Monday, 5 January 2015

Bad Apples Small Potatoes Never Fly United

I have travelled to more than 40 countries on 30 different airlines, but I have never experienced anything like my recent trip from Panama City to Edmonton thanks to United Airlines.
Isla de las Iguanas
On our eight day trip to Panama we stayed at a restored colonial inn in Casca Viejo, ate fabulous seafood in trendy cafes, visited the new city of Panama, toured the ruins of old Panama City, watched lovely birds in the jungle forest of Panama City’s Metropolitan Park, experienced joyful fireworks on Christmas Eve, toured the Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal, did some jungle kayaking, rented a car, and stayed in the small town of Pedasi where we observed small town life and watched a Santa Claus Parade on December 27. We snorkeled and swam. All in all, a pleasant little winter break.

My family of 5 adults was to return from Panama, departing at 3:30 on December 30 en route to Edmonton via Houston on United Airlines 1033. The flight was to take 4 hours to get to Houston where we would overnight and then fly on to Edmonton via Denver, arriving at 11 am on Dec 31- total flight time 10 hours. Perfect timing for Jordan and Elizabeth to do some New Year’s Eve celebrating, and for us to have our own little family dinner and open our gifts at home before everyone had to return to work and school. We got to the airport in plenty of time but getting food was a challenge. “Naturally Fast” was the only place that sold fresh food, and it was truly unnaturally slow. But we got food and made it through the second security clearance, losing the water we had just bought but not Len’s pocket knife that he had forgotten to pack in his checked bag. Then we were told the flight was delayed. Then delayed again and finally around 7 pm, the flight was cancelled due to “maintenance issues.” No one would say what was wrong with the plane or when it might be fixed. Rumour was it was a part for an air conditioning unit.

People clustered around the departure desk, worried about getting home in time for New Year’s Eve and their lives.  People asked if they could make their own arrangements or use a travel agent to re-book. They were told no, they would not be reimbursed unless they booked through United Airlines. No contact information or alternatives were provided. There were tears and anger. There were three main guys, a short sincere guy, a useless pale skinned guy we referred to as “Panamanian John O’Reilly”, and a tall handsome guy who was taking the brunt of it. Every now and then we expected him to lose it but he maintained his calm the whole time. Impressive. Finally the boss lady came out to give us the straight goods.

About 8 pm we were told we would all be sent to either the Marriot or the Continental Hotel overnight and the plane would depart some time the next day after parts arrived. Onward travel would be arranged at that time. The hotel front desk was to be the main point of contact as they dealt with these things all the time and were supposedly very competent. Once at the Marriot we were to check every half hour at the front desk of the hotel about departure time. They started printing vouchers for hotels and meals. This went on and on with one printer generating vouchers for 200 people.  Everyone was getting cranky by this time. We were given $7 meal vouchers in an airport where a small Quizno’s sub cost $11. Eventually they gave up on printing vouchers- they would just send lists to the hotels who would provide discounts on meals. We were told to wait for our luggage which was in the cargo terminal. From there we were to go through customs and then get on the buses for the hotels. As we exited customs, the apple I had brought for the plane was confiscated. Well, to be fair, I dumped just one of the three apples. In situations like these you really do not know when you will get the chance to eat again.

After picking up our bags, going through customs and getting on the bus, we arrived at the Marriot where about 100 people were in line ahead of us. We were told that the $7 dinner vouchers would not be issued until we had checked in. One of our travel mates, Terry, kept us amused with his offers to help carry bags and his failed efforts to pick up chicks. Since it was about 10 PM by this point and we had not eaten since 2 pm, we bought a snack at the bar. Delicious deep fried tiny squid and calamari among other things. And of course the local beer which we felt we greatly deserved.  We then checked into our fancy bland rooms.

At 7:15 the next morning I checked with the front desk. No word. We were entitled to a $7 discount off the $18 buffet breakfast or we could have a sandwich or coffee at the cafĂ©. We opted for the tasteless ham and cheese and some weak Americanos. I kept checking back with the front desk where they had heard nothing. Len phoned United Airlines and they told us we could get on the flight at 8 pm that evening, then we were to take a flight to Edmonton from Houston, arriving around 6 pm on January 1. So much for New Year’s Eve.  I emailed a friend and asked if she would buy and defrost a turkey for me. We checked back at the front desk and they had heard nothing. I told the desk clerk we had been told 8 pm and wondered what time we should be waiting for the airport transfer. He suggested 5 pm. We went out for a few hours, rented a family bike and toured the Amador Causeway, went back to Casca Viejo and had a light lunch at Super Gourmet,  and returned to the Marriot. We arrived at 4:20 only to be told the bus had left at 3:30 and we would have to pay our own taxi to the airport-$65.

Once we arrived at Tocumen Airport, we saw the other passengers from our flight who had been waiting for well over an hour. No United Airlines staff were in sight. They showed up about 5:30 and started assisting passengers. The flight had been cancelled again and everyone needed to be rerouted.This painful process went on and on with many people extremely frustrated as appropriate flights could not be found. Some passengers took close to three hours to set up their onward travel.  Terry wandered around giving out chocolates and trying to convince everyone and himself that things were all good. At one point he yelled out “Yeah, that makes perfect sense, everyone knows you need to go to Newark to get to San Diego from Panama City!” We got to the check-in desk around 8 pm. At the next wicket a guy loudly proclaimed “I just need to put this out there. I have no confidence whatsoever that United Airlines will get me to Detroit. Let’s just start from there.” 29 hours past our originally scheduled departure, who could blame him?  We got the sincere short guy who did seem genuinely concerned.  Every now and then the boss lady appeared with glasses of water. We were told our only option was to fly to San Jose Costa Rica at 9:30 that night, overnight in San Jose, take the 7 am flight to Newark, and from Newark to Edmonton, arriving around 1 am on January 2. Not exactly a direct route but what choice did we have? The lady on the phone earlier that day had said if we did not take tonight’s flight there would be nothing available until January 6.  We were given $7 meal vouchers for airport restaurants but by the time the vouchers were printed and we had checked in, all food outlets were closed.

