What friendly skies?

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With all the latest restrictions, I can’t imagine how awful transatlantic flights must be now, especially those originating at Washington-Dulles International Airport (whose parking lot is pictured above, reflected in the main terminal building). In my recent experience, Dulles isn’t at its best in a minor crisis, so I shudder to think what it’s like getting out of there now.

I was booked to fly out of Dulles to London-Heathrow one Tuesday in late June. My flight was 6:03 PM, and I arrived at Dulles at 3:45 PM. The airline I was flying is at the end of the terminal, and the line to check in was around the corner into the lobby—the check-in desks weren’t even in sight. As time wore on, I (and other increasingly anxious passengers) repeatedly asked for updates from employees ambling about with clipboards. After I’d been standing in line for 1.75 hours, by which time it was 30 minutes before my flight was due to depart and I was about 25 passengers away from the front of the check-in line, someone came by and called for all the passengers for the London flight.

Typically when passengers are called out, it is because it is critically close to their flight time, and they are placed at the front of the line to be processed quickly. All the London passengers dutifully followed the employee to another line. The passengers who were behind me could get out more easily, so everyone who had arrived at Dulles after me was now in front of me. So having arrived in what should have been reasonable time, I was now close to the end of the line. After 10 minutes or so, it became clear that we had not been placed at the front of a line to be checked through fast; we had simply been placed in another general line. People in front of me were on later flights to other cities. I’d have been better off staying in the other line.

Once again, I and the passengers around me tried to get the attention of the clipboard-toting employees. Those who would deign to stop and speak, claimed to be trying to get something done. For the most part, they huddled in groups chatting to each other or scurried by avoiding the passengers’ signals for attention.

Eventually I and two or three other passengers grabbed a uniformed employee who said he would check us in. He moved us out of the line to another area, then promptly wandered off and started messing about with the temporary barriers in an empty area, moving the posts an inch or two this way and that way. We hauled him back and insisted that he process us, and eventually he started to do so. By the time I got to the ticket counter in the main terminal it was 6:15 PM, so I had missed the flight on which I was booked as well as the next one, which leaves at 6:27 PM from another terminal to which you must be bused. I was put on standby for the 9:53 PM flight.

During this entire process, airline repesentatives were not only incompetent, they were also rude. One passenger said that she had been standing in line two hours. The employee snapped, “Two hours isn’t long enough in advance to arrive at the airport” and hurried off. A passenger asked if the airline would be giving any compensation (for the fact that we had missed our flight). “You wanted to be compensated for what—waiting in line?” was the sneered response.

At the gate for my 9:53 PM flight, organization was no better. Gate agents continued to take walk-up passengers for standby, finally closing the flight to standby passengers when the list was 130—more than could conceivably get on a flight that was already, technically, fully booked.

Ticketed passengers boarded and the agents began to call standby passengers. The agents became more and more frazzled and unpleasant because standby passengers crowded round the desk. However, passengers had no option because the agents almost never used the PA system, so if you weren’t standing up close, there is no way you could have heard your name called. I must have been one of the last four or five people to get on the flight. I was called, handed a boarding pass, and told, “Run.”

I wasn’t going to risk anything on my return. I got to Heathrow at 8:15 AM for my 10:50AM flight. Fortunately, Heathrow is better organized than Dulles, and I got to the check-in desk in under 10 minutes. That was the good part.

The bad part was that there was no record of me in the computer. I was not listed as on the return flight I had booked. I showed the reservations agent my ticket. She explained that if you miss a flight, your return flight is automatically cancelled—something no one had bothered to mention to me at Dulles.

Fortunately, the concept of customer service has been explained the British end because, thanks to the concern of a very solicitous agent, not only did I get on the flight, but I even got the window seat I had requested.

Okay, it was high season. Okay, flooding and weather issues in the United States had closed some airports so that many passengers at Dulles the day I flew out should have flown in and departed on their connecting flights one or two days earlier. Okay personnel were stressed.

But those are problem for the airlines to solve, not an additional inconvenience for passengers to suffer. Pull in extra staff and open additional check-in desks. Call people in to work double shifts and pay them overtime. And train your staff so that whatever the situation, they are polite to passengers who have paid hundreds of dollars for their tickets.

I wrote in detail to the airline. This past Monday (three weeks later), I heard back: a pro forma apology and a $100 voucher towards my next flight. It doesn’t cut it.

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6 Responses to What friendly skies?

  1. mariemcc says:

    So why not say what airline it was? It’s not slander or libel if it’s the truth.

  2. passante says:

    Marie — a lifetime’s publications training in caution, I guess! The flight times alone identify the line but I changed the post’s title, which should leave it in no doubt (at least for consumers of American advertising) .

  3. Elisabeth says:

    I kind of brace myself every time I fly to Europe, or anywhere, for that matter. I had really never encountered the problem you relate here, until last summer, when I returned from Toronto on Air Canada with my daughter. I wrote about what happened then here.

    By the way, I am shocked by the total lack of courtesy toward customers displayed by that airline employees. And yes, I do agree that a $100 voucher does not cut it.

  4. passante says:

    Elisabeth — Your experience sounds ghastly too. I can’t believe Air Canada initially planned to leave you without a hotel–presumably to sleep in the airport .

    I have a huge stash of frequent flyer miles, accumulated because flying to London is relatively cheap so it seemed a waste when I could use them for somewhere else more costly — save that somewhere else never seems to be a destination for me! So I’ll use up all my miles in the fall on flying first or business class to London, then I’ll do my best never to fly United again.

  5. freckled-one says:

    Your experience sounds horrible and the way the staff treated the passengers was appalling!! I was traveling from Rome a few days after the bombing in the London last July and even with the increased security in Frankfurt the staff had their act together. They were courteous, efficient, and had our line moving rather quickly considering they wanded every single passenger. As far as I know no one missed their flight. I guess it just depends where you are as to how they handle things. I think the bottom line tends to keep the airlines running at a bare minimum causing the passengers to suffer the consequences.

  6. Kirk says:

    Passante, your photo–yet another work of art–says it all (and so compactly).

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