I should be in the air over the Atlantic Ocean right now, curled up in a First Class suite on Turkish Air. Instead I’m on an Airbus A321 over the Mediterranean on a non-stop flight to Barcelona. Indeed, the trip has taken a much more direct routing and quite substantial turn. In the end, I still get to celebrate New Years in Barcelona with the splendiferous missus and we even get to sleep in a real bed tonight rather than in coach on a Delta 767-300ER. Still, the scene today in Istanbul’s airport can only be described as frustrating and trying, with a bit of misery thrown in as well as a reasonably successful tactical retreat.
Last night, while waiting in Luxor for the departure of the flight to Cairo, I learned that the Istanbul-JFK flight for that day had been delayed pretty badly. Over three hours, in fact. That plane was turning around to come back to Istanbul and then would be used for the flight that we were scheduled to be on. Except at the time I didn’t know that it would be that plane, and there was no one in Luxor I could ask. There wasn’t really anyone to ask in Cairo, either. So I went into the flight to Istanbul hopeful and optimistic, as well as truly exhausted.
As first class passengers we were greeted at the end of the jetway with a sign and a golf cart to whisk us away to the security checkpoint and then the lounge. It took them a while to round up the necessary supplies for us to shower but we managed to get that done and settled in for breakfast. Everything seemed OK.
And then the bottom fell out. The lounge agent came over to me and handed me the house phone. An agent on the other end of the line was explaining that the flight would be rather delayed and that she had arranged for a day room at the hotel in the terminal for us. Ruh roh. Just how delayed would the flight be? At least 3 hours (it turned into 5 by the time we left the airport). That completely ruined our 3 hour connection in JFK. Time to scramble.
There was a flight to Frankfurt leaving in 40 minutes that would get us to the early Frankfurt-JFK flight by the woman could not (or would not) make the change for us. While I tried desperately to negotiate through the language barrier and explain my predicament the minutes ticked away and the flight was closed. That was our last chance to make it to JFK in time for the Delta outbound flight. Game over.
It is also worth mentioning that at this point my laptop decided it didn’t want to power on and my BlackBerry went into a reboot cycle every 5-10 minutes. Ouch.
Recovery, Part 1
The Delta tickets we had were bottom of the barrel priced sale seats. The change fees for them were more than the actual tickets cost. That money was now gone. Poof. Still, I had a mind to celebrate New Years in Barcelona more than I cared about getting the Istanbul – New York flight in Turkish Air first class (a five day vacation is always worth more than an eleven hour flight) so it was time to start making things happen. The lounge had no phones available for customers and there was no means for me to reasonably call the United States to get in touch with Continental, the carrier that issued our tickets. Things were getting worse, not better.
There was a flight leaving for Barcelona in 45 minutes and the agent was willing to put us on that flight, right up until she realized it was a reward ticket. Then she was quite willing to sell us a walk-up full fare ticket and let us deal with our “travel agency” to handle the flights that were missed. Not gonna work. Still, I managed to revive my laptop and get the Skype client working and continental.com’s reward search inventory up on screen. Even more amazing, I actually found two seats available from Barcelona to New York in business class on the date we were scheduled to go home. A glimmer of hope.
Karla answered the phone for Continental and was incredibly patient with me as I explained my needs and desires over a rather questionable voice quality connection. I was able to feed her the flight numbers and she saw the inventory available. She just wasn’t sure if she could change the flight as I had already started the return trip. She had to call a supervisor and in the mean time the 45 minutes to the Barcelona departure were ticking away with great speed. Karla made the necessary changes, inserting an open jaw into the ticket and leaving the Istanbul – Barcelona segment open for us to fill. She was still working on confirming it but we had to go immediately to catch our flight. I gave her my credit card number without knowing the charges and hung up to hop on the plane to Barcelona that was now 30 minutes away from departure.
No can do. The agent was reasonably polite about the situation but it was quite clear. We weren’t getting on that plane. Rebooking the Continental tickets took a bit too long and that flight was closed for sales, even with 30 minutes remaining. I had made the changes that she agreed to and now I was still stuck in Istanbul.
