I have not written one of these in a long while. Part of it is, I guess, that we have not had this much un-luck with the airline business for a while and part of it is the fact that about a year ago we stopped flying altogether for about a year. But let me tell you: it caught up with us during the most recent trip to Romania, and back.
Grab a long cup of something. We'll be a while!
It actually started with the trip to Romania, first. We made it to Iasi, our final destination there, but our luggage did not. We filed a 'lost luggage' claim in Iasi for both our suitcases, but they could not tell us where they were tracked last. In the US they can tell you almost instantly when the luggage was last scanned, what airport, but in Iasi they told us it takes up to three hours for our claim to become actualized in the computer system and for them to get an answer back.
They called us from the airport the next day to tell us that we need to come and pick up the luggage, and that it had made it to Iasi, finally. They could deliver it to us, but they would have to open it to ensure there is nothing illegal in the suitcases (for customs purposes, since we were coming in from a non-EU country), and they do not recommend us not being there when this was happening. Plus, being a Saturday, they could not deliver it till Monday to us. Their delivery system does not work during weekends. (forget that people travel, the airport is open during weekends, and people lose luggage, but … delivery not working. OK!)
So, we go to the airport, to find that only one of our bags had made it to Iasi, but the other one had not. We ask why but they could not tell us. They tell us that the other one is in Bucharest, and it will be shipped most likely with the next flight (in 2 hours) and we should come back for it.
As those of you who follow our Facebook feeds know, my uncle is some sort of a big shot for the Romanian airlines, TAROM, in Iasi. So, he made a couple of phone calls after this episode and found out that they could not send both suitcases at the same time because the weight of the plane was at the limit, and our suitcase had to be left behind, as it did not make the overall plane weight. One suitcase. 50 lbs! Threw off the entire plane weight. All right!
We drove back to the airport for the second time that evening and collected the second suitcase. I was just grateful that everyone there was very kind, patient and really helpful and we did not even have to bribe anyone.
After spending two weeks in Iasi with my parents and seeing some friends and family, we were scheduled to come back home on May 4. I spent a whole weekend trying to book this trip, because it was close to impossible to find connections that made any sense at all. Due to various reasons, we did not book this trip way in advance, like I normally do. We booked it about a month and a half (barely) before we flew. So, the number of really good flights, with layovers that made any sense in airports where you do not risk being blown up was really limited. One of the connections we kept finding was through Dulles, Washington, DC and that was one of my biggest requirements to not go through that airport, as it is hell! Especially for international flights, it is hell! (as a fun fact, the three letter word for the Dulles airport is IAD. Those who speak Romanian know that spells “hell” quite clearly).
Another major requirement was that I did not want a 12 hour layover anywhere else. But a compromise had to be made, and I finally did book our trip with a 9 hour layover in Bucharest, on our way back to The States.
So, on May 4th, we got up around 8 AM and packed to leave Iasi and return home. Our flight from Iasi to Bucharest (serviced by TAROM) was scheduled for 7 PM. After that, we would sleep at a hotel in the airport and be back at the Bucharest airport at 6 AM the following morning to fly to Paris (serviced by Air France) , and then from there directly to Raleigh-Durham (serviced by Delta). That was the plan. But plans as they come are made to be messed with.
My big shot airline uncle calls us around 12 PM the day of our departure and says “hey, did you guys receive a confirmation from your airline/ booking service or whatever that you have been redirected to fly through Frankfurt tomorrow, before you get to Paris?” I had received a confirmation ONLY from Delta about the flight from Paris, that it was coming up and it looked on time and that I need to prepare, bla bla bla, the usual. I told him “no, we did not receive such a confirmation”, and where in the world is he getting Frankfurt from?!
Mom already knew from the radio that Air France is on strike and their flights are grounded but did not think that we were going with Air France, so she had not told us anything. She also ran into one of their strikes before and TAROM serviced the flight instead, as their partner, so she was thinking TAROM might take us from Bucharest to Paris, since Air France was on strike. But nope, TAROM had no available planes, evidently, and the flight from Bucharest to Paris now became two flights: Bucharest to Frankfurt, and Frankfurt to Paris through Lufthansa. This would put us in Paris before the Delta flight to Raleigh-Durham, since we had a 3 and a half hour layover there and had some time to kill. This is why I usually like layovers between 2 and 4 hours – to leave enough room for changes, delays, and airline whimsy-ness...
