Monday, January 06, 2014

Stranded by JetBlueBalls

By Pauly
New York City

I had plenty of close calls during my travels. I was once on a plane and its engine caught fire and it had to execute an emergency landing. I was accused of being a CIA agent in a South American country. I was detained by Australian immigration officials due to a clerical error on my visa, and yet another time in Australia I was pulled out of line for a separate screening as Aussies tore through my bags in search of large sums of cash and/or drugs.

A couple of years ago... almost seven years this February, I got caught up at the start of a nasty blizzard in NYC. I was supposed to fly out to LA to meet Nicky for Valentine's Day. It was going to be our first anniversary together, so I was really looking forward to the trip. I got to JFK airport and discovered that my flight was delayed. That delay lasted several hours before it was finally canceled. Thousands of angry passengers had to wait in line to get a new assignment. I stood in line for three hours to change my flight (while I was trying to reach customer service via my cell phone, but I kept getting dropped or hung up on). By the time I finally got to the JetBlue counter, the next available flight was three days later. I had to take the subway from JFK to the Bronx because there were no taxis or gypsy cabs at the airport. At least I was one of the fortunate stranded passengers. I never check bags and had a carry-on so I didn't have to fight an angry crowd to re-claim my bags. Plus, my flight had never boarded (the plane never arrived) so I was not stuck on the tarmac like some other poor fuckers who had to wait out a seven-hour ordeal before the plane finally rolled back into the gate. JetBlue took it on the chin during that storm. It cost them $30 million. The fiasco was such a huge publicity nightmare that the COO got canned. The new COO vowed that fuck up would never happened again. Alas, seven years later it happened again.

Long story short... I was supposed to leave NYC on January 2nd and I won't get back to LA until January 13th.

I had my original flight on January 2nd canceled, bumped, and re-booked for January 6th. But then this morning, my flight was canceled and I was stuck in limbo without a new flight. The website did not even have me in the system so I had to call up the 1-800 number. I was waiting for two hours before someone finally picked up. I was one of the lucky ones. Others were hung up on or could not get through. One guy was on hold for seven hours. Holy shit, talk about a clusterfuck. Some phone reps told people to re-book online, while online FAQs suggested you call the 1-800 number. They were in the weeds quickly.

The next available flight to LAX on JetBlue is Saturday (via Boston) but the next direct flight was Sunday at like 6am or something redonkulous, but I'd have to pay extra because that seat cost more money. Monday had some openings.... which was 11 days after the original flight and and 7 days after the re-scheduled flight. Neither of my flights (1/2 and 1/6) should have been canceled in the first place because it had not started snowing yet, nor was there any cold weather on Monday. In fact, it was unseasonable balmy at 50 degrees.

I initially gave JetBlue the benefit of the doubt with the Jan 2 fuck up. Four days seemed unreasonable, but I really had no choice. It's not like they'd book me on another airline, which mostly every other airline would have done (at no fee). I was left to fend for myself and try to book a different airline and pay anywhere from 3x to 5x my original fare. Instead of flipping out, I decided to give JetBlue a second chance and accepted a Jan 6 flight at no extra cost. I took advantage of the extra weekend in NYC and hung out with my brother and we got to watch the Wild Card games.

But then I got Hulk-smash-things-pissed-off when the new flight for January 6th was canceled. I was never officially notified, but I found out because I checked the JetBlue app at 6am to discover that the flight was canceled. I was baffled because it was supposed to be 50 degrees in NYC that day. Yes, 50 degrees. A rare respite of warm temps before the blast of cold weather came in the next day. That's two flights that could have and should have taken off (in safe and non-hazardous weather) but JetBlue said they didn't have any pilots and cited some new FAA rule that they had two years to implement. They blamed everyone from mother nature to the FAA... yet never accepted responsibility for themselves.

One little dusting threw JetBlue out of whack for a week, while other airlines experienced minimal delays that you'd expect in the winter. That was the hardest pill to swallow... that JetBlue was the only airline to shut down operations while competing airlines were conducting business as usual.

