Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Horrible, No, Epic and Unbelievably Long Voyage from San Francisco to Paris


This should have been a routine holiday flight: San Francisco Departure at 7.55 am on Friday Dec. 18 – Washington D.C., Washington D.C. – Paris Arrival Saturday Dec. 19 at 6.35 am. Total trip time: roughly 15 hours.

As it turns out, there are no routine holiday flights. In the end, the voyage lasted 72 hours and 56 minutes, going through 3 planes, two trains, various buses, a ferry boat and a car. Thanks for the ride, United! Here is how this unfortunate series of events unfolded - around the clock.

Friday Dec. 18, 2009
7.55 am (PST): UA 914. Take off. Direction, Washington D.C. Feeling good. We start watching “Four Christmases.”
10.10 am: Captain announcement. Our Boeing 777’s anti-icing machinery is down. The East Coast is snowed in. We are heading into a big snow storm. You do the math. “Four Christmases” sucks. We start our descent after a not-so-reassuring pep talk from the captain: “This is not an emergency landing.”
11.40 am (MST): We land in Denver. Still feeling OK.
12 pm to 1 pm: Various time estimates on how long it will take to fix the plane. The initial 20 minutes turn into an hour, maybe more. If we don’t leave within the hour, we’ll miss our connecting flight to Paris. Who knows then when we’re getting out of D.C.? The D.C. airport is planned to shut down at 9 p.m. EST for severe weather conditions.
1.07 pm: Husband calls United 1K phone line, talks to United staff about alternatives. We’re in luck. United staff can book us on a Denver-Chicago, Chicago-Charlotte, Charlotte-Frankfurt, Frankfurt-Paris. Estimated arrival time: Sunday Dec. 20 in the afternoon.

1.10 pm: We disembark with our cabin luggage. The flight attendant outside the gate can book us a Washington D.C. – London at 10 p.m. EST. Arriving Saturday morning in London sounds better than Sunday in Paris. We can still make our two family Christmas parties in Paris on Saturday night. We book the London flight in case we miss the Paris connection.
1.15 pm: The captain informs us that the repair status of UA 914 is looking better than anticipated. The technical crew may have the missing part in Denver - or we may change planes. Weighing pros and cons.
1.25 pm: Get back on plane. Return to our seats. Girls play dress-up with stuffed animals.
1.28 pm: Captain announcement. Problem can’t get fixed. We are changing planes. Everybody to disembark. By the way, now’s a good time to get lunch. However, please stay close to Gate 35 in case we board early.
1.35 pm: Our quickest lunch option is Mc Donald’s. It’s fast and it’s food – whatever.
1.45 pm: Suddenly we realize we're too far to hear flight announcements. We make a run for Gate 35, fries and chicken salad in hand.
1.50 pm: In front of Gate 35, panting. Everybody’s there. Nothing’s moving. The chicken is chewy.
1.53 pm: International passengers asked to check in with customer service at Gate B27. Husband takes off.
2.30 pm: Husband comes back. The line wasn’t moving. Thirty people ahead of him.
2.31 pm: We commiserate. Husband tries the red carpet club. Line’s got to be shorter…
2.55 pm: Crew announcement. We’ll get back on the initial plane. Problem fixed. Boarding update in 10 minutes.
3.05 pm: On board UA 914 - again. Washington D.C. international connections have been warned. They’ll most likely wait for us.
4.15 pm: So long, Denver. 
6 pm: Crew announcement. Flights for Paris and Frankfurt both left Washington D.C. 
6.10 pm: London flight, you are our only hope.
8.30 pm (EST): Landing in Washington D.C. Husband jumps on London flight attendants to retrieve our seats. “Sir, your name is not on the list.”
8.40 pm: “Sir, we found you. You are on the waiting list.” I look at the screen. 20 seats left on the plane. 200 people trying to change itineraries.
9.45 pm: United manager prints our four boarding passes. Phew. Thank God for the husband’s 1K status. Only glitch. “Once you guys are in London, you are on your own.” On our own? Surely, United doesn't expect us to swim across the Channel with our luggage. Or do they?
10 pm: On board UA 924.
10.08 pm: Crew announcement. We cannot leave yet. The storm is closing in and the plane needs to be de-iced before taking off.
11 pm: Getting antsy. De-icing.
11.30 pm: Glass of water please? More de-icing. 
Midnight: Flight UA 924 departs for London. At last. We are the last flight out before the airport completely shuts down for two days. 

