31 March 2009

How USAirways nearly ruined our vacation

Anyone who has ever had to fly USAirways more than once has probably suffered some manner of abuse at the hands of any one of their customer-facing employees. And that's before you get on the theater of cruelty that is one of their planes. Now I know that USAirways has gotten all manner of feel good press of late as a result of the incredible actions of "Sully" Sullenberger and the crew of US1549 that ditched into the chilly waters of the Hudson River back in January. Let me be clear - if USAirways employed people like Sully in their airports, then people wouldn't hate the airline as much. The customer-facing employees are some of the most people-hating people on the planet. We ran into a bunch of them Sunday afternoon as we embarked on our vacation.

USAirways was not my first choice for this trip but money talks and they were the cheapest by a long shot. It meant a connection in Charlotte in both directions too. But they are a part of the Star Alliance and I'd get mileage credit on Mother United. Knowing that it was US, I had done my homework in advance. Since it was vacation for a family of four, we were going to have to check. I made sure we would only check one bag so we could avoid the stupid fees. I confirmed and reconfirmed our reservations. Upon arrival at ORD, we found their check-in area to be blissfully empty. It is normally a zoo of people waiting for assistance that they will never get because they seem to be perpetually understaffed. Anyway, we checked in at the First Class kiosk and out popped eight boarding passes and our bag tag. So far so good. Until I tried to get a ticket jacket for the eight boarding passes. This was a mistake. Three agents at the First Class counter were busy discussing what they were going to do after their shift and doing all they could do to NOT make eye contact with me or my family - the only ones in the First Class line. So after five minutes of waiting, I interrupted them saying, "Hi...just wondering if I could get a ticket jacket for all the BP's?" The supervisor turned and rolled her eyes at me (I thought she might be passing out) and hissed, "We don't have no ticket jackets." There you have it....game on. I thought to myself, "And so it begins."

And begin it did. After an hour of refuge in the United Red Carpet Club (it's the most hideous one at ORD - the one in Terminal 2 on the E/F Concourse but it was still better than waiting at the US gates) we walked down to our gate about ten minutes prior to boarding and we saw a long line of people at the gate. I knew we were in trouble. Of course, if USAirways had monitors that people could see we might have known that our flight had been delayed an hour, which meant we'd be misconnecting in Charlotte. So I got in the scrum and waited for an agent. When I finally got to speak to the rumpled guy (could USAirways agents be any more unprofessionally dressed?) he says that I can either stick with the delayed flight and go to Charlotte and take the first flight on Monday to Orlando and USAirways will NOT pay for the hotel since the delay was weather-related. I pointed out to Rumply that I was a Star Gold and a United Global Services member and he said, "I know. We already called United and they can't do anything." So I said, "So you've just ruined my vacation." I stepped out of line and called United. I got a delightful agent, explained my situation and she said, "Oh sure, we have a flight at 710PM and I can get you four seats. One moment for your seat assignments. Oh and you'll need to have USAirways write you over." Once again, my heart sank. The line at the gate had now grown into a seething mob. It was 605PM. I figured we were doomed but I got back into the scrum.

At 610PM, after listening to the agents' scream at people and tell them to either go home and come back tomorrow or to get to Charlotte and get their own hotel room, I was at the front and got the supervisor again. The same delicate flower who made it perfectly clear that they don't do ticket jackets anymore. I told her that I'd been able to get seats on United and could she please write me over. She said, "We don't do that." I said, "Yes you do." She proceeds to tell me that whoever I talked to at United lied to me or didn't know what they were talking about. I explained to her that was not true and to please check the record again. She then began to reenact the scene from "Meet the Parents" where the ticket agent does nothing but tap on the computer. This woman refused to look at me as she hissed and huffed. Meanwhile another of the crack service team is telling an Asian woman who had missed the boarding call for an early flight and had missed her flight that maybe she needed hearing aids. Another person in line heard this and had also missed the earlier flight and pointed out to the guy that had they actually announced the flight over the P.A. system that maybe they would have heard. He was told to mind his own business. It was stunning. Stunning. I still was steadfastly not giving up my spot at the counter. At around 625PM, Our Lady of Perpetual Hissing finally looks up and says, "OK it's done. You better run. And your checked bag - well, you better just file a lost bag claim now." Literally, her last words to me.

So I grabbed the stunningly patient SML, CAL, and the Boy and it was a mad dash from Terminal 2 to Terminal 1 to the end of the B Concourse to make our flight that was boarding in ten minutes. We hauled it and made it to Mother United two minutes before they began boarding. Sweating like a stuck pig, I got to the counter and the agent says, "Mr L? Here are your boarding passes." I nearly openly wept. Say what you will about Mother United, I know they have their foibles, but I will tell you what, if you are loyal to them, they are loyal to you.

End result - we got on a nonstop and got in an hour early than we would have. The only positive thing I can say about USAirways is that they did deliver the stunningly patient SML's bag on the first flight to Orlando on Monday AM as promised and they didn't cancel our downline return for Friday...yet. I've reconfirmed it twice but still have my doubts.

Many people say they'll never fly an airline again after a certain in justice, until the next fare sale and suddenly all is forgiven. I get airline operations. The flights on Sunday were delayed due to weather in Philly and it impacted this particular piece of garbage airlines' operations. That stuff happens. What is not forgivable is the hideous treatment that was doled out to every customer on the affected flight and unfortunately, that treatment is all I've ever gotten in my experiences with USAirways. I'm not asking to be treated like royalty - just like a human being. Their management is crowing about the operational turnaround at the carrier. I have no idea what they are talking about - oh, they may be getting more planes out on time and getting bags where they should be more often than not, but it's time to focus on the people. Attacking low hanging fruit is easy. Clearly they've ignored the hard stuff - their people issues.

This much I know...I will never fly them again. We have to fly home on them from this vacation but that's it. Saving a few bucks is not worth the frustration, the mistreatment. What a horror story...

Anyway, aside from that, the other days of vacation so far have been awesome! I'll post some pictures tomorrow.

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