I didn't want to do business with JetBlue anymore. After much negotiating with customer service, I got a full refund for my flight (that has yet to be posted to my credit card) and I opted to book on Virgin America, which is my new favorite airline. It's what JetBlue was like 10 years ago, whereas JetBlue has turned into one of the worst airlines in the travel biz, especially when it comes to dealing with bad weather. I could have flown out on Thursday or Friday on other airlines, but I'd have to spend 3x more than my original flight and/or I'd have a layover somewhere. I didn't want to roll the dice again, so I booked something next Monday to lock in a much cheaper flight option. Plus, I'd get to watch the playoffs with my brother again over the weekend.

I monitored JetBlue throughout the day via Twitter and Instagram. Tons of angry, confused, and stranded passengers. A lot of folks were in my situation and screwed over during the initial cancelations on Jan 2/3. Some of those folks were sleeping in airports over the weekend because JetBlue did not dole out hotel vouchers for acts of God. But those folks got screwed once again. How did JetBlue treat them? They were kicked out of the terminal when it closed down on Monday afternoon and told to come back the next day when JetBlue resumed operations.

My situation was tame compared to some of the nightmares other passengers experienced. At least I didn't have two or three small children with me. Or I wasn't a confused 90 year old grandma trying to get answers from unhelpful airport workers. At least I had family in NYC I could stay with, albeit my mother who hates my guts. But at least I didn't have to fork over big bucks for a hotel like some other folks were forced to do. Like I said, other airlines would have arranged flights on other airlines but JetBlue has some exclusive deal with American, and only a supervisor could authorize that change. Very few stranded souls knew about it, so they pretty much did what they were told... wait four or five days for the next flight.

People were stranded in the Caribbean for a week. Not the worse place to find yourself considering how cold it's supposed to be in the Northeast and the Siberian temps that put the Midwest into a deep freeze. But that's not the point. Folks had to return to work or school. I'm lucky that I'm a freelance writer and had a cool editor who understood why I blew a deadline. As bad as I got screwed, I had minimal impact to my life... except the fact I will have to wait 11 days to go home. I had a novel to re-write, a new podcast to record with my friend Shane, and Act I of a screenplay to finish writing with my bud Joe D. Not to mention a slew of other things I had to do like finish building a website for a French client and working on NFL playoff previews. Oh, and how could I forget about the new guitar. Man, I've been away so long that all of the callluses on my fingertips had healed over. I desperately missed practicing in my spare time and now I regret not taking my guitar with me.

My brother joked that Nicky was going to have to mail me all my stuff because I'm never going home. By the time I eventually leave, I would have been in NYC for almost four weeks. Holy shit. I just wanted to be here for two weeks for Christmas and NYE, yet JetBlue's incompetence through my plans into the gutter.

Nicky got lucky. She had to work on the 2nd, so she flew out first thing in the morning on January 1st and got back to LA safely. Before I went to bed on January 1st, I noticed that I was moved to a new flight because my original flight was canceled. The second flight was canceled too. I rebooked on Jan 6th to give JetBlue 48 hours to get back up to speed but they needed a week to catch up. What a bunch of amateurs.

I'm used to incurring bad beats while traveling. It's just something that happens so you have to let it roll off your back, stay positive, and focus on the task at hand... which is completing your journey and arriving at your intended destination as safely as possible and without having to spend an arm and a leg to get there. But the problems arise when you're dealing with corporations trying to squeeze the last nickel out of its clientèle because you're just a number to them and not a face. They don't give a rat's ass about you and hope that you're so desperate and tired and want to get home so badly that you'll overlook their gross incompetence or spend extra money you shouldn't have to spend.

Bad weather is bad weather, but airlines have been dealing with these issues for decades. Why is it all of a sudden a problem today in an era with the latest weather radar technology?

Customer service was an utter failure, spreading lies and misinformation. If an airline wants to trim their call center to a skeleton crew, then their website better be able to handle a shit-ton of traffic coming through. A lot of their problems could have been avoided if their website worked properly and had detailed explanation of what was going on. I heard so many bad beat stories of JetBlue employees flat out lying to customers that it's super sad to see them resort to those tactics just so they could get an angry person out of the way.

