If only technology worked the way it was intended. Three weeks ago I was scheduled to travel from Quebec City to San Diego — changing planes at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. American Airlines had booked me with an hour-and-41-minute layover. But that included having to go through the U.S. Customs queue in Chicago. Just four days earlier, an on-the-ball American Airlines gate agent in Chicago noticed that layover on my ticket — just before I boarded the plane going to Quebec City on the outbound portion of my trip.
“Oh, Honey,” she said, and I recognized instantly that no good news ever starts with those two words. “You will never make that connection. There’s normally a tram service between the international and domestic terminals that’s closed for modification. You need at least two-and-a-half hours to make that connection. Our booking agent should have known that.” In fact to change planes, she told me I would need to go through the U.S. Customs line, board a shuttle bus that actually takes me out of the airport, and then re-enter the domestic terminal through the regular security line and run to my gate — all in 101 minutes. She wished me good luck, but advised me to call American’s customer service people to change the ticket.
Every day I was in Quebec the following three days, I phoned American’s representatives, hoping to get one sympathetic person who would change the flights for me without charging me for an entirely new $500 ticket, as mine was non-refundable. To no avail. So the trip went as expected — my flight from Quebec City arrived at O’Hare’s international terminal late and I rushed to the Customs line. In fact, I filled out the Mobile Passport app on my phone on the airplane after we landed, just to try and save some time. As it turns out, it would have been faster to just wait with the 3,000+ other people in the “regular” line who had 10 lanes open. Mobile Passport had one. There were roughly 500 people in line ahead of me. And officials were quick to tell me that once you fill out Mobile Passport ahead of time, you are registered and thus not allowed to revert back to the regular old-fashioned airport Customs kiosks line. Needless to say, I missed my connection by 10 minutes (even though it, too, had been delayed by 30 minutes). A nightmare, to say the least, as there were no further San Diego flights for the night. The gate agent rebooked me for a flight the next morning, but then told me they would not pay for a hotel room because this was not their fault.
Furious, I went to American’s customer service desk. When I contended that this was indeed the airline’s fault for carelessly booking a ticket that could not be fulfilled due to time constraints, they escalated my problem to Omar, the supervisor there. He was sympathetic, but resisted for a good 15 minutes before finally agreeing to get me on a flight to LAX (not my intended airport, but a workable solution nonetheless) that was simultaneously boarding across the aisle from his desk at that very moment.
This incident left me doubting the use of two pieces of tech. One, why would American Airlines not have programmed into its system the unrealistic connection time for international passengers? Five American Airlines reps personally told me that it was regretful that their company let this flight get booked as it did. Secondly, isn’t the sole purpose of the Mobile Passport app to accelerate the Customs process, so people don’t miss connections? I was in that line for 87 minutes. How absurd.
I got lucky this time. But I can’t help thinking how often lapses in technology, communication and old-fashioned logic have screwed over travelers — despite that much of it is avoidable. There has to be more accountability in this industry. As it turns out, it may be on the way. I keep getting solicited via email from consumer group FlyersRights.org, about situations such as mine in which the organization is trying to keep airlines and the U.S. Department of Transportation accountable for their practices. I hope it travels far (pun intended) up the flagpole.
Scott Kramer, Contributor