It's so CONTINENTAL...
© David Volk
It's been three weeks since my wife and I were removed from a moving airplane in mid-flight and I'm still trying to figure out how I feel about it and the airline that did it.
The worst part is, CONTINENTAL AIRLINES did it without bothering to tell us.
We were too.
One minute we were flying the Seattle to Newark leg of a trip from Seattle to Israel, the next our entire trip was cancelled and our seats were given away for reasons that CONTINENTAL still can't explain even weeks later.
It won't be easy to make this long story short, but I'll try.
We got on the plane in Seattle, were given different seats than our travel agent booked and were told that we did not have kosher meals on our flights even though we had booked them in advance. To me, having a seat change isn't that big a deal. It happens all the time. I admit it was a bit disturbing to have our flight attendants come back to our seats several times to ask us if we were the Solomons, but they wouldn't tell us why they were asking, so we thought nothing of it.
Well, not exactly nothing. We thought that some random couple named the Solomons might be registered as having a kosher meal and since we didn't get ours, we wanted theirs. But the flight attendants were having none of it.
" Why are you looking for the Solomons?" I asked.
" No reason," the flight attendant said.
Well, if there's no reason for you to be looking for them, why do you keep asking us if we're them? And why do you keep looking for them here? After all, if you're looking for someone, there's usually a reason. If you're Ed McMahon, you want to give them a prize in the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. If you're a policeman, you want to serve a warrant. And if you're anything like me, you want to know who put the bop in the bop-she-bop-she-bop and who put the ram in the ram-a-lam-a-ding-dong.
I don't know about you, but I'm willing to bet it wasn't the Solomons.
Keep in mind that the flight attendants never bothered to ask to see our boarding passes and that there was very little likelihood that we had moved into the seats from some other part of the plane because the CONTINENTAL flight was full. So, we really couldn't have just popped in uninvited. Nor had the Solomons suddenly spontaneously combusted and invited us to take their seats. Passengers usually report stuff like that.
Also, please keep in mind that we had booked these tickets several months in advance to the tune of more than $1,000 each. Granted, it's not first class, but our money still spends the same.
And so the great Solomons crisis of 2004 passed without additional comment.
Once we landed, we took our boarding passes and our bags and made a beeline for the President's Club, CONTINENTAL's VIP lounge, because I have an American Express Platinum card and I can get in for free.
Hey, membership has its privileges.
I don't know why they call it the President's Club because I didn't see a single president, living or dead. Gerald Ford wasn't there, neither was Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter or either of the Bushes. Reagan, on the other hand, was a bit preoccupied having just died that day and all so at least he had an excuse. Or, as the President's Club bartender put it, "He stopped breathing anyway."
After getting settled in for our two hour wait, I went up to the President's Club ticket agent desk and asked if we had a kosher meal on this leg of the trip (we did not). I also asked the agent if it would be possible to change our seat assignments and get exit row seats. The agent checked our tickets and the seating chart, then told me that there weren't any exit row seats available. I was under the impression that this and the fact that we already had boarding passes constituted checking in. Apparently, I was wrong.
At no point did the ticket agent mention that there was a problem with our reservation. So, we sat around enjoying the chance to sit in comfortable chairs with actual arms that gave us a place to rest our actual arms. Still, knowing that we were going to be stuffed into a can full of people, we didn't want to get too comfortable, so we left for the gate more than 30 minutes early. Then we cleared yet another security hurdle and waited around for our row to be called.
I should point out that you really don't want to mess with the gate agents during boarding for a flight to Israel. At the very least, you shouldn't try to get in line out of turn. As we were hovering around the end of the line heading into the plane, my wife decided we shouldn't wait for our row to be called, I quietly disagreed and then a quiet disagreement ensued. Until a passenger in row 25 tried to board at a time when only rows 30 and up had been called to board. The gate agent told her to wait until her turn loud enough for everyone to hear.
