Category Archives: Consumer Issues

Singing the Air Travel Blues

“Some day, my ship will come in, and with my luck, I’ll be at the airport.” So says a woebegone Charlie Brown on a treasured refrigerator magnet given to me long ago by a friend. After three weeks of travel and eight flights, I think my ship is in, and it must be the size of an aircraft carrier – and my husband has a matching one. Here is a summary of his, my and our air travel delays during a just-completed transatlantic trip.

October 4-5: Denver to Manchester, UK. Our British Airways non-stop from Denver to London/Heathrow (LHR) departed one hour late. Our BA flight to Manchester was one hour late in pulling away from the gate, and then, we sat on the tarmac for an additional hour before taking off. My husband and I both got our bags, which put us way ahead of some others attending the same convention as we were.

October 10: Manchester to the Isle of Man. If the EuroManx flight was delayed, it was by so little that no one seems to have noticed.

October 12: Isle of Man to Manchester. Our EuroManx flight was canceled. We were given a £5.00 meal voucher and several hours later, boarded a flight to Liverpool, from which we were bused to Manchester Airport, arriving something like five hours later than we expected. The good news was that we and our bags made it to and from the Isle of Man on the same planes we did.

October 13: Manchester to London (me). I took a series of three trains to London Gatwick LGW), where I picked up a rental car. The first train was 25 minutes late, which backed up my train plans. Manchester-Denver (my husband). He was ticketed Manchester-LHR and then on the LHR-DEN nonstop. His first flight was so late that he missed the Denver flight. He was rerouted via Washington-Dulles, connecting to a nonstop to Denver. That flight was also so late that he missed the last flight to Denver. BA put him up at a Holiday Inn overnight. When he arrived in Denver at 1:00 p.m. on the 14th, his bag was still in London. It was delivered at 10:00 p.m. the following evening – more than 48 hours after he and it were supposed to arrive at home.

October 18: London/Gatwick to Lisbon (me). I arrived at the airport uncharacteristically early, because I was quite eager to get rid of my rental car. My 4:00 p.m. The TAP Air Portugal flight was delayed until 5:05 p.m. My bag did arrive in Lisbon.

October 22, 2007: Lisbon to Madrid (me with a small journalist group). TAP Air Portugal flight that was scheduled to depart at 11:20 a.m. actually departed at 12:15 p.m. In order to delude passengers that they might actually be closer to on time, the gate agents scanned boarding passes, peered at passports or EU identity cards and allowed us to stand in a corridor and on the jetway for half-an-hour. A group of energetic young travelers entertained each other by making a lot of noise in this hard-walled tube. I don’t mind standing for half-an-hour, but I felt sorry for people who have a hard time being on their feet. Our bags did arrive — not on the carousel where our flight was posted, but on the next one that announced the arrival of bags from the Canary Islands. But I didn’t care, because my bag was on it.

October 25: Madrid to Denver (me). The London/Heathrow-bound Iberia flight took off 55 minutes late. In the Economy section, Iberia charges for everything, — even water (1.50 euros for about a 12-ounce bottle). I had lots of time at Heathrow, which is a good thing, since I arrived at Terminal 1, was misdirected to Terminal 2 where I cleared immigration, had to return to Terminal 1 to reclaim my bag and recheck it, because it seems that interline baggage transfer is not possible at Heathrow (or perhaps anywhere in England) and then to Terminal 4 for my US-bound flight on British Airways. London to Denver. That nonstop took off “only” 25 minutes late. My bag did make it on both flights.

Not counting my husband’s much-delayed return to Denver from Manchester via London, I calculate that my flight delays in the course of three weeks came to about 12 hours – plus the 25-minute train delay.

Hotel Services: Included? Extra? Fair? Foul?

I am staying at the historic Midland Hotel in Manchester, UK. Many VIPs have stayed in this gorgeous and historic hotel since it first opened its doors in 1905. Mr. Charles Stewart Rolls and Mr. Frederick Henry Royce first met here. I love walking through the lobby and along the wide corridor lined with historic photographs and other interesting framed items en route to my room.

