Saturday, March 31, 2007

U S Airways: Taking The Short Bus To Customer Service


I arrived at the airport early to relax a little before my noon fight to West Palm Beach (connecting through Charlotte), for the Candidate’s speech that evening. (I would also be traveling to Miami early the next day for another shoot with the campaign photographer).

I treated myself to a breakfast of a Five Guys Bacon Cheeseburger (truly the best burgers anywhere). It was really divine and I thought it a great way to start my day…

At 10:40am my flight was cancelled. No reason was given. I called my travel guru, who takes care of such things at the office, and she began desperately working on the problem of getting me on another flight to West Palm.

The barely audible announcement said to go to the “U S Airways Special Services” desk for “Re-accommodation”. What I had no way of knowing was that the term “Special” wasn’t so much a designation as it was a description. (Special, as in short-bus/crash-helmet special.)

I waited in line with 75 other people to be “re-accommodated” at the speed of lithium by the ONE attendant at the desk. The airline quickly cancelled two other flights within the next 30 minutes, increasing the line, but not the assistance at the counter.

After 45 minutes I was loosing my amused grin at the absurdity of it all. The travel Guru had me on speaker as she was dealing with the confused travel agent, who kept insisting that my flight wasn’t cancelled, and that she couldn’t really do anything until it was.

A few other attendants came and went from the Special Services Desk. None of them stayed long enough to help anyone.

My favorite was the one who approached the counter via the Dunkin’ Donuts stand. She perused the selection for a bit, chatting it up with the cashier, poured herself a cup of Joe and mixed in her additions like it was a science experiment. She finally sauntered around behind the desk, looking over the attendant’s shoulder for a bit, then left as slowly as she came, making sure to avoid any eye contact and ignoring anyone who tried to get her attention.

I noticed Flight 1223 direct to West Palm Beach was boarding and I walked the counter, abandoning my place in the re-accommodation line. With the Travel Guru still on the phone, I asked the attendant if there was any way I could get onto this flight, but before I could finish, he growled at me over the rims of his black plastic frames.

“There is NO WAY you can get onto this flight. I can’t help you. You NEED to get back into the Special Services Line.” I expected a couple of finger snaps to go with the headshake.

I stood there for a second, my eyes wide. US Airways: Where Customer Service always comes with a healthy dose of “FUCK YOU!”

The Travel Guru was amazed as well.

After 90 minutes in the stagnant line, my will to live was being sucked out of me quicker than a trip to Walmart.

My thoughts immediately ran to my luggage, namely the camera case. If that didn’t make it to my destination, there wasn’t much use in me going at all.

Things weren’t looking good. The Travel Agent’s computer still didn’t show that my flight was cancelled, and there wasn’t much hope of me making it to West Palm by 5pm, unless I could get to BWI airport in Maryland (fat chance, since I feared I would have to perform the 12 Trials of Heracles to rescue my luggage first).

The fall back position was a later flight to Miami to make the second shoot with the campaign photographer the next day.

I was next in line, the light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps? Wait, was that a whistle?

I was finally assisted, but not onto another flight. I collected myself and put away my frustration. Wearing my best Mid-Westerner smile, I said that I needed to get to West Palm Beach by 5-ish. It was a business trip, and it was really important, and could he help me out.

“Not a chance.” he said, his expressionless face seemed to be mocking the entire situation. I was told that I would not make it to West Palm Beach, no matter what airline I flew.

I didn’t believe him (he didn’t even check his little mystery screen in front of him, hell, his fingers never even typed anything in!), but what could I do? He offered no alternatives or suggestions, not even a fake apology.

I inhaled deeply glaring at his half closed, dispassionate eyes. “Where do I retrieve my luggage, then?”

“You have to go to the ticket counter.” He was already looking over my shoulder at the next person in line that he would refuse to help.

I walked to the other end of the world, past the security check point and back to the US Airways ticket counter.

