Jul 20 2013
I knew this would be a long day, getting to PEI was going to take 3 flights from San Diego, but I had NO idea…
The United hop from San Diego to SFO was nice, I got a security line with just a metal detector, so no opt-out and free molestation. I mistakenly took this as a good omen! 😉
I had about a 3 hour layover until my Air Canada SFO to Toronto flight, so I got some early lunch and boarded on time. I was in my window seat next to a very friendly elderly lady with a neat accent who looooved to talk – but I’m a friendly guy and humored her while subtly trying to stick in my earbuds to get my zone of silence going. She wasn’t having any of that, so I chitchatted with her a bit, learning that the lady on the aisle, who was doing her best to NOT engage, was actually her daughter and that they’d been trying to get home for a couple of days because of airline problems. I tried telling her about my Montreal trip recently to relate, but she had plenty of talking pent up because her daughter was DONE with her 😉
After a bit I noted that we’d been sitting quite a while. The door was closed, but we hadn’t backed out to taxi. The captain came on and said there had been an accident and that the runway was a mess and they were waiting on instructions… An accident? I broke the rules and fired up my phone. CNN had nothing, so I did a twitter search. I was confused and thought the accident was at our destination, Toronto, but as soon as I searched SFO I had tons of hits. Wow…
After about an hour or so total, they told us the airport was closed and we had to deplane, but to stick around because the flight wasn’t canceled. My seat mate needed a wheelchair assist, so I was the last person off the plane. Her daughter was NOT happy, but hey, at least we weren’t in a crash! They’d had a really hard week, so I felt bad for them.
We couldn’t see the crash from our plane, but as soon as we got out of the plane we could see it from the gate. I had my camera and long lens and got this:
I walked around a bit and shot people in the bar watching TV reports about the crash outside the window:
We all hung around the gate, occasionally getting updates from the Air Canada gate folks. These mainly were “we have no idea what’s gonna happen, but don’t go too far.” This went on for a few hours until, and I swear I am not making this up, they said “your flight is canceled, your bags are on carousel 9, we are closing the gate, go home.” As one, the crowd angrily repeated “GO HOME?!?” Mind you, a lot of these people are Canadians. They don’t GET mad… It was getting ugly.
Eventually we got the message to get our bags and go to the ticket counter to rebook. I did so and joined a growing group of folks at the Air Canada ticket counter and was stunned to see 8 agents all in a huddle behind the counter doing their best to make no eye contact with the growing crowd.
Eventually the herd of agents pushed forward one agent, named Augusta I believe, who addressed the crowd saying that they didn’t know anything, the airport was closed, everything was a mess, and they didn’t know how to help us. Also, all hotels are booked, so don’t even try to get one. She was very brave, and took a lot of abuse from the crowd, but she was just out of her depth – as was the whole airline for the next several hours.
I went to find an outlet so my phone didn’t die and called the Air Canada 888 number. It was totally swamped, but they had a neat feature to put in your number and they’d hold your place in line and call you back. I did that, was told it would be 30-40 minutes and hung up. I checked in with Elaine and she did some research on hotels, and I tweeted out that I might be looking for someplace to crash in SF that night. I know, bad choice of words… No pun intended, I assure you. I was getting pretty discouraged and depressed by this time, but all of a sudden I had nearly 8 offers of places to stay from a whole range of friends living around SF! This really bolstered my mood and I am very grateful to have such wonderful friends! Especially for the ones who also offered a lot of good beer. 😉
Air Cananda called back as promised and a very cranky, overworked, and rather rude lady barely listened to my story and booked me on a series of flights that would get me to PEI on Monday at noon. WTF? I asked her to try again, and she came back saying that’s all they could do. It was still Saturday! No offer of a hotel, or hotels, and I was going to have to route through Vancouver, then Montreal to get to PEI. Wow… I took the booking because that’s all I could do.
I checked the Air Canada ticket line again, and they still seemed baffled. I saw my seat mate and her daughter by the kiosks looking unhappy and checked in. The daughter was furious. Not only did she have her mother in a wheelchair, but also their 5 bags now. “They are doing NOTHING for us! What if my mother has to go to the bathroom, or lie down? Who will watch our bags? Where can we go?” I offered to watch the bags for her, but she was afraid to leave the ticket counter in case anything changed. I checked in with her a few times until they disappeared at some point. What a stressful situation for them!
So now what? Well, I booked all of this through United originally, and I’m Premier Silver there, so let’s see what they can do… I find their ticket line and boggle at the number of people:
Daaaang… I find the Premier Silver line and shuffle forward slowly. For THREE HOURS! United agents were handing out slips of paper with the United 800 number to see if we could get through there before getting to the front of the line. BTW I didn’t, but I now twitch every time I hear their hold music. Over and over and over. Ok, so 3 hrs pass sloggingly, and I get to talk to a wonderful dude named Patrick who told me he couldn’t help because Air Canada had taken control of my tickets and he couldn’t pull them back. He was super nice about it, and gave me tons of info, but in the end he directed me back to Air Canada. Yay.
Air Canada’s line was only an hour long, so I did my time there and got to an agent who said she could get me on a redeye to Montreal tonight, assuming it was allowed to take off! SIGN ME UP! This was the same flight one of my colleagues was going to be on. It was also the flight a couple I met in line needed to take to then go to Vancouver. SFO to Montreal to Vancouver – what should be a 2 hour direct flight was going to be an 8 hour nightmare that they were desperate to take. The agent also booked me on an 8a flight from Montreal to PEI, but said the connection was tight and my checked bag would slow me down at customs, but there was a chance I’d make it. She booked me on the 2p as well, just in case.
I grabbed a late dinner and headed over to the gate for the redeye flight, meeting up with my colleague, Chris. As we sat and chatted waiting for the plane, the gate people were calling up individuals who would walk away seemingly angry. I think I even heard a Canadian say a bad word in anger, so I was worried that they’d over booked and I was gonna get nuked. Eventually we started boarding and as I was about to get on I saw the Vancouver bound couple being told they weren’t going to be on this flight. They were really upset. I did get on though and saw lots of open seats, so I figured they’d end up making it. But nope we taxied out, sat on the tarmac for a really long time, then eventually took off.
I talked to the attendant, asking why the other people didn’t get on when we had plenty of seats and she said that because the crash had taken the one long runway at SFO out of service, there were only 2 short ones. Our plane had to be weight restricted to work on that runway, so they bounced people off, and that long time sitting on the tarmac was to burn off enough fuel to let us be light enough to take off! I can’t imagine the math they must do to make all this work. I’m just glad I finally got out of SFO and could get to my conference!
I don’t sleep well on airplanes, so it was a looong ride, but we eventually got to Montreal and I sprinted through to try to make that early flight to PEI. This wasn’t going to happen:
Montreal airport has super long corridors and terrible signage. So I missed the early flight and realized I was facing another 6 hours til the next flight. I fleetingly considered grabbing the city bus and having lunch with my Montreal buddy Amy, but then I sat down for a moment and almost passed out from lack of sleep and food. I punted and found the perfect Montreal food:
Then I found my gate and sleepily hung out until my blessedly uneventful flight to PEI!
I know a plane crash is a big deal, but how about some contingency planning, Air Canada? Or calling up some reserve staff for handling the long lines and phone hold times, United? (BTW, implement that call back feature Air Canada has working.) How about opening the airline lounges for elderly people who need someplace to recover from the stress?
The mood at SFO wavered from relief that we weren’t in the crashed plane to panic that no one knew what we were supposed to do next. Just some messaging other that “go home” would have settled some expectations.