36 Hours in Travel Hell

Dan Sokol – 8 Jan 2004

Addendum, 11 January 2004

ATA Responds, 23 January 2004

 

 

This is a true story. I truly wish it were fiction.

 

A Long Anticipated Vacation

 

There is this place in the Caribbean, a little island known as St Barths, which my sister and I like to escape to whenever we have the time and the money. St Barths is a French island and has been ‘discovered’, so you have to plan your trips long in advance.  We did our planning in early 2003 to spend 10 days there in early Jan 2004.

 

My sister lives in New Jersey. I live in San Jose, California. There are no direct flights from the San Francisco area to the islands (any of them). The last time I traveled to the islands I flew to Miami and spent the night in a hotel at the airport. This time I decided to take an American Airlines redeye and meet my sister at Kennedy at 8 AM and travel together to St Maarten where we would catch the Windward Airlines flight to St Barths.

 

Three weeks before the trip AA informed us that the departure and arrival times of BOTH flights had been changed. The redeye would arrive an hour later; the St Maarten flight would leave an hour earlier. This left me all of 10 minutes to make the connection, assuming the redeye was on time (and how often does that happen?).

 

I went online to Cheap Tickets to see what I could find. I settled for an ATA flight to Newark, where my sister lives, for the day before the flight to St Maarten. The ATA flight was listed at Cheap Tickets as non-stop … it wasn’t, and so begins my saga.

 

Threat Level Orange

 

I woke up at 4 AM on Sunday the 4th of January to catch ATA flight 276 to Newark. I got my boarding pass and went to the gate. When I got to security I was informed by the over zealous TSA Nazi that they considered me to be traveling with three items and I would have to check one of them. I objected saying that I had traveled exactly the same way 2 weeks ago, but I was informed that the rules were ‘FEDERAL’ and had been in effect for months. This of course is BS. I saw numerous travelers at other gates with more then 3 bags. Apparently, if you travel with small children, or are infirm, or have a note from your mother, these rules do not apply.

 

If this had been a business trip, I would have simply gone home. (Well, not simply … I would have told the TSA Nazi’s supervisor that I was not taking the fight and to enjoy his paperwork.)

 

I checked the bag with my cameras, DVD’s, and clothes thru to Newark. I carried my computer and backpack that had my sundries. I admit I was very uneasy. I haven’t checked a bag on an airline for years. I usually FedEx my luggage rather then check it. Neither the airlines nor the TSA have any liability for lost luggage. At least with FedEx you can insure it for its value. Also, FedEx doesn’t do a strip search when they pickup your luggage.

 

Just a Little Bit Late

 

We left San Jose about 30 minutes late. No reason was given. The pilot said we would make up about half that time in transit and would be about 15 minutes late getting into Midway Field, Chicago.

 

WHAT!!! I checked my Ticket. Did I get on the wrong plane? Nope. The error was at Cheap Tickets. The plane was supposed to stop at Midway and continue on to Newark. I was on the correct flight.

 

The flight to Midway is supposed to take about 3 hours.

 

About an hour into the flight they served us a ‘snack’, two cookies and a glass of whatever we wanted to drink. (Sorry sir, I can’t give you the can, we’re a bit short.)

 

About four hours into the three-hour flight I noticed we were flying in circles. The pilot came on the intercom and announced that Midway was closed due to snow and that we were running short on fuel.  We landed at Champagne, Illinois. (We would have landed at Indianapolis but that airport was already overloaded with planes diverted from Midway.)

 

We sat on the ground for 2 hours at a holding area. Looking out my window at Champagne all I could see was cornfields. No terminal services were available.

 

They refueled the plane, but only with enough fuel to get to Midway. Apparently ATA didn’t want to pay for fuel at an airport they don’t normally travel to, or perhaps it was just poor planning on the part of the pilot.

 

The pilot came on the intercom and announced that Midway was open and the we would take off in 10 minutes.

 

We took off 45 minutes later. (ATA pilots seem to have difficulties with simple math problems, as you will see later.)

 

I have now been on this one aircraft for about 7 hours.

 

“Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow”

 

The flight time from Champagne to Midway should have taken about 20 minutes. An hour later the pilot announces that Midway is closed again and we are landing at Indianapolis.

