Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Traveling: The Standby Game

Traveling is a lot of fun, but sometimes it goes differently than expected. Last weekend a planned 3-day trip from New York to New Orleans changed to an unintended 4-day  journey and included an unplanned side trip to Texas. The change was caused by a game which the airlines (in this case Continental Airlines) are playing with their customers. If this game has any rules, they are not known by the passengers.

My cost conscious girlfriend had booked 2 Continental Airlines discount return tickets from Newark (just around 30 bus minutes from midtown Manhattan) to New Orleans. She paid just around $400 for them. The flight to the south went without problems. But not so the return flight.

We had a ticket for Sunday morning 6.20 am at the Louis Armstrong Airport. When we arrived there was already a long line before the security gate, which - we learned later - needed around 20 minutes. Because the airline didn`t give us the boarding passes online we had to go to the Continental desk, but we were refused! The airline person claimed, that we were already too late for the 6.20 flight.

All the later direct flights to Newark were already overbooked and we were offered tickets first to Houston and from then to Newark, and we were set on a standby list for the next Houston-flight. We had to wait until the end of the boarding, hoping some passengers don´t show up, to get their seats.

We didn`t get on the first 2 flights to the Texan metropolis. But we were upgraded on the standby list from fligh to flight and finally boarded the third plane which arrived around 1 pm at George Bush Intercontinental/Houston Airport, but there the standby game started in a new round. As newcomers with a high number in the waiting list we missed the first Newark flight,  and set our hopes on the flight 2 hours later, at 3.00 pm.

Shortly before the scheduled take off time, the desk people asked some of the standby candidates to form a line, which contained 6 of the want-to-be passengers. My girlfriend got place 3 and I was set as number 4. Some minutes later the first standby candidate won his seat. Shortly after that we were told that the number of possible seats melted to 2. The then first candidate waived his right because we wanted to travel together with candidate No. 4, who now had no chance for a seat. Therefore we advanced to place 1 and 2, but we had to wait some more minutes.

It seemed that we had luck. The desk staff accepted our tickets and sent us to the cabin. But because the cabin was still blocked with passengers trying to load their stuff, we had to wait for the free seats.

Then the big disappointment came. The attendat showed up in the cabin with a very late owner of a boarding pass - and therefore a seat. Now there was just one seat available - not enough for both of us. So we had to leave the airplane and were sent to the customer information desk for a placement for the next flight. (If the staff in New Orleans had also been so generous to late boarding card owners we would have gotten our 6.20 flight in New Orleans easily!)

Anyway. This time at the customer information desk we learned that the airline had updated the standby list. My girlfriend stayed first in line, but I was demoted to 6th place!  The system ignored the fact that our tickets were both bought at the same time and that we showed up together at the Houston desks. The chance that we got the reamining seats in the last  2 planes which flew to Newark on Sunday was now very low.

So we traded our tickets to the earliest flight on the next day and got boarding passes (with seat numbers) for Monday at 6.00. To be sure to get the seats we showed up at 4.40 am at the airport and travelled without any problem.

The flipside: We enjoyed the extra-time in the warm (near 80 F/27 C) and sunny south before we went back to rainy and chilly New York City (40 F/4C). The flight interruption made us eligible for a hotel-discount, which we used for solid place near the airport. We spent the early evening hours in a nice Tex-Mex Restaurant and in a multiplex cinema, both in a vast shopping mall, some taxi-minutes away from the hotel.

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