27 March 2009

Sleepless in Washington

It has been a very long time since I have flown a U.S. airline and not come to regret it. I've spent a good part of the last 48 hours in the air, and the normal stresses associated with travel aside, most of it has been at least tolerable, if not pleasant. On BA between Doha and London, I stretched out for a reasonably comfortable night's sleep in one of their fully flat sleepers. Yesterday, I had quite a nice lunch on Lufthansa from Stockholm to Frankfurt. I chose Lufthansa because it offered one of the few itineraries that avoided U.S. airlines altogether. But as I've done so often in the past, I forgot about code-sharing, and looking for my flight on the departure board at FRA, I was dismayed to learn that the flight I had booked as LH9252 was in fact UA933.

The general crappiness I've come to expect from U.S. airlines started in the departure lounge. Again, I had spent quite a few hours over the previous days in various lounges, and this one was most definitely crappy in comparison. Unlike the sleek, spacious BA lounge at Heathrow terminal 5 I had just been in the day before, nibbling from the buffet of fresh fruit, warm ham sandwiches and other snacks, this one wasn't much bigger than a lot of your friend's living rooms, and looked like it last saw a decor refresh about 1987. A few sad looking platters of cheese and crackers were all that were on offer.

On board, not much better. This was not a new aircraft and the seats and entertainment system were ancient. The only laptop power used the special aircraft adaptors rather than the standard mains power that most jets are fitted with now. Since I didn't own such an adaptor, they helpfully offered to sell me one for US$125. At least the economy class passengers didn't have to suffer as I did on AA a couple years back when they not only charged for drinks, but made the Euro unit price the same as the price in USD; United at least charged €4 or $6.

But of course the worst was yet to come. In their ongoing efforts to insist that things that are done with no difficulties elsewhere in the world are impossible in the U.S.A., U.S. customs makes all arriving passengers claim their bags, go through customs with them, and then re-check them. Arriving at Dulles (yes, they named an airport after that S.O.B.) Airport in Virginia last night, I claimed my two bags, was selected for secondary inspection, had my bags searched, re-packed everything, and re-checked them. I then had to proceed to the main terminal 400 meters away to claim the bag. It was 23:00 by time I got through all that, but United assured me I would have my bags soon.

They repeated these assurances multiple times over the next several hours. They also told me that if I preferred, I could leave and they would have the bags delivered -- for US$75/bag, payable cash on delivery. At 2:30. they finally told me they couldn't find them and that they would have to deliver them (for free).

At this point, the only transportation option was a US$100+ cab ride, so I opted to wait at least until 6:00 when the buses would start running again. In the meantime, I checked in with the office a couple of times and had a very rude and impatient reception - "sir, we cannot do anything more for you."

Every bag loss incident I've had in recent years has involved a U.S. airline. I don't know why they cannot manage what airlines everywhere else do.

Dulles Airport, U.S.A.
27 March 2009

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