I'm happy to read that my friend Ann Bartow had a True and Amazing Travel Experience.
I just had a travel experience too, but it was not quite as nice. We are heading back to the US today, so perhaps this is a good time to tell the story of our outbound journey.
Our saga begins in Miami last week, on Tuesday afternoon. The four of us are waiting for the 4:15 pm Delta flight to Atlanta, which will connect us to our flight to Manchester, UK.
Gate staff announce that we have problems. Two of them. The first is that the radar is not working. The second is that the weather is bad in Atlanta, and there may be air traffic control issues. But not to worry, the necessary part is on its way on the next flight from Atlanta, and is expected to arrive at 5:30. Meanwhile, we are instructed to sit tight, there's no need to rebook anything.
Being long-legged, travel-experienced, and able to do simple arithmetic, I am third in line to the counter as I figure our connection is doomed.
The very nice lady at the counter makes what seem to be Herculean efforts to rebook us. After much typing and phone calling (most of which involves trying to figure out the numbers for other airlines as all the numbers on her list appear to be out of date), she finds us an Air France option. What about our luggage, I ask? She obligingly begins the process to get our checked bags (family travel, ten days…) off the plane.
But Wait! The pilot himself comes out and announces that the radar is repaired. All is well. Except that it isn't. The bad weather has now ripened into ATC delays and we can't go anywhere for an hour. My connection seems utterly doomed.
The flight delay now being ATC rather than mechanical, the status of our flight has changed, and our new tickets — only one or two keypresses away from finality — are no longer possible since Delta won't rebook us on a different carrier for delays which are not their fault.
Gloom. Doom. But Wait! After only a few minutes, the weather report has shifted again, and it's ok to board for immediate departure. If we leave fast enough, we might — might — just make it. We board. Delta does a much better job than American of enforcing boarding order on Miami crowds, who are generally among the most unruly in the world, and boarding proceeds fairly well. Cabin crew explain that local mechanics were able to fix the old part, and all is well.
Except that once we are all in the plane, there's a new problem. There's a man wandering around in the aisles holding a boarding pass, but he doesn't seem to have a seat. In due course we hear that what happened is that a family booked two kids in one seat, but that they're too old to share; a “non-revenue” passenger is thus booted off the plane (a mother with a tiny baby, and then her husband), and the family in question re-seated. We're now too late barring some sort of air-speed miracle.
And off we go to Atlanta. Did I say “to” Atlanta? Maybe “towards” Atlanta would be better. About 20 minutes into the flight, the Captain comes on the PA and says, in best Chuck Yeager right-stuff voice, that the radar has failed again, and we're going to divert to Tampa. No, wait, he's on the PA again a minute later, the company says we're going back to Miami, because it is fractionally closer.
So we're back in Miami. Cabin crew tell us that anyone who wishes to leave the plane here may do so, but if we leave we may not be allowed back on. The captain explains that the offending part is easy to replace, it's just like a circuit board – you snap it in, test it, and then he's fully confident in flying the plane. One Swedish couple leaves, saying they don't trust the plane any more. There's a trickle of departures. One person returns with coffee from Starbucks, and now we all want off. Cabin crew relent — we can get off, but the plane is going to Atlanta eventually, so we should take our stuff if we do in case we aren't there when its ready.
We get off — our connection is history, and I'd like to know our options. And after all, it's clearly mechanical now. Back in line, and in time we are told that if we run like crazy to BA, two terminals over, we can catch a flight to London and connect from there to MAN. I'm given an itinerary, on which is scrawled “talk to Andrea” — she's the person at BA who will know all about us.
We run, having to exit the security zone to get to the BA ticket counter. We make it. But there's no Andrea. She's going to be on our flight and is changing. Not that it matters. It seems that when charming Delta lady #2 gave me our new itinerary, she neglected to include a “FIM”, which is something you have to have if you have an e-ticket and are being moved to another airline; apparently paper ticket holders, that vanishing breed, don't need them. No “FIM”, no ride.
So, leaving the family to hold the fort, I run back to the Delta counters, two terminals away (at least I don't have to re-enter security). I find the last man standing. Between gasps, I tell our story. He vanishes to find a supervisor. In time he returns, and fills out a FIM, a ticket-sized little form that comes in quadruplicate, in a laborious manner that suggests he has never seen one before and is a bit suspicious about the use of ink-based writing implements. At last he is done.
I begin to lumber off at speed back towards BA (the flight is leaving soon). “SIR! SIR!” the last man shouts, chasing me down the concourse. “Wait! I need my copy!” It seems one of the four copies is his. Unfortunately, he has no idea which one of the four is his, and decides after much scrutiny that he wants the original. I'm suspicious. What if BA want that one? Why doesn't he take the last one, the accounting copy? But no, he insists, and I haven't the heart to grab it from his hands. “Just come back if they want this one he says.” Right – the plane will be long gone by that point.
Lumber, lumber, wheeze.
It seems BA are happy with the three copies. It's late by now and the queue at security is mercifully light. We make the plane. We make the connection in London.
Of course, the luggage doesn't make it.
When we arrive in London we inquire, as instructed, about our bags at the BA counter. They of course have never heard of them. Indeed, our file on BA is innocent of the concept of checked luggage. But the nice lady takes our Delta luggage claim checks, and enters them into our record. We are told to make a claim in Manchester.
We arrive in Manchester and make our way to the luggage counter. The man there is very cheerful. Everything is going to be fine. Our bags have been spotted in London, they will put them on one of the may London-Manchester flights, and then deliver them to us forthwith. Just fill out these customs declaration forms, here's a folder with a number to call and a web address to monitor their progress.
We stagger out towards our destination.
Time passes. Bags do not arrive.
That Wednesday evening I check the web site. According to it, our bags are not located.
I call BA. The central call center doesn't know any more than the website.
I call the local Delta baggage number that I've pulled off the web. The line is busy for an hour, but when I finally get through, they're nice too. Their guess — which is what I suspected — is that the bags went to Atlanta when our original flight finally departed. Once in Atlanta, having missed the original flight to MAN, they would sit there until the next flight; as there's only one per day, that means Thursday.
Thursday rolls around. The BA website's information has not changed. I call them. They don't know anything, but are very sure that my bags will turn up any moment. They do tell me that unaccompanied bags can take up to seven hours to clear customs, so I shouldn't worry if my bags are not out early in the day. I call Delta. They agree to send someone round to the baggage area to look for the bags, and to call if they find them. No one calls.
I call again in the evening. It's been more than seven hours since the Manchester landed, but no one has seen our bags.
Friday morning — we're about to go out and buy a new wardrobe — I call Delta again. The Atlanta flight has just landed, and they propose to send someone round to look for our bags. They'll call us if they find them. And, miracle of miracles, in about an hour they do call back and say they've located them all. The first delivery van won't leave until noon, so we can't expect the bags before early afternoon.
In fact, it's quite late in the afternoon before we see them, but only three days or so after checking them, we have our bags again.
We get to use them for almost a week, and now we're going to check them again…
A version of Friday's McCain item is queued up in case I'm trapped in some airport motel somewhere.