 

This time we pull up to a gate. About half a dozen passengers leave the plane; Indianapolis was their final destination. They were the lucky ones.

 

The pilot comes on the intercom to announce we will be here for 2 hours.

 

Let No Good Deed Go Unpunished

 

At this point I have been on the same plane for approaching 10 hours. I have slept for about 2 of those hours. I am very tired, and I'm past that point of being frustrated, past annoyed, past anger, even past exhaustion. I’m at that place of total calm where you’re capable of doing anything without any sense of remorse. I wonder to myself how the other passengers are holding up.

 

I ask the stewardess if I can order a Pizza. She says no, BUT she suggests the idea to the captain who announces that he will order pizza for all the passengers. Nice gesture, unfortunately this is where his limited grasp of simple mathematics comes into play.

 

He was able to multiply the number of rows of passengers by 6, but was apparently unable to divide by 8 properly. The Pizza’s arrived. The crew split the boxes front and rear and started handing out slices. Did I mention I was exactly in the middle of the plane? They ran out of slices one row on either side of my seat.

 

I begin to wonder if I have annoyed some demi-god.

 

One of the crew locates an open Subway sandwich shop in the terminal and brings back sandwiches for the 18 of us who didn’t get pizza. It was the first time I’ve had a salad sandwich. Lettuce, dressing, and a single slice of baloney on a roll. I don’t recommend it.

 

Almost Half Way There

 

We leave Indianapolis about 3 hours after we landed there.

 

We circle Midway for about an hour. The pilot announces that the landing ‘Might be a bit rough’ due to ice on the runway.

 

The landing is uneventful. It is 5 PM in the evening Chicago time.

 

We travel to the end of taxiway and stop. The captain announces that the gate we are supposed to go to is not available yet. There will be a 10-minute delay. I inadvertently voice my thoughts “I wonder what brand of watch he wears?”. About a dozen people begin to laugh. Some of the laughter borders on the hysterical.

 

Two hours later we are still waiting for a gate. But I’m not worried, as long as I get to Newark before 5 AM I can get to Kennedy on time. Besides, the plane I’m on needs to be in Newark for the next day schedule. I call my sister on my cell phone and bring her up to date.

 

Midway to Nowhere

 

When we finally get to a gate the local time is 9:30 PM. 

 

The crew forces ALL the passengers to disembark. I finally leave the plane that I have been on for the last 12 hours.

 

ALL the Midway concessions closed at 9 PM; none of the food stalls are open. The terminal is a madhouse. People are lined up everywhere. I stay at the gate because the screen above the agent still says ‘Newark Flt 276 – Delayed’.

 

At 10 PM they cancel the flight. They send us to another gate (half a mile away) for the next (and last) Newark flight.

 

Due to the fact that I was close to the gate of the cancelled flight, I ended up near the end of the line for the other Newark flight. I looked at the line and realized I wasn’t going to get on the plane without being somewhat anti-social. Either that or I needed a cause.

 

Never Trust Fate

 

A young woman whom I had helped on the plane back in San Jose (she had trouble lifting her bag to the overhead) had told me she was on her way to the east coast for open-heart surgery. She was along side me on the line. She looked very worried.

 

I said “Hi.” She said, “I’m not going to make it to NJ am I?”

 

Hmmm … Follow me …

 

I left the line went right up to the counter with the girl in tow. I told the agent that she was due for open heart surgery in the morning and had to get to Newark. I gave the agent both of our tickets. The Agent said, “I can get you on the flight, but you wont be together.” No Problemo.

 

We got on the flight and took our seats. About 20 minutes later they closed the doors and de-iced the plane.

 

We sat there with the doors closed for 45 minutes. Then the captain came on the line and announced that they crew had been working too long (FAA rules) and that the flight was cancelled. He also told us that 8 other planes waiting to takeoff were in the same boat. They would be coming back to the gate.

 

Customer Disservice

 

It is now approaching midnight Chicago time. The gate agent sends us to the customer service center. There are three customer service agents on duty and about 230 people on line ahead of me. (Having nothing else to do, I counted them.)

