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Article from BTNews 5 SEPTEMBER 2011

ON TOUR: A long day's journey into night by Jo Bacon

Jo Bacon is a translation expert (over 100 books), a member of the Guild of Food Writers and a regular traveller.  She also tends to get worked up with some of the more infuriating aspects of globetrotting.  In this report we have left out the name of the airline concerned in the hope it knows who it is and will put matters right.  It needs to.

The (long) piece is best read on your PDI when sitting at an airport waiting for your flight.  It is good to know people are worse off than you.

I returned on Monday 8 August from a trip to the USA, traveling first to New York, then to a fungus foray in Clarion, Pennsylvania, a small town about 100 miles south of Pittsburgh.  To say that my trip was eventful is an understatement.  There were four flights in all, London to New York and New York to Pittsburgh then back again.  The only good thing that happened to me was that I was bumped up to Business Class on the London to JFK flight which was wonderful and relaxing.  And getting even better I gather.  Little did I know that this was to be my ONLY wonderful and relaxing experience with the airline.

I returned to JFK four days later for a 20:30 flight to Pittsburgh.  I had taken the Supershuttle shared airport service from Greenwich Village which, as usual, did a tour of the Lower East Side before we finally got on to the laughingly named Van Wyck Expressway, laughingly because it is anything but Express.

Fearful I might be late for my flight, I rushed to the gate where a huge crowd was waiting for a number of internal flights.  After a long wait, during which time passengers were given no information at all, I was finally informed that my flight to Pittsburgh had been cancelled!  Mine was one of a number of flights dropped that evening but no formal announcements were made, you had to hear it from the clerk.  There were announcements made frequently to the effect that passengers whose flights had been cancelled were not entitled to claim for meals or accommodation, since the cancellations were due to bad weather!  There was chaos at the gate, and the announcements board behind the heads of the clerks contained totally inaccurate information!  If the information was wrong, why weren’t the boards switched off?

The airline appears to make it a policy never to make announcements about flight cancellations or warn passengers as soon as they are aware of cancellations.  I finally got to the front of the queue and was rebooked on to another carrier’s flight that did not leave until the next afternoon!  I phoned the hotel in Pittsburgh who charged me for the night I did not stay there, despite the fact that I assured them I was arriving the next day.

Then I went to retrieve my luggage from the carousel at which it was supposed to be and found it was not there!  I complained to an airport official explaining that I am a diabetic and that my insulin was in the suitcase.  He promptly called an ambulance and the police!  The police officer insisted that I go to hospital (he told me his son is a type I so, probably did not understand that the situation is not an emergency in type II patients).  I was wheeled away on a stretcher by two burly ambulance women who drove me to the Jamaica hospital. 

When I got there, I found the Emergency Room was in utter chaos.  Doctors and/or nurses would start dealing with a patient and then forget about him/her for several hours in mid-treatment or in the midst of dispensing medication.  I had been assured in the ambulance that the hospital would give me insulin or at least some treatment.  They did not.  All they did was take two pinprick blood samples with a glucometer throughout the night.  Worse, they did not even give me anything to eat or drink although I told them I had not eaten since 13:00 that day!

The nurse who took the blood sample told me the result wasn’t bad but I have no idea what the numbers meant, we calculate the blood sugar differently in the UK.  After I had been lying on a gurney for around four hours, I was finally seen by a doctor.  He took the second blood sample with a glucometer and said the results were still fairly good and he agreed I could be discharged.  But he did not get around to signing the paperwork for about another three hours!

By the time I was released, it was around 05:30 and of course I had had no sleep since the previous evening or food since the previous lunchtime.  I took a cab to the airport and went to the airline terminal where my bag, if it had been found, might have been transferred.  The lady there was helpful.  She telephoned and informed me the bag had been found and to return to transatlantic carrier terminal (in a different building, of course!) where it would be waiting but that Baggage Claim did not open until 07:00.

I took the Skytrain back to terminal 8 and went to carousel 9.  It was only 06:30 but despite what she had said the bag was there (!) and I was able to reclaim it.  There was a note inside to say it had been searched, heaven knows what they were looking for.  Near the carousel there was a Dunking Donuts stand and I finally got something to eat and drink after 18 hours.  I even sat on the edge of a stopped carousel and not only took my pills but injected my insulin, in full view of the servers at Dunkin Donuts.

