On the Current State of Air Travel for the Commoner, As We Have Experienced It

In October on 2017 my brother, sister and I decided to attempt a family first: The three of us would fly to Europe. With the assistance of Scotts Cheap Flights, we began the search of places to go, based on a list of preferences they provided. I had promised to find flights below $400 per person round trip (which I could have, as it turned out), but when I found a Delta flight from Chicago to Paris for $426.16 we decided to book it. This was a trip with a departure of April 9, 2018 and a return of April 18.

This was such a good deal that I suggested to my wife that she join me in Paris on the 18th, when my brother and sister left and we would stay on in France for another 10 days, returning on the 28th. She agreed.

So, on October 25, 2017, I booked a flight for myself departing April 9 and returning April 28. I then booked two flights for my brother and sister departing April 9 and returning April 18. And a flight for Dianne arriving on the 18th and departing on the 28tth. All was well.

When I booked the flights I had the option of choosing seating for $23 extra. I found three seats together, booked one of them and then e-mailed my brother and sister to do the same so we were all in the same row. They did. And they paid the extra $23. All was well.

Then I booked a flight for Dianne and paid for her reserved seat with me on the return flight.  All was well.

My brother, sister and I were scheduled to leave O’Hare at 7:45 pm on the 9th and arrive at Charles DeGaul at 11:05 am the next day.

Dianne and I were scheduled to leave Charles De Gaul on the 28th at 3:40 pm and arrive at O’Hare at 6 pm. Since we were departing CDG in the late afternoon and we were arriving from Nice, I booked an Air France Flight for the 28th departing Nice at 9:40 am and arriving after 11:00 at CDG which would be plenty of time to catch our flight back to the US. All was well.

Then we received the first of several notices that our flight had been changed. Now, instead of leaving O’Hare at 7:45 pm, we would be leaving at 5:20 pm. Instead of arriving at Charles De Gaul at 11:05 am we would be arriving at 8:45 am.  Then, instead of leaving Paris at 3:40 pm and arriving in Chicago at 6:pm, we would depart Paris at 10:10 am and arrive at 12:30 pm.

OK, the first part was good news as it gave us more time on our first day in Paris. The second part was bad news since this plane would now be departing before we arrived in from Nice. Being ECONOMY we could not change the Nice flight.

This began the first of multiple calls to Delta. I had looked at Delta’s return flights There was a flight directly to Detroit (our ultimate destination) from Paris that same day that would have worked out better than the original. I was told, however, that Detroit is in a different “region” or zone or something and to get on that plane I would have to pay full fare in the thousands. I opted out. Instead we settled on them putting us on the original flight, but a day later, so we got one more night in Paris (and that much more related expense).  So that was the deal.

My brother and sister actually benefited on both end of their flights, so once again, all was well.

Then on February 23, I received this notice from Delta. As if by magic, our Delta flights had now become Air France flights. Now, we had noted the message in previous e-mails that the Delta flights were “operated” by Air France. You see that often with other carriers. It is another thing altogether to be transferred entirely to another carrier. One example of why that is a problem can be found in the notice of seat selection: There wasn’t any.

Once again, I called Delta and told them that I had reserved a seat for both flights. The guy agreed that I had indeed made the purchase, made the correction on his computer and was about to hang up when he said wait until I contact Air France and make sure this is in their records. He came back a few minutes later and said Air France has it. You are good to go.

I called my brother and sister and they made sure the record was straight on their end as well.

Five days later I received a “Reservation Itinerary” which showed my seat as “unassigned”. But, when I clicked on the “Manage My Trip” button that took me to the Delta site, the seats were reserved. I called again. And again, I was assured that the seats were OK. Then I got an e-mail from “Delta-KLM” (KLM, the Dutch airline is now also a Delta partner) with details of our trip showing all seats reserved. All was well.

Then on March 14, my brother and sister both received “Flight Receipts” showing them on Delta flights with the original Delta flight numbers AND no reserved seats. “Manage my Trip”, however showed everything normal. I suggested they handle it. We were now flying Air France.

