The travel industry has a bad reputation in general. It has this reputation because it deserves it. Take, for example, our recent attempt at leaving Auckland, New Zealand on a flight to Los Angeles (Flight number AA82).
You all know what it’s like to fly somewhere: wait in a line here, another line there, have your passport inspected, your face scrutinized, and if you’re lucky, you’re patted down and felt up and herded around like a bunch of sheep for a few hours before finally getting to the gate, where you’re left to sit on some of the most uncomfortable chairs you’ve ever seen. Oh, and you do all this while carrying a toddler and your bag that felt quite light the day before when you packed it, but now feels like it weighs about ten tons.
Well, we made it through all the indignities of airports without losing our dignity, and settled in to our uncomfortable seats with all our baggage strewn around us at about 1:30 pm, an hour before the plane was scheduled to board at 2:25 pm.
A portly British man wearing a bow tie (or papillon as he called it) and a large tag around his neck that loudly proclaimed “Press Pass” sat down across from us. He boasted some about his experience flying, the fact that he was flying business class, and that he’d been upgraded twice because of his press pass (the only reason he wore it as he was mainly retired).
“What language is he speaking?” he queried, pointing at JQ.
“Toddler,” I said.
Not sure where he lived all his life to never hear a toddler speaking, but he was certain he knew a lot about flying.
As the scheduled boarding time got closer, the boarding area started to fill up. People were doing exercises, taking naps, and generally preparing for a long intercontinental flight.
2:25 p.m. came and went, with no signs of boarding or of anything else happening other than the usual passenger paging over the intercom. Mr. Hoping-for-an-upgrade assured us that the airline was probably just waiting for a few important passengers or perhaps a large group, and that we would be sure to board soon.
Then, at 3:00, they finally made an announcement. “We regret to inform you that American Airlines Flight 82 has been delayed due to mechanical engineering difficulties. We will inform you of our progress in 45 minutes.” Everyone rolled their eyes; JQ demanded to be taken back to the vending machines to “Beep beep” them, and, of course, Mr. Hoping-for-an-upgrade pointed out the pilot and copilot in the cockpit. “You see,” he said, “if anything were seriously wrong with the airplane, the pilot wouldn’t be on board playing cards!”
Alas, Mr. Hoping-for-an-upgrade was wrong. Fifteen minutes later, American Airlines sent emails and text messages to all the passengers, alerting them that the flight was canceled. Of course, the people at the desk made no announcement until thirty minutes after that, just to keep everyone in suspense. Or perhaps they didn’t even know themselves!
Then the announcement came: “We regret to inform you that American Airlines flight 82 to Los Angeles has been canceled due to mechanical difficulties. Your baggage will be found at bag claim five. Please go to the arrivals area and pick up your bags, then go American Airlines check-in at departure area D to rebook a flight and be given a lodging voucher. Also, make sure to return any duty-free items you may have purchased.”
And that was it. That was all the instructions we were given for what to do now that we had no flight to go on.
So we all got up, picked up all our luggage, and began the arduous journey back through the terminal, trying to figure out how to get to arrivals from the departure area (spoiler alert: you can’t). Groups of twenty or thirty people stood around looking confused, while one man wandered around asking everyone in sight, “Do you know how to get to customs?”
After trudging nearly halfway back, we spotted an airport help desk, who pointed back where we came from and said, “Oh, arrivals is just down the stairs over that way.” Back we trudged—only to find all the stairs we knew about only went up! After a lot more back and forth, we learned that actually, passengers from the canceled flight needed to go back to their gate so they could be funneled into arrivals. So we went back yet again.
By now, it was nearly 4:30 and all we had accomplished with our lives in this time was standing in queues and walking through hallways. Surely humans were meant for greater things than this?
After some more queueing and more walking through hallways and through the arrivals area (which we saw when we first actually arrived in Auckland), we arrived at passport control. To add to the pointlessness of this entire endeavor, we had to fill out an arrivals form, to give them very important information about what it’s like to sit at the gate in their airport for a few hours. “Where are you arriving from?” the form questioned. “Have you been hiking anywhere?” “Do you have any fruits?” “How long are you planning to stay in New Zealand?” “What is your address here?” All these questions in their varying iterations put JQ right to sleep.
After passport control, where they carefully examined our faces to make sure they still matched our passports, it was off to more walking through hallways and standing in queues (now with a sleeping baby in arms) to pick up our baggage. On the bright side, we all finally found bag claim 5. And our baggage was actually on it, which seemed to be the one feat that American Airlines could pull off. The customs officer questioned us closely again: “Did you buy any fruit while you were in the departure terminal?” Apparently the departure terminal of the Auckland airport is no longer New Zealand and the fruit there will contaminate ALL THE CROPS and they will all DIE! Or maybe he just had to ask—because when we replied in the negative, he let us just walk through and not put our baggage through the x-ray machines (which would entail—you guessed it!—more standing in queues).
After all that, it was 5:00, and we finally made it to check-in counter D for American Airlines—with about four hundred other people, all in the same position we were in. More queueing entailed, and Jared used the last 16% of battery on his phone to call the number on the little ticket they gave us. So we got a flight rebooked for the next evening, which would get us to Oregon a hair’s breadth before a very important person’s wedding.