Saturday December 19, 2009 
London time (GMT)
12 pm: Arrival in London.
12.15 pm: The master plan: (1) Husband runs to book seats for Paris, (2)  I recover luggage, (3) We meet by United ticket counter. Nice and square.
11.45 pm: No signs of our luggage. Same 10 suitcases have been looping around for 20 minutes.
12.55 pm: I start filing a lost baggage claim.
1 pm: “Ma’am, your luggage might be in Washington D.C.” Or it might not. I knew it! Green paper, white paper, staple.
1.15 pm: Husband and luggage-less us reconvene. The Channel tunnel is closed. The EuroStar is closed. 100, 000 travelers are stranded in London trying to get across the Channel. There are no seats on flights to Paris either today or tomorrow. Not until Dec. 26, as a matter of fact.
1.16 pm: Two options. We can fly to Brussels on Sunday morning and get to Paris "on our own", or fly to Dusseldorf Sunday afternoon at 5 pm and arrive in Paris at 10 pm. We decide to try Brussels. We’ll overnight at one of the airport hotels. Fancy.
1.45 pm: I call my dad. “Can you please book us four seats on a train from Brussels to Paris tomorrow?”
2.15 pm: Done. We are booked on the 11.13 am train next day from Brussels to Paris.
3 pm: We have our hotel room and meal vouchers. We’ll fly to Brussels with American Airlines. It’s starting to sounds like a vacation. That evening: rather than rotting away in our hotel room, we go to town in London, walk down the Embankment. So nice to be outside of the airport radius.

Sunday December 20, 2009
6.56 am: From hotel, we hop on the Hotel Hoppa shuttle.
8.10 am: Entering the American Airlines gate area. Special security policy: body search for the four of us, including the 4-year-old. Our hand luggage is literally taken apart and re-packed.
8.45 am: Seated on plane.
8.50 am: Crew announcement. The Brussels airport is closed due to inclement weather. We’ll wait an hour for the airport to open up.
8.55 am: Captain announcement. The weather is really bad. Everybody to disembark.
9 am: Back to gate area.
9.40 am: We’ll leave at 11 am.
10:13 am: In Brussels, the train to Paris leaves the station – obviously, without us.
11 am: We’ll leave at 1 pm. Please line up for re-boarding.
11.30 am: Second body search for the four of us, including the 4-year-old. Our hand luggage is – again – taken apart and re-packed, but the woman does a better job than the man and my carry-on won’t close.
11.31 am: All zipped up. Ready to go.
11.40 am: In gate area. The girls are thirsty. Husband feeds a few coins in a vending machine to get water. They simply disappear.
11.50 am: Curse of the restroom. I walk up there when a woman walks back. “The tap doesn’t work but the soap does,” she says, rubbing her foamy hands.
12 pm: I start writing this blog posting on my chair.
12.10 pm: A fellow passenger does push-ups. Not kidding.
12:37 pm: We’ll leave at 3 pm. The attendant warns "it's a very tentative slot."
2.30 pm: Crew announcement. The flight is cancelled. Very tentative indeed. "Please go to Customer Service..." - I've heard that one before.
2.45 pm: We line up with the other passengers at the American Airlines counter. Our 4-year-old falls asleep on a seat. The other one's cranky.
3.15 pm: At the American Airlines counter, they advise us to go to the United counter in a different terminal. We gather both kids and head out.
3.40 pm: At the United counter it's science-fiction. We finally get a ticket for Dusseldorf that afternoon - it gets cancelled within minutes.
3.45 pm: We can opt for a flight late on Monday night via some German-speaking country or get stand-by tickets for Air France flight tonight. Like we stand a chance to get 4 seats on the same flight.
3.50 pm: Argument with United staff. If we get stranded another night, we have to pay for our own lodging, food and transportation. United policies consider we have been sufficiently compensated with a night at a airport hotel. Would you repeat that please?
4 pm: Intense frustration turns to utter despair. We let them issue Air France stand-by tickets but with the Channel Tunnel closed, there's not a hope in a world we'll get through.
4:05 pm: Sod it! We start thinking straight and give up on planes. Direction: the train ticketing counter at a different terminal at Heathrow. We call the ferry in Dover and book 4 tickets for the following morning.
4.30 pm: We are on the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station, then hop on the Bakerloo subway line to Charing cross.
7.09 pm: On the train to Dover Priory. Yeepee! At last we're moving in some direction.
9.30 pm: We take a cab to the Wallett's Court Countryhouse Hotel in Dover, a very charming lodging option and the last one that still had rooms in Dover. Obviously, a lot of the air and train trafic did wonders for the Dover ferry business.