I then returned with my bag to the onward departure building where I sat around for six hours, as I saw no point in another long journey back to the City and was too exhausted to do anything anyway.  Nowhere to sleep or rest in the airport, the uncomfortable seats with their metal armrests make sure of that!  Finally, I caught the flight on Tuesday afternoon.  Fortunately, the Foray in Clarion did not begin until Thursday, had I not allowed myself a few days in Pittsburgh I would have missed it.

I won’t go into what happened in Clarion except to say that there was up to 36° heat and 90° humidity and no air-conditioning!

Anyway, then came the trip back.

I had a nice ride back with the same lady who gave me the lift down to Clarion.  When I got to Pittsburgh Airport, I discovered I had booked myself on a flight leaving the next day!  I realized I had not counted on being able to get away from Clarion that early.  I phoned the airline and they told me it would only cost me around US$250 to change my flights so that was a bargain.

However, they told me the flights to JFK were full and they could only route me to London via Chicago but so what, at least it was a flight.  I said OK.  They put me on an evening service with only two hours for the transfer to an international flight.  It did not occur to me at the time to ask them to put me on an earlier flight, I assumed they knew what they were doing which was, of course, a big mistake.  I discovered, sitting by the gate for another five hours, that several flights to Chicago left in the afternoon and some of them were almost empty.

Come the evening and the flight to Chicago. I went to the restroom and next to the restroom there was what appeared to be the only departure board in the airport, heaven knows why Pittsburgh has no departure boards, there were none at all at the gates!

I discovered from the board that – you've guessed it!  My flight to Chicago had been cancelled!  I rushed back to the gate where several other passengers were in this predicament (several other flights to other destinations had also been cancelled) and was told that there was now room on the JFK flight after all because it had been delayed so several passengers had cancelled.  I gratefully got on board, realizing I had little time to catch the flight to London.  To my grave concern, the plane sat on the runway for 45 minutes before being cleared for take-off.  When we got to JFK it again sat around on the runway before finally taxiing to the gate.  The time was now 20:35, the time my flight to London was supposed to leave!

I somehow managed to dash from one end of the terminal to the other, lugging a massively heavy item of hand luggage (with the insulin and my pills in it, this time!) and arrived panting at the gate.  I had been told that the flight had been delayed by 30 minutes and so I managed to catch it by the skin of my teeth, I would have missed it if it had not been delayed.

When I reached London (an uncomfortable flight, no Business Class this time) I waited at the carousel for my luggage – only to discover they had lost it again! I was told it was because it had been checked in at the gate in Pittsburgh (when my flight was changed from Chicago to New York, the bag was taken out of the batch going to Chicago and was issued a handwritten ticket) and this apparently posed a security issue.  The clerk at the lost baggage desk explained that my bag details were not even in the system!  She advised me to wait for the landing of the next flight from JFK which was coming in the next hour to see if it was on that.  So I had to hang around the airport for another 90 minutes in case it arrived with the next flight.  Well, surprise, surprise, it was not on that flight either!

I returned home, or rather to the office, where I was forced to start on a backlog of work, hoping and praying that the bag would turn up.  I checked on line, it appeared to have been found but it had still not arrived.  It eventually reached London the following day and I was reunited with it that afternoon.

I then tried to claim on my travel insurance and was informed by the insurance company that NOTHING involving connecting domestic flights is ever covered!  This is because the risk is too great!  So that was the icing on the cake.

What are the lessons to be learned?  First of all, make sure your luggage is very easy to identify (mine has my surname in big gold letters stuck on by me down one side). so that airport baggage-handlers can pick it out from a jumble of bags.  Secondly, never rely on internal flights being on schedule or even flying at all in the United States (I travel frequently in Europe and never have a problem).  If I hadn’t allowed a few days in Pittsburgh, I would have entirely missed the event I was going to.  And most important of all – if you have to catch a connecting flight, allow yourself plenty of time.

Jo Bacon

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