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Air travel: bluesy but not always groovy

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Air travel: bluesy but not always groovy
By Nelson Alcantara | Nov 25, 2008

These days, air travel for the sake of saving a buck or two entails having to fly several airlines to get to a destination. I have done the very same thing in the past and I see no problem with it, granting everything rolls out as stated in the itinerary. But, what happens when one of the flight segments get delayed, especially the first one? Chaos ensues.

Such chaos might serve an adrenaline junkie right, but it certainly is not conducive to a traveler who is on a stern schedule. There are events in our lives that we look forward to—birthdays, anniversaries, reunions, to name just a few. Oftentimes, we travel via air to get to a destination to celebrate these special occasions. In that respect, air travel arrangements play an integral role because they help set the tone for these so-called “special occasions.” Aptly put, they can make or break a trip.

Case in point: my recent trip from London’s Heathrow International Airport to Austin, Texas. This trip has been in the making for months, and after having been out of the country since early October, it was a trip that I had very much anticipated for so many reasons.

My flight itinerary stated that I was flying Air India to Newark, New Jersey then transferring to a US Airways flight to Dallas then to Austin. I am normally not fuzzy about multi-segment itineraries, because I understand the economics of this type of arrangement, as they more than likely bode well with my finances. Take me through five airports, I don’t mind. Just get me to my destination. So, code-sharing? Not a problem, until “it” becomes an agonizing process that entails having to decipher jargons such as FIR, through fare, etc. To put it simply, there is nothing wrong with airline code-sharing until flights get delayed, stranding passengers, involving alternative travel arrangements, refunds, reimbursements, and so on and so forth. Well, you get the idea. Feel free to continue reading the rest of this article should you feel compelled to be let in on my miserable journey to the land of George W. Bush. What follows is an account of an experience that is best experienced from a second and/or third person perspective. You’ve had your warning.

Upon arrival at Heathrow, which was well over three hours (yes, I was that anxious to get back to the US), I was told by the check-in attendant that Air India was running behind and that the flight was going to be delayed two hours. This meant I was not going to make my connecting flight in Newark. I was then advised to “go to the Air India counter to sort out” my flights. As told, I went and explained the situation to the two attendants at Air India’s customer service desk at Heathrow Airport. I was told to wait five minutes. That five minutes turned to two hours; I kept my cool throughout the entire ordeal, but I made sure they knew I needed to be in Austin as stated in the itinerary.

India is currently the world’s fastest-growing aviation market, which I told the attendants. As such, the customer service should be up to par with such distinction. “We are doing what we can,” was the response I got. then asked for a supervisor. It took a very long while before a supervisor showed up. supervisor #1 showed up and told me to call my travel agent to get a refund because “there is nothing we can do, we are just the ground-handling agents.”

It was then that I gave the gentleman, supervisor #1, my business card and told him I was going to make sure that the Indian Tourism Minister Ambika Soni and Air India chairman Thalasidas got a copy of my harrowing experience under their service. He then told me hang on while they were going to “figure something out.” The Air India customer service agents were well aware that I had been pleasant and patient while they tried to work on my itinerary for over two hours. The process entailed countless front-desk to back-office interaction and numerous “telephone calls to US Airways.”

Then supervisor #1 came back and presented me my best case scenario: get on the delayed Air India flight to Newark, then take a bus to JFK International (a 40-minute ride), buy a ticket from low-cost carrier JetBlue, and keep the receipt for a reimbursement. He said that was the only way I was going to arrive in Austin the same day, although technically that flight was going to arrive at 12:20 am on Thursday. “That is the best that we can do,” he said.

This is coming from the supervisor at one of the carriers of the world’s fastest-growing market? It was too unbelievable for me to hear that it didn’t even register in my brain properly. I knew there had to be a way to get to Austin as originally planned. It might not be the very same time, but I knew there was a way out. Fortunately, I am very much in sync with today’s technological marvels, so I knew my BlackBerry would save the day, as it has done so very many times in the past.

This is when I pulled every string I could pull. I called a colleague who has access to the Sabre reservation system. He found me an American Airlines flight out of Newark to Austin via Dallas. Sadly, though, I received this news after I had already checked in and was waiting for a gate from the display monitor at Heathrow. Now, those who have been to Heathrow know that it is perhaps the worst airport in terms of announcing gates. The airport handles so much traffic that waiting for your gate to be flashed on the screen ultimately becomes a stressful process. At that point, my stress level was understandably way off the charts.

So, an alternative to the “JetBlue scenario” had presented itself. I then devised a new plan: to get to the gate as soon as it is announced then tell the Air India gate supervisor to book me on that American Airlines flight. As soon as “Air India flight 191 gate 27” was displayed on the departure screen, I ran like an athlete who was aiming for an Olympic gold. At least, I thought I was. For sure, those who had seen me probably thought I was crazy, as I probably looked like a contestant for “The Amazing Race,” sans the cameras, of course.

I got to the gate in record time perhaps as I was ultimately turned away because I arrived too early, by Heathrow’s standards anyway. But, as soon as I was allowed in, I dashed inside and went straight to make my case. I was told to sit by the wayside and wait for the supervisor, who upon showing up was made aware of my dilemma. Supervisor #2 was very gracious and accommodated my request by making a phone call. She told me to “relax and take a sit,” which I reluctantly did.

Making sure I was not too far away, I found a chair that would allow me to gauge what was to come next. “Oh, we can’t? Amadeus won’t let us book him?” I heard her say. Not good, for me anyway. Then, she came up to me and told me what I already knew: that I was not going to be put on that American Airlines flight. Still, don’t fret, she said, “I am going to see what we do.” At that point, despair was all I could sense, as that was about the millionth time I was told that very same sentence by three different people who work for the same airline, Air India.

So I sat and waited for a final verdict. Was there hope on the horizon? I was already dreading my best-case scenario: going through Customs, picking up my luggage, taking a bus from Newark to JFK, buying a ticket from JetBlue, and making sure I kept my receipt for future reimbursement. At that point, I really didn’t have much of an option, so, to put it aptly, I was in peace.

Then supervisor #1 suddenly made a reappearance. He said: “We found you an alternative. There is a direct Continental flight from Newark to Austin. You’ll have plenty of time to collect your luggage and make the flight.” Thank you, BlackBerry!

BUT, BUT, BUT that was not the end of it. There was bad news waiting for me on the other side of the pond. It is called US Customs. I was marked for a multi-person security screening process, delaying me and ultimately causing me to miss that Continental flight. I ended up spending the night in a New Jersey hotel under Air India’s tab. Then everyone went on their own merry way, and you just ended up wasting the last few minutes reading this diatribe. You were warned.




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