However, and there’s always a “however,” such ambiance carries an unexpected and unwelcome price. It is costing me £15 for 24 hours of high-speed Internet access to check my E-mail, do on-line research or post new items on this blog. At the current miserable dollar-to-pound exchange rate (miserable from the American viewpoint), that is $30. If I wished to make a direct local phone call from my room, it would cost me £1.60 ($3.20). If I wanted to access certain premium TV channels, a day’s access would add £10 ($20) to my bill. I cannot imagine what it would cost to park a car wherever the valets whisk vehicles, if I had one here. All this is usurious.

I have often wondered why many fine and expensive hotels do not include the same kinds of services that mid-priced hotel or motel chains manage to offer free. Just as an single example, Choice Hotels (Choice Hotels, Sleep Inns, Comfort Inns, Rodeway Inns and other brands) provides free high-speed Internet access and free local phone calls to guests across the price ranges of their brands.

Other mysterious aspects to this hotel involves my room, a standard guest room facing an interior courtyard — not landscaped but a wide open-to-the-sky area that in New York would be called an air shaft. It is small, which is OK. There is a lovely armoire for hanging clothes, but not a single drawer. No bureau; no even a small drawer in each of the teensy nightstands. That would be OK too for a night or two, but this hotel is right across from the convention center, which means I am one of many guests who are here for multiple nights. Living out of a suitcase is not pleasant. The bathroom is small, and that’s OK too. But one small bar of soap is provided every second day both for face and body. The other toiletries are shampoo, conditioner and shower gel but no moisturizer.

Before departure, guests are invited to fill in an on-line commentary form. And I will, if I haven’t used up all of my $30 Internet access fee.

Inflight Medical Emergency: Who Pays?

For air travelers, the classic theater usher”s cry, “Is there a doctor in the house?”, has morphed into, “Is there a doctor on the plane?” Often there is, and we tend to assume that a physician will attend to a stricken fellow passenger, with the assistance of first aid-trained flight attendants, until the plane is on the ground. We think that it’s part of the Hippocratic Oath for doctors to do so. In some people’s eyes, Hippocratic came too close to hypocritical on a recent flight.

According to reports in the Asian media disseminated to the travel industry worldwide by eTurboNews, an Australian doctor, sent a bill for “services rendered” to Malaysia Airlines, for attending to three sick passengers on a flight from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur. “I left my young family to attend to three sick passengers,” Dr. Matilda Metledge was quoted as saying. Her unanticipated patients were two elderly travelers and “another passenger who was causing a disturbance,” according to eTNews.

John Gullotta, chairman of the Australian Medical Association (AMA) public health committee, was quoted as saying, “Doctors whose travels are ruined by fellow passengers should be compensated. I myself had three recent flights ruined because I had to treat passengers. The airlines are taking doctors for granted.” The AMA has suggested that doctors who declare themselves available on call during a flight be given an upgrade or be paid for their time while on call. By offering an incentive upfront everyone else can relax. It is a bit unfair to expect doctors trying to get away on holiday to be always available and render assistance. Obviously we have to do that as part of our Hippocratic Oath and sense of well-being, but the airlines have to take a bit more responsibility.”

Again according to eTN, the airline reportedly had turned down the doctor’s request for an upgrade but compensated her for her trouble with some toiletries and a pair of pajamas. I have no idea whether she requested an upgrade just for herself or for her whole family or whether the carrier paid the doctor’s bill.

The eTN report also quoted Lorraine Long from the Medical Error Action Group, an Australian patient-advocacy group (acronym: MESSUP), who believes that treating sick people is a doctor’s professional obligation: “Shouldn’t a ‘thank you’ be sufficient?” Long reportedly asked.