 

It took about an hour to get to talk to an agent. All they could do for me, rather all they were willing to do for me, is put me up for the night at a motel, pay for it and cab fare, and send me on my way at 10 AM the next morning.

 

They were totally oblivious to the fact that Newark was NOT my final destination.

 

They offered me a free voucher for an ATA flight that I could ‘use anytime during the next year.’ I asked if I could sell it or give it away. They said no.

 

I took the voucher and ripped it up in front of the agent explaining that I would never get on one of their planes again.

 

I called my sister to bring her up to date. I asked her to find me a flight to the Caribbean from O’Hare.

 

Baggage? We Don’t Need No Stinkin Baggage!

 

It is now about 1 AM Chicago time. I have been awake for 23 hours. I have eaten all of 2 cookies and a salad sandwich in that time. I head for the baggage claim area.

 

The bags from flight 276 are nowhere to be found.

 

I find a baggage agent surrounded by travelers. Someone else near the front of the group asks my question for me. “Don’t worry,” he says, “Your bags will all get to Newark on the first flight tomorrow morning.”

 

I head over to the baggage office and get in line. This time the line is short, perhaps 15 people. Three agents are working the desk.

 

I explain AGAIN. Newark is NOT my destination; it is a waypoint. I want my bag. “Sorry sir, we don’t have the manpower to get your bag. It will go to Newark, and then get sent back here.”

 

I leave the agent with as much information as I have, BUT they won’t make arrangements to ship the bag until after it is physically in their possession. I get a contact name and number to call and a file reference number.

 

Taxi!!!

 

I call my sister. She tells I’m on an American Airlines flight to St Maarten via San Juan out of O’Hare that leaves around 10AM. The flight cost an additional $510.00.

 

I go outside to find the shuttle bus to O’Hare and discover that it, like the rest of Midway, stopped running at 9:30. I go looking for a Taxi.

 

Did I mention that there were about 3000 people stranded at Midway by ATA? Well there were, and they were all lined up for taxis.

 

But I’m an experienced traveler. I’ll just take a limo.

 

It takes me a while to find where they hid the phones for the limos. I call the first number on the list. I get the limo driver who is on her way to Midway to pickup a couple and take them to a motel. She tells me where she’s picking up the couple and tells me to go there and introduce myself and see if it’s ok for me to join them. I’m so tired that I forget which end of the drop off area she said. I go right. Naturally I pick the wrong one.

 

Half a mile later I come across a bunch of people at the left end of the drop off area. Most of them are smoking. There’s one couple waiting by the door. “Are you the Zimmerman’s?” I ask.

 

They were, and they were quite willing to share the limo.

 

Food for Thoughts

 

The Zimmerman’s were one of the 3000 stranded at Midway. All of the close in hotels and motels were full. We dropped them off at Best Western 10 miles from the airport.

 

I told my travel story to the limo driver, mostly just to stay awake. She took pity on me and we did the drive thru at an all night Burger King. I hadn’t realized just how hungry I was.

 

The trip to O’Hare is uneventful.

 

The Tortise and O’Hare

 

Everything at O’Hare is closed. It is 3:30 AM Chicago time.

 

I decide to camp out in front of the AA ticket area. I get about 5 minutes of sleep before the airport intercom blares out the TSA warnings about Threat Level Orange. The message repeats every 5 minutes. The volume level has been set to 11.

 

At 4:30 AM the AA ticket counter opens. By this time all I can remember is that I’m going somewhere in the Caribbean on an AA flight. Fortunately this proves to not be an obstical for the ticket agent.

 

She tells me that there’s an earlier flight to San Juan if I want it. My connecting flight on American Eagle to St Maarten stays the same. My new flight to San Juan is scheduled to leave at 8:30 AM. She sets up my flights and gives me my boarding passes.

 

I begin to think the worst is over.

 

Murphy WAS an Optimist

 

I stagger down toward my gate only to discover that security doesn’t open until 6 AM.

 

I curl up on the floor at the entrance to security to try and get a few minutes of sleep. Every five minutes I am awakened, “THE TRANSPORTATION SECURITY AGENCY HAS RAISED THE THREAT LEVEL TO ORANGE, blah, blah, blah”.