Thank God for nosy relatives in high places, I guess. If it were not for my uncle searching our flights for our return trip simply out of curiosity and being a flying geek we would not have found this out till we got the Bucharest the next morning. Not that knowing in advance helped in any way really, other than giving us a new perspective, and real expectations. We were to thank God and curse airlines and airline services several times during what it was to follow. But let's not jump ahead.
The flight from Iasi to Bucharest was uneventful, except for my backpack beeping when it went through the security belt in Iasi. They asked me if I had electronics in it. I said “sure, I did.” I had a camera, a couple of power banks, an MP3 player, chargers, etc. They opened it and scanned them all separately. This was news to me, that electronics might get you in trouble at the check-in line, but there you go. You live and learn. Or fly and learn, rather. I still don't know which of my electronics beeped or was the problem. My iPad was already in a bin by itself, and my husband had a camera and a phone in his backpack, but his didn't beep. I also had batteries and power banks in mine, and he didn't. Who knows?! They never tell you.
We had to pick up our luggage in Bucharest, because they do not check it to your destination from Iasi, for some reason. We picked them up there, and went to our hotel for the night. The hotel stay was lovely, to have a place where you could at least stretch for a bit. A million times better than the dirty chairs in the airport, for sure. We did not sleep much those few hours in the hotel, but the quiet, and relative cleanliness of the hotel was nice.
The next morning, we were in the airport at 4 AM, to check in for our flights that day. Because my uncle told me we are flying Lufthansa from Bucharest, we knew to go to their counter to check in first. As my booking company never sent me a confirmation from the flights that day, I would not have known that I was to show up at the Lufthansa counter, and I would have shown up at Air France. No idea if anyone would have been there to even redirect me, since the company was on strike and all. Like I said: thank God for nosy uncles!
We board the flight in Bucharest, after checking in our luggage, passing through security and passport control. Our luggage was tagged to go through Frankfurt-Paris-Raleigh. We were given tickets from Bucharest to Frankfurt, and from Frankfurt to Paris, but they could not give us tickets for the Delta flight. They said they cannot access that system and we should get boarding passes in Paris, when we get to the gate. Lufthansa is not a Delta partner. This happened before, so this was not a surprise really. The luggage was tagged, as I mentioned, all the way to the destination, in Raleigh.
After boarding the flight to Frankfurt in Bucharest, the Captain came on almost immediately as the scheduled time was up and said they are having to reboot the computer of the airplane as they are seeing some errors, so the lights will go out and the air will stop briefly in the plane, as the computer would reboot. So, they did that, then we waited for another 20 minutes or so after that. He came on again to say, “Well, we rebooted the computer, but that didn't fix it. So, now, we are calling a technician to have them look at it and try to fix it.” How does one fly with a broken computer is beyond me and why do you find out that the computer is broken after you have loaded your plane with 100+ people?! The Captain also said “I cannot tell you how much longer this will be, we put an order in for the technician and we have to wait for them to come.”
We waited for another hour or so. People started getting antsy. We had 45 minute layover in Frankfurt, and we knew if we waited any longer we would not make the flight from Frankfurt to Paris. I started looking online (thank God for turning on our phones for the International Data plan, so we could do this!) to see if there were any other flights from Frankfurt to Paris that day that would possibly get us to Paris in time for our Delta flight to Raleigh. There were two more flights that would allow us to still make the Delta flight, so I was hoping the computer will get fixed so we can make it.
The technician came and spent probably 10-15 minutes trying to fix the computer (after waiting for him for half hour or so). The Captain came in again on the speaker to say that the technician could not fix the computer so now they have to replace it. So, they will put an order in for another computer and once they replace it, we'll be good to go, but that he doesn't know how long that will take.
