Phew! It took me so long to recover from the return journey. Actually, though the return journey had its difficulties, I’ve just not been able to get back to blogging. There’s so much to write. I’m amazed by how much there is to discover in America, even in a week where I hardly left home.
Today though, after publicly apologizing to those whom I should have contacted, I’ll concentrate on that return journey. Only because this is the first time in several years of travel, when everything that could safely go wrong actually did go wrong. Thankfully, my safety or security was not affected.
It all started on the 11th of September, as I made my return journey. Several have asked why I chose to travel on that day. Actually, it wasn’t entirely my choice. I was due to accompany my niece as far as Frankfurt, then head for London, while she headed for Nigeria. Her ticket had been booked months in advance, … and not by me. I just fitted into the plans.
Airline customer relations people (and I’ve had a week’s dealings with them now) insist that all the delays were caused by the weather, not extra security measures. But I didn’t particularly notice any bad weather, and I do believe someone needed to cover up the series of mistakes that were made. Two similarities with the trip I made exactly five years earlier; one was that I travelled with my niece, now 10 years old, and the second was that my journey was interrupted, though, thankfully, this was not as terrorising.
Back to my story. It all started at the airport, when we were told that our plane to DC would be delayed by an hour. That still gave us ample time to catch the Lufthansa to Frankfurt. But if that was so, why were we being booked on a United Airline flight that left DC for Frankfurt 28 minutes later. That wasn’t our main concern however. More important was the excess luggage that my niece was carrying home. The lady at the checking desk took her time over explaining how much she was helping us and what a bargain we were receiving, though we didn’t quite see this wonderful act of generosity. And we were less inclined to agree when she said that as we were now travelling via United Airlines to Frankfurt, the 60 dollars we’d paid for my niece to travel unaccompanied was now invalid and we had to pay another 60 to her.
Of course, I couldn’t agree to that, and my protest marked the beginning of intense negotiations with all manner of airline staff, which lasted three days. This first one appeared deadlocked when she suggested that if we weren’t going to cough up the 60 dollars, she could only check my niece’s luggage as far as Frankfurt. I told her that was impossible but she wasn’t budging. Just as I began to wonder about giving up the argument, a supervisor appeared. I explained to him that we’d been booked to fly Lufthansa from DC, we’d paid for my niece to travel unaccompanied, it wasn’t our fault that we were unable to catch the flight we’d booked, and it would be impossible for me, who was asking for assistance as a blind person to also be responsible for picking up my niece’s checked luggage at Frankfurt. He agreed, and with profound apologies, overruled our generous checking in lady.
There were three of us making the journey. My niece was going to Nigeria, I was following her as far as Frankfurt and my sister, (her mother) was accompanying us to DC and returning the next day. But if our plane was delayed by an hour, we should have left at half past three. It was about five PM when we eventually lifted off and headed for DC. We landed just as the Lufthansa plane would have been taking off, with 28 minutes to catch our new flight. We raced, got there just in time and learned that although my niece was booked on the flight, I was only waitlisted. Our generous checking in lady had not told us this.
This wasn’t on, so we started another round of negotiations, right at the boarding gate. One lady simply walked away, telling us she’d be back. Another took my niece’s ticket, punched a few keys on the computer and locked the gate, declaring that her luggage hadn’t made it to the flight anyway. Somehow, I didn’t believe her, but it didn’t matter.
We were told that I could board a United Airline to London and my niece could board a later flight that evening to Frankfurt. Again, I explained that I intended to se her to Frankfurt. But the idea that she should travel on this later flight was just laughable. She’d have arrived an hour after the connecting flight to Lagos. Would she have been unaccompanied for 24 hours in Frankfurt? I just stood there wondering. They saw a 10 year old, they were holding her ticket as they made the booking, so they knew her final destination.
But the gate was closing, so we were sent to Customer Services. Here, we stood for two and a half hours, a line attended to by a maximum of four members of staff, some of whom were constantly disappearing.
