my day in airport hell

Friday, October 09, 2009

The worst airplane day of my life? That would be yesterday. And it wasn’t actually the flight itself that was the problem. It was the preamble and postscript.

I had intended to wrap up my review of the Okanagan Fall Wine Festival today, with specific notes on the winning wines, but I just got that list and it will take the weekend to sift through it all. Meanwhile, I thought I might sing the praises of Horizon’s 45-minute air service from Seattle to Kelowna – the heart of Okanagan wine country.

Sounds like a dream, n’est-ce pas? A 45 minute flight (shorter than the Vancouver to Kelowna flight), a quick walk through customs in the Kelowna airport, and voila, you are there. Well, when it works, it works. Yesterday was something entirely different. Here’s a capsule review of my day in airport hell.

Taxi to airport at 10:15 am. Got in and ticketed for the 12:30 flight to Seattle. “On time” said the reader board. Now, the Kelowna airport is not a major hub to anywhere (except, as it turns out, Hell itself). So there are never more than 10 or 12 flights posted at any one time. As I waited for boarding time (noon), I noted that, despite the clear skies and relatively pleasant weather, delay notices were starting to pop up.

A blizzard (!) in Calgary seemed to be the problem with most of them, delaying take-offs and landings. Then, about 11:45, my Seattle flight blinked over to red. Delayed to 1:40. Extra hour plus; still ok, no biggie, happens all the time.

Around 1:00 I noticed that the flight, coming from Seattle, had in fact taken off. So, all good, ready-set-go for 1:40 departure. In fact, we did start boarding around then – a smallish Horizon plane, almost full, mostly Canadians, many on their way to southern California, Florida, Mexico vacations.

On board, strapped in, ready to go. Nothing. I look out the window and see a flurry of activity around the left landing gear. Frowns. Pointing. Uh-oh. Pilot comes on with a brief announcement. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a small maintenance problem, should be no problem, we’re waiting for word on when we can take off.”

About 15 minutes later, he comes back on. “Ladies and gentlemen, bad news, I’m afraid. The problem won’t take long to fix, but we have no maintenance person on-call here in Kelowna. They’ll have to fly him in on the next plane from Seattle. Due in around 5:20.”

So we de-plane. Now the posted departure time is 6:30 pm. Horizon kindly provided each of us with a free, six-ounce bottle of water on our way out the door, and a form to fill out for some bonus miles. No food voucher, no further explanation.

Three hours later, having exhausted every magazine, any possible writing, and in need of food, I went to the restaurant and chomped down a greasy burger. Now it’s about 5 o’clock. My flight is still posted for a 6:30 departure, but I’m thinking, what if the maintenance guy finds a problem and we can’t leave? Then I’m stuck overnight. So I see there’s another Seattle flight at 6:20 and, amazingly, some space available. I switch over – not for the 10 minute time savings, but for the extra insurance in case the original plane can’t go. They move my checked bag, issue a new boarding pass, I wait another hour or so and, around 6 pm, we all board.

We sit there, not moving, for about a half hour. Then the pilot comes on. “Sorry, but we have been told this plane needs maintenance and you will all have to de-board.” THIS WAS A DIFFERENT PLANE! MY FIRST PLANE WAS STILL BEING LOOKED AT!!

So now I’m thinking, w-t-f do I do? Everyone is scrambling for a seat on the original plane. Since I had one, I was one of five people who got re-ticketed back to the original flight. The second flight passengers were told to wait for further instructions. A half hour later, they were informed that their flight was completely cancelled. No further explanation. Have a nice day.

Now it’s about 7:30. I’ve been in the airport for 9 hours. My original plane is still on the runway being looked at. There is absolutely no indication as to whether that will be cancelled also. Finally, we are allowed to board. We actually see propellers turn. We take off! We have a tail wind!! “We’re going to make up as much time as we can,” says our cheery pilot. Hey, we’ll get to Seattle ten minutes early (and seven hours late, but hey, that’s the way it goes.)

Now comes the good part. We land in Seattle about 9 pm and are ushered to Customs. It is deserted. There is no one there. We stand in line, waiting. No announcement from anyone. Even the Horizon crew is stranded. Finally a lone customs agent trickles in, looking bored. No announcement. No movement.

