayed flight. They had been traveling in California and Washington and were feeling a desperate need to return home to the island where their family had lived for 12 generations. They were wearing at least 3 layers of winter clothes – jackets, sweatshirts, and wool caps – which was an indication that they were definitely not from the Pacific Northwest! As we were getting to know each other, the message on the gate reader board changed to “departure at 1:45.” There was no accompanying announcement from the crew. We were now almost two hours late and our comfortable window between flights wasn’t feeling so comfortable anymore.

At a little past 1:45 we did, indeed board the plane and were assured (when we asked as we boarded), that the Hawaiian connections would still be fine. Close, but fine. At this point, our spirits were still high. Our family was having a wonderful time together, laughing and joking together, and we’d met some awesome new friends. We all knew we’d have to really bust our buns to make the connection to Hawaii, but we were game! And we looked forward to seeing Danelle in Maui. Peter texted her that we were delayed but would see her soon.

The plane filled quickly and we were soon pushing off from the gate… where we sat for 30 minutes. Finally we were informed that “this plane won’t be leaving.” Something about a back-up generator. This is where our adventure lost any luster it ever had. As we disembarked, we didn’t even make it off the skyway. Instead, we walked right into the tail of a wrap-around line. It ended at the gate counter and everyone was in it, but why? During the next hour, as we all waited in a line for which we knew no purpose, no announcement was made. No new assurances nor an explanation. No suggestions. No offer for assistance.

Now we were all beginning to worry about the possibility of Danelle ending up in Maui alone. Peter paced and worried. I wanted to re-assure him that all would be fine, but at this point I couldn’t.

We decided to expand our options (especially since we were standing in an all but stationary line), so Elisabeth and Leilani headed to the Alaska Airlines service desk. Now you need to understand Elisabeth: granted -- she does lead a charmed life, but she also makes things happen by a combination of persistence, conniving, manipulation and flirtation. I knew that if Elisabeth was “on the case,” things would be just fine. So we called back and forth with status reports. We stood in a paralyzed line (no announcement as to why) while Elisabeth managed to get us a flight from LAX to Maui on United at 9:00 the next morning, three rooms at the LAX Hilton and $124 worth of airport meal vouchers.

Worried about Danelle, I called (who I can’t speak highly enough about!), told them our situation and requested a hotel near the Kahalui airport for Danelle for the night. She’d land, expecting to see us in a few moments and we’d not be there. Not then or any time that night. Not only did Jeff book us a hotel, he called back twice to assure us that a shuttle would be waiting for Danelle and that she’d be safe and well taken care of. Peter texted Danelle, giving her the hotel and shuttle information, assuring her that all had been paid for, she’d be fine and that we’d see her soon. We felt better, but we were still worried.

Now all we had to do was get to LA. Surely Alaska Airlines would take care of us and find a way to get us there.

How wrong we were.

For some reason that I still don’t understand (though I’m sure it has to do with money), Alaska Airlines wouldn’t cancel flight #598, even though the flight crew had been sent away, baggage was removed from the plane, and the plane was basically abandoned. Needles to say at this point, no announcement was made about getting to LA. Alaska wanted us to believe that the abandoned airplane was still going to LAX, but anyone who could see out the window could see that it wasn’t. The reader board read “Next update at 4:00.” Soon after than, 4:00 became 5:30, and still no announcement was made. By this time, passengers were desperate for information, for support, for simple communication! And now, finally, people (being mostly infinitely patient Seattle-ites) were getting pissed. Many of us asked for a manager, but none was to be found. We were hearing rumors left and right (“they took the plane on a test drive and it never came back”), but no real information was provided to us. Some of us asked outright, in loud “announcement-style” voices, why there wasn’t more leadership from Alaska Airlines, why someone wasn’t taking the helm and giving us reliable information. I said to the meek agent, “Please, just tell us something! Please just communicate with us! How are we to get to LA?” The agent pointed to the reader board and read: “Next update at 7:00.” Incredulous.

Needles to say, the passengers, even the notoriously patient Seattle passengers, were furious. Now we had a confirmed flight out of LA and no way to get to LA! Alaska’s pervasive attitude was very much one of “fend for yourself.” Proverbial arms were tossed in the air behind the gate counter, along with an indifferent and snooty attitude to go with it.

Finally the agent took the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your patience. We apologize for the delay and announce that flight #598 is cancelled. There are no more seats to LAX tonight on any carrier.” That was it. They might as well have said, “Hey suckers!! Fend for yourselves. Goodnight.” Because that’s exactly what their approach was, and exactly what we had to do.

At that point, I broke into tears. Danelle would soon be landing in Hawaii and we were still where we were ten hours earlier – at SeaTac Airport. Being the optimists that we are and assuming that companies take care of their customers, we only now realized that the only people who’d get to LAX that night would be people who made it happen regardless of what Alaska Airlines said. Peter and I ran down the hall to the Service Desk. I was in tears and he was hugging me and consoling me – although I’m sure that he wanted to cry too! We waited in a long line at the Service Desk (one agent?? with a debacle like this? why?!) and were told by the agent that no, there really are NO MORE SEATS to LAX tonight. Not one. With any carrier.

