The experience of having a flight cancelled

I fly a bunch. Probably not as much as other hyper powered business people, but I fly a lot. Probably once every two weeks. Mostly to the UK, but occasionally to the US or other European cities. Nearly all of these flights are work related.

Before I get into this story I have to acknowledge that I know I’m lucky. I’m lucky to have a job that gives me travel as a perk. Not even my colleagues get this kind of perk. Or at least, they don’t get it as often as I do.

In my time travelling I’ve had problems. I once missed a flight & had to catch another one an hour or two later. I once was on a plane that hit a bird, had to turn-around and we were required to change aircraft. I’ve been on really bumpy rides on prop planes, landed sideways in huge jets during high winds, and had to comfort people who were freaked out by mild turbulence.

So, yeah. I fly a lot. I mostly make an effort to fly with Aer Lingus, who is Ireland’s national carrier. They tend to provide exemplary in-flight service with really professional staff and pilots that have legitimate experience. However, customer service is great when things are going smoothly. Or even more, customer service is great when things are going almost precisely to plan.

The real test for customer service is when things fall to shit.

So let’s get into the story.

It’s Tuesday. It’s 9PM. I’ve been in Boston for about a week for work. Time to head home. We’re tired, weary and bloated from an ill-advised Cheesecake Factory visit. Our energy and elation comes purely from the fact that we know that in a few short hours, we’ll be on home soil and will be able to get back to our own beds.

During the prior week-or-so, we had been at our employers’ annual conference. The conference itself is only a 3-day event, but we decided to take advantage of the travel and do some training, meetings and what-nots while over at HQ. As part of that we were in one hotel during the conference itself, but then switched to another hotel near the office.

Tuesday evening we were in the airport. Checked-in and ready to go home. We had a beer in the airport before boarding and you could tell everyone was tired. Silence was broken with jokes of my bright white bag with a bright orange “get found” tag on it.

We got on the plane in the usual cattle-call manner, sat down, got as comfy as you possibly can (I even bought one of those stupid looking neck braces) and readied ourselves for the flight. I’ve done this flight dozens of times in the last year or two alone, and I knew we were on a new plane. The touch screen wasn’t the awful one you usually get. It was almost an iPad. Much higher resolution, much better touch sensitivity and even has a USB charger in the front panel. Oh, and it doesn’t need those ridiculous two-pronged headphone jack adapters! Amazing!

We sat with the doors closed for about 30 minutes when the pilot got on to announce a delay. There was an issue with a controller which was telling the flight deck that the main cabin door was open, despite the fact that it was secure. No pilot would have flown with such an issue.

They constantly reset things, spooled and unspooled the engines, reset the APU’s and had a persistent ringing of the secure door bong. Nothing worked. Engineers got new equipment and troubleshooted everything many times over.

Almost four hours later, they declared the issue too critical to fix. We disembarked after the pilot told us, solemnly, that we would not have alternative arrangements that night. 300-odd passengers would be given vouchers to go home by taxi (for locals) or to be routed to a hotel which would include the cost of breakfast & lunch in said hotel. We would be able to ring a hotline at 8.30am to arrange other travel.

We went back into Logan airport to collect our bags and join another queue to be allocated a hotel. That experience took about 90 minutes.

I’m going to pause the story here to outline two critical issues with the scenario so far.

One: My two colleagues and I are all engineers of some sort. One from front-end web tech, one from back-end API stuff and me, a pseudo full-stack bloke turned manager. All of us couldn’t believe that it took between three and four hours to diagnose an issue is so critical that it wasn’t worth pursuing at that time. Engineers are critical thinkers, logical thinkers. It shouldn’t have taken that long to run through the checks (and to be clear, it was obvious they were running through things multiple times; a good sign that they ran out of ideas early into the process) and either isolate the issue or declare the issue unfixable there.

In fact, it was taking so long to fix that I was wondering how fit the pilots would be to fly. You don’t want your pilot to be jaded and weary for a 6-hour flight after sitting there waiting for an engineer to fix something for 3-4 hours!