All in all, we waited for the computer to be replaced about two and a half to three hours. We missed all of our connections from Frankfurt to Paris and at the end of this wait we knew we could not get to the Delta flight we had book out of Paris and directly home. In all likelihood, there is no other flight directly from Paris to Raleigh, NC, so we knew we were in for some major rerouting …
You have to understand a thing or two about some of the airports in Europe. I am not sure why they all do this but they do: instead of parking their planes right on the terminal gates, they park their planes sometimes miles away from the airport building. This was the case with the Lufthansa flight in Bucharest: there was nowhere to go. We all sat in our chairs and waited for up to three hours for someone to fix the computer of the plane. The thoughts everyone had about flying with a possibly not OK computer are the stuff of nightmares, I am sure.
While we waited, the head steward came to almost everyone on the plane to reassure everyone that everyone will be rerouted and everyone will be on a different flight by the time we get to Frankfurt. He also said they will obtain the rerouting information and will share it with everyone so that once people get off this plane they will know where to pick up their next connection. This was true: he came on the speaker and told everyone who was supposed to fly to wherever next where they were being rerouted – what new flight number and what new destination. During this entire crazy day, the staff on this Lufthansa plane were definitely the most considerate, patient and thorough people out of everyone. When we heard our redirection information, we were not sure what direction we were going to be rerouted in, but we had some flight numbers and times that we could see on the airport monitors.
Before we even got off the plane in Frankfurt, I went on a Lufthansa website and put my reservation number in. My uncle said no matter what happens with the rerouting of the planes, my reservation number will always stay the same. And he said if they keep rerouting me to go to any site of the airline I am with (in this case Lufthansa) and my reservation should show all the legs of all of my flights. He was right. We went online while we waited and we knew that Lufthansa had rerouted us and we were no longer going through Paris. We were now going from Frankfurt to Washington, Dulles (yeah, you're allowed to sigh, just like I did – well, I did more than sigh), then from there to Raleigh. There was a Frankfurt-Dulles flight at 12.20 and we were allegedly going to make that.
We found the gate for the Dulles flight (at 12.20 PM). As nice as the airplane staff was before, the gate staff was just as rude and abrasive. The new flight was now going to be serviced by United Airlines. The people at the gate were a mixture of American (United and TSA) and German (Lufthansa) people. They were all crass and inconsiderate.
We got boarding passes, as our boarding passes from Bucharest were no longer valid, of course, and then we were put in groups, according to what group we would board with (1 through 4). They were yelling at people to get into their own queues, and everyone had to be in a queue, not on chairs, or anything. They were nowhere near boarding, but they needed everyone standing in the lines for each group.
They called my name and an American gentleman said that I was “selected by the TSA to be thoroughly searched.” They took me behind these removable walls and two women met me. One of them requested that I put my carry-on bags (a backpack and a purse) on a table and open them. She asked me if I had any electronics. I said “yes”. She asked me what kind. I told her and she wanted to see all of them. I pulled them out and she swiped them with a blue wipe, and then she put the wipe on a machine and she saw something or other on a computer screen. She told me I was OK. Then, another woman asked to see my shoes. I took them off and she bent them and twisted them every which way. She told me everything was OK and I was cleared.
I was livid with frustration. The TSA apparently needed this from me! The TSA! This is after the same institution took my money to “pre-check clear me” for all of the flights they have authority on! I paid $90 and waited for 6 weeks for them to check my records and decide that I am safe on every flight, but now … I was somehow showing up on their machines that I needed to be searched! I was thinking they need to write a filter for this random search software that excludes the people they already decided are OK, but you know … too much to ask!
They started boarding, but being in one group or another proved to not matter. Boarding was completely random and completely different for everyone. There were three lines for boarding and they kept shoving everyone, no matter what their group was, into all three, equally: one line was not even manned: you'd walk through it and you'd scan your boarding pass yourself, the second one was manned and they would scan the boarding pass for you. A third line was manned by a TSA (or some sort of American authority) that asked you if you bought anything in the airport, if yes, what, if your luggage was with you the whole time and whether anyone gave you something to carry on the plane. Then, after you passed this person, another person scanned your boarding pass and let you on the plane.
Well, no, not on the plane, but on this corridor that ended in a lot of stairs. So, after this crazy boarding process, we were all shoved in this hallway and then down these never ending stairs (not escalators, stairs!). There were no windows to the outside and we were not sure where we were going. Someone asked under his breath “are we boarding, or are we being drafted or traded?” We were all tight like sardines standing on the stairs and people with rolling carry-ons were cursing because they had to carry them down these stairs.