An unnamed airline industry observer was quoted on the other side of the discussion, which seems as if it could also have been said by someone from the AMA. “The doctor’s obligation is to the passenger, not to the airline. If there is any bill to be paid, it should be paid by the patient, just like going to the clinic back on the ground.”

Windjammers Sail in Troubled Waters

A lifetime ago, I took a Windjammer sailing trip operated by Captain Mike Burke’s Windjammer Barefoot Cruises. I flew to Martinique and spent a few nights in a funky hotel in Fort-de-France, the island’s capital that at the time had no cruise-ship pier. Only one (for the time) big ship could anchor and tender its passengers in for a flurry of local activity. When the passengers, laden with shopping bags from small branches of prestigious French department stores, reboarded their ship, the town immediately settled down and had a quiet colonial ambiance. I was living in New York at the time, and Fort-de-France was a fine place to decompress before boarding a vintage sailing ship for trip through the Grenadine Islands. The ship on which we traveled called on such then-quiet islands as St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Petit St. Vincent, Grenada, Bequia and Carriacou. We sailed and sunbathed and beachcombed and snorkeled and drank rum punches and rented Mini-Mokes here and there to sightsee. Very low-key, and quite idyllic, at least as I remember the trip.
Now. it seems that Windjammer Barefoot Cruises and its ships are in trouble — with the beautiful Mandalay, a 1923 tall ship (shown in happier times, above left) in especially rocky condition. According to a Wall Street Journal report titled “A Rough Tide on Windjammer Cruises,” reads in part:

“Labor disputes with crew members docked two ships owned by the company
over the past couple of weeks, stranding some passengers…Windjammer has had
labor dispute issues on all four of its ships over the past two weeks. The
common complaint: Crew hadn’t been paid in weeks. Jerry Ceder, who on Monday
identified himself as a spokesman for TAG Virgin Islands Corp., the investment
company that is in the process of purchasing Windjammer from a family trust,
told reporters Monday that TAG Virgin Islands had paid the crews…But according
to a person familiar with the matter, the crew of the Mandalay still
hadn’t been fully paid as of yesterday morning and it was unclear if the ship
will be able to sail for its scheduled cruise this coming Sunday. Emails
obtained by The Wall Street Journal that were written by the captain of
the Mandalay to Windjammer officials and the ship’s agent confirm that the
company has been experiencing financial difficulties for some time….The other
issue is one of safety and the inability to get necessary repairs on the
Mandalay because of inadequate funds, the captain said in the email….AIG
Travel Guard
, which issues travel insurance, says its claims department was
looking into whether the company should be put on its financial default list
after it received word from a travel agent about the situation.”

A recent post on cruisecritic.com warned: “Windjammer is a failing company. Ships have been seized and remain in port for non-payment of port fees, crew wages, and fees to suppliers of other necessities. The crews have initiated a strike on several of the ships for non-payment of wages and tips. The ships are in poor repair. The Mandalay recently broke a bowsprit that was apparently rusted through. I wonder how thin and rusty the hulls on the ships of this company are. I have heard that some passengers were stranded and not allowed to board. Good luck if you’re scheduled for a cruise with this company. I would certainly have a plan “B” in place.”

Windjammer Barefoot Cruises’ website gives is no indication of trouble. When I clicked on the “Press” section, the page reported that there are no press releases for August 2007. Wall Street Journal reporter Nancy Keates might have successfully reached a company spokesman, but they certainly are not pro-actively enlightening the press or their prospective passengers on their current troubles.

ATM Advice

I couldn’t travel without ATMs. If I am traveling domestically, it seems that I always am cash-poor when I arrive at the airport, and when I am traveling to another country, it’s the easiest way to get foreign currency. I prefer using my American Express card because, unlike my Chase Visa, AmEx does not levy a usurious fee on top of the modest transaction fee charged by the bank that owns the ATM. In the past, when I’ve used an ATM that accepts Visa but not AmEx, I’ve swallowed hard and accepted the inevitable Chase charge. The Royal Bank of Canada ATM at Montreal’s Dorval Airport didn’t display the AmEx logo, but I tried it anyway. It worked. I concluded that it is worthwhile to try your favorite credit or debit card no matter what. It might work.

