Merry Christmas, eventually (Act III)

Act III: Leaving Texas

After the ordeal of getting to Houston for the holidays and our near-miss in actually being able to celebrate the holidays, the rest of the trip back to Texas was blissfully uneventful.

Almost.

Our schedule had us flying out of D/FW in the wee early hours of Sunday morning, but I knew it was an easy drive to the airport, so I wasn’t terribly worried. However, due to a planning error that was entirely my fault, I didn’t have us leaving our friends’ place until what turned out to be a little too late. The drive to the airport was just as quick and painless as I had envisioned. But by the time we dropped off our rental car (which actually took almost no time at all) and were dropped off at the terminal by the airport shuttle, we ended up getting in line to check our baggage about a half an hour or so prior to our departure time. The problem was that if you were checking baggage, you had to have been processed no later than 45 minutes prior to departure time (security regulations and all that), meaning we—and a few others—had missed the cutoff time. And what this meant was that we were summarily bumped off of our original flight and shunted off to another line to be rebooked onto a later flight. (Our US Airways jinx for this trip lived on, apparently…)

The flights out of Dallas were showing as all-full (of course), so we got to hear those magic words once again: “flying standby”. Instead of flying through Philadelphia, our standby flight now had us connecting through Charlotte, where we would then pick up a flight from there to Manchester (our home base). So off we went to go sit around at the gate (again), hoping (again) that there would be a couple of available seats. But once again, our luck or karma or whatever held up, and just a few minutes prior to departure, we were called up and given seats on the flight. Amazing.

Once we got to Charlotte, our connecting flight (for which we were once again on standby) wasn’t leaving for a few hours, so we decided to stop by the US Airways customer service desk to see if maybe there was an earlier flight back home. And let me tell you, the difference between the US Airways customer service desks in Philadelphia and Charlotte was like night and day. Maybe it was the whole Southern thing, being in North Carolina and all, but the woman helping us out couldn’t have been friendlier or more accomodating. Oh, and competent—very, very competent, which in and of itself put her miles above and beyond Philadelphia. She said that there was an earlier departing flight, but (a) it connected through Philly, and (b) in the end, it didn’t get into Manchester any earlier. I muttered out loud, “I have no desire to ever fly through Philadelphia again”, to which she replied that she completely understood. It turned out there weren’t any earlier flights, but she was at least able to confirm seats for us on our current flight (yay, no more standby!).

I’m still very bitter about how we were treated by US Airways on our inbound journey through Philadelphia, but I am now at least partially convinced that it was the fault of the Philadelphia crew, not (necessarily) that of the airline as a whole. And all because of this one woman behind the customer service desk in Charlotte, NC.

Oh… the actual flight back home was completely uneventful and not noteworthy at all (i.e., the way a flight should be), and I am really looking forward to being able to fly out of Manchester’s airport again in the future.

Aside: While camped out in Charlotte’s airport waiting for our flight home (by the way, I think Charlotte is one of the nicer airports to be stuck in if you’ve gotta be stuck in an airport), I managed to fulfill one last quest that I’d somehow managed to miss while back in Texas: getting hold of some decent BBQ. Specifically, getting hold of some decent brisket. For whatever reason, people up in the Northeast just can’t quite get the hang of brisket—I’ve found decent ribs and pork and whatnot, but the last couple of attempts at brisket have been miserable failures. (I can tell you where not to go for brisket in northern MA and southern NH, however.) Anyway, one of the airport eateries advertised themselves as a BBQ joint, and given that I was still technically in the South, I figured it was worth a shot. And oh yesyesyes, some decent brisket. Better than decent, actually—it was the smoky, juicy, fall-apart-with-your-fork tender brisket that I have yet to find up here in New England. So yes, I will have pleasant memories all the way around about Charlotte’s airport.

Merry Christmas, eventually (Act II)

Act II: While in Texas

After all the fun of getting to Houston for the holidays, we eventually made it to my mother-in-law’s place, where we would be staying for the first part of the holidays. We knew no one else would be home yet, so we let ourselves in and looked for the box of Christmas presents we had shipped down to ourselves before we left New Hampshire.

