Tuesday, July 04, 2006

An Email from My Daughter

Following is a more complete description of what my daughter Chandra endured at the hands of Continental Airlines at JFK Airport yesterday. This is an email that she sent out to friends and family this evening. With her permission I am posting it here. Boldface highlights are mine ...

Hello friends and family!

I have just arrived home from my trip to London. The trip was amazing and I fell completely in love with England, but I am afraid the whole experience has been a bit marred by my dealings with Continental airlines during the last part of my journey. I apologize in advance; this is a very long story and probably quite boring for most of you, but it is very important that people know what I went through so that they can make an informed choice when flying in the future

All of this occurred on my domestic flight from NY JFK airport which was supposed to depart for Houston Bush Intercontinental at 4:30pm where I would connect with my flight to Austin, TX at 9:00pm. It all began as soon as I passed through security and got to the gate which was indicated on my ticket (B-20). As soon as I arrived at that gate it was clear that this was the wrong gate, however no signage was posted to that effect and no one would/could answer my questions. I noticed other passengers looking confused and we began to look for a Continental representative to answer our questions. When we found one she sharply told us that an announcement had been made that our gate had changed and that it was our responsibility to listen to the announcements. We all headed to gate B-23 where there was no Continental representative even though it was time to board the plane. There was a sign indicating that in order to board the plane we were to head downstairs yet there were no stairs visible. When Continental representatives did appear they would not answer our questions as to what was going on. There was no signage at either gate indicating the status of our flight at all. Finally, an announcement was made that we were to catch a shuttle at gate B-23 which would take us to our plane. There still were no Continental representatives. There was a woman who was there to pick up her elderly and handicapped father that was on the incoming flight and no one would assist her or answer her questions either. Me and my fellow passengers just stood around and chatted and waited for news. We had no idea that this was just the beginning and that we would get to know each other very well over the next 10 hours. Finally, a Continental representative appeared and told us to head to gate B-20 (the original gate) so we could catch our flight.

Once we finally boarded the plane we were about an hour behind schedule, but I noted that I still would probably have time to catch my connection. The plane began to taxi out and I was not too worried when it seemed to be taking a while because I knew from prior experience that JFK airport very often over schedules take-offs during this time slot and there will often be 30 to 40 planes lined up waiting for take-off. I find this practice extremely irritating since the clear purpose is profits at the expense of the passengers, but I suppose there is nothing I can really do about it. When the plane had been idle for over an hour all the passengers began to get a little restless and wonder what was going on. The pilot finally announced that there was bad weather somewhere (he never really indicated where) and that we had to wait for a new route plan. He told us this would take about 10 minutes. An hour later we still had not received the new route plan. The flight attendants were not only very unhelpful, they were actually quite rude. They made an announcement that we were not to ask questions. There were elderly passengers and children on the flight and we were told not to stand up and did not offer us any food or water. After 3 hours we finally received the flight plan, but we were also told that the plane now did not have enough fuel to make the flight. We would have to re-fuel. We were told this would take 10 minutes. After another 1 hour we still had not seen the fuel truck. By this time we had been on the plane for 4 hours. The flight crew finally broke down and gave us all one cup of water and a small bag of pretzels. It began to rain and lightening. I suppose we had waited long enough that the bad weather had reached us. Because of this they could not accept fuel and we had to wait for the lightening to subside. After another 2 hours we finally got refueled. We had been on the plane for 6 hours. The bathrooms had begun to smell foul and the plane was hot and uncomfortable. The flight attendants continued to be rude and abrupt with us, offering no apologies. I realize it was not their fault, but they are representatives of their company and some small token of sincerity and empathy can go a very long way. As is typical with JFK airport the take-off line was long and we waited another hour for take-off. The pilot then came on and announced that the flight crew had been on duty for too long and the flight was cancelled. We had been on this plane for 7 hours.