Sometimes nothing works. When my husband and I were on Easter Island last fall, we walked across town to the island’s single ATM. There was, predictably, a long line. When it was finally our turn, the machine would only take my Visa card — not take my husband’s MasterCard and certain not my AmEx card. I then concluded that it is sometimes worthwhile to try any credit or debit card your have with you, no matter what. One of them might work.

Flight Delays Bad and Getting Worse

Today’s New York Times business section features a piece called “Ugly Airline Math: Planes Late, Fliers Even Later.” To read the whole piece, click soon, because free access to Times articles scrolls off after a week. Reporters Jeff Bailey and Nate Schweber wrote: “As anyone who has flown recently can probably tell you, delays are getting worse this year. The on-time performance of airlines has reached an all-time low, but even the official numbers do not begin to capture the severity of the problem.

“That is because these statistics track how late airplanes are, not how late passengers are. The longest delays — those resulting from missed connections and canceled flights — involve sitting around for hours or even days in airports and hotels and do not officially get counted.”

I never really thought about that, but it’s true that passenger lateness for connecting flights is really what counts when we are the passengers in question — not whether one single flight is 15 or 20 minutes late. My longest delay ever (and I hope never to trump it, ever) was 11 years ago, when my husband, my son and a friend were returning from Tanzania. We were flying KLM from Arusha to Amsterdam with a stop in Dar es Salaam and then connecting to Detroit and Denver. Someone rammed into the cargo door of our aircraft with a forklift (a total accident, not a terr’ist incident). Bottom line is that we ended up flying two two airlines we hadn’t planned to fly (an Air Tanzania charter, followed by a three-movie flight in the crying children’s section of Air Madagascar) via three countries we hadn’t planned to stop in (Kenya, Germany, France). We arrived home almost three days late.

Our misery was on international flights, but the reporters note that “In the first five months of 2007, more than a quarter of all flights within the United States arrived at least 15 minutes late. And more of those flights were delayed for long stretches, an average of 39 percent longer than a year earlier….

“Some other airline delay statistics, meanwhile, are getting a fresh look, as well. After thousands of passengers were stranded for hours on tarmacs in New York and Texas this past winter, consumer advocates began complaining that Transportation Department data does not accurately track such meltdowns.

“If a flight taxies out, sits for hours, and then taxies back in and is canceled, the delay is not recorded. Likewise, flights diverted to cities other than their destination are not figured into delay statistics.”

Using Continental Airlines as an example, the reporters noted, “Continental operates big hubs in Houston and Newark and one day last week, 1,658 passengers missed connections, which was 4.29 percent of those connecting. That is a typical level of missed connections, but Continental’s flights that day were 89.6 percent full, so finding seats on later flights for some passengers was difficult.

“The airline alters its schedule when flights chronically lead to missed connections. For instance, it recently extended by 10 minutes minimum connection times in Houston for passengers traveling from Panama City, Panama, because some were not clearing customs in time.
Continental also has a new system that sends e-mail messages — and, beginning next month, text messages to cellphones — informing connecting passengers on late flights how they have been rebooked.

“It also is moving ticket kiosks inside the security area so passengers can print new boarding passes without going out to the main ticketing area or having to wait in line for a gate agent to help them.”

I’m flying again tomorrow — Air Canada, not Continental, and a nonstop rather than a connecting flight. Wish me luck anyway.

Does Anyone Read Those Comment Cards?

Restaurants, hotels and even airlines often have them, and I usually fill them out. I compliment people, policies, practices or physical facilities that deserve praise, and I’m quick to identify flaws. I’ve often thought, however, that it was a way to vent but have had no idea whether anyone reads them or whether it is a big waste if time. I’ve even pondered whether comments are treated differently if they are dropped into a box on-site or mailed to a corporate office. Determining whether a complaint was ever dealt with is impossible — except for travelers who frequent the same hotel or restaurant. I just hope that the travel industry does pay attention what its customers have to say. But I don’t know. And I have wondered.