(Aside: In the old days, i.e., before we left Texas, we could just load up our car with all of the Christmas presents for our families, then drive down I-45 from Dallas to Houston. With us now living in New England, we instead boxed up all of those gifts and shipped them down to my m-i-l’s place instead of trying to drag a whole suitcase full of gifts along with us. We did this last year as well, and—aside from DHL banging up our box more than they should have—it worked out really well. Anyhoo, back to the story…)

The only problem was we couldn’t find the box. Front entryway? No box. Dining room? No box. Living room? No box. Ah, under the stairs… nope, no box. We were starting to get a little concerned. Now, the box weighed 25-plus pounds, so it’s unlikely my m-i-l would have bothered lugging it upstairs, but what the hell… guest bedroom (where we’d be staying), no box… master bedroom, no box. We didn’t trip over a large, 25-pound box when walking in the front door, so it obviously wasn’t sitting on the front stoop. But wait, maybe the FedEx guy left it on the back porch… ah, should have thought of that earlier. So I wandered out back to the patio… no box. Storage closet… you guessed it—no box.

Now we were officially worried. I called FedEx to see if they could tell us if the box was even delivered (after all, it would have been really hard to find the box if it had not even been delivered yet). Even though I didn’t have the tracking number with me—it was sitting back in New Hampshire on top of the rolltop desk in the kitchen… nice one there, genius boy—the FedEx rep on the phone was still quite helpful in trying to find the status of the package (even though, as you’d expect, they were getting bombarded due to the holiday rush). But then he came back with something puzzling: “I’m sorry, but I can’t find any record of that shipment in our system.” Now I was really confused. Granted, it would be even harder to find the box if it had never been shipped in the first place, but we had used our local shipping office plenty of times in the past, and they were always top-notch. So I called them, and they were actually able to verify that yes, the package had been shipped (like I said, no real doubt there), and yes, FedEx had delivered the package around 3:30 the previous afternoon. Now, how they were able to determine this when FedEx couldn’t is still a mystery, but OK, now at least we know the box was delivered. Our shippers said they’d follow up directly with FedEx to try to get in touch with the actual delivery guy to see what was going on here. (By the way, Postal Center USA in Nashua, NH—friendly and helpful bunch of folks, and they’ve never done us wrong.)

Somewhat to my surprise, there was a knock at the door later that afternoon—it was the FedEx delivery guy! We described our situation, and he recalled that (a) he had definitely been in the condo complex the previous day, and (b) he distinctly recalled our particular box (our box was heavier than most and, more distinctively, was wrapped in plain brown shipping paper instead of just your typical mailer box). In fact, he even described our box before we did, so it wasn’t just a matter of him blindly agreeing to whatever we said. The only thing is that he couldn’t recall exactly what he had done with the box (and to be fair, our box only one of likely dozens he had to deliver that day), but he vaguely recalled that he had stopped by the front office. Now we were getting somewhere! Since it had rained the previous afternoon, it would be more than logical to leave the package at the front office. We thanked him for his time, and my sweetie and I headed to the front office to go claim our package… only to find that the office was closed for the long holiday weekend. ACK! Our box was in there! Through a series of frantic phone calls that eventually involved a good chunk of the board of directors (of which my m-i-l is a member) for the condo complex, we managed to get into the office. One thing: We also set off the alarm in the process, and the bypass code that we had been given didn’t work. So here we were, searching room-by-room for our box, with the alarm shrieking at us all the while. And in the end, it turned out our box wasn’t even there. (We did eventually manage to get the alarm shut off, and no cops showed up during this whole ordeal, so I guess it wasn’t all bad. Small consolation at this point, however.)

My mother-in-law is good friends with the neighbor across the driveway, so she ventured a suggestion that maybe the neighbor … seeing as how it was raining the previous day and all … took it upon herself to take the package from my m-i-l’s front porch and hold onto it for safekeeping. As she had been out all day, there wasn’t any way to verify this, but my m-i-l left a message with her, asking if she had indeed collected our box, and could she please call us back. In the meantime, I walked up and down a good stretch of the complex, looking for a familiar box perhaps sitting on the wrong front porch. No box. And when I got back to the condo, we heard back from the neighbor when she got back… no, she had seen or taken in any box. (I later discovered that my sister-in-law—who had been with us a good part of this evening—actually drove up and down the complex herself on her way home, looking for a misplaced box just as I had. No luck there either, but it was great of her to look.) At this point, I was pretty much resigned to the fact that our box was gone. Stolen, misplaced, misdelivered, I didn’t know, but it was gone. Very sadly, we made tentative plans to go shopping the next day to try to replace what had been lost in the box. (Not all of it was replaceable, but we would do the best we could.)

