Happy Sunday from (Delayed) SMF…..Thanks to Mass DFW Cancellations!

Happy Sunday, folks!

I’m writing with a glass of wine in hand as I take in a long wait at the Sacramento (SMF) Airport. My Dad and I were supposed to travel together SMF to DFW after spending the weekend with my grandmother in Northern California. Unfortunately, due to the tumultuous weather in Texas, American Airlines decided to cancel hundreds of flights in and out of DFW. I ultimately re-booked my Dad onto Southwest when I learned there was no way he was going to get home today. His ultimate destination was Lubbock which doesn’t have many flight options

I’m quite disappointed that we aren’t flying together since I really enjoy spending time with my Dad. I couldn’t get myself onto a Southwest flight without shelling out $600 which wasn’t worth it to me. So I’m re-booked on a quirky overnight itinerary on US Airways. American had auto re-booked me on a itineary that required an extra night stay in Sacramento and didn’t get me home until 2 PM tomorrow. Not desirable at all. I worked with the AA agent to find my quirky SMF-PHX-DEN-DFW itinerary so that I can arrive home by 8 AM tomorrow. Normally working remote is feasible but I really need to be in the office tomorrow!

Fingers crossed that none of my 3 segments are delayed or cancelled!

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FYI: Current Technical Issue with AA Gift Cards

dfw-bwi-ticket-pending

 

If you’re looking to purchase and/or use an American Airlines gift card in the immediate future, please be aware that AA is currently experiencing some technical issues processing gift cards. I purchased a ticket 2 days ago and have patiently waited for it to ticket. After nearly 48 hours, I finally decided to reach out to AA customer service on Twitter.

AA got back to me pretty quickly and noticed that I had used an AA gift card for a portion of my purchase. Apparently I will need to wait for their technically team to manually push the ticket through as we get closer to departure which is less than a month away. Am I a tad nervous? Maybe just a bit because I just want to know that it’s confirmed.

My First Air Canada Experience and The Bitter Taste of Bad Customer Service

I just wrapped up an incredibly fun trip to celebrate my 30th birthday in Quebec. We visited Mont Tremblant for some snowboarding and then spent some city time in Montreal. I’ve actually been quite lucky and had good travel karma for quite some time now so I guess I was due for a cancellation at some point. We were traveling on award tickets using United MileagePlus miles booked onto Air Canada. We were set to fly from Montreal (YUL) to (DFW) with a connection in Toronto (YYZ). I’ve been through YYZ multiple times without a problem. But I quickly learned that Canadians love to hate YYZ.

Our stress began 24 hours before departure when I tried to used Air Canada’s iPhone app to check in for our flights. There seemed to be all kinds of issues and then I realized that our seats had moved and they were no longer together. I had specifically selected an itinerary with the YYZ to YUL segment on an Airbus A330. Now we were on an A320. I called Air Canada’s customer service to get our seats back together which the phone representative told me was not possible. I asked him about the change in plane type. He assured me that this was not the case, there was no equipment swap. We headed to the airport the next day and arrived very early for check-in. Since we had brought our snowboards, we had 4 bags to check. I’m Premier Silver with United which makes me Star Alliance Silver. There are almost zero perks for Star Alliance Silver but on Air Canada, you are entitled to have the first checked bag free. You do not have access to the Priority baggage lanes. The self-serve kiosks wanted to charge for all four bags and when I asked an agent for help, she simply told me I was wrong. I pulled up Air Canada’s baggage rules on my phone and explained this to her very politely. She directed us to full-service check-in for assistance. The full-service agent was kind but was having a really hard time on figuring out how to charge us. She ended up charging us for 3 bags and somewhat odd amounts. The fees were not consistent. We should have been charged $25, $35, and $35 with one bag free. We were charged $50 and $35. I was done debating the issues and we moved on.

