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