The next morning (Saturday, two days before Christmas), the same neighbor from the previous evening took a look at a box that had been sitting on another neighbor’s front porch for a couple of days now and noticed that (a) it was for the correct unit number, but (b) it was for an apartment complex down the road, not this condo complex. Which got minds a-whirrin’—if this box had been misdelivered in this way, maybe ours had been as well. My sweetie and her mom took off for the apartment complex. When they got there, they told the leasing office there that this box had been misdelivered, at which point the lady in the office said something to the effect that ohmigod, they’ve been calling about this box, and thank you so much! At which point my sweetie told her that oh, by the way, we’re missing a box, too, and maybe it got delivered to your place by mistake and could you please look for it. The lady disappears to a storage room in the back, rummages around for awhile, and exclaims, “Oh, here it is!”—at which point, two days of utter stress fall off my sweetie’s shoulders, and she bursts into tears. When the lady came out with our box and noticed my sweetie’s state, she said, “I guess this box was pretty important”, to which my sweetie told her, “Our entire Christmas is in this box”.

So the FedEx guy had been sort of correct: He had seen our box, he had dropped our box off at an office, but it had been the wrong complex and the wrong office. (Despite all of this, we were still willing to cut the guy some slack—after all, he had stopped by after his shift the previous day, and I’m sure the Christmas delivery rush must be hellish for these guys… no, it doesn’t completely justify the mistake, but at least it helps explain it.) But in the end, none of the details mattered: It was two days before Christmas, and we were now in possession of all our gifts. An early Christmas for us, indeed.

Continue to Act III: Leaving Texas

Merry Christmas, eventually (Act I)

Act I: Getting to Texas

Our original flight plan had us departing from Manchester (NH) and arriving in Houston by way of Philadelphia on US Airways. We’d never flown out of Manchester before, but as it’s barely 15 minutes from our house, we finally decided to give it a try. Getting to the airport was a breeze. And getting through TSA security was a breeze as well, even though my carry-on bag was selected for additional screening (maybe the camera I was toting in there?—not sure what else was even remotely interesting in there…). In chatting with the friendly (and I mean that in all honesty) TSA screener, I mentioned that we were connecting through Philly, and he volunteered that he was actually from Philly—but that he never flew out of there (“hated [doing] it” is what he said)… pay attention, kids, ’cause this is what we refer to as “foreshadowing”.

Getting to Philly was completely uneventful—the flight was smooth and on-time (a little early, in fact), and as we had a bit of a layover til our next flight, we managed to grab a bite to eat. We then proceeded to our departure gate and waited for a little bit. Before too long came the announcement—not too completely unexpected—that our flight was overbooked. And not only was it overbooked, but there were also some serious headwinds coming into Houston, and as a result, the plane was being subjected to a weight/luggage restriction. Meaning US Airways was desperately looking for some volunteers to give up their seats. They started with the standard offering: a free round-trip ticket to anywhere in the continental U.S., plus hotel and meal for the night, with a seat on the first flight to Houston the next morning, getting there around 11:00 a.m. (Lie #1, as it turned out.) No takers (and I mean none). The offer was ratcheted up a notch: two round-trip tickets. A few takers now, but apparently not enough. The gate agent, at this point, was literally going person to person in the waiting area, asking people if they were aware of the offer and if they’d be interested. At first, we sat patiently by, thinking we’d rather just get to Houston, thankyouverymuch. But as we thought about it some more, we realized that (a) we wouldn’t be getting into Houston until almost 11:00 p.m. that night anyway, and (b) my mother-in-law (with whom we were staying) would have to work the next day, meaning we wouldn’t get to see her til tomorrow evening anyway. And it finally dawned on us that there was no difference between us getting in at 11:00 p.m. that night versus 11:00 a.m. the next morning—no difference except for the two round-trip tix (each) that we’d also have in the bag. CH-CHING! Sign us up! When I asked what would happen to our checked baggage, they said it’d go through on the original flight that evening and would be waiting at the US Airways baggage office in Houston. OK, fine, that was to be expected. By this point, the original flight was almost an hour late in departing. They ended up taking all the volunteers (no surprise), at which point they told us that they had pulled all the volunteers’ bags off of the flight (?) and that they would go out on tomorrow morning’s flight instead. (Lie #2) Hadn’t heard of this happening before, but OK.