We headed through security and when I’m in Canada, I start to really miss TSA PreCheck. While we were waiting, I starting reviewing our itinerary and realized that we had been bumped to another flight by Air Canada with no notification. Our original flight, on the A330 was still scheduled but we had been bumped to a different flight on the A320 with seats no longer together involuntarily. I found this irritating and was going to ask the agent at our gate but he was the type that would say anything to get you away from the counter so I figured I’d take the issue up later. We boarded our flight to YYZ on time and settled in. Just as we were backing up from the gate, the captain came on and announced that due to air traffic control restrictions and fog, we were one of 50 flights cancelled into YYZ. Lovely!

Since we were near the back of the plane, I knew we’d be close to last in line for re-booking. I fired up Twitter and immediately reach out to Air Canada. I got the most unhelpful response below:

yyztweet

 

It’s so important for airlines, or any brand for that matter, to have useful, good social media presence. Twitter is a great way for airlines to help resolve customer issues in a quick manner. American, Delta, and Southwest have all assisted me with issues over Twitter to avoid lines and long waits on the phone. Since, Air Canada’s social media team doesn’t actually offer concrete assistance, I went ahead and called the customer service phone line. Meanwhile, all passengers were directed a line at our original gate. After 15 minutes (I’m still on hold on the phone), we were moved to a different gate about halfway down the terminal. When we arrived at this new gate, there were zero Air Canada employees waiting to assist. We stood around for another 15 minutes (still on hold on the phone) and one employee showed up to assist about 120 passengers. By this time, we are certain we aren’t going to make our connection in YYZ onto Dallas. The line at the gate isn’t moving at all and finally after 40 minutes on hold, someone picks up on the phone line.

The phone agent found several options to re-book but none of them get us home that day. I suggested putting us on a United flight connecting a in a different hub and perhaps we wouldn’t have to stay the night. He even wanted to put us on a two-connection flight and I wasn’t going for that at all. After on the phone with him for 10 minutes, he refused to re-book us and said the gate agent would re-book us. Really!? Meanwhile, back at our gate, another Air Canada flight, also bound for YYZ, pulled up to the gate. This was an A330 that was only half full and they unloaded all of those passengers. They were now going to combine both passenger loads onto this single, larger aircraft. It took them another 90 minutes to simply issue new boarding passes to flight #1 and passengers on flight #2 kept their original boarding passes.

Finally 3.5 hours late, we took off for YYZ. Our connection to Dallas was delayed as well but we still missed it. On arrival at YYZ, they directed us to different desks for re-booking. US-bound passengers to one gate and Canada-bound passengers to customer service. Well that was useless because they merged us all back to the customer service desk. We stood around for 20 minutes and they finally started calling names to pass out boarding passes for our re-booked flights and hotel vouchers. For a moment, I felt as if Air Canada had finally started getting organized. We were issued a hotel voucher, vouchers for dinner at the hotel, and vouchers for breakfast at the airport the next morning. We headed toward the baggage claim to retrieve our bags. Ideally, we wanted to grab two of our suitcases that were checked and not have to haul around our snowboard gear and re-check it. Each baggage representative told us a different story; one said we couldn’t have our bags at all, the other said we had to take all four. Well, we ended up with all four bags and having to haul them to the hotel.

We took the hotel shuttle to the Pearson Hotel & Conference Centre Toronto Airport. It was not the hotel I would have selected. You can read my lovely review about it on Yelp. To summarize, we weren’t pleased with the hotel. There was also no hotel restaurant to use our dinner vouchers. I wouldn’t be surprised if the hotel tried to get reimbursement from Air Canada for the meals. The meal vouchers and hotel voucher were on the same card. We slept a couple hours and headed back to YYZ for our flight to Dallas which was scheduled for 8:45 AM. We arrived at YYZ at 6:15 AM which should have been plenty of time for checking bags and clearing US PreClearance. Or so we thought. We went to self-service baggage to re-tag our bags. The kiosk wanted to re-charge us for our bags which I wasn’t about to do. I tried to get quick assistance from a floating agent but she said no-way and we had to go back to full-service baggage. Along with hundreds of other people. We stood in line for 90 minutes plus while many people were pulled out of line for “expedited” service until only one agent was assisting the “regular” passengers and 6 agents were assisting the “expedited” folks. It was beyond asinine.  We finally got our bags checked and headed to Global Entry. A YYZ airport employee tried to stop us from using Global Entry, even with our cards until I had to get a supervisor to let us through.

