Texas Traveler, Beware! Part II

Let’s pick up from where we left off last time, shall we?

So there I was, in Houston — almost home, I thought. Little did I know that the worst was yet to come. Here’s a big tip: if you get stranded in Houston, don’t expect tea and sympathy from Continental, ExpressJet or from Bush International Airport, especially when they can blame things on the weather. Sure, if they’d actually tried to help everyone they’d have taken a huge financial hit that day — but sometimes you have to suck it up and service the customer. I’ve owned a business or two, so I know what I’m taking about. ExpressJet treated me and my fellow passengers like annoying bugs. This isn’t the way to succeed; it’s a recipe for failure. Aren’t two bankruptcies of the parent corporation enough to teach them anything?

If you’ve never been in a situation like this before, here’s another bit of advice to keep in mind when it finally happens: when you complain, prepare to be stonewalled. But don’t give up like a good little sheep. Keep complaining, and eventually, someone’s going to get it into their head that customer service is important. Continental and ExpressJet don’t get it quite yet. One thing I heard a lot when I complained (and this was true of all the other people I talked to as well) was, “Your only option is…” Well, no; what they were really saying was, “All we’re willing to do for you is…”

All they were willing to do for me on October 15 was put me on a plane that left 22 hours later than the one they caused me to miss. Did they offer me accommodations for the night? Hell no; all the cheap hotels nearby were full, and they weren’t willing to make any effort to find rooms for all the other people they stranded. I was supposed to camp out in the airport for 16 hours or more. Was I even offered a pillow or blanket? Of course not. All I got were some vouchers for $16, which was just about enough to buy a meal at the one place still open by the time I got them, and I practically had to make a scene to get that much.

Here’s another important tip: if it’s late in the evening and your airline has rescheduled you for a flight sometime the next day, you’re not going to be able to easily get out of the terminal and into the secured area. It doesn’t matter if there’s not an empty hotel room in town and you have to camp on the concrete floor — the TSA won’t let you through without a temporary pass, which you have to get from your airline. They might tell you this when you try to go through the security line, if you’re lucky. Keep this in mind, because I ended up going through ExpressJet’s customer service line three times trying to get everything worked out before I was able to get back into the gate area.

Just to give you an idea of how irritating something like this can be, by the time I got through into the secure area there was one concession left open, so I spent about 45 minutes in line, and then spent my $16 worth of vouchers for an overpriced little pizza, a bottle of water, a soda, and a cookie. By the time I sat down to eat I was pretty well out of it. When I’d eaten something, and my blood sugar and IQ levels had risen back to normal, I investigated other ways to get home — bus, train, etc — but they were all too expensive, too late, or too inaccessible. Bush Airport happens to be about 40 miles out of downtown Houston, where all the other transportation action is. Just getting there was going to cost about $50, and as I mentioned before, my boss is a tightwad.

So I gave up and wandered around the concourses, where thousands of people were stuck, some of them sacked out on the floor. I tried to sleep too, but by midnight the airport was an icebox (even though I was sweating like a pig at 11 PM). Around 2 AM I managed to talk to a bored Continental rep on the phone, and he found me a 9 AM flight to Dallas — but to Love Field, not D/FW International. Fine. Later I got lucky on standby and got out to Love on a 6:30 flight. I didn’t get home until after 10 AM, whereupon I tumbled into bed to get the sleep I hadn’t been able to get the night before.

I happen to know that my story is mild compared to what happened to other people. While they were busily ignoring us in Corpus Christi, one poor elderly woman, who was wheelchair-bound, was left to fend for herself the whole time we were there. If I hadn’t offered to wheel her on the plane, they probably would have left her there. I’m ashamed to admit that I lost track of her in Houston, and have no idea what happened to her. Later, I talked to a photographer who wasn’t able to get to Birmingham for a wedding shoot. She lost $3,500 because she couldn’t be there. They didn’t even give her a pillow for the night, and as for a refund? Forget it — not when they can blame the weather. One young woman had three flights in a row canceled. Imagine how upset she was when she went back through the long, slow-moving line, only to be told a) that there were no more flights that night; and b) that third flight, the last one canceled? Oops! It wasn’t canceled at all! In fact, it took off without her, even though she was on standby and there were seats open! Oops, sorry!

Did they give the lady her money back, even when she demanded it? Are you kidding?

So be careful out there when you try to fly into and around Texas. Some of the carriers just don’t care, and some of the airports are so old and overburdened by TSA requirements that they can’t stand up and do their jobs right. I’d recommend flying Southwest — in 20 years of flying with them, I’ve never had any serious problems. Or if flying just sounds too overwhelming, you could try riding a bicycle. You might get there faster.