So our original flight finally managed to take off—and then the fun started. We were first shunted to another gate in order to get our free vouchers, etc. processed. Slow going—we were only third in line, but it still took nearly half an hour for us to get into the you’re-next-in-line position. And just at that point, the gate agent (one of the gate agents from our original flight, but not the one who was canvassing for volunteers) pointed to us and said something along the lines of “Everyone from you on back should go to the US Airways Special Services (read: customer service) counter—they’ve got a bank of agents to help you, so it’ll got a whole lot faster.” (Lie #3) Well, gee, OK, that sounds swell, so off we went…

…to now find ourselves eighth in line at “Special” Services—with a “bank” of two whole agents working the counter. An hour later, we were still eighth in line, and the same two people who were being served when we arrived were still being served. Then one of the bank of agents disappeared (for a very long time, as it turned out), but two more eventually took his place. We ploddingly moved up a couple places in line, at which point one of the new agents declared in a huff that her shift is over and summarily left. So now we were back down to two agents (and the one original agent was still servicing the same customer he was servicing when we got there!). Meanwhile, we overheard what was going on: The flight that we were supposed to be rebooked on was full (turned out it was filled very shortly after they started taking volunteers at our gate—there was no possible way all of us volunteers would ever have been able to make it onto tomorrow morning’s promised flight).

Aside #1: While I continued to stand in line during all of this, my sweetie went back to the gate agent who was originally processing the free vouchers and told her that there was a whole line of people who have been stuck in line for going on two hours now and that someone needed to send help. The agent promised to have a supervisor meet up with my sweetie (Lie #4) and sent her back to the line. After waiting for a long while (with no supervisor showing up), she returned to the same gate agent to ask what was going on, only to be told (paraphrasing, but just barely): “You’re not leaving til tomorrow anyway, so there’s nothing we can do. Go back and stand in line.” Needless to say, my sweetie was fuming by this point… and then she realized that a US Airways office was situated directly behind the service counter. She managed to talk to someone (a supervisor?), only to be told by him that he couldn’t help man the counter himself, as he doesn’t know the system. (Lie #5)

After now going on three hours in line, we finally made it to the counter and started getting serviced by one of the replacement agents—only to find out that she was COMPLETELY incompetent. I mean, she was very literally reading from the manual as she went along, trying to figure out what keys to hit in order to process our free vouchers. OH DEAR LORD, this can’t be happening, this can’t be happening. By some miracle, she managed to get our hotel and meal vouchers printed out. Then she started trying to book our flight to Houston for the next morning… trying… trying… and at long last, she told us that there was a flight on Continental leaving the next morning at 6:20, connecting through Cleveland and arriving in Houston around 10:00 a.m. or so. At this point, anything not connected to US Airways sounded wonderful, so we took it. She then printed out our tickets for the next morning’s rebooked flight—but when I looked at what had been printed out, it was simply a copy of the passes for our original flight to Houston for that evening! When I pointed this out to her, she proceeded to completely melt down trying to figure out how to reissue our new tickets. I began to melt down for a completely different reason, of course.

Just at this moment—now going on four hours at “Special” Services, the supervisor my sweetie spoke to showed up at the desk—and proceeded to log in to the system. “Guess he knows how to work the system after all,” my sweetie said in his direction in a very loud stage whisper. And right about then as well, one of the two original service agents (the one who disappeared) finally returned. Our clueless agent asked for his help, at which point the returning agent apparently realized this one doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing and took over things for us. Finally, a competent agent who could help us! (First one we had worked with all night.) In short order, he managed to issue us our new tickets and (finally) print out our free flight vouchers. Since we were being rebooked onto a different airline, I asked again what would happen to our checked baggage; we were told that baggage would not be checked onto a different airline and that our bags would proceed on the next morning’s US Airways flight, as before. At this point, it’s way too late to try to use our meal voucher, so we thanked our apparent savior for rescuing us, caught a shuttle to our hotel, and went to sleep, knowing we had to wake up at 3:30 a.m. in order to get back to the airport in order to check in with Continental.