Monday December 21st, 2009
6.50 am: It snowed last night. The radio announces more railway closures and ferry delays. We look at each other. Could this turn awry too? We don't deserve this. The cab shows up on time and takes it super-easy on the road. Conditions are icy and slippery. It's definitely not a good day for a road accident.
 7.30 am: We line up to take a bus at the P&O Ferries counter.
8 am: The bus takes us to a giant ferry on the docks.
8.45 am: The ferry leaves England. We call my dad. He's driving from Paris to pick us up in Calais.
9.30 am: Slightly queasy. Travel motion pills don't help.
11.30 am (GMT + 1): In Calais, France! We consider doing like the Pope and kissing the ground but it's muddy snow and we just want to get out of there.
1 pm: My dad picks us up while we're having lunch in Calais.
4:26 pm: Paris, our final destination.

The trip is over. It takes a while to sink in. Over. We've been away for three days, have only had one warm meal outside of plane meals and airport sandwiches, and we are finally getting to our holiday destination. 

Time to unpack. Husband calls United to recover our luggage. Looks at me, speechless. United lost our luggage... 

Lord, have mercy.

6 comments:

Bea Work said...

I am glad you wrote it down, because it would be hard to remember otherwise.
I am glad you guys are safe!!! Merry christmas.
Bea

Anonymous said...

Indeed, an EPIC! I hope you were able to transform some of the angst into salvation though the written word and the chronicle of photos. I feel greedy and guilty for taking pleasure in reading your article (for the humor and shock value) from the comfort of my desk chair, sipping a cup of coffee.
merry christmas to you all!
Christine

Anonymous said...

Good lord. I can't imagine how you survived this with kids.

Laure said...

Well, we made it after all and the luggage arrived after another 2 days. More shopping for us! At some point, I honestly thought we were going to head out to our Christmas family reunion without presents or more than two changes of clothing. The airport delivery guy arrived right as we were going out the door, with our four pieces of luggage. The entire thing was indeed quite an ordeal. The girls already asked me if we were doing the same thing on the way back. Hope not..

Anonymous said...

Flying has always been subject to weather. However, now it's subject to weather AND poor customer service. As a former private pilot, I prefer being grounded at an airport to having my wings ice up during flight (which can be deadly) but I can't tolerate the service and lack of concern for customers. I had one Continental employee tell me not to worry about a 45-minute delay in Detroit (when I only had a 45-minute layover in Houston to catch a connecting flight to San Francisco). "You'll get a tail-wind and make up for the time," he told me. Oh yeah, flying west? They booked me on a UA flight, made me retrieve my luggage at the counter and recheck it, then tagged me "orange" (special security needed) because I'd booked the flight so close to takeoff. Personal opinion, they were teaching me a "lesson" about changing flights so I won't do it again. I never argued with them because my goal was TO GET THERE, but it took a lot of meekness (anger under control. I'm a 67-year-old grandmother. Then they lost my luggage on the return flight. So much fun.

Laure said...

Thank you for sharing your experience. I can't believe the orange tag. In our case, United customer service (after the whole ordeal) has been very poor. It takes them 10 days to reply to a complaint, they offer a compensation that would not even be acceptable for a domestic flight problem. I thought that seeing it took us 3 days to get to our final destination and given our entire luggage was lost 5 days, they would have been more concerned. Nope. Ironically, they also lost one piece of our luggage on the way home and we almost missed our connecting flight waiting for it in Washington DC in the transit zone. I received it the following day. A delivery guy just knocked on my door late at night without calling ahead. Lucky for them we were home, given I'd been on the phone three times with them during the day and specifically asked for a phone call warning to make sure we'd be there. Clearly they need a refresher in customer service.