Monday, February 4, 2008

Overbooking...The Joy!

Flying is fun. I love it. Well ok, not the flying part, but the travelling bit. But airlines have their way of miraculously screwing up your entire trip...just like that! And the scary thing is, they get can away with it. Maybe I've had bad luck, but I don't think so. I've heard too many bad experiences from others, but this one I just had went a little far.

Two weeks ago I went to Las Vegas. It was a wonderful, amazing experience and I'll post more about this and my trip down to Southern California when I return to South Africa in two weeks. Unfortunately though, we missed out on so much in Vegas. United Airlines are the ones to blame for this, not us.

We were supposed to fly out on Friday evening. I had booked tickets about two weeks in advance, however, I was not able to select seats at the time, which I assumed at the time was due to the flight being rather full. I was travelling with my aunt who was visiting from London and my two roommates from South Africa, Migael and Nick. Migael and Nick booked separately as they were taking a different return flight, but otherwise we were all on the same flight to Las Vegas.

When we checked-in they told us we had to get seats at the gate. This has happened to me enough times already so I hadn't started worrying at all. We get to the gate and they tell us to wait until we're called up. Now that's when a little worry started creeping in. Some time later I overheard them say there were 16 passengers without seats and only 7 available. Soon after they started boarding the plane and still they had not started calling us up. Then only did they make the announcement that they were overbooked and they were asking passengers t step down and get re-routed through Los Angeles arriving in Vegas early the following morning, with the only compensation being out up in a hotel in LA and getting either a free round-trip within the US or $400 United vouchers.

I think I remember about 4 or 5 people taking the offer to step down. We thought about it for a brief moment, but it really wasn't worth losing one of only two nights in Vegas. Most people were busy boarding so they either didn't hear the announcement or didn't have enough time to think about it. I've seen this happen plenty times in Europe, especially at Heathrow, but they know well in advance that they might have an overbooking situation on their hands and they have signs up when you first arrive at the gate so many more people actually take note of it and they have plenty time to consider the option. This was the part about this experience that frustrated me the most -- the complete lack of organisation and prior planning. Non-existent!

Eventually they started assigning seats to those like us without seats. Migael and Nick were one of the first few to be called up and they quickly boarded the plane. However, we waited anxiously while they called up other groups. After a while it appeared as though they had stopped calling people up. They were constantly being overwhelmed by several others that were on standby for the flight after having missed an earlier one trying to find out if there was any possibility they could get on the flight. Their policy, however, was that passengers booked on the flight had precedence over those that had been booted off an earlier flight, even if it was purely the airline's fault! In the position I was in, I was obviously glad this was the case, but looking back I find it rather disturbing that those that are affected just get constantly treated so shockingly and without any consideration whatsoever. It's as if their sole priority is to reduce the number of bad experiences and not dampen the effects in any way whatsoever!

The reality started sinking in when I saw the gate close. They carried on hacking away at their computers as though there was still the slightest possibility they could make something happen, but I knew the truth. It wasn't long before the plane took-off and we were left behind. Yet still they were busy hacking away!! Finally I lost my patience and I was determined to get anything out of them. They told us we could either take the route via LA and arrive in Vegas the following morning or be put on standby for the last flight to Vegas at 22:25. Unfortunately, if we took the standby option and missed it we would also miss the LA flight and only end up arriving in Vegas Saturday evening as all the flights till then were also fully booked. And the later flight was also likely to fall under the exact same overbooking issues we had just experienced! So we were advised to take the flight to LA.

They seemed to take a ridiculously long time to book us onto this LA flight and in that time they finally realised we would be able to make this US Airlines flight to Vegas at 20:30 that evening. However, they couldn't have done a better job at screwing that one up royally. They were on the phone with someone (turned out to be the same person we were to next bump into) to try get us on that flight. They took such a long time and it appeared as though it was US Airways being a pain, but as it turned out it was actually the guy at our end... Only after booking the tickets were we told we had to run all the way to the other terminal. It ended up being about a 10 minute rush to catch the flight. But we arrived only to hear that the gate was closed. Oh dear! Apparently the US Airways staff had told United that the gate had already closed even when they were attempting to purchase the tickets! How far can these guys go?!

By this time time were four of us doing the running up and down together. There was my aunt and I, Sarah who was in the exact same situation as us and was missing a huge party that night due to this gemorse and Yousef who had missed the flight by such a small margin and was trying to follow the same flights we were being put on. When we got back to the United counter we had to start all over again as we couldn't get though security back to those who were originally dealing with us. We got this guy that I swear didn't have an ounce of personality. We would tell him to contact Michelle Hughes who was trying to help us at first, but he would give absolutely no response. But he heard us and eventually we figured he was listening. I don't even feel like getting into this guy any more as I'd just explode.

After waiting patiently yet again he finally came back to us, with the wrong flight!! Sigh...

It took him a while, but finally we got everything sorted out and we were on the flight to LA. We had lunch, waited a bit, boarded the flight and arrived in LA past midnight. You can just imagine what time we arrived at the hotel! And we were to catch a 06:30 flight to Vegas, leaving us about three hours sleep...

Never again! I will remember next time to never ever, never take United Airlines again! Unfortunately my flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt is with them when I return home and I have these $400 vouchers with them, which wonderfully last for only a year.

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