Now it looked like we wouldn’t even make the 9 AM flight from LAX to Maui!

At this point, a semi-helpful (comparatively) Alaska Airlines manager announced at the gate (where the rest of the family had stayed) that they’d fly us into Ontario and we were to go to gate D5 from where that flight would depart. That was it. No mention of getting us to LAX where our connections were. Another “fend for yourself” attitude. It was at this point that I saw a side of my husband that I think I’ve only seen a few times in my life: he raised his voice at a stranger. “Are you gonna bus us from Ontario to LAX?” my soft-spoken husband yelled. “I’m working on it,” he was assured by the manager. We hardly believed him. Peter and I headed from the Service Desk to gate D5 and waited until the rest of the family arrived with the boarding passes.

But wait. What if a bus to LAX hadn’t been confirmed? Elisabeth and I approached the counter and asked about the bus. The agent asked for our confirmation code and then informed us that we were on a flight to LAX that would be boarding at gate D9 in about 20 minutes. Then he handed us boarding passes for the new flight. (Let’s see, that’s a boarding pass for LAX, one for Ontario and another for LAX!)

WTF?! Seriously, WTF???!

I turned around and called back to Tom, “We’re on a flight to LAX!” At which point about 10 other original flight #598 passengers stood up. "What??!!" they all asked in unison! So I became the agent and announced to my fellow commerades (believe me, by this point we had all bonded!) that there is, indeed, a flight to LAX and that at least some of us were apparently booked on it, so we all headed down the hall where the flight was delayed but headed out. We waited in line with our boarding passes and as we approached the skyway, we gave them to the attendant. Alex first, then… Then “I’m sorry, but I can’t allow you on board with this.”


Fighting back tears, I took our boarding passes to the gate counter, while Tom gave the Alaska agents a run-down of our day so far and Peter attempted yet again to call Danelle, knowing that he had her cell phone charger in his back pack and that she might not be able to get his messages. I ran to the counter, slammed the boarding passes on the counter (sorry, but I did), announced that I was “a refuge from the flight #598 debacle,” that my son was already on board, and that I apparently “needed something.” The agent took my tickets and disappeared. It was all I could do to not dissolve into tears at that point. Exhausted, discouraged, frustrated and furious, I put my head in my hands. Tom and Peter, who could see me from the door to the skyway (through which Aleks had just disappeared) watched me and, I later found out, felt their hopes plummet.

We would not get to Hawaii any time soon, Danelle was alone there now, and Aleks was on an airplane bound – alone – for LA. We were going on hour ten of this debacle and our reserves of patience were just about depleted.

After what seemed like forever, the agent came back with our boarding passes with “OK” written in blue felt pen on each of them. Magic blue letters: "O.K." I made my way to the front of the line to go down the skyway, where my family was waiting for me, and we boarded the flight to LAX.

It pushed off from the gate. It took off. It landed.

By the time we arrived at LAX we were all famished and hoped to find a restaurant in which to spend our $124 in food vouchers. But no – we couldn’t find any open restaurants, even in the Bradley International terminal. Surely there were a few open restaurants at such a large airport, but our exhaustion (and pain, in Leilani’s case) took precedence at that point and we boarded a shuttle to the hotel – where we bought a pizza with our own money.

Yes, I’ll try to have that compensated by Alaska Airlines, along with the $200 for the missed condo night and the $185 for Danelle’s hotel room. And believe me, I’ll also be asking for 6 tickets anywhere Alaska flies. At least.

At 2:30 AM, we all finally went to bed, setting cell phone alarms to wake us up at 6 AM for a 9 AM United flight. (Well, all of us went to bed except Elisabeth, who never sleeps. She met a friend and they went out for a night on the town!!)

I won’t go into details about the United flight – mostly because there’s no need to. Except for a slight glitch at the ticket counter (which was my problem more than United’s, as I was petrified of a repeat performance), all went smoothly. The flight took off on time, it is smooth as silk and we anticipate an early arrival in Maui -- where I will request an application for a United Visa card.
So yes, we're finally here! We had just enough time to go into Lahaina to watch the sunset. Tonight we'll all SLEEP! Then tomorrow we'll head to the Nakaleli Blowhole, among other places.

Update: We finally received our luggage tonight at 9 PM. That's 36 hours after we checked it. When we came back to the Maui airport to pick up luggage at 8:30 as instructed, I could only find three of our eight bags. I approached an agent and said only, "Excuse me... I have found only three of my eight bags..." "Don't tell me," she interrupted, "Alaska flight #598, right?"

I told you word about this horrendous debacle would get around!

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Anonymous said...

cheap tickets, different airline same type of performance..........they are all the bloody same......been there too!

Maria said...

What a nightmare. I hope the rest of your trip is more relaxing.

Anonymous said...

Oy. Sorry about that flight from hell. Similar things have happened to us but not as bad as that. Hope you can shake it off easily and enjoy a relaxing and beautiful time in Maui.

J said...

I think I started reading your blog after this happened. What an ordeal! I wonder why you only hear about things like this from US carriers? Did you get compensation?

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