Finally, on April 7, it was time to print boarding passes! I quickly discovered that I had been assigned to the wrong seat. Thankfully there was an option to change seating. I called up a seating diagram of the plane and called my brother. His seat was nowhere near me. Fortunately, this was not a fully booked flight and there were three open seats together a few rows farther back. I changed my seat and printed the pass. He changed his and our sister’s seats as well and we all, finally, got to sit together. On an 8+ hour flight, this is not a minor issue.

This is the first time we had flown out of Chicago. The advantage was, it was an easy drive from our house and saved the cost of flying into New York. The down side was that it adds at least two hours onto the flight, each way. But, things went smoothly at O’Hare. It took us a long time to find a place to park, and we got there just as boarding was being called, but the flight itself was great. For $426.18 we flew over 8,000 miles, got a free meal with free wine and beer and an after-dinner cognac AND a free breakfast the next morning on both flights. There was a good entertainment system and the flight crew was friendly and attentive. The actual flights were among the best we have experienced anywhere. But, sadly, that all disappears with the ticketing process and the many other issues we encountered on the ground.

So, anyway, we had a wonderful time in Paris.

The day before they were to leave Paris, my brother and sister received notice from Air France that, due to the current round of Air France strikes, their flight was being cancelled (Even though their web site said specifically that no partner flights would be affected.) Air France promised to work feverishly to find an alternative. Their solution was to put them on a flight to Detroit leaving later in the day and then fly them from Detroit to Chicago. They left for the airport about the time they received notice from Delta that their flight had been cancelled and they promised they would find a solution. Apparently, their computers had not been told that Air France had already solved it.

But, as it turned out, Air France had not already solved it. And neither had Delta. When they got to the airport, they were told that their new flight had been cancelled and they would have to stay over at a free hotel provided by Air France and they would leave the next morning on a non-strike day. Which they did.

In the meantime, Dianne had a very good trip over and we had no trouble making connections at Charles De Gaul. We had a wonderful stay in France, as you will see described later. Our flight was scheduled to leave on time and this was a non-strike day, so it looked good for the flight. Then I received an e-mail from Delta saying our flight to Chicago had been cancelled. But as I looked at it, I realized that this was not the flight we would be boarding the next day. It was the original flight we had booked back in October which they, themselves, had changed!

But, the day of our flight WAS a train strike day. In order to make sure we arrived at CDG in plenty of time for the flight, we took a cab from our hotel near Gare du Nord. On train strike days, the cabs charge extra, so we were looking at 65 euro for that trip. And, of course, traffic was terrible. But the driver was able to bypass much of it with his special routes and we arrived at CDG with more than three hours to spare for our flight.

So, we walk into the Departures area of terminal 2E and it is absolute bedlam with people running here and there and long lines to everything. We got into one of those lines to get our boarding passes. In time, we finally got to the kiosk. It scanned my passport and ouila! Out comes a boarding pass. Dianne scans her passport and the machine starts acting funny. Instead of a boarding pass it prints out a notice that looks like a computer glitch. It reads:

Warning! This is not a boarding pass!

Please check the API status in Altea DC.

We show this to an attendant for the machine. She advises us we are in the wrong line. Americans are to use the lines about sixty yards away. Of course, there are no signs and the computer obviously didn’t care what line we were in. However, she agreed to try for us and got the same result. She directed us to a desk, far away, where many people were also in line. This began our many adventures with the maze tapes, the ones where you have to go around and through one row after another for roughly a hundred yards to get to your destination which is 20 feet away as the crow flies. And where people in a bigger hurry than you are, push you at warp speed through these barriers, not caring how your feet hurt of that you are operating on very little sleep.

We finally get to the end of the line and wait and wait and wait for a clerk to tell us what is going on. Which she never does. Instead, we are given another form which is also not a boarding pass. We are directed to another long line where we wait again, all of this with absolutely no explanation of what is going on. Eventually we get to yet another clerk, who looks everything over and gives Dianne a boarding pass.

