The failure chain

During a recent trip to Europe, the airlines (two of them) turned a minor problem into a cascading mess of travel delays.

Fog over London's Grand Union Canal

First, I should note that they did — eventually — accomplish their mission of delivering me safely from point A to point B. My actual travel, however, bore no resemblance to the planned itinerary.

Scheduled itinerary: RDU-LHR-FRA, arriving 1:20 p.m. local time
Actual itinerary: RDU-LGW-AMS-FRA, arriving 8:00 p.m. local time

The initial leg from RDU to London was uneventful until the captain announced that we couldn’t land at Heathrow because of fog and we were low on fuel, so we diverted to London-Gatwick, which is about 40 miles from Heathrow.

Now, fog at LHR is not exactly a stunning surprise, and we landed at Gatwick fairly close to our original scheduled arrival into Heathrow, so in assessing blame, I think 50 percent goes to the fog and 50 percent goes to whoever allocated fuel to our aircraft.

At Gatwick, we were told that we couldn’t disembark for a variety of reasons, including security, lack of American Airlines personnel (they no longer fly into Gatwick), and the assumption that we’d be able to hop over to Heathrow shortly when the fog cleared.

Four hours later…

The captain announced that he was required to allow people who wanted to disembark to get off the plane under EU regulations. But no checked luggage would be unloaded. All luggage would continue on to LHR eventually.

Note that the travel time, by bus, from Gatwick to Heathrow is about 45 minutes…maybe less on a Sunday morning.

Anyway, a few people came to the front to get off the plane. Sometime after the 4-hour announcement and before the arrival of the buses to take us from the plane parked in the boonies of Gatwick, we were told that actually, everyone had to get off if anyone got off. So, “this flight is terminated.”

The promised buses eventually appeared and dumped us into a terminal. There were no agents or support staff from American (remember, we’ve been sitting on the tarmac for 4 hours and they do have staff at LHR, 45 minutes away). There was also nobody there from British Airways, which, as the oneworld partner, seems like an obvious choice to help out travelers.

I had to clear immigration: “Purpose of your visit?” “Um…trying to get to Frankfurt?” The friendly immigration officer gave me directions to the other terminal (they dumped us in the South Terminal…all British Airways staff is in the North Terminal). You know you are in deep trouble when the immigration officer is trying to help you out.

Fortunately, I have actually transited Gatwick before, but I don’t know about my fellow passengers. I also didn’t have any checked bags…I have no idea whether and when the checked bags made it off our aircraft.

Onward to the North Terminal, where the British Airways agent informed me that I had missed my LHR-FRA flight (I knew that) and that there were no seats on any later flights until 8 p.m. that evening. As an alternative, she offered to send me via Amsterdam to Frankfurt, arriving at about 8 p.m. She looked surprised when I accepted.

Much typing later (cue ominous music), I had a boarding pass for a BA flight to Amsterdam and then (unpleasant surprise), a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt from Amsterdam.

What’s wrong with Lufthansa? Nothing, except that when you travel, your airline status matters. I am a somewhat frequent flyer with AA, so they treat me sort of well. BA is an AA partner, and the status doesn’t really carry over, but it helps a tiny bit. On Lufthansa, I am the traveling equivalent of dog poop.

Anyway, the remaining flights were on-time, although AMS was full of unpleasant surprises…security had issues with my contact lens solution (too big), my electronics (too many), and my alarm clock (square and electronic). I refrained from pointing out that their problem was an *underwear* bomber, not an iPad bomber.

After a tribute of contact lens solution to appease security, I made my way to my Lufthansa connection and discovered another problem — intra-European flights have much stricter carry-on limits than trans-Atlantic flights. Thus, my carefully packed, legal-sized carry-on was mercilessly ripped away from me and checked.

Oh, and I was assigned a middle seat.

That said, it was after all Lufthansa, so I figured my luggage would probably show up, and it did.

Having finally arrived at my hotel after about 22 hours of travel (should have been 15ish), I thought I had survived the worst that the airlines could throw at me. (cue more ominous music)

For details about the actual purpose of the trip and how it went, refer to my professional blog (

Scheduled itinerary: FRA-LHR-RDU, arriving 2:45 p.m. local time
Actual itinerary: FRA-DFW-RDU, arriving 8:55 p.m. local time

Last year, I learned that when you have an AA codeshare on BA, there are two flight numbers. There’s the BA flight number, which doesn’t necessarily appear anywhere on your ticket, and there’s the AA flight number, which does appear on your ticket but doesn’t work to check in at the BA kiosks.

I arrive at FRA airport at around 6 a.m. and attempt to check in for the FRA-LHR hop using the BA flight number. The kiosk rejects me, so I go to talk to the ticket agents.

Much typing and whispering ensues. Then they ask me for the boarding passes from my outbound flights. More typing and discussion. They call American. They tell me to go get myself some coffee and check back in 15 minutes. And no, you won’t be making your 7:25 a.m. flight to London.

Remember the ominous music during the rebooking on the outbound leg? The BA agent who rebooked me LGW-AMS-FRA should have used the existing LHR-FRA segment. Apparently, what happened was that LHR-FRA-LHR-RDU was replaced with LGW-AMS-FRA, thus leaving me with no ticket valid for the return.

It’s a measure of airline travel standards that I was pleased about the fact that they didn’t attempt to blame me for this problem or try to get me to buy another ticket.

So, fog led to diversion, which led to delay, which led to rebooking, which led to a mistake, which led to a mess on the return.

Between BA and AA, they eventually straightened out the problem and got me on the FRA-DFW flight, which is 11 hours and of course overshoots my East Coast destination by a lot.

I sent a note to AA expressing my displeasure with the overall journey but have had no response after a week.

UPDATE (November 10, 2011): AA responded and credited my account with a reasonable pile of bonus miles, which is exactly what I expected they would do. I hope that they will also look at the structural issues.

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