Now just remained the knotty little problem of where we would stay. If our phones had worked (mine had no data, and Jared’s no battery), we might have just sucked up the cost and called the Airbnb we had stayed at the whole week. As it was, we stayed in the queue to try to find some lodging for the night. We waited…and waited…and waited…and then JQ, who had napped about thirty minutes and was starting to get hungry, started screaming, “Mommy, go out! Mommy, I go out!” It was a lightbulb moment for the staff, who hurriedly came and escorted us up front. “Oh, you have a child! Come wait up here and we’ll be with you in just a minute.” Everyone around us looked a little jealous, and a couple people jokingly called out, “Wait, I’m his sister! I’m the auntie!” Moral of the story: definitely try to travel with a two-year-old if possible.
But! The story’s still not over. We were given the name of our hotel—which was in Hamilton, two hours away from Auckland (the hotels in Auckland were all completely booked)—and told to go out door two, where a bus would be waiting for us. So we went and waited with the bus. The bus driver had a bad back and was a little out of shape, so Jared helped him load everyone’s luggage. And then we waited some more while I fed JQ all the snacks I had packed for the airplane. We waited an hour—the bus driver said he was waiting for confirmation—but in the end his bus was full, and he decided to just go. It was a lovely little drive through New Zealand’s farmland: the sun glinted off of rivers and mountains, green fields with cows pastorally grazing, and Maori cemeteries.
When we got to Hamilton (New Zealand’s fourth largest city, apparently), a new comedy of errors began. The forty people on the bus were in about eight different hotels, all in different parts of town. The bus driver wasn’t quite sure where all of them were and kept stopping to look them up on his map.
When we finally got to our hotel—called the Quest—we were dropped off with about 8 other people, including a little old lady and gentleman (in their seventies, or so) who had three or four large suitcases. It was well after 8:00 p.m. at this time, and there was a sign on the door of the hotel saying that hotel reception closed at 7 p.m. Somehow someone opened the door and everyone crowded into the small reception area, where there were four envelopes waiting with the names of those who had reservations. Two of the envelopes had correct names and room sizes on them, but one of them had been booked and was a single room for a French couple, and the other was for a name that nobody in our group had. So out of 8 people, there were rooms for four (as two of the rooms were single rooms). We tried calling the hotel management, but they were just as confused as everyone else—except they did mention that more rooms had been booked at their branch two blocks away—Quest on Ward. So eventually Jared made the executive decision that the couple in their 70s should just take the room that was under someone else’s name, and we and the French couple set off for the next hotel—walking, of course, as our bus had long since departed.
When we got to Quest on Ward, of course their reception was also closed and the door locked. We tried their intercom to get someone to open the door for us. The first time we called, a lady answered who said she couldn’t hear at all; eventually she hung up. Then someone else answered and said the same thing: “Your connection is terrible!” After about seven tries, we gave up on the intercom and called the number given. Just as we were finally getting someone to understand what we needed, a hotel resident came by and let us in. Once in, we discovered only one room had been reserved—and with us and the French couple, we needed two. So Jared called up the manager and asked what was going on, and he said he would be by shortly. In the end—apparently the manager had his own idea of “short”—the French couple wandered off and were never heard from again!
So—six hours after we learned our flight was canceled, we finally made it to a room and were able to rest. In the morning, the manager said that American Airlines hadn’t told him how many people were coming and had just sent random people an hour and a half away without booking them any rooms. There were still other, minor problems once we were in possession of our room, like our food allowance only being usable if we charged it to the hotel, ate at a select list of restaurants, and subtracted the 10% commission the hotel wanted, even though American Airlines staff insisted the hotel wasn’t entitled to any commission!
Was it all inevitable? After all, American Airlines didn’t know their plane would encounter a mechanical error, and surely it’s better to have a day of delay and queuing than to swim with the “baby sharks” (as JQ calls them) in the big blue Pacific? Jared, who happens to have helped edit a book on emergency response (which you could read, but it’s rather boring) says absolutely not. The basic planks of emergency management, he says, are prevent, prepare, respond, and recover. The first, obviously, is about stopping something bad from happening; the second is about planning what to do when something bad happens; the third is about enacting your plan and improvising when something happens; and the fourth is about restoring capacity and rebuilding systems even better after a disaster. American Airlines, we surmise, had invested almost everything in prevention—fixing the plane, which was rumored to have been on the ground since earlier that morning—and ignored preparation (which, this being one of the weeks of Chinese Spring Festival, was extra important). The result was a botched response, with the agents even unclear about how we were supposed to get to baggage claim, and the comedy of incompetence thereafter. One would think that a major international airline would have some sort of system in place for communicating with passengers and service providers like hotels, but apparently Auckland Airport’s American Airlines didn’t think it was worth their while. The problem, it seemed to us, was not simply that the person in charge didn’t know what they were doing, but that there was nobody in charge!
Resilience means being prepared for disasters, which are statistically inevitable: bad things, no matter what, will eventually happen. And when they do, laughing is always a healthier response to yelling or crying. If you make the wedding, that is—or maybe even if you don’t!