Now we are headed for the gate, where there is yet another long line. We pass through another gate and are on our way to security, when a guy flags me over. He takes my little carry-ons and weights them. They are 5 kg over! Now we could have distributed stuff to Dianne’s bags or done some other things, but there was no discussion. My carry-on was given a sticker and I was directed to go to yet another desk to have it checked. Of course, this desk was at the other end of the terminal. When I finally got there, I was dreading yet another line but this time there wasn’t one. I still had to go through the maze, but once I got to the desk, fifteen actual feet away, a lady took the bag and gave me a sticker. I was entitled to a free  checked bag, so that was not an issue, but it means having to leave the secure area in Chicago to wait for my bag and going back through security all while hoping not to miss the connecting flight to Detroit.

I returned to Dianne and we proceeded through another maze to get to passport control. Now this maze was set up to handle, maybe, a thousand people. But, there were only a hundred or so. Any one of the “agents” standing around, and there were plenty, could have removed a few of the gates on this cattle drive and we could have proceeded directly to where the actual line was. But, no. Customers are made to walk hundreds of extra yards through these things dragging bags, children, and whatever, while our customer service people check their phones or shoot the bull with each other. If you didn’t already understand it, this is where you finally realize where you stand as an airline customer in the grand scheme of things. You are just one more doggie, and you better be gittin’ along. Customer service? Here’s your customer service: Get your ass up the line or over to that desk. And don’t ask questions.

Then, after passport control, you go through the same thing in security. As we experienced in Scotland a few months previously, while you are waiting in the security line, you are approached by a team of three people, which we now affectionately know as “Trump’s Chumps”.  America is now safe again because these three people look at the same passport that has already been reviewed three times and which has been scanned, to make sure they are in order. Then they put a sticker on the passport over top of the exact same sticker that someone else had already put there before. But we smile and chat and they go away.

We get through security just as boarding is being called. Three hours have been wasted and substantial stress added. The airline people scan the bar codes on our boarding passes. Dianne is immediately flagged for extra security. We head down the jetway, still not sure if we’re going to board. Here there is a small team of airline people with a table set up to go through bags. They take Dianne’s purse and bag. From her purse they pull a half-finished bottle of water, which in all the previous chaos she had forgotten to get rid of. They give her the purse and bag and we are on our way. Why this wasn’t caught in the original security, who knows? We take our seats for the long flight home.

I later learned (because no one ever did tell us) what the cryptic message: “Please check the API status in Altea DC” means. Altea Departure Control is a computer program used by some airlines to control the passenger boarding process from beginning to end. API is “Advance Personal Information”. Now, we always provide the airlines everything they ask for when we buy the tickets, which is usually Name, address, contact info, passport number and expiration date. We did in this case as well, but remember we gave this info to Delta. Could this be yet another communication screw-up between Delta and its partner? Nah. Couldn’t be. Of course, Dianne had already flown from Chicago to Paris on the first leg of this trip without incident. Who knows? Who cares? Nobody we met at Charles De Gaul, that’s for sure.

Fortunately, we’ve traveled enough to know that these are the exceptions. We have never had trouble with TSA and appreciate their professionalism. We have never had trouble at US airports or other European airports. But, at Charles de Gaul, they have a lot to learn and no apparent interest in learning it. At Delta, they were foolish to partner with a strike-happy airline to begin with, but the fact that they could not get their computers on same page before booking thousands of passengers is inexcusable.

For air travelers in the year of our Lord 2018 it is the best of times and the worst of times. The bag fees that have made the airlines rich have introduced a new age of travel where carry-ons are now king. But there is no room for all of them, so, many are gate-checked and handed out in the jetway when you arrive. Most flights are at or near capacity with cramped seats and few services. At the same time fares are cheaper than ever, with many flights to Europe and other destinations in the $300’s. Which, in turn, means more people are flying and the ground systems and security can’t keep up. The miracle is, given the chaos in so many other parts of the industry, that planes continue to fly safely. The most recent incidents involving Southwest Airlines are worrisome.

Each trip is a learning experience, but this one was particularly educational. Although we travel light, we’ll be traveling lighter. We’ll be more strategic about the airports we choose to fly into. We are even now re-thinking our entire approach to travel.  We have to adjust to the times and to our own increasing limitations. Probabilities increase that we are more likely to do certain things and less likely to do others, but one thing above others we have learned is that in travel you never say never. In the end, it is the USD that calls the tune. It is only a question of whether, for how long, and where you choose to dance.

 

 

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