Recovery, Part 2
At this point we had some time to play with. Continental was already reissuing the return ticket so we just had to find a way to get to Barcelona at a reasonable price. There were a number of options, including overnight connections in Amsterdam, Riga and Athens. All were slightly cheaper than the non-stop afternoon flight to Barcelona. In the end, however, we settled on the non-stop flight. Better to go for a relatively sure thing. Besides, we don’t have winter coats with us so Amsterdam or Latvia would be pretty unpleasant tonight.
We booked the flight through Travelocity because is was half the price that the agent wanted in the lounge. Such transactions are normally completed pretty quickly but after 20 minutes we still only had a reservation, not a ticket. Time to make another call. The Travelocity agent initially just wanted me to wait it out. Only when I explained that the flight was 4 hours away did it get properly escalated. Apparently they were worried about fraud for a last minute, one-way ticket purchased from Istanbul to Barcelona. I can’t say that I really blame them. Another 10 minutes on the phone assuring them that I really was me and that I really was buying walk-up tickets and the ticket was finally issued.
The agent had also previously offered us that hotel room for our wait. I now called that one in, asking that we be able to still use it. She agreed and we soon were laying down for a couple hours’ nap time that was much, much needed. Everything seemed OK at this point. We had our flights to Barcelona and the onward flights from Barcelona to NYC, albeit on a somewhat circuitous routing. And we had a bed for the first time in 30 hours. Not all bad. Except one little thing.
Recovery, Part 3
For some reason, Continental couldn’t actually make the change to our reward ticket. The agents I spoke with (and there were several of them) all insisted that we were still checked in for the Turkish Air flight from Istanbul to JFK. As long as we were on that flight they couldn’t remove it from the itinerary and substitute in the three segments to get us home from Barcelona. Time and time again I approached the agents at the counter and asked them to confirm that we were not checked in anymore on that flight. Each time they said we weren’t but the folks at Continental said we were. My worst nightmare at this point was getting to Barcelona and having Turkish reporting us as a no-show for the flight, canceling out the remaining value of our tickets. The price for Istanbul-Barcelona was bad enough. Shelling out for Barcelona-NYC on top of that probably would have driven me over the edge.
I finally had our Turkish Air “handler” from the morning back at the counter so I called Continental one more time with the plan of having the two of them talk it out so I didn’t have to stay in the middle. By coincidence I managed to get Karla on the phone again.
“Karla with a ‘K’?” I inquired. Yes, she said, somewhat befuddled. “I talked to you earlier with the crazy re-route from Barcelona to New York via Brussels and London; remember me?”
I’d like to think that she has fond memories of me now, if for no other reason than I’m pretty sure I was the most entertaining customer she had today. In reality, I’m just really happy that I didn’t have to explain my story one more time. The minutes were now starting to tick away on the afternoon departure to Barcelona and I had already paid for those tickets and I wasn’t about to lose them, too. Fortunately Karla proactively got another supervisor on the phone while I was talking to the agent at the desk. The supervisor apparently has some magic “refresh” button (Karla’s words, not mine) that made the reservation sync up again and show that we were no longer checked in for the flight.
Karla then was able to issue the new ticket, collect the $40 additional in taxes and confirm the new flights for us.
And there we were, six hours after the bottom initially fell out, with our flights rebooked and a new itinerary ready to go. Sure, it cost us some cash and the price actually went up as the rebooking process continued. Still, the overall goal was met. We’re going to celebrate New Years among friends in Barcelona and we’re going to experience some fun times on premium cabin flights along the way. The new return flight gives us about four hours at the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse in Heathrow along with our Upper Class seats across the pond. I’m sure that we’ll be exhausted on Tuesday when we get back to work but overall the adventure remains mostly alive, even if it means no Turkish Air first class. Based on their ground handling I’m not entirely sure it would be worth it.
Lessons learned from this experience:
- Betting on Turkish Air arriving within 3 hours of on-time for the NYC route is a rather large gamble. I lost.
- Creativity and flexibility can find all sorts of reward seats if desperation sets in.
- Sometimes the adventure costs a bit more than expected, but the stories are generally worth it, especially when the rest of the travels are happening on the very cheap side of the ledger.
- A good agent at the airline can really make things happen. Karla did it for me today and others have in the past. They make this whole game run just a bit more smoothly.