Thursday, December 27, 2007

Exorcising the Northwest demons

In a superstitious effort to get all the bad juju out of our path tomorrow, I hereby present:

Nightmare At Zero Feet:
A Christmas Odyssey

The day began with peasoup fog and driving rain, the kind of weather that doesn't make one feel confident about an on-time departure. However, the perfunctory agent at the Northwest Airlines ticket counter in Little Rock assured me that everything was on time. I had to borrow some packing tape from her, because I'd discovered upon unloading my trusty blue hardshell American Tourister (established 1987) that it had a cracked and caved-in corner. Combined with the zipper coming apart on Noel's roller bag, I started to be concerned that our luggage would make it to Jacksonville without a disastrous fall-apart situation.

Our boarding time came and went, with no sign of the plane that was supposed to carry us to Memphis and our two and a half hour layover. The airport monitors still showed it on-time, but the free airport wireless gave us the real story -- about an hour delay. While we went to the brewpub for pizza and refreshments, another Northwest flight arrived to occupy the single gate that the airline operates in Little Rock. When our flight came, it had nowhere to park, and sat on the tarmac for 30 minutes until the Detroit flight got underway.

But our troubles were just beginning. With the plane at the gate and the passengers disembarked, now already past our estimated hour-late departure time, we stood for another forty-five minutes without any noticeable effort on the part of the staff to open the doors and get us boarded. No announcements of the flight's delay had ever been made, and no announcement was forthcoming about why we weren't being allowed to board. Finally the word filtered back via a passenger who went forward to inquire: Because the flight was delayed and people were going to miss their connections, the agent was asking people one by one, as they came up to the gate, whether they wanted to get on the plane for Memphis or rebook on the spot to try again tomorrow. Rather than letting those who might still have a shot at making their connections get on the plane and go, the staff was holding the entire plane while everyone who wanted to preemptively rebook made their arrangements.

And we were among those who still could have made the connection. Even after we left two hours late, and sat on the tarmac for half an hour after pulling away from the gate, we still arrived just in time to see, from our airplane windows, the plane we were supposed to be on pushing back from its gate. We missed it by ten minutes.

So we joined the crowd of unhappy people at special services, got rebooked on a 7:30 am U.S. Airways flight the next day, got hotel and meal vouchers, and went down to baggage services to get our luggage. After dealing with about half the people in line, the baggage folks announced that our bags would be transferred to our new airlines and flights tomorrow. Although we had little confidence in this, we at least had changes of clothes in our carry-ons and little choice but to head outside and wait for the shuttle.

Shuttles came and shuttles went. Because we were unable, after half an hour's wait, to tell Archer when we'd be getting on a van, he broke down. At this point we were at a low ebb. Our major parental function for Archer is establishing predictability -- "what time will that happen" is the question we hear twenty times a day. Now we couldn't even do that. Our poor, brave boy, who had persevered so patiently through the day's endless delays and waiting, was bolting for the open street, restrained only by our tired hands, moaning "Nooooo!" Everything was shattered. When the shuttle for our hotel finally arrived, the passengers mobbed it. I got on with Cady Gray, but a lady next to me was trying to save the only remaining seat for her sister. In my utter despair I yelled, "My autistic son is going to freak out if he does not get on this van!" As true as it was, I felt awful for playing the disability card. Noel and Archer got on, the lady and her sister perched on a single seat, and we rode thirty minutes to the hotel in silence.

Let us pass over the twenty minutes it took to actually get into our room because our keys didn't work, and the kids being undressed and put into their pajamas in the hallway, without comment. We got up at 5 am the next morning, the kids still game for adventure, thankfully, and took the shuttle back to the airport.

Here's where our vow to avoid Northwest at all costs in the future was solidified. We went to the U.S. Airways gate with our ticket receipts to check in. They called the ramp. The ramp had not received our bags. We can't check in unless the bags are with us. We go to the Northwest counter. The unhelpful personnel there suggest we check with baggage services downstairs. Down we go. Hey, my cracked blue suitcase is sitting there outside the door! One bag down, one to go. But after waiting around for someone to come unlock the door and look for our bag, it's nowhere to be found. The baggage services guy thinks he's probably already hauled it up to the ticket counter to be put through the TSA screening and sent on to the gate. But it's not up there either, at least not that we can see. Back to U.S. Airways -- check with the ramp -- not there. Although the surly Northwest Airways ticket agent says that he "doesn't do baggage" and can't find anyone who does, we finally hail a supervisor who takes our claim check and goes in search of the bag. Time is ticking -- we were here 90 minutes before our flight, but all of this has taken 45 minutes, and we need to check in quickly if we're going to make it.

Finally the supervisor returns. According to their records, the bag never left Little Rock. She earns the distinction of being the first Northwest employee in this whole affair to apologize to us for the trouble.

Back to the U.S. Airways counter. Even though we now know that our bag cannot accompany us on this flight because it is 180 miles away, the ticket agent is adamant that she cannot put us on the plane unless both of the bags we checked are coming on the plane with us. I demand to speak to her supervisor, and finally, we hear the first good news in about 16 hours: "Let them go."

From there, the story gets better. We make it to Charlotte on time (although there's more peasoup fog there which makes me wonder how anything is getting in and out). As we eat hotdogs in the Charlotte airport, the 24-hour mark of our misadventures inside Airworld passes. Our flight to Jacksonville is on time and trouble-free. The weather in Jacksonville is sunny and warm. My suitcase turns up at the baggage claim, and Noel files a claim with U.S. Airways to have his bag delivered to St. Simons once it arrives. The cousins are welcoming, the food is copious and tasty, and at about 10 pm Sunday night, a friendly U.S. Airways person knocks on the door with Noel's bag.

Tomorrow we have little choice but to take our chances with Northwest again for our return flight. There's not much margin for error in our Memphis connection this time -- 50 minutes. But if we make it there, we're pretty sure we can make it to Little Rock -- and the same day, too, since we're determined to rent a car and drive rather than stay overnight again. Pray for us, everyone, and let us speak no more of December 22-23, 2007.


Eric Grubbs said...

Wow. And I thought having my car's Check Engine light come on as I drove to my sister's house on Christmas day was bad.

Adam Villani said...

Wait, so the trip from Little Rock to Jacksonville involves *three* legs, Little Rock to Memphis to Charlotte to Jacksonville? Ugh! There are just way too many opportunities for something to go wrong with two layovers.

How do the kids do on long car trips? Yahoo Maps says the trip from Conway to SSI is 12 hours, 56 minutes. I might consider two days of driving, stopping overnight near Birmingham. If the kids can take the long car ride, that might be much less of a headache (cheaper, too).

Or maybe blend the two approaches by driving to Memphis and finding a direct flight to JAX... though I see on Expedia that those flights are almost twice as expensive.

the secret knitter said...

If you were on The Amazing Race, you totally would have made that connection.

That's unbelievably shoddy customer service, especially at this time of year. Sorry to hear that you had such a bad time with the airline. I'm sending good thoughts your way for a much smoother return.

Meeshell said...

ouch. I hope it all works out on the way home. On my non-stop from Chicago to Little Rock with Southwest they managed to not bring half the flight's luggage. But I at least got a flight voucher for my trouble and my luggage returned to me that night.