You never really get to see someone's true colors until you see them in a crisis. That's when you get to see who's really a ruthless asshole.I've now seen JetBlue fail not once, but twice. I was seriously considering shorting their stock. If they lost $30 million back in 2007, how much will this fuck up cost them?

And I saw their lame compensation package... $50 if you're not a frequent flier or 5,000 miles if you are one, which is similar to less than $50 worth of travel (average flight off-peak LA-NYC is 35,000 miles). But hey, at least they didn't charge you a fee to change your flight like other airlines would have done. Right? JetBlue saves the day! What a bunch of fucking crooks. I won't say I'll never fly them again... but I will not use them during winter months because they can't handle the pressure versus other airlines. I mean, it was just six fucking inches of snow and it crippled an entire airline and stranded 150,000 passengers for a week. What a fucking joke.

On the flip side, you bet your ass there's gonna be a huge fare sale on JetBlue in the upcoming weeks. And you know what? They might lose 50,000 or more current customers, but they'll still be in operation as a discount airline because people are broke these days and always looking for the cheapest option. I feel bad that they'll only hook in budget travelers, who in turn will eventually get fucked if there's a similar incident.

JetBlue took part in two of the worst travel fuck-ups I've ever had. The first time in 2007 was unfortunate because it was a blizzard, but this incident was a small snowstorm and the outcome was far worse. They're supposed to have learned from the 2007 incident and should have been ready this time around. Nope.

Weird travel incidents happen to me all the time. But I can't wait to have an event-free trip someday.

During college, I was once on a plane that had to perform an emergency landing at Hartsfield because one of the engines caught fire during takeoff. It was not as crazy as you'd think. It happened less than 45 seconds after takeoff. We were down on the ground as quickly as we went up. A couple of fire trucks put out what was left of the fire, which I think was out before we even landed. We did not have to perform an emergency evacuation, you know, jump down the cool inflatable slide.

I have a weird recurring dream that I die in a plane crash. I know that's a little morbid, but it allows me to be very peaceful every time I get on an airplane. I'm weird. I get more scared riding shotgun with Nicky on a Los Angeles freeway than I do flying on jets and smaller planes. I guess I already made peace with myself so there's nothing to be afraid about.

Of course, I don't like talking about that dream because it might freak out other people. I mean, if I'm supposed to die in a plane crash, then I'd be the last person you'd want on your flight. But it's just a dream, right? None of that shit comes true because it's just my brain taking a dump in the middle of the night.

I see anxious fliers everywhere. A lot of them mask their fears with drugs like Xannax. Others get shitfaced drunk to take the edge off. I've seen people read bibles or self-help books. I all for whatever you need to do to get you through the arduous process of flying. It's not easy, especially when you have to deal with run of the mill assholes, entitled schmucks, spoiled-rotten unruly kids, and angleshooters who try to sneak on four bags of luggage and hog up all the overhead space.

I seriously reduced business travel because I got sick of flying constantly just to earn a paycheck. It feels good these days knowing that the bulk of the flying is done so for personal reasons like holidays and vacations. I'm putting up with all the bullshit because it's one of the necessary evils I have to endure in order to have fun. But the grind of business travel sucks the life out of you, especially when you see so many fucking amateurs and rookie mistakes. Overpacking is one of them. The other is expecting a mega-corporation to do the right thing, especially when the shit hits the fan.

I discovered this... whenever something goes wrong, you're on your own. You cannot rely on a corporation, or institution, or government agency to help you at that moment of crisis. It's up to you. Sure, those powerful entities might get involved after the fact, but then it's too late. When the shit is in the process of hitting the fan, you have no one to help you but yourself. Which is why you have to think quickly and not rely on the powers that be to make things right. In the end, all they care about is protecting their interests, which means you become collateral damage. It's nothing personal... it's just that if it's you vs. a corporation, they'll throw you under the bus every time. Why? Because 99% of the time they can and will get away with it and there's nothing you can do about it unless you find an ambitious ambulance chasing shyster lawyer who wants to bring a class-action lawsuit against the corrupt mega-corp.

Stranded in NYC for another week. Damn, I really miss my bed and waking up next to my girlfriend.

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