We were all crammed onto a shuttle. They assured us that Continental agents would be there to greet us and help us. Once we arrived at the airport security came and surrounded the shuttle and would not let us out. As you can imagine people were getting very tense. I myself had been awake for 24 hours having already made an international flight. People were starting to panic since there was no fresh air and we were breathing in the fumes from the shuttle and they were begging for the doors to be opened so we could at least get air. People started to bang on the doors and scream. It was a truly horrifying and scary scene. They still would not let us out. After we sat on the shuttle in this way for 30 minutes they let us out and we headed into the airport and upstairs. There was no one to greet us! We were all stunned. Everyone was hungry, tired, angry, scared, sad, etc. Finally one person was sent up to deal with us (along with a security detail). He announced that the flight crew would be going to sleep and this flight would go out at 9:45am. It was now almost 2am. We would not be compensated in anyway, no accommodations, no food, nothing. Nothing was even open in the airport for us to purchase food. As you can imagine the crowd was not happy and began to loudly complain. But they had sent only this one employee to deal with us that knew nothing and had no power to do anything. We demanded that the manager be sent up to talk to us. Around this time the flight crew and pilots slunk by, headed to a hotel to sleep. They did not say a word to us. No one ever offered any apologies or sympathy. Finally a line was formed for those of us that had connections. I got in the line and told that I had to get on a flight out of La Guardia at 5:50am to Houston and then catch a flight to Austin at 9:30am. She told me to meet someone at the airport chapel for a taxi voucher. I waited half an hour and the lady finally met me and explained she was out of taxi vouchers and that I would have to wait until 4:30am for a voucher (meaning I would miss my flight). So, I paid for my own cab to La Guardia. When I arrived at La Guardia at 3:30am there were no Continental agents there. I just sat and waited. A few other people from my flight began to filter in. There were 5 of us total. As soon as the self serve kiosk opened we went to them and tried to access our tickets. 3 were successful and 2 of us were not. Of course I was one of those that were not successful. There still were no Continental agents there so we called Continental. We were told that this flight was full and that we would have to get on another flight at 8am. I was devastated, but we somehow conveyed to her our situation and she said she would work on it. Finally a Continental agent arrived, but we could not get her to help us because she said she was not logged in. The line was then extremely long and she would not help many of the customers that were having trouble at the self-serve kiosk. While we were on hold with the phone representative we began to help all of the passengers that were having trouble while the real employee just sat and watched. The phone representative finally got the situation fixed and we were able to get our tickets printed. I was so grateful to her for realizing that our situation was special and that we needed to be on that flight. We got on the flight and once one flight attendant heard our story she immediately got us upgraded to first class. This was an extremely nice gesture, but really very little, too late in my opinion. She did it of her own free will and compassion, and from what I have seen of Continental is a very rare thing among their employees. Most of the employees know nothing about customer service, refusing to accept responsibility for their company’s actions. This tells me a lot about the company as a whole. We did of course arrive in Houston late and I had to run to my connecting flight. I had been up for 36 hours at this point.

Continental continues to maintain that it was weather related, thus they have no culpability. I do not believe this to be entirely true. I do realize that flights get delayed and even cancelled and although this is can be irritating it is a fact of life. However, I believe that many poor decisions were made at our expense to further the company’s monetary goals. Even if all the problems were related to the weather as they claim, there is absolutely no reason that we should have been kept on that plane in those conditions for 7 hours and then treated as we were once we got off the plane. It is unacceptable. I honestly want nothing from Continental at this point. I would not take a ticket voucher from them for anything.

The horribly ironic part of this story is that the only reason I flew Continental for this flight is because I had a ticket voucher from a previous flight in which they had destroyed our luggage completely. At that time we were treated horribly and had to go out of our way to get the destroyed items replace, some of which were irreplaceable. We then had to submit the receipts to Continental, who then tried to contest some of the purchases. It wasn’t until we complained about the treatment that they gave us a $200 flight voucher in return for some of the irreplaceable items. There were actually other cheaper flights that were direct to Austin from JFK, but I chose to give Continental another chance so I could use the voucher and save some money.

If you have made it this far, I really appreciate you reading through this. I am sharing this very long story to all of you because this really was a very horrible experience. I love to travel, but at this point I can’t imagine getting on a plane in the near future. I hope that since most of you know me that you know I am not typically a negative or complaining person. I have never been treated so inhumanely in my entire life. It was a frightening and traumatic experience and we were all treated almost as if it was our fault. I would never want anything like this to happen to any of my friends or family. I may be naïve, but I like to think that word of mouth can make a difference with a huge corporation like this. I will never fly with Continental again and I urge all of you to do the same. Please forward this email to everyone that you know.

I'm home for another 3 days and then I head to Colorado (by car of course) and will be there for 2 weeks. After that I'm sure I'll be posting photos and a trip report on my blog!