Aside #2: We actually got to the hotel a little after 11:00 p.m., but because all of our toiletries had been checked through (thanks, worthless TSA restrictions), we had no toothpaste, etc. The only thing we had was our prescription medications, which we obviously did not check through. We managed to bum the barest of supplies from the hotel front desk and settled in to go to sleep. Only problem is that our neighbors in the next room decided to stay up—and loudly at that—until around 12:30 that night. Say hello to about three hours of sleep.

We arrived back to the airport at around 4:30 a.m. to check in at the Continental front desk. Despite the length of the line (surprisingly long for this early in the morning, at least to me), we managed to get to the front pretty quickly. Which is when we were informed by the Continental agent that (a) the flight we were rebooked onto was already full, (b) that US Airways would have known it was already full (and that we’d be flying standby, at best), and (c) US Airways neglected to inform Continental that they were sending passengers their way, and (d) US Airways—at least in Philadelphia—was apparently in the habit of doing this. (This turned out to be Lie #… what are we up to… Lie #6, as US Airways—even our apparent savior agent—would have already know that the Continental flight was already full when they rebooked us onto it.) You’ve got to be f*cking kidding me. Remarkably (remarkable given how tired I was), I calmly asked what our options were. He then told me there was a direct flight on Continental from Philly to Houston leaving at 5:45 a.m. and arriving in Houston around 8:30 or so (wonder why US Airways didn’t at least bother to overbook us onto a direct flight… oh well). He’d put us on standby for that flight, and if it didn’t work out, we were to go across the aisle to the gate there and go standby for the Cleveland flight. And if that didn’t work out, they’d keep retrying, but you know…

Going through security, it should come as absolutely no shock that we were selected for “additional security screening” (and as soon as I saw the SSSS code on our tickets reissued by Continental, I already knew this was coming). So we had to go through the complete bag/purse check, the patdowns, the whole nine yards. Went pretty quickly, actually.

We proceeded to our gate and let the agent there (remarkably cheery for 5:00-something in the a.m.) know we were on standby. She told us that she’d call our name if seats became available. And less than ten minutes later, the miracle: “Rhee, standby party of two.” I actually said it out loud, “You’ve got to be kidding me”, to which she replied that she was not. Not only did she get us adjoining seats (unexpected bonus for a supposedly full flight), but the seats were in an exit row (completely impossible bonus for a supposedly full flight). I then proceeded to tell her that she was my favorite person in Philadelphia, and my sweetie told her, “If no one else tells you so, you are a goddess.” She smiled and sent us on our way, but at this point, I’m already making a mental note to fly Continental next time just for their good karma.

The flight into Houston was completely uneventful. After a quick breakfast on board, I very comfortably (yay, exit row!) read and slept the rest of the way. (Even though I was pretty dog-tired at this point, I still couldn’t sleep… probably a little too wound up.) And we got into Houston a little ahead of schedule to boot.

Even though the US Airways flight for the morning (the one our bags supposedly got moved to) wasn’t due in for another couple of hours, we at this point were not willing to believe a single word that US Airways in Philly had told us, and we worked under the assumption that our bag was on last night’s original flight. So we went down to the US Airways baggage claims office, only to find that no one was there. I went off in search of someone who would let us in, while my sweetie waited there in case someone showed up. As it turned out, someone did show up while I was gone. When my sweetie explained what had happened (including the move to Continental), the US Airways agent (who was in a majorly bitchy mood that morning, apparently) very brusquely told her that it was now Continental’s problem, not theirs. At which point my sweetie—now in no mood for this herself—forcefully pointed out that US Airways had said just the opposite and could she please go back and look for our bag. And in what should be no surprise by now, our bag was sitting there waiting for us, having been transported on the previous night’s original flight.

And thus ended this part of the adventure. Despite having been flat-out lied to on (at least) six occasions by US Airways in Philadelphia, we were finally in Houston with all of our bags and with four free flight vouchers to boot. Granted, this meant we’d have to fly US Airways again, but we vowed that those would be the last flights we’d ever take on this accursed airline.

Continue to Act II: While in Texas