The “Supervisor” told me to go downstairs, back the other way, to the Lost Luggage office in baggage claim.

My belongings were already considered Lost? This was going to end badly…

“Thank you very little…” and I was off to baggage claim.

I explained my situation to the people in the Lost Luggage office… twice. They couldn’t seem to grasp the fact that I wasn’t flying on a later flight. I told them that since I couldn’t make it there by 5 there wasn’t any point in going, and I just needed my luggage back.

“What flight were you on, Sir?”

“907”

“That flight was cancelled, Sir.”

Sigh. Slow Blink. Compose. Smile.

“Yes, I know. Where’s my luggage?”

She called the baggage room and was told that there weren’t any bags there from my cancelled flight, and didn’t know what flight they were put on.

I was told that my bags were probably put onto flight 1223, the non-stop that I was flatly refused entry on.

(I’m, frankly, astounded that my bags were allowed on that flight. Every time a passenger leaves a plane, or even fails to board, they lose their minds, stop everything and get their bags off. That’s the TSA and Homeland Security rule. So, how the hell did my bags get on that flight? No one could give me an answer on that one.)

When I asked when my bags might return I was told THAT THEY HAD NO IDEA!!!

(I am constantly amazed at how an entire industry can continue to run under such gross incompetence.)

“They could be on the 3:30 return from West Palm, if the bags make it there…”

“Wait, you just said that they were on flight 1223. So why wouldn’t they make it there?”

“I said that IF they were on flight 1223, sir…”

“You can’t track my bags? Isn’t that what the barcode on the tag is for?”

“SIR, we don’t have time to scan every bag. I can see you’re getting upset. When your bags show up, then I can call you and tell you when we can get them back.”

My eyes widened again. These are the people that are supposedly keeping my air travel safe?

These people were morons.

If it’s this easy to get an unattended bag on board a plane, I’m amazed that there haven’t been more terrorist attacks.

She handed me a laminated card and asked me to point to the pictures that most matched my luggage. I answered several descriptory questions and was told that when my bags “showed up somewhere” that I would be notified.

My late night flight to Miami to meet the campaign photographer had to be scrapped since I had no idea when my camera would be arriving.

Nice.

As I left the Baggage Claim office, I grumbled something about how this might be the only example of how government regulation could improve an industry. I can’t think of how the Fed could do any worse.

I took a cab back to the office, thinking that I’d be arrested if I stayed there talking to the drooling, inept employees at U S Airways. I was called about 2 hours later to say that my bags, apparently, had not made it onto flight 1223. They were still not located, and they would call me when they were.

By this time I was stuttering with astonished frustration. Every time I asked these people a question, they would just start jabbering on and never give an answer. I kept repeating my question, and calling her on her Clintonian dodges. She finally admitted, “Sir, I’ll be honest with you. I can’t tell you where your bags are, or when they’re getting back.”

I had to hang up or face prosecution for over-the-phone-man-slaughter.

I didn’t hear from Us Airways again until 10 pm. They said that my bags were at Reagan National. They would be delivered to my residence. Normally this is where a feeling of relief would wash over me and I would feel that an end to the ordeal was near, but that wasn't to be the case...

By 11:30 they hadn’t shown up. I called the 1-800 number and was told that the delivery people had a 1-4 hour window.

At 2:30AM I fell asleep. No bags. I dreamt of the raging phone call I would make the next morning, and the looming blog entry that would follow. I dreamt how the cc’d message to US Airways might actually reach a human person. I dreamt of how it was all so useless, and how this criminal enterprise called the airline industry would continue to survive and breed like a virus and continually operate on the bleeding razor’s edge of bankruptcy, with government bailouts, taxes, fees and surcharges to keep them afloat for just one more year. They would continue to restrict flights, passenger rights and privileges and maybe eventually ban human passengers altogether.

5:45AM my phone rings and my bags were delivered.

I would rather perform dental surgery on myself with no anesthetic than ever fly US Airways again.