Two: As mentioned before, my bag is an obnoxiously white Tripp bag that’s about a month old. It replaces my old felt Tripp bag. It features a plastic body as well as a TSA lock. I’ve had the TSA go through my bag before. They leave a note to say they did so. But when I went back into Logan to collect my bag, it featured one less zipper lock. And the zips were sealed at the bottom of the bag. The TSA lock is at the side. So now I can only lock one zip – which renders the whole thing useless. Someone clearly got into my bag to have a look (only to find clothes and conference swag). Nothing was taken, but my bag no longer has the ability to securely lock.

Let’s continue our story…

We hop into a taxi (paid for by the airline) and go to our hotel. I’ve stayed in lots of hotels in Boston & Cambridge. Some up-market, some not up-market. But none were in an area that genuinely felt like we could easily be shot in. By alas, Aer Lingus sent us to murdertown, USA. Two of us were adamant that we were itchy in bed, and my bathroom was filthy. I don’t expect an emergency situation to result in a 5-star accommodation, but this was woeful.

My colleague made a very good point en route to our murder hotel. The Aer Lingus staff never said if “8.30am” was EST or GMT. So at 3.30am he called Aer Lingus. He got through, but they couldn’t assist until everyone was accounted for. It was also clear that they weren’t assisting us with any special care. We were simply issued free travel passes and were booking a normal flight through their carrier phone line.

And now we hit Wednesday morning.

On this morning we got our awful breakfast (which cost the same as a nice breakfast in the 4-star hotel I stayed in a day prior). While we ate, my colleague was on his headset with his laptop on our breakfast table on hold, waiting for Aer Lingus. An hour passed before we realised there’s no real point in calling them. The lines are busy, but those lines aren’t special ones for us. They’re just the regular ones for anyone booking by phone. Again, all we have is a voucher. So we called Dublin HQ and almost immediately got a human who helped us. It took him about 40 minutes to help, but he was helping.

All of this was mesmerising. Aer Lingus didn’t actually do anything to assist passengers. They issued vouchers and sent everyone on their way. Today, almost four days since this issue started, I’ve had no contact from Aer Lingus outside of whoever mans their Twitter account. And I raised two support tickets (one for my bag, because Logan claim they don’t handle baggage, and another for this issue), neither of which have been replied to.

What’s even more amazing is that the guy in Dublin HQ who was helping us informed my colleague on the phone that he was actually re-booked into a new flight. But he didn’t know that. Aer Lingus certainly didn’t tell him, and there was no email or text confirmation that he was booked onto a new flight.

We were lucky to be working for a company based in Cambridge who were fine with us using expenses for food/travel/etc. Aer Lingus said they’d refund the extra night in a hotel because our flight wouldn’t happen until Thursday evening, but work paid for the hotel (of course we’ll still pursue Aer Lingus’ refund policy).

After breakfast we moved to our fourth hotel in 10 days near to the office to do some work and enjoy some perks of the office (nice desks, fast wifi, colleagues to talk to and a kitchen with stuff to eat & drink!). Earlier I mentioned that I know I’m lucky. I’ll re-iterate that point here. I know I’m lucky to work in such a good company who looked after us, way more than the airline that should have looked after us did. We certainly didn’t have enough credit card flexibility to book into another hotel that night. I don’t know how others fared.

In the evening we went for a few drinks in a jazz club after a nice meal. I reckon we deserved that break from the madness. I doubt other fellow passengers trying to get home on Tuesday had that nice an evening.

Now we’re into Thursday.

We get some food in our decent hotel before settling into the hotels’ soft seated office area to get some work done. Then we had back to Logan to check in.

My conversation with the Aer Lingus check-in agent was almost comical. She did the usual procession of questions, “is Dublin your final destination?” etc. before asking me a ludicrous question. “Would you like to stay in a hotel tonight and fly tomorrow? We’ll give you €650.” What. The. Fuck.

I’m sure she saw my blood boil as part of my brain spewed out my left ear. I’m sure she noticed my temples flaring up as sweat beads did everything in their power to cool my face down. If I was of a particular disposition, I would have hopped over that counter. But luckily I’m not that guy. I – as calmly as I could – explained the situation. I told her that this is effectively a 36 hour flight home for me, and I know what kind of dumpy hotel they’d put me in. And that they already owe me €600 as per the terms of their cancellation fee. To which she responded in a robotic voice, “…so you don’t want to stay an extra night?” “No, no I don’t. And I want a good seat on the plane.”