By the time we got to the front of the queue, my niece was being publicly asked to catch her flight to Frankfurt, and I was being informed that I was expected to go on a flight that would soon be leaving for London. I explained again that I wasn’t allowing my niece to stay 24 hours unaccompanied in Frankfurt, that in any case, as I’d booked to go to Frankfurt, that was exactly where I was flying to. I was surprised at how calm the lady was. She’d been dealing with a whole load of passengers who’d missed their connecting flights. While waiting, some were calling their relatives in Newzealand and Peru. Several had travelled from all over the country. But she calmly booked us on the Lufthansa flight of the next day, promised that our luggage would accompany us and gave us vouchers for a good hotel. She even booked my sister on a later flight the next day, so she could wave us off. All the time, she maintained the air of efficiency and assurance.
Or so I thought, until, at about 11 PM, we arrived, tired at the Dulles Hilton, on their own courtesy coach. When we showed up, the hotel receptionist was furious. She said our efficient customer service representative should have known that there were no more rooms there. They were only supposed to have issued 10 vouchers, and here we were, a coachload of ‘distressed’ guests, coming into her full hotel. Apparently, the vouchers we were given were no good for any other hotel, since they now had the name Hilton written on them, so we had to return to the airport.
As the others piled into the courtesy coach for another queueing session, I marshalled the troops and simply said the should ring someone. They must have known I was serious, as I was soon speaking to a kindly lady in Chicago. I said I had a 10 year old niece. She said she understood, as she has a six year old in bed. I said I was visually impaired and my sister was having to shepherd two people round DC. She said there was nothing she could do; she couldn’t even connect us to someone in Dulles. I asked if she knew what it was like at the airport, and she admitted she didn’t. I explained to her sympathetic ears how I’d been standing since I arrived in DC, at about half past six, how the only time I sat was on the five minute coach journey, and how it was past 11 PM. She understood but couldn’t do anything.
I think the hotel knew that I and my family were prepared to sleep in the lobby that night. Suddenly, a manager emerged and said that the vouchers were now good for the Hyatt. We even got a courtesy coach ride, and there were people waiting for us as we arrived. Better than that, we arrived on time to eat something before the restaurant closed at midnight. Actually, that was where we discovered that the generous gift of the airline could only buy soup and salad. But we were tired and jumped into our comfortable beds in our air conditioned room, just thanking God that we had another day together. And we didn’t even have to leave before 1 PM.
We breakfasted on cereal, which was all our vouchers could get us. At the right time, we took another coach trip to the airport, and this time went straight to Lufthansa. We even had another minor argument about the 60 dollar fee for unaccompanied minors, but that was soon resolved when they checked their paperwork and found that we were right again. Here, we were assured that if things worked as they should, our luggage would be accompanying us on the flight. There were the usual tearful goodbyes and we boarded. My niece was brilliant. She promised to be a big girl, and she was. She didn’t really cry, just a tear or two as her mum shouted goodbye for the fifth time. Maybe another tear or two as I shouted my own fifth goodbye at Frankfurt airport. Well done girl!
When I got to London, I wasn’t too surprised to find that my luggage hadn’t accompanied me. It had travelled on another flight and after another hour of ringing United Airlines (and getting no answer, negotiating security checks in a different terminal and then getting to their baggage claim, I found that the suitcases were waiting by one side, as though they expected me to just know they were there.
I raised the alarm with my sister, and sure enough, in Lagos, only two of the three suitcases arrived with my niece. I rang Frankfurt and Washington, but it took Washington 24 hours to find the suitcase. It was during one of those calls that a lady told me that while they were sorry I’d been inconvenienced in my travel, they weren’t responsible for the weather. I would have told her that the weather wasn’t responsible for my queueing, or for my being sent to a hotel with no room, etc. I held my tongue.
I’ve been promised that the suitcases would be sent to Lufthansa, and to Lagos. I haven’t checked yet. Actually, I enjoyed the States. It was warm, I made lots of new friends, … all in one week. When I get round to it, I’ll write about it. I’d love to, once I’ve got this one out of my chest.