After that, they put us on buses to take us to the plane. We drove a long time – seemed like 5-6, maybe more miles, far from the airport and we came to a United plane. There, we were given instructions how to board, as they were boarding from the front and the back of the plane at the same time. No one had a clue where to go, they were yelling at us again but we were all like chickens with our heads cut off, going back and forth just trying to get somewhere on that damn plane! It was mayhem!
We finally boarded and tried to settle down. If you have flown overseas before you know that those planes are huge. This plane had three seats on the right, four in the middle and three more on the left. So, for each row you have 10 seats. The plane was packed. It was going to be a 9 hour flight to Dulles, so everyone had lots of things to settle with: books, tablets, laptops, eye patches, blankets, neck pillows, etc. A family with two small children had car seats, bassinets, many shoulder bags. We all took a while to settle down.
Too preoccupied with all of this, we didn't realize that we were way past our time to take off. We were delayed again. No one told us anything. After about an hour or maybe more, one of the stewardesses came on the speaker to say “Ladies and gentlemen, we are working on an issue, so this is why we have not left yet. I just wanted you to know that we're working on something.” That was it. Then, after another 30 minutes or so, they started bringing out snacks and drinks. Someone asked the flight assistant “are we leaving any time soon?”, the answer was “nope!”. Someone else asked “are we going to have to leave the plane?”, the answer from the stewardess was “that would be the best case scenario.” Umm … we were all stunned! (reminder: at this point, we're on a United plane, all staff American).
After about two and a half hours on this plane, the Captain comes on and says “folks, we got a problem with the water draining system and we called a crew to have it fixed. However, they have not fixed it in a way that would allow us to take this plane up in the air, so for this reason, we are going to take everyone off the plane and rebook them to other flights. This plane is not going anywhere today.” This was like adding insult to injury: after keeping us cooped up in there for close to three hours (again, miles from the airport, we could not be outside of the plane), we were told “no soup for us!”
We waited another 30 minutes since this announcement for the buses. People were getting antsy about wanting to leave and the same stewardess who came on earlier saying “we're working on something” said “folks, we are literally waiting on the buses to arrive to take us back to the terminal. You must understand that we're sharing these buses with all the other airlines, so you need to be patient.” Got it! A large cup of patience coming right up! Especially while across the world from where you need to be and no idea how to get where you need to be. Sure thing!
The darn buses slowly arriving to pick us up from the airplane
You thought you could just exit the plane and wait for the bus on the pavement, but think again: we were policed everywhere ....
.... and standing on more stairs, waiting for our turn to move. All packed tight.
The buses did come and off we went to the terminal again. At this point, it was a little after 3 PM (the flight was supposed to leave at 12.20 originally). We had to walk up all those steps again. Again, people with huge carry-ons had to haul them upstairs all by themselves. No idea whether there was an elevator anywhere. There was no escalator or ramp for disabled people, that we could see.
We went to the United service desk, because I kept searching our rebooking online and we had not been rebooked. Lufthansa had rebooked us before, but United was not rebooking anyone. So, we went to their service desk to be rerouted. The very rude lady yelled that she is closing the office for the day, and we needed to go to gate Z19 which will reroute everyone. We went there and there was a flight boarding and people in line for that and then all of the people on our flight too. There were hundreds of people in that line. I was thinking we might be there till next day JUST to get to the counter.
In the meantime, the airport looked like it was shutting down. All stores but one were closed, and all the gates seemed to be closed, except for Z19. We overheard someone that they rebooked themselves from the United app. We're not normally United flyers, so we had to download the app, and with our reservation number, we rerouted ourselves to the next flight to Dulles – luckily there was a second one there, and then one last flight of the day in Dulles to Raleigh. Maybe, just maybe we might make it home that day! We still had to stand in line and get boarding passes, but we knew we were on that flight.
We bought some snacky food at the only store open next to our gate and waited for the second flight to Dulles. At this point, we felt desperate. If this last flight would not work out, then what?! We would have to spend the night in Frankfurt, then the next day go who knows where? And where would our luggage be by this time, being rerouted so many times?!
