Jet Blues

It could be described as one of the worst trips I never took.

It happened on my way to the Dominican Republic. I had to fly first to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and then get on a plane to Puerto Plata to attend a merengue festival I had been looking forward to for many, many months.

Unfortunately, my original American Airlines flight was scheduled for the day before Thanksgiving — one of the busiest flying days of the year, I was later told. And so, the plane, leaving from Philadelphia and loaded to capacity, taxied out to the runway only to be held up, the pilot told us, because at least 16 planes were in front of us.

An hour or so later, with a bright sun leading the way, we were finally airborne, and I made it to San Juan just in time to miss my connecting American Eagle flight. Now, stranded in San Juan, I approached those in charge at the American Airlines counter, hoping someone there could solve my problem.

The first person I told of my plight, after waiting in a line behind other disgruntled and disgusted travelers, was extremely dismissive. I asked for a supervisor, was dismissed again and told nothing could be done. The rather arrogant woman behind the counter said that the flight from Philadelphia was late due to bad weather conditions — which was certainly not accurate — and that, in such cases, American was not responsible.

Other travelers with me on that flight were trying, unsuccessfully, to argue the matter as well, claiming that the weather was just fine in Philadelphia when we finally took off.

Additionally, I was told that I could stay over — at my own expense — in a hotel in San Juan (if I could find one), pay for my own meals, lodging, etc., and that the airline would "try" to get me to my destination the next day, if possible, which they were by no means promising.

Oh, and one more thing — they couldn't find my luggage, which may or may not, they insisted, have been sent on ahead to the Dominican Republic or, most probably, was left behind in Philadelphia.

So there I was. And it was only through my tenacity and the great luck of a friendly and wonderful baggage handler by the name of Dave Ortega that my baggage was eventually located. (One more hint, it was bright red. He said had it been black he might never have found it.) I finally had my toothbrush and clothing, but nowhere to use them.

And so, without help from anyone else at the airline, without even any assurance that I would get to the Dominican Republic ever, I finally decided, rather than spend many more hours in the airport, I would fly back home.

So here I was, feeling like the Flying Dutchman of Philadelphia, heading right back to where I started some 20 hours ago.

What more could I have done in a situation like this? What can you do if faced with similar problems?

According to the American Society of Travel Agents, if you have a problem, speak up. Immediately bring the matter to the attention of those in charge. Good advice, although it didn't help me.

Next, they say, keep all notes that include the names of the people with whom you speak and the date, time and location of your conversations. And keep all receipts, in case you have to spend additional money to resolve a problem. Then, after your trip (if you're lucky enough to have taken one), ASTA suggests the following when you return home.

Write On!
If you're satisfied that your complaint has merit, write a letter to the firm that you feel is responsible — be it the airline, the travel agency that arranged your trip or the tour company. Outline the nature of your complaint, as well as the steps you feel should be taken to rectify the problem.

Lee Rosenbluth, the president and CEO of Rosenbluth Travel Agency, agrees, and adds that many travelers have been caught in horror stories of their own, "more from customer service than from some of the newer airlines themselves. International carriers seem to be able to handle the service problems better than domestic or traditional carriers — ones that have been in service for many years."

Rosenbluth advises travelers to try to select very early morning departures, since there are not as many planes taking off around 6:30 a.m. or 7:30 a.m. as there are later in the day.

"Try to avoid flying in the prime-time period," he says, "or during holidays, and that will help you beat the odds as far as delays are concerned."

He also suggests using a travel agent to book your flight.

"Airlines themselves are often not very good at communicating with passengers. But if you book your trip through a travel agent, in the event of a delay, you can call your agent, who may be able to look at various options and which airline may be offering them. Sometimes, your agent can book you on another airline to get you on your way."

I did much of what ASTA and Rosenbluth suggested. I got names and wrote a letter of complaint to the appropriate people. Later, I did receive a note from the airline apologizing for what I encountered, in addition to a voucher for $100 to soothe my ruffled feathers.

That might be well and good, but I can't fly anywhere with $100 — most certainly not back to the Dominican Republic to regroup and attend a festival that was already over.



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