I have to say, this group of airline passengers should be sainted. At this point we’ve all been in transit for 10 hours (for a 45-minute flight). We could have WALKED to Seattle. A few people asked for information. It turned out that Horizon, having delayed and delayed and delayed our flight, had not alerted Sea-Tac customs that we were coming in. Customs took off for the night, thinking that no more international flights were scheduled. About an hour after we landed, they rounded up the proper agent who had to collect our little claims ticket. So now it’s 10 pm, I have cleared customs, I have my luggage (miraculously made it through three plane changes). And I, along with all the rest of the passengers, am staring at a locked grate, with more puzzled airport employees standing around scratching their heads. THEY HAD NO ONE TO HANDLE THE BAGGAGE FROM OUR FLIGHT!!

Many passengers had been re-booked onto red-eye flights and had to re-check baggage. So we were all held hostage, yet again, while the powers-that-be figured out what to do with us. I tried to explain that I simply needed to continue out with my bags, which I already had, and which didn’t need to be re-checked. But oh no, can’t do that. The bags have to go on this conveyer belt so we can put them onto another carousel, conveniently located about six miles of hallway from here, where you can pick them up again.

Well, I got home, about 11 pm, 13 hours after leaving my hotel for my 45-minute flight. Thanks Horizon! I should also add that my last “flight” on Horizon – also under an hour, from Seattle to Eugene, Oregon, also involved boarding, de-boarding, an extra four hour wait at the airport, and a second plane. In both instances, I could easily have driven more quickly.

So I won’t be recommending that anyone take a Horizon flight to anywhere (except maybe, Hell). Drive. Take the bus. Walk if you must. It will be faster.


Micah said...

It sucks when things like this happens, but at least you are back home safe. So basically in terms of flying.. better safe than dead. I think after 1 PM, you should have rented a car and just drove down here. But I guess that is hindsight.

Horizon Air said...

I'm sorry to hear you had a bad experience. Please follow us on Twitter and I can give you my contact information and try to help make this right. We're @horizonair on Twitter. We pride ourselves on running a good, safe operation and hate to see when that doesn't happen.

Sean Sullivan said...

This reminds me of similar flight to (from?) Hell I took. Several years back I was flying from Paris to Seattle. I won’t mention the airline’s name to protect the innocent. Wait, they weren’t so innocent. Northwest. Upon arriving at my connecting destination, my flight, still on Northwest, was less than 20 minutes but more than 10 minutes from departure. As the flight was more than 10 minutes from departure, the doors were still open. However, as it was less than 20, they had given my seat away. Yes, the plane was still there but I couldn’t get on it. “Sorry, you will have to book on the next flight”. I go to the Customer Service (?) desk where they tell me the next flight is in 6 hours (!) and give me a $5 food voucher (better than a bottle of water I guess). I say “What is this?” to which the gentleman responds “It’s a food voucher.” I tell him that is fairly clear but that I am expecting a bit more. He tells me I have to call the 800 number. I call and explain the situation. They tell me that I have to call after I arrive in Seattle. I say, “So I’ve just been waiting on hold to talk to you and after explaining the situation, you tell me I have to call back when I get to Seattle?” The person says to me (I am not making this up) “In case something goes wrong on the second leg of the flight we don’t want to have to double compensate you.” To which I say, “Let me understand this. You have screwed me over. But in case you screw me over again, you don’t want to have to make up for it twice?” I hang up and wait the 6 hours. Did I mention that it was a flight from France? I think I did. Did I mention that I had a tooth infection and had already swallowed a small bottle of Advil to try to numb the pain? Suffice to say, it was many (many) years before I rode on Northwest again and then only once due to necessity. When things like this happen you start to think “I wonder if this airline takes better care of the planes than they do of their customers? Hmmm…” Inconvenience is one thing. Incompetence another. Sorry to hear about the troubles. Welcome back to the Rain City.

Wawineman said...

Great reminder that I should DRIVE to Walla Walla for next year's WBC conference instead of flying.
I'm sure Horizon has some great employees but events like this make me wonder just what do they pride themselves in.

Winnie Alberg said...

LMAO. I cannot believe Horizon wants you to become their Twitter does that help YOU?
I'm addicted to your blog. Thanks for the LOL-tastic writing.

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