Now by this time we were hungry. Really hungry. We tore through the airport searching for anywhere to eat but there was nothing. Len remembered we had business class tickets to Costa Rica and suggested we try the first class lounge with Copa Airways. I went straight to the desk and asked if they had food. None, the lady said. Elizabeth dipped her hand into the candy jar and took a huge handful and we all followed suit. As I turned my head, I could see a coffee room full of food and marched right in there. Elizabeth was right behind me. I grabbed fistfuls of cheese, chips, crackers and fruit. The girls did the same. I felt like a robber in a 7-11. And that felt GOOD! Then it was straight to the gate. Turns out in business class you get drinks and hot snacks so on the one hour flight I had some wine and some tasteless fried cheese and eggplant. Some people had pollo and that was annoying.

On to Costa Rica where we were given dinner- tasty fish in sauce and a ton of vegetables. Then we tried to figure out how to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Impossible. The Crown Plaza was in the middle of nowhere. The casino and bar were closed. There was a private party with women in gowns but we did not have the nerve to crash. The mini fridges were all locked. So Jordan and Len and I stood at the floor to ceiling windows on the 8th floor and watched fireworks explode in the hills of San Jose. 

At 4:30 am we were taken to the San Jose Airport where we had to pay a departure tax of $30 USD per person even though we had only been in the country 8 hours. Once in security, we enjoyed a pretty good breakfast of waffles and fresh fruit courtesy of our United Airline vouchers.

Everyone knows you go through Manhattan
when flying from Panama to Edmonton!
We departed for Newark. It was interesting to see the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty on our flight to Edmonton. The view of the Big Apple was unexpected “bonus.” Once at Newark, we got our bags where an adorable beagle sniffer dog located the apples in my bag. This necessitated an interesting trip through the agriculture department, all the while me being harangued by my family. “Really Mom, what is with the apple?  Why didn’t you ditch it in Panama? Did you learn nothing?” Visions of each one of us having to open all our bags sprang to mind.  Ahead of us was a family of five that had just arrived from Tel Aviv with numerous bags- fruit products and meat products “for the children, in case they get hungry”. The “sandwich people” as the agent called them, had their foodstuffs confiscated. Their three year old smacked the elderly African American porter who was trying to help them. After them was a man recently arrived from Africa who had some “small potatoes” in his bag. He was sent to another room to have his five suitcases inspected. I went up to the clerk and contritely said I had an apple. She looked at the label. “Product of the USA?” she says. “Really?” Her coworker rolled his eyes. “Take your apple” she says.

We cleared customs, checked all five bags and went to our gate for our US Airways, grabbing some lunch along the way. Down many corridors in the ancient and decrepit area of Newark Liberty Airport, where we found computer monitors with rainbow colours and pixelated fonts like you would find in a retro computer clearance centre, we learned the flight went via Phoenix, turning what should have been a 6 hour flight into a 12 hour one. “If we really get to Phoenix,” I said “I’m buying a hoodie.” We hit Phoenix and were allowed off the plane for 20 minutes. We grabbed tasteless burritos and salads and of course I got my hoodie.

The final leg of the journey was delayed and we eventually cleared customs in Edmonton at 1:30 am, far too late for us to drive home. Two of our bags were missing. The clerk initially refused to process our claim as the boarding pass said United but we had flown US Airways. She was about the most unhelpful person I met on the trip. Then we were told the bags were in Newark and would be on the next flight out- 24 hours hence. We made our way to Len’s mom’ s house for the night while Elizabeth and Hart stayed at their own place. In the morning, I called about the bags to be told they were en route from Phoenix. As of today, January 5, the bags have not really been located and no one knows where they are.

By this time northern Alberta was under a snowfall advisory. We slowly made our way to Athabasca to pick up our dogs from my cousin. All the way back home Jordan and Hart enjoyed some puppy love.

In total, we went through five airports in five cities in three countries, went through customs four times, cleared eight security checks, spent nearly 20 hours in flight and 72 hours in transit and arrived home than two and a half days later than anticipated.

I understand that safety comes first. However it stretches the imagination to think that an airline as large as United could not find a plane to dispatch to Panama City when the plane could not be repaired. It’s also hard to believe that United Airlines would allow 200 passengers to be stranded in a first world city for over 24 hours. But who cares about people in Panama City? Not United Airlines apparently.  I know that Christmas vacation is a busy time and rerouting passengers is certainly challenging, but the kind of delay my family experienced is unreasonable. The communication process was atrocious and the end result was far from acceptable. Yes, pretty small potatoes. You might say ”first world problems”. Hardly a natural disaster. But so frustrating to be told your time has no value when two days of your ten day vacation have been stolen from you.

United Airlines cannot compensate us for the stress of this journey. It cannot make it up to those in my party who experienced the anxiety of not knowing if their prescription medication would last for the delay, nor compensate my vegetarian daughter for the lack of nutrition she experienced while in transit, nor make it up to my eldest daughter who missed the opportunity to see friends and family she will not see for at least a year. It cannot recompense any of us for the hours of work we had to put in upon our return after losing two days of our lives.  Will we be compensated for our expenses?  Who knows. What I do know is that I will not fly United again. 

Not if I can help it.