When it was finally our turn to board, we gave our boarding passes to the CONTINENTAL agent who then ran them through his ticket reader only to get the response, "Passenger not recognized." Well, of course the computer didn't recognize us. It had never met us before. So, I offered to introduce myself to the agent and his computer, shake hands with it, show it my passport and maybe even offer to take it out to lunch when I got back, but he, too, was having none of it. When the agent got the same response again, he sent us back to the ticket agent to check in.
That's where we learned that our reservations had been cancelled and our seats
given away because their records said we hadn't been on the flight we were
just on. This was news to me. I had a stomach full of bad airline food, a head
filled with bad airline movies and a $5 airline headset in my pocket that said
different, but, again, the agent was unmoved. Not only couldn't she tell us
why our reservations had been cancelled, she wasn't even the slightest bit
apologetic for a mistake that her company had made.
We weren't on the last plane. We didn't have a reservation. And that was that.
She could find us seats, but they weren't together.
Yeah, there's nothing like sitting next to someone you don't know on an 11 hour international flight. There's sleeping, there's snoring and inevitably someone you don't know ends up getting comfortable with the assistance of your shoulder (or the reverse). If I'm going to have to put up with that, it might as well be from someone I know. Not only that, but my wife is an Army reservist who had been in Alaska for the last six weeks and we hadn't even had much time together before that. Granted, airplane time is not quality time, but it's better than having someone you don't know drool on you. Trust me, I've done it.
That's when things got ugly as a clash of wills broke out between the CONTINENTAL agent and my wife and I with the agent offering to put us together in the back row of the plane where the seats don't recline and the two of us insisting that the airline put us in first class. The agent refused because "those seats are worth $7,000 and we don't give those away to any body."
Well, riddle me this, Batman: How much is a $7,000 seat really worth if it goes unfilled as several on our flight did? Is it still worth $7,000 or nothing? Is it worth the bad publicity and lost ticket sales you may get from a ticked off travel writer who will tell his friends? You tell me.
In case you've forgotten all this happened on CONTINENTAL AIRLINES.
After 20 minutes of arguing, we finally told them to just give us seats and we would leave. So, the agent sat us apart, apparently, just to spite us. And that's how we left it until we got to Israel.
Once we landed we went directly to the CONTINENTAL office. Since there were no more CONTINENTAL flights for the day, we ended up talking to Tony, the operations manager. He was very friendly, he was very apologetic and he was also very powerless to help us, but he referred us to Orna, a customer relations person.
The rest of our two week trip was marked by on-again, off-again efforts to catch up with Orna who was helpful when we could catch her, but who needed too much lead time before she could do answer our questions. She also wanted to know how to reach us several days down the road. Since we travel by the seat of our pants and didn't know where we were staying from night to night and we weren't going to spend valuable vacation time sitting in our room waiting for calls that might not come, she couldn't reach us. And we couldn't seem to reach her, either.
Frustrated, we finally stopped by CONTINENTAL'S administrative offices when we reached Tel Aviv. Granted, we were wearing shorts, but that was no reason to treat us like street people. Although it was before 5 p.m., the people working the front desk insisted the office was closed, wouldn't do anything to help us with our complaint and refused to even tell us if we still had reservations for our flight out of the country. When we asked if to do something as simple as confirm our flights, they said they couldn't do it because they didn't provide that service after 6 p.m. even though it wasn't even 5 yet. I guess their noses were stuck so far up in the air they were in another time zone.
At my wit's end, I finally called Tony one more time to check on our flights. Even though I reached him at home, he signed onto his computer, told us we were confirmed on our flights and that he would get us really good seats.
We reported to the airport a few days later, confident that it was all taken care of. Until we spent 30 minutes in a ticket line, got to the ticket counter, had the agent ask, "Did you change your travel plans?" and were told we'd have to go to another counter to get the issue resolved.
We are grateful that the agent was willing to work with us and that Roy, the supervisor, helped clear it all up. We're also thrilled that the agent in Tel Aviv was nice enough to be the first to apologize for the troubles We had suffered at the hands of CONTINENTAL, but we still know the answer we should have given (and will now give) when we_re asked, "Did you change your travel plans."
" Yes, we decided not to fly CONTINENTAL ever again."
From a man who's just happy to be home,
David G(etting the word out about CONTINENTAL) Volk