Monday, April 12, 2010

Flying Off The Handle

Flying is like going to Taco Bell. Despite having a horrible experience you keep coming back to it. Let me tell you about a recent flying experience with US Airways. I was flying with my family—my wife and two children, one of who is under a year old. We booked this flight months in advance through Orbitz. We chose seats on Orbitz. Since the youngest was to be an infant in lap, no seat was need for her. So we bought three seats, all together. Or so we thought. And so began the fiasco.

About a week before our trip I refreshed my memory as to our trip details, only to find that instead of having an entire row of seats—14D, 14E, and 14F, we had 14D, 14E, and “—“. Now where the hell is “—“ supposed to be on a plane? I will tell you where it is not. It is not 14F. So I log onto to Orbitz and go to seat selection. The seat map shows that the flight is essentially booked save a few seats in the front of the plane. But lo and behold! 7D, 7E, 7F are open, so I click on those. Orbitz refreshed and my seat assignments have not changed. I decide to check US Airways instead and find a site that is not Mac compatible. Fortunately, I have a Windows based computer as well. When I get onto the website and pull up my reservation, I find that the 7th row is in fact still wide open. I try to check-in online, thinking I can change my seats. It is still more than twenty four hours before our flight, but I try anyways. I am met with a window that says I cannot check-in online due to having an infant in lap traveler. I call customer service.

The first representative that assists me tells me that indeed I cannot check on online because of having an infant in lap traveler. This requires my presence at the ticket counter due to “security reasons”. Clearly a lame stock answer now used by airlines to avoid providing a real answer for any question they either do not wish to answer or for which have no logical answer. Whatever. I instead ask how I can change my seats to the 7th row, since I need three seats together. I am told that the 7th row seats are preferred seating and that I can purchase these seats online when I check in. I ask why I would be buying more tickets when I already have three tickets and she clarifies that these seats are an “upgrade” that costs $15 each. I ask her how I am to purchase these upgrades if I cannot check-in online due to having an infant in lap. She tells me that I will have to do it at the counter. I then ask her how that helps me if I have to wait until two hours before my flight to upgrade seats when anyone else can check in online twenty four hours before the flight and upgrade their seats before me. She has no answer for this. Probably security reasons.

As I hang up and mull the situation over, I remember that my wife and I discussed checking bags for this trip. We had been against checking bags long before the airlines starting raping their customers for it. My current record of lost bags—that had to be delivered up to a week later—for the last 5 years is 67%. That’s right. Two of every three times that I checked a bag it was lost. So I bought a smaller suitcase that actually fit the proscribed measurements of the airlines for overhead baggage and started only using carry-ons. The impropriety of other travelers trying to carry-on a 26” by 20” rolling suitcase can be railed on in another post. Anyways, I lookup the fee for checking baggage and find that it is cheaper if you check baggage online. It is only $2, but at this point I will be damned to fork over any more money to the airline. I realize that I cannot check-in online because of my infant in lap and therefore cannot check baggage online. I call customer service again.

The lady that answers sounds similar to the first representative, but is clearly not the same person. I start by asking how I can get the online baggage check price when I am prevented from checking in online. Without much effort, she tells me that she has made a note that I would like to check bags and should get the online price when I show up at the counter. Riding that tiny bit of progress, I asked how I could change seats since I could not check in online. The lady told me that I could purchase preferred seats when I checked in at the counter. I attempted to make her understand that trying to buy limited seats two hours before check in was not a viable solution when I needed an entire row on an essentially full flight. She then told me that she could remove the “infant in lap” from my reservation so that I could check in online twenty four hours ahead and purchase preferred seats at that time. I would then also be able to check baggage online at the cheaper rate as well. I pressed further, asking why I did not get a third seat when I initially purchasing my tickets. She reviewed the reservation and told me that because I went through Orbitz and not US Airways, my seats were never confirmed at the time of purchase. I should have called US Airways after my purchase through Orbitz to confirm my seats. A significant detail completely omitted by Orbitz. Had I called I would have been able to confirm my selected seats and had an entire row, negating my current predicament. After some more back and forth with customer service and growing frustration on both our ends, she finally gave up the information that 26E was still open. I asked if she could give me that seat and she did. A seat twelve rows away is better than no assigned at all. And she could not have given me that information earlier?