Keep in mind, we had not eaten since 2 PM the prior day at YUL since our hotel had no restaurant and there was nothing nearby. We had about 20 minutes to grab a snack at YYZ before boarding. I’m surprised I was polite as I was with such an empty stomach.

I have a decent understanding of how these operations work and this was some of the worst I’ve seen. If you’ve made it this far through my rant, you’re patient. But there’s so many details to our experience, I just couldn’t leave them out. I always hate to hear people who have a bad experience and make off the-cuff remarks like “I’m never flying ABC Airline again!”. It’s usually over something stupid like gate-checking a bag. But this was a pretty abysmal operation all around. I’ll be sure to really think about my flight options when Air Canada pops up in my itinerary again.

 

Just How Bad is the Honolulu Airport?

As a travel addict, I’ve seen my fair share of airports around the world, including the good, they bad, and the ugly. I FINALLY got around to visiting Hawaii after all these years and I loved it all around. We visited both Kauai and Oahu and Kauai was by far the big winner. It was truly paradise! Oahu was nice but Honolulu is quite the urban contrast compared to even the North Shore of Oahu. Honolulu felt a lot like Miami Beach so after visiting the peaceful paradise of Kauai, it was a lot to take in.

Shipwrecks Beach, Kauai. So beautiful it doesn't even look real!
Shipwrecks Beach, Kauai. So beautiful it doesn’t even look real!

We flew United in Economy to Honolulu out Denver. We snagged incredibly cheap tickets about 3 months in advance so for the price, Economy was bearable. We connected onto Hawaiian Airlines on to Lihue. We also returned to Honolulu for a few days before returning back to LAX from Honolulu. So throughout the whole trip, we got 3 visits to HNL and a good perspective on how bad the airport is.

Rather than feeling like a major airport, HNL felt more like a small regional airport; quite dated and with limited amenities. While some of the mid-century fixtures were charming, a nice remodel could go a long way in the terminals. Taking advantage of the pleasant Hawaiian weather year-round, a large portion of the terminals is outdoors. The gates are confined into individual air-conditioned areas but they are small and the seating is limited. There are very limited food options, even in the overseas terminal, and the bathrooms were filthy. Imagine transiting from the mainland to Asia through Honolulu and wanting to freshen up, only to find very dirty, dated restrooms!

The layout is disconnected with the overseas terminal, international arrivals, and inter-island terminals completely separate. There is an inter-terminal shuttle but it is usually about a 15 minute wait. The walk is outdoors and takes about the same amount of time as you would wait for the shuttle. There is also no free WiFi and even the paid WiFi was down while we were there. I found this to be quite irritating. Also, don’t plan on finding a spot to charge your phone unless you want to sit on the floor. United clearly did not install power ports like they do at nearly every other major airport they serve.

Through the entire trip, we checked in with both United and Hawaiian Airlines. Hawaiian Airlines utilizes self check-in kiosks and the attendants were friendly. Everything was efficient for the inter-island flights. TSA PreCheck was extremely quick each time. United on the other hand, was a huge hassle. Don’t forget to stop at the USDA station before heading to check your bags. The Premier Access line was incredibly slow and the staff unfriendly. I’ve never had a negative experience with United’s Premier Access bag-check so this was a first.

So long, Honolulu!
So long, Honolulu!

Honolulu definitely gets forgotten by the airlines due to the fact of a low number of business travelers and tons of tourists. There seems to be a low incentive to make updates to HNL since the tourists keep on flowing and the inter-island flights so vital to Hawaii’s economy. While the terminal facilities are among the worst I have seen, the good service by Hawaiian Airlines and the quick TSA PreCheck are bright spots for HNL.

My Personal Rankings: Airline Phone Customer Service

As a young kid, I already had a fascination with air travel. When you’re 11 years old, it’s hard to get your parents to let you fly around the world on your own. I also didn’t have much more than a weekly allowance of $20 at that age. Therefore, my best outlets were to pester the local travel agent in our town (she was not fond of this, at all!) or to dial up airline customer service and chat up with a friendly phone reservation agent. I particularly liked to call Southwest (our family flew them regularly) or Northwest Airlines as I could usually find someone to look up complex, dream itineraries for me and chat up with me for an hour.