We repeated the crazy boarding process again (standing in line with your group), and I got re-flagged again by the TSA to be “thoroughly searched.” I went to the search people to be searched again, and I had the boarding stub from the previous flight saying that the search happened (they put a sticker on your boarding pass when you pass and they highlight it with a marker) and showed them I already did that. They said I was OK, then, and no need to go behind the mobile walls for searching again. I was paged and called back at the podium twice after this, because I was showing up as “random search” still. I kept going back to the search people and they kept telling me I am OK, but they never cleared me in the computer. After three times, I think they finally cleared me.
We finally boarded the second plane to Dulles and the flight was already delayed by almost an hour. We waited on the plane for another hour and a half. If everything had gone smoothly, we would have had a 2 hour and 40 minute layover in Dulles. Since we were again being delayed (this time, we were not sure why, no one told us anything), our layover was more like an hour and a half now. We were hoping that they will make up time since it's a 9 hour flight, but flying against the stream is always slow.
One of the most maddening things was to not know what gate any of these flights were leaving from, when you're already pressed for time. Notice the only delayed flight is the United Airlines one and there is no gate assigned (only a letter, "Z", but no gate number - it could be one minute or 12 minutes away from this screen).
We eventually took off and we did not make up all of the time. We landed in Dulles with a layover of exactly an hour since we left the plane. Since we had to clear passports, and then find our luggage, clear customs, drop off our luggage, pass security again, find our gate for Raleigh, we were 100% sure we were not going to make this last flight home, at 10.35.
There is no way to rush through passports control and filling out the custom forms! You're behind tons of people who may be doing this for the first time. It's confusing and there is no help. Lots of these people didn't speak English. We were behind all sorts of folks.
Not only this, but the customs and passport control people were closed for the day in the terminal where we landed and we had to board buses again to be taken to the main terminal. Again: if you have planes coming in from overseas, why close the customs offices?! And if you have to close them in one terminal, why do you land there? Land in the one where you have all the services working. I know, I am asking for logic! Silly me!
After the passport control and filling out the customs information, we rushed to the baggage claim area. An angel of a gentleman asked us where we were flying next, and we told him Raleigh-Durham. He said in a rush “great, we're holding up the plane for Raleigh-Durham so you'll make it.” I did not believe that was true, but then the same announcement came on the speakerphone and listed several destinations for which they were holding planes for people on our flight. I thanked God again.
We finally made the flight to Raleigh, the last of the night, but only after being taken again by bus to probably the same terminal where we landed from Frankfurt to begin with. The irony of it all.
When I was in my seat in this last plane to Raleigh, completely breathless from running across the airport to catch it, I just started crying uncontrollably. I was trying all day to be brave and composed and calm, because there was no other way to go through all this otherwise, but at the end I lost it. It felt good to cry. And through this whole ordeal, our bags made it this time! They had the wrong tags on them (originally routed through Paris), but they made it!
All in all, the trip from when we boarded the first flight from Iasi to the time when the last flight landed in Raleigh took 36 hours (with a few hour break in the Bucharest hotel). We had been awake for 48 hours, not counting the time in the hotel where we hardly got any sleep and the very poor sleep we get on a plane. We started the trip on May 4th. We entered our house on May 6th. This will make for never forgetting to celebrate Cinco de Mayo! Definitely the longest trip of my life.
If there was one thing I learned during this whole thing was: always have a working phone everywhere in the world. There is a lot you can do on a site or on an app nowadays (like rebooking your own flight to avoid standing in crazy lines) and even without wifi, you can do it over the data plan. You'll pay later, but it's worth it. The second thing a phone does is keep you sane! You can stay in touch with your support system (relatives, friends, your social network) to take your mind off the craziness around you. I would not have made it with just one good cry otherwise.
I have friends who pretty much live in airports for their jobs. I could not imagine running into these problems everyday and getting to a point where they would feel “normal”. I felt frustrated, angry, dirty beyond belief and very helpless through this whole process. I love to travel, but not at this kind of cost …
Safe skies, everyone. And I wish you all at least one angel like we had to save your days, when things do get tangled!