So I went home with the new plan that I could check in online twenty four hours before my flight and check my baggage online as well. I would then purchase the row of preferred seats in row seven and be done with the whole mess. Fast forward to twenty four hours before departure. I go online to check in. I am allowed because the system no longer believes I have an infant in lap. I attempt to purchase preferred seats and find two problems. The first is that I am not allowed to purchase a preferred seat, no explanation given. The second is that one of the seats in row seven is now occupied. In my fury, I call customer service yet again. I ask why I am unable to buy a preferred seat. I am transferred to the web department, since there are the only ones that can “fix” these sorts of problems. Judging from my interaction with the representative, it is a group of employees in a room with desktop computers. The man tells me I cannot purchase a preferred seat because the airport has taken over seat selection and it can only be done at the counter. Let us remember that point. He tells me this because he uses the confirmation code I give him and enters it into the US Airways website just as I did. So essentially, he replicated my actions and wasted ten minutes of my life. I hang up and call customer service again.

This time a man answers and I explain the sequence of events that led me to him. I mention that now even fewer open seats remain open. He tells me that row seven is a preferred seating row that can only be purchased up to twenty four hours before departure. I counter with the fact that the seating map has changed with seats becoming occupied and that clearly some people are able to change or purchase seats. He apologizes for not being clear and clarifies by stating that they are available only to frequent flyers first and then to everybody else last. I point out again that it is less than twenty four hours before departure and ask when it would then be available to everybody else—two hours before departure? He has no answer except that the airport had taken control of those seats. I am sure it is for “security reasons”. I ask him how I am supposed to get better seats. In his exasperation he offers that seat 13E is the only seat open. Immediately I ask if he can give me that seat instead of 26E. He changes the seat. I go home and check in online and purchase two checked bags.

I then write Orbitz a scathing email about the fact they do not recommend calling the airline to confirm seats. They only state, “Policies on advance seating vary by airline. Some airlines assign seats immediately, others may only assign seats 90 days before a flights and several airlines wait to assign seats until the day of flight”. I make specific mention is my email that seat selection was open from before I purchased my ticket. The reply email offers cursory apologies and asks that I call customer service so that they may win back my business. I call. The man that answers not only has no clue why I am calling after he pulls up my account, but chooses instead to repeat the same inapplicable policy to me. I state that I confirmed with US Airways that seat selection was open long before I purchased my ticket. His response is that Orbitz forwards seat selection to the airlines after purchase of the ticket. I counter that Orbitz does not recommend or direct customers to call the airlines for seat confirmation. His response is that the trip receipt from Orbitz will state if seats were confirmed. I hang up on him.

The next day we go to the airport and at the web check in kiosk there is no record of my online baggage check. Having predicted this problem, I flag down an attendant and explain my problem. He insists on repeating my actions at the kiosk. Discovering that there is indeed no record of my checked baggage, he turfs me to another attendant. After about ten minutes the new attendant has us checked in . I ask if there any open seats we might possibly switch. I get a terse no.

When we finally board the plane, we wait until the holder of 14F arrives. This twenty something appears to be traveling alone and with a larger than necessary rolling carry-on suitcase. We ask if she is willing to switch seats—her window for a center seat. She looks at our children and gives a somewhat hesitant agreement.

So what have we learned from all this? First, airlines do not like families. Second, if you do not get what you want from customer service, call again. And again. And again, until you get what you want. Do you hear that, customer service? Stock answers do not work, and customers will only tie up the phone lines more until you actually offer customer service. Third, Orbitz offers nothing other than comparison of prices. Use it to compare prices and then call the airline directly. You will at the very least get the seats you want.