Saturday, February 17, 2007

Laura K's (from Ohio and California) Experience

Imagine spending Valentines day at JFK after a similar experience at Columbus the day before.
Now I'm not trying to say my experience with Jetblue was the worst, by any means, but it is, I'm sure, one of the longest.

On Tuesday February 13, I was supposed to take a 2:35 pm flight to JFK and connect to a flight that evening on to Oakland. I am from California and go to school in Ohio, so I was happy when Jetblue told me that if I signed up for their credit card, I would receive a free flight that I would have to take between mid January and February 14. Going to school out of state and taking internships in various states I have flown pretty often, always on my own, and usually during peak travel seasons (Thanksgiving, December, January, Summer, etc). I have never before run into any problems or delays of more than 45 minutes and I have flown Jetblue quite often when going from CA to NYC or DC, so I was excited to try out their new service from Columbus. I was happy to go to a Bar Mitzvah and see some friends I hadn't seen in years this week and get some rest during my last semester at college.

I was very worried in Ohio early this week. Weather did not look good in either Ohio or New York. I called Jetblue and the Columbus airport multiple times on Monday and Tuesday asking about what they knew and what I should think about my flights this week. They said that there were currently no weather advisories and that everything should be fine, up to a few hours before my flight. I checked the Columbus airport website and should have taken it as a sign that Delta had canceled all of its flights for Tuesday, but I saw that Jetblue was still keeping things scheduled, so I figured that Delta was just being overly cautious. I go to school about an hour away and it was a pretty terrible drive but my friend dropped me off on time. I checked a bag as I have severe eczema and have to use various special lotions and soaps that I wanted to take enough of with me to last for my six day vacation. I got through security and to my gate about 45 minutes before our scheduled departure and saw it had been delayed for a half hour so I decided to go to the nearby hamburger joint and have some food. My friend called me and I talked on the phone while eating my meal until all of a sudden, and earlier than expected, I heard "This is the final boarding call for flight 1096 to JFK. We are closing the door." I jumped up, threw away about half my meal and ran to the gate.

I got on and was told that we were boarding a bit early even though our flight was delayed so that we would be ready to go on our way as soon as we got the plane started up. Sounded fine to me and I sat back, excited for my trip. We waited there by the gate, on the plane for an hour and a half. They would not close the door and it was freezing. They kept mentioning ambiguous internal computer problems and saying that similar to restarting a computer, they just had to reboot the plane. They tried it multiple times and it still didn't work. After an hour and a half they revealed that the reason there were computer problems was that before our flight, the crew had parked this plane, with the engine off and let it sit for a few hours which had caused computer parts to freeze. Our fiddling with the parts had lead for even more of the plane to freeze and at this point, the plane was not flyable. They unloaded us back into the terminal and assured us, at this point around 4:30, that we could all get on the 6:50 flight which would not have the same problem as they would leave the plane running and they would rebook our connections. If you remember those crowds and lines at JFK, you can be assured that there were not nearly as many people at our gate, only about 60, and yet it took them hours to change our itineraries and fill out meal vouchers for us. By the time I finished with this processing I had to run to the one nearby restaurant to use my food voucher as it was almost time for my new flight to leave.

Obviously the 6:50 flight was delayed as the weather just kept getting worse and worse. We watched customers of other airlines who's flights had been canceled walking back toward baggage claim over and over again, but we were assured that it would be safe to fly and that things would run more smoothly at JFK, a major airport better able to handle these problems. The Columbus staff members were very kind (even though they were very slow and misinformed) and as we were boarding the flight around 7:30 they were giving us hamburgers they bought at a fast food restaurant. Upon getting in the plane we were informed that we would not actually be able to take off in this weather but that, again, they wanted the plane ready at a moments' notice in case the weather got better. We sat on the plane for nearly four and a half hours in the dark. This time they were nice enough to close the door after a couple of hours. There were at least three times when the weather looked optimistic and we were headed to the de-icing pad but then the snow pellets would come back and we would return to waiting. Just as we got the OK close to midnight and were about to go to the de-icing pad, they gave those with connections in JFK a chance to leave and try again tomorrow as they would not be able to make any connections until Wednesday. I should have gotten off right then but decided that things at JFK would be better.