Whether they realized I was an 11 year old boy or a middle-aged woman (my voice had yet to deepen), that was a different time for airlines and their phone customer service. Of course with all the advancements in the internet, smartphones, and apps, far fewer people are contacting phone customer service unless they absolutely must. For those of us who are addicted to miles and award bookings, contacting an airline’s phone customer service is often required for complex bookings, partner award bookings, and ticket changes. Sometimes you can talk your way into waived fees with a few kind words over the phone. It’s hard to sweet talk an iPhone app into waiving change fees. But even though phone customer service departments for airlines have shrunk with demand and the quality of their service is quite mixed, some airlines have set a standard for excellent phone customer service, even in 2014.

Here’s a list of my favorites and not so favorite airlines when it comes to customer service via telephone. I’ve only included the airlines that I’ve had experience with over the phone:

The Winners

Alaska Airlines

It’s hard to find too many people out there that have disdain for Alaska Airlines. The hold times are  nearly always short and their reps are trained to be extremely courteous and knowledgeable.  They always thank me for being an elite flyer and I’ve never had a bad experience by phone.

Southwest Airlines

Southwest would have held the top sport for me a few years ago but as Southwest has grown, their phone service has changed. They used to answer the phone almost immediately but now there’s a long menu to sit through. Still, their reservation agents are friendly and helpful and you can’t beat the no-change-fee policy!

British Airways

Short hold times, those polite British accents, and knowledgeable reps. What’s there not to like? European carriers aren’t keen on advanced seat assignments but a friendly phone call and elite status with a OneWorld carrier or Alaska will plop you into preferred seats easily.

Swiss

The Swiss do everything so efficiently and the phone reps at Swiss International are no exception. I easily obtained advanced seat assignments without status at the time, even seats that are considered preferred for Miles & More members. Generally short wait times are a plus as well!

 

Mixed Bag

American Airlines

Just a few years ago, I would have stuck American well at the bottom of this list. Their reps were cranky and looked for any way to screw the average traveler. Well, a few things seemed to have changed at American whether it’s due to reputation or their merger with US Airways. The hold times vary but the reps are more likely to be helpful than not. Sometimes I have to remind them of their own policies but they tend to be flexible to work with with the right attitude. Their “Remember Me” phone feature is pretty neat too!

 

United Airlines

I contemplated sticking United in the Losers category but I have had them help me out in a pinch many times so I just can’t bring myself to it. Their hold times are one of the worst in the business and don’t bother calling the general line during peak hours. Their elite status line answers nearly right away but I’ve had a few cranky reps on the elite line lately. The main reason I’m not putting them lower on the list simply because I’ve encounters some great United reps and they have waived strict fees for me more than once.

 

The Losers

Delta

While I find Delta’s in flight service, especially in First Class, to be among the best, I don’t think much of their telephone service folks. The hold times aren’t terrible but I haven’t had much luck in regards to the friendliness of their phone reps. I’m always seeing blog comments about Delta’s IT and website woes and I’ve had to call in a few times for assistance with reservations. However, I don’t usually get much help on the other and and this usually leaves me feeling apprehensive about calling and asking for assistance.

Air Canada

Talk about ridiculous wait times! About equal to United in atrocious wait times (is this a Star Alliance habit?), Air Canada’s reps are about as boring as drywall.  By the time I get to a rep, I’m just ready to get what I need and get off the phone.

Aeromexico

Boy, do I regret the day I even joined Club Premier! The blogs are pretty quiet about this sleepy carrier but I found out the hard way why not many people are keen on Aeromexico. Their phone reps appear to be trained to be as unhelpful as possible. Every rep I’ve spoken with thinks of every excuse in the book to not help you with award bookings and forget about ever using their companion tickets! One day I will find a way to ditch these Club Premier kilometers I’m stuck with and bid goodbye to Aeromexico!