 

At 6 AM Security finally opens. I breeze thru.

 

There are no moving walkways at O’Hare. My gate turns out to be about half a mile away. At this point it’s hardly worth mentioning.

 

I get to the gate and curl up in a chair. (…“THE TRANSPORTATION SECURITY AGENCY …”)

 

At 7 AM the gate crew arrive. We board at 8 AM and takeoff on time. The flight to San Juan is uneventful. I get about 2 hours of sleep, and a stiff neck.

 

Island Time

 

It is now 2:30 in the afternoon in San Juan. I have been traveling for 30 hours.

 

I have two more flights to catch before I’m at my final destination.

 

The flight from O’Hare docks at a gate exactly in the middle of the terminal. This means that no matter where my connecting flight is, I wont have to walk very far. For some reason this makes me very nervous.

 

I walk to the American Eagle end of the terminal and check in with the gate agent. My flight boards at 3:40 PM. I try and get a few minutes sleep.

 

At 3:30 PM the gate agent announces that the crew is late and therefore so are we.

 

At 4:30 PM the crew arrives. We board and take off for San Maarten.

 

Hurlers Ball

 

We land at St Maarten at 5:15 PM. As we’re taxing to the terminal I look out the window and see a Windward Airlines plane starting up its engines. I check the time and suspect that it’s the last flight of the day. (St Barth’s airport is open during daylight hours only.)

 

I head for the transfer desk. Sure enough I just missed the last flight to St Barth’s. The gate agent for Windward Airlines had already left for the day. There was a note from my sister with instructions on how to contact her. She left it with Windward Airlines, but I never got it.

 

One of the other agents suggested I take the ferry to St Barth’s. It leaves at 6:15 from the other side of the Island.

 

I zip thru immigration and grab the first cab I see. The cab driver tells me we should make it on time.

 

It turns out to be the most interesting of cab rides. Over the next 25 minutes I learn all about island politics, the Mafia influence on St Maarten, and how the Mafia squeezed a certain wealthy Iranian out of the casino business.

 

I get to the dock in time to buy my ticket. The ferry is late. We leave at 7 PM.

 

As we are leaving the harbor we are informed that it will be a bumpy ride. There are small craft warnings. It is suggested that passengers avoid the outside seating areas.  (“You will get wet.”) Barf bags are handed out.

 

I’m not too concerned. I don’t usually get seasick and besides, I haven’t eaten in over 8 hours. I do however tend to get sick watching other people puke. I closed my eyes and made believe what I am hearing is engine noises.

 

The ferry trip takes 90 minutes.

 

I step off the ferry onto the dock at St Barth’s at 8:30 PM on Monday the 5th of January 2004. Total travel time – 36 hours.

 

Now all I have to do is find the Villa we’re staying at.

 

Telephone Purgatory

 

I make several vain attempts to call the villa from a pay phone. For some reason, I have lost my technical juju. I take a cab to the St Barth’s airport because I’m pretty sure it’s close to where we are staying.

 

I ask the cab driver what the secret is to making local calls. He tells me  … dial ‘0’ first. (DOH!)

 

I call my sister; she picks me up 5 minutes later.

 

I have arrived.

 

We have a wonderful dinner at a Hotel Filao, which is right next to us, and then, finally a good night sleep.

 

A Significant Improvement in the Quality of Incompetence

 

In case you missed it about 4 pages back, ATA airlines is holding my baggage ransom on a flight headed for Newark, NJ. I have arrived at St Barth's with the clothes on my back and my computer and little else.

 

On Tuesday morning I make a stop at St Barth’s Services. They specialize in finding lost baggage. A gentleman named Sabin takes my case and starts making calls to locate my bags. I give him the name and phone number and case number that the ATA agent gave me.

 

The agent in question, let’s call him Carlos since that is his real name, manages to misunderstand every instruction he is given. Rather then call St Barth’s Services, an international call for him; he calls my home phone in California. Every attempt to call him ends up at an answering machine.

 

He is told to send the bag to St Maarten or St. Thomas.

 

I have been told, at different times during the week that my bag is on an AA flight, a Continental flight, a US Air flight. None of the statements turns out to be true.