We arrived in New York at 1:30 am on Wednesday 2/14. While some others headed to California opted to sleep at the airport and book themselves on the 6:45 am flight to Oakland, I decided to take them up on their offer of a hotel room and sleep for just a few hours by booking myself on the 9:10am flight. They would not give me my bag that night as they had no idea where it was. I finally got to the hotel at 2:30 am and had to turn around and go back to the airport at 6:30. I got there and it already did not look good. I later found that the 6:45 am flight to Oakland was one of the ones to sit on the tarmac for 6 hours without ever leaving. Things were not much better in the terminal. Lines for everything including the bathroom and the 3 person service desk snaked every which way. In the beginning of the morning it took an hour to wait and speak with any staff members and by noon every staff person told you to wait in line for the service desk (which took about 2 hours at that point) or call 1-800 Jetblue (which was useless as there was a recording about high call volume and then the number hung up on you). I was still wearing the clothes and undergarments that I had been on Tuesday and was frustrated that if no one had any information and people just kept showing up, why they wouldn't just cancel our flight and let us leave the airport. They just would not cancel our flight and had it delayed until 11 and then noon and then 2 and then 4, and they would not give us our luggage unless our flight was canceled.

Finally they came over the loudspeaker and told us that flight 101 to Oakland could collect our luggage. Us 101er's were confused and crowded the gate attendant who said, "your luggage is being put out at baggage claim, so you can consider your flight canceled." We went to baggage claim to pick up our luggage and it was similar crowds and piles and piles of bags. It looked like our bags were nowhere to be found and the baggage claim staff was agitated that we were down there asking them questions as our flight was not even listed as canceled After more lines and unhelpful people I reasoned with the people in the office to just give me my bag so I could leave the airport as I had been in airport hell for over 24 hours. They told me I should go back to my gate as they would have the most up to date information and I could talk to the service desk (if I had the patience). As I walked back through security in my dirty socks, I was crying and none of the security staff batted an eyelash. I was about to go through the metal detector and a Jetblue staff person came in front of me and told me to go drink a hot tea, and acted as if I was being ridiculous, that I should be grateful I wasn't up in the air in these unsafe conditions. I got to my gate, my flight was delayed until 4:50. I talked to who I think was a stranded flight attendant that just jumped on a computer to help out. I explained my situation, said that I was so exhausted and I could tell nothing was leaving for hours, if at all and that I needed to leave the airport and try to fly back to Columbus later this week. I could not cancel my flight from JFK to OAK as it was a transfer from a larger itinerary (shouldn't they call the itinerary quits after 27 hours?) but she converted my flight to OAK into a Columbus flight for Friday morning as things looked horrible for Wednesday and not much better for Thursday and Thursday was almost sold out. I decided to entrust my lost bag with JFK staff and got into a cab to a friend's apartment in Brooklyn (obviously all hotels were booked). I threw up in the cab (probably due to dehydration) and fell asleep.

After resting on Thursday and beginning to run out of money, I left to go back to JFK at 5am on Friday on public transit. I got there at about 6:30 am for an 8:30 am flight back to Columbus. Before checking in, I went to the baggage service office to begin to talk about my bag. The staff were still overwhelmed by crowds and lack of information and after 45 minutes of trying to search through the room and the computer, I had to get to my gate, or so I thought. I was optimistic as I could see some flights had actually taken off that day, but mine was the first of the day to Columbus. We waited for the flight before to Cancun to board and take off. After boarding, they realized that there was a family of 6 who was delayed. They held the Cancun flight at the gate despite the fact that my flight was supposed to depart fifteen minutes after this one. After waiting about 45 minutes, they pulled the plane back from the gate. In a Hollywood style moment the family of six runs up to the gate as the plane is pulling away, having been delayed by their connection from Boston. The children are crying and they plead with the staff to let them on. The staff person goes in the walkway AND HAS THEM BRING THE CANCUN FLIGHT BACK. I understand that this is difficult and stressful for these six people, but how many hundreds of people are you delaying? When Cancun finally leaves, for some reason, the computer thinks that our Columbus flight has already left. They pull our flight from the departures screen and begin to send other flights through our gate. When we begin to complain the staff realize what they have done. They find the crew for the Columbus flight and about 2 hours after our scheduled departure are telling us that we are going to be next. Then a flight attendant gets on the loudspeaker and tells us that because of this 2 hour delay, the Columbus flight crew has now been working too long and will have to go and rest, they cannot fly, so they cancel our flight.