I got my window seat and laughed as I walked away. How does Aer Lingus not have some decent CRM system that notifies the check-in staff that some passengers are unlikely to take such an offer up? How was I not noted in the system as a critical passenger that’s now a few days delayed going home?

This interaction with a staff member was indicative of the whole experience. Aer Lingus are amazing at customer service when there’s no emergency. When everything goes to shit, everything really goes to shit. From their perspective, issuing hotel, taxi & further airfare vouchers was all they needed to do. Today I discovered it could take up to 10 working days for someone to reply to my support tickets. That’s insane for someone who’s trying to get home and probably doesn’t have a company to assist with travel, or expense accounts to buy dinner with.

Today is Friday and I’m a bit jet lagged but mostly just irritated. Does Aer Lingus even know where the 300 passengers from Tuesday’s flight are? Do they care? I’ve had no outreach from the company despite trying to raise tickets and talk to them directly. This should have been handled far better than it was, and it’s scary to think how awful they treated people.

The fallout from this is still unknown because I don’t know where I stand with the company. They haven’t contacted me, and it might not be until the end of the next week until I hear back. In our grubby hotel we met one American man who’s got family in Ireland. He flies Aer Lingus all the time. But never again. He’s managed to get a flight via Toronto, but he has the credit card to stretch for that. He has no idea how to get Aer Lingus to reimburse him for the flight, but he has to go. I also met someone from Ireland trying to go home after 2 weeks in the states. She had no clean clothes, no money and felt really lost. She didn’t even know how she was meant to call Aer Lingus without incurring extra cost. My colleague heard someone desperate to get home that Tuesday evening to get to a funeral.

The airline left 300 people with absolutely no idea what to do with no one to talk to. That is not only unacceptable, it’s unbelievable.

And that’s why I feel compelled to write this post. Yeah, I got looked after and I’m home now. But I think I’m lucky in this scenario. I doubt the other passengers were as lucky as I was. Bostonians going to Dublin on holiday immediately have a bad image of Ireland and still likely have to pay hotel fees without checking into rooms. Dubliners going home are likely mostly tourists who have no money left after saving up for their big US trips. Aer Lingus should have done more to help.

Here’s what I think should have happened:

* The engineer declared the issue too serious to fix while passengers were on the plane after 90 minutes or less. There should be a statute of limitations for these kinds of things.

* Aer Lingus should have tried to scramble another jet. They did this before with my bird strike issue, although this was in Dublin. Knowing Aer Lingus likely don’t have spare jets on the east coast, they should have sought assistance from their coach partners (United, Jet Blue or Etihad). Even if that means people had to get connecting flights to JFK that evening, or fly the following morning – at least passengers would know where they stood.

* If hotel accommodation was necessary, Aer Lingus should have had someone in the hotel(s) to greet passengers and to help them the following morning with re-booking flights. Even if the back end systems are the same to book flights, having someone in a green uniform being the face of the company would have helped more than a dial tone or shitty piano music.

* Aer Lingus should have provided some portal to login to on their site to get information specific to this cancellation. Hopefully these scenarios are rare, but when they do happen it’s hundreds of people displaced and confused.

* After 24 hours, Aer Lingus should have contacted passengers to make sure they’ve been looked after or are home and to outline the options those passengers have to get refunds or compensation. I know they’ll claim they don’t have access to details if the flight is booked through another agent, but I would argue that this is absolute horseshit.

And here’s what I’m asking from Aer Lingus (through my two support tickets):

* Full reimbursement of the hotel that my company paid for.

* €600 for each passenger as per Aer Lingus’ rules to compensate for the delay (the cost is calculated by the distance home and not getting another flight within 24 hours).

* My air miles for both flights.

* A replacement bag after my TSA lock was broken into and rendered useless.

Ultimately, Aer Lingus could have done better. They didn’t even try. And now, I’ve had to parter up with one of my senior colleagues in work to potentially shift all of our corporate travel to another carrier in fear of something like this happening again. A companies’ true colours shine in an emergency, and while the in-flight service and experience on Aer Lingus is amazing, nothing good happened in the three days it took me to be home. I’ll re-iterate this point again and again: I still have not heard from Aer Lingus about this. And I’m the lucky one.