 

Eventually my bag is sent to San Juan, the airport with the highest theft rate for bags in the free world. At this point it gets ‘lost in the system’.

 

It is now Saturday, Jan 10th, 7 days since I left San Jose, California. My bag has ‘disapeared’.

 

I return home next Wednesday. I do not expect to ever see my bag again.

 

So what has all this cost me? Let me summarize:

 

1.     Cost to move my Kennedy flight to O’Hare -                               $510.00

2.     Limo to O’Hare -                                                              $  80.00

3.     Cab to ferry -                                                                     $  50.00

4.     Ferry to St Barth’s -                                                          $  40.00

5.     Cab to St Barth’s airport -                                                 $  20.00

 

Contents of my lost bag:

1. Sony PCR-3, DV Camcorder                                              $2100.00

2. Olympus E-10 and accessories                                           $2500.00

3. 30 DVD’s I brought to share with the family                                  $  750.00

4. Casio Exilim 3 charger/base                                                            $    65.00

5. Apple Airport                                                                                  $  300.00

6. Misc clothing                                                                                  $  500.00

7. Collapsible fluid head tripod                                                           $  250.00

8. Books and misc supplies (sun block etc)                                        $    75.00

9. The bag itself …                                                                              $  250.00

 

TOTAL                                                                                               $ 7490.00

 

For those of you who are unaware, neither the airlines (ANY of them), nor the TSA, have ANY liability for lost luggage. The airlines have a $600.00 limit on lost luggage backed up by a 40 year old Geneva treaty. This is one of the many reasons that travelers refuse to check their bags.

 

Old Management Saying - Fish Smell from the Head

 

Now I realize that all of this grief was triggered by weather, a snowstorm that effected Midway airport. However, much of it could have been avoided if ATA Airlines was a customer-oriented company. It is not.

 

It is OBVIOUSLY not.

 

ATA is a hub and spoke airline with only a single hub at Midway in Chicago. When midway shuts down, ATA does too. This infers a very bad decision by ATA management when the airline was initially started. Placing your only hub at an airport susceptible to winter weather outages. (Note: on the same day that Midway was closed, O’Hare was open. So was Indianapolis.)

 

The decision by the airline (pilot or management) to continue to try and land at Midway was a terrible disservice to the passengers. On the flight I was on less then 20% of the passengers had Chicago as a destination. Had they gone and landed at ANY other major airport the first time that they approached Midway, all of the passengers could have arranged passage ON OTHER AIRLINES and gotten to their destinations.

 

All of the decision-making was based on what was best for ATA Airlines, none of it was based on what was best for the customer. THIS MUST CHANGE.

 

The pilots have a maximum time that they are allowed to be in the cockpit (FAA rules). There are no rules that say if the passengers are trapped on an airliner for 20 hours that they have to be fed. There are no rules that say that an airline must deliver a passenger his baggage on demand. There is no liability for incompetence.

 

A Pound of Flesh

 

If you’ve read this far you’re probably thinking about similar things (hopefully not as bad) that have happened to you.

 

I you’ve never had a bad travel experience, well you’ve got better karma then I.

 

This story is the worst travel experience I’ve had to date. It was bad enough to make me want to put it to paper.

 

It was bad enough to make we want to recover a pound of flesh from ATA Airlines.

 

I do not have the patience or the resources (or the interest) in suing ATA. That doesn’t change the facts that they diminished the value of my vacation,  stole $7000.00 of my personal property, and never delivered me to my destination (Newark, NJ).

 

So, I have a request. Send this document, or link below, to everyone you know.

 

And I ask you all to honor a request. DON’T FLY ATA AIRLINES. EVER.

 

Dan Sokol

 

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This document can be viewed on the Web here ą http://travelhell.dansokol.com

 

Addendum

 

On Sunday, January 11, 2004, at 11:30 AM Sabin from St Barth’s Services showed up at my door with my missing bag. Eight days after I left on vacation, two days before I return home.

 

All of the contents were there, although the bag itself looked like they had run over it with a truck.

 

Add another $80 to the out of pocket costs; subtract the value of the items in the bag.

 

My views on ATA airlines are unchanged.