Now I was waiting all day Wednesday for them to cancel my flight so I could leave, but today this was not a good thing. We had to wait in our favorite line, the one to the service desk, as we watched the 12:10 flight leave for Columbus with only a 45 minute delay. I met a nice man who is a flight attendant for another airline while in line and told him my story, lucky for me his airline provided him with a travel pack which he gave to me and included socks and a hairbrush, which I had definitely been missing. I was hearing from people ahead of me in line that they were putting people from our flight on standby and that we could not get a confirmed seat until Tuesday (if I had had to wait for this option, I would have been stuck for a week). I had seen a few Jetblue JFK staff members that morning who had actually recognized me and exclaimed "you're still here?!" I had someone save my place in line and ran to find one of these familiar faces. I told him, "you have to sympathize. Is there anything you can do to get me on a flight to Columbus today?" He went to a free computer and started punching things in and at first his face did not look optimistic. He said "let's hope this works" and after a minute, he informed me that I had a confirmed seat on the 4:20 pm flight to Columbus.

Although for this flight I had to take a shuttle to a strange, temporary terminal with no windows and it was delayed for four hours putting my time at the JFK airport on Friday at around 14 hours, I was still one of the lucky ones. Others from my 8:30 am flight were and still are stranded. Jetblue had put them on standby for 3-5 empty seats which we found out when the flight to Columbus was boarding had somehow been bought out that day despite the fact that standby fliers were told they could not buy the empty seats. I met a fifteen person volleyball team who had to take a greyhound through the horrible Pennsylvania traffic. I even saw people from my original Tuesday flight wandering around JFK on Friday. I just looked at Jetblue's website and all flights from JFK to Columbus after the one I took Friday night which were scheduled yesterday, today and tomorrow were canceled. Had I gotten to California on Wednesday or Thursday as I hear a few people did, it sounds like I would have been stranded in Boston on my way back to Columbus on Sunday. They have no idea which state my bag is even in, and if they keep canceling flights then it will be a long time before it ever makes it's way back to Ohio.

I understand that there was severe weather this week, but no one is creating a I missed my entire vacation and was stuck for four days and I am one of the lucky ones who sat on tarmac in Columbus for a few hours instead of all day in JFK, who was only stranded until Friday instead of for a week and who just happened to have a place to go for a day in New York. Most all of the staff I met, especially those at the Columbus airport and the gate attendants at JFK were very polite and trying to override the computers despite the stress and screaming. This was a case of mismanagement. Supervisors and higher ups should not have been having planes waiting (freezing) to take off at a moment's notice when it was obvious that notice would not come. If they intended to keep crowds of people in terminals and planes, they should have had strategic plans to handle those people. They should have offered those waiting at JFK toiletries or other items (meals?!) to make customers comfortable if they weren't going to let us leave the airport and airplanes. If they had been more realistic with me on Tuesday in Columbus, I would never have attempted my vacation, found a way back home from the Columbus airport and been one less person bogging down the system at JFK. They should have asked those who had started their trips and managed to fly on Thursday and Friday if they would be able to give up their seats to people who had been stranded since Tuesday and Wednesday. They should have advised customers on Wednesday-Friday to avoid checking baggage to prevent congestion in this hectic time and found more staff people, at least to work the 1-800 number. Before this week I had nothing but great things to say about Jetblue. I am 21 years old and just got a credit card with them (only my second credit card, I do not sign up for those lightly) and potentially have a long relationship with Jetblue ahead of me. If this company prioritizes service and customer comfort and can't deliver even a minimum of such during a crisis, than what good are they? I understand they are a young company, but they should look to JFK staff for help and other airlines for guidance if they are in crisis instead of making it up as they go along. I am trying to think good thoughts for those I met who I think are still stranded. Sure, this wasn't the worst tragedy to every put people and families in crisis, but I really feel like we are all survivors of an experience we can't really even impress upon others.


Andrina E. said...

Hey Laura, this is Andrina from San Marin. I am really sorry to hear about what happened to you. I hope you get your luggage back soon!

Laura said...

Not San Marin High School? That's where I went (03). Thanks for the well wishes, just glad to be back in a place where I can change my underwear and pay less than $10 for a salad.