I’m a big fan of Christopher Elliott’s website and weekly newsletter. He evidently has also wondered whether anyone pays attention to comment cards. This week he wrote: “Burning question … Do you feel as if your airline, hotel, car rental company or cruise line is listening to you? You’ve no doubt seen those guest-comment cards in your hotel room. Do you think anyone is reading them? How about when you phone your airline? Do you feel there’s someone on the other end who cares? Here’s your chance to sound off about the travel industry’s listening skills. Are they getting better at it — or worse? Send me a note to chris@elliott.org or shoot me an IM (celliottlive on AIM).”

Since he is a persistent and respected consumer advocate in the travel industry, take him up on his invitation and contact him — because our collective comments as travelers will definitely count. When he writes, the travel industry does listen.

Cruise Ship Runs Aground in Alaska

The Empress of the North is a 223-passenger cruise ship owned by Majestic America Line, but its history has been less than majestic. For the fourth time since it was launched, it had an accident — this time hitting Hanus Rock at the southern end of Icy Strait, less than 60 miles from Juneau. The 206 passengers on board were evacuated early this morning by the U.S. Coast Guard, the Alaska State Ferry and several dozen volunteer rescue boats.

Majestic America is the rebranding of the combined American West Steamboat Company and Delta Queen riverboats, and now claims to be “the largest river and coastal cruising company in the United States.” In fact, the 360-foot Majestic Queen was rebuilt to look more like a riverboat than a cruise ship. There’s even a decorative paddlewheel at the stern. Bizarre!

This imperially named ship with the weird cultural cross-fertilization (a Mississippi riverboat in appearance gliding through Alaskan waters!) has sailed under a cloud since it was launched. According to KOMO-TV in Seattle, where the ship was built and is based, this is the fourth time it has hit something or run aground since it began service in 2003. According to the station:

  • In October of 2003, the Empress of the North hit a navigation lock at the Ice Harbor dam on the Snake River.
  • In November of 2003, it ran aground on the Oregon side of the Columbia River near The Dalles.
  • In March of 2006 it grounded on a sand bar in the Columbia near Washougal.
  • In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that the ship failed an inspection in February, and the agency is reportedly investigating what caused 26 passengers and seven crew members to get sick during a five-day Columbia River cruise in March.

This time, according to reports, the ship ran aground, took on water and suffered a breached oil tank, but somehow oil did not pollute the sea. It listed about 10 degrees but stabilized before continuing to Juneau under its own power with a Coast Guard escort. The weather was rainy and the glacier-fed water was a chilly 40 to 50 degrees.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________
P.S. added to this post later in the evening:
The following press release (with no individual person’s contact information) appeared later on the Majestic America Line website:

2101 4th Avenue, Suite 1150, Seattle, WA 98121 Phone: 206.292.9606
www.majesticamericaline.com

Revised Statement
3:30 p.m. PDT
May 14, 2007

Majestic America Line has announced that all of the passengers and crew of
Empress of the North have been safely transferred to Juneau following a
grounding incident in Southeast Alaska at 1:40 am local time today (May 14,
2007). The passengers and some crew members arrived in Juneau aboard the
Alaska state ferry, Columbia, at approximately noon today local time where
they were met by company representatives.

Passengers will be accommodated locally before boarding homeward
flights. Essential members of the crew stayed aboard Empress of the North,
which arrived under her own power in Juneau a short time ago. She is now
undergoing a thorough assessment and investigation of the incident.

No injuries were reported during the incident.

Empress of the North was on the second day of a seven day cruise of
Alaska’s Inside Passage roundtrip from Juneau that departed on Saturday, May
12. According to David Giersdorf, President “The safety and comfort of our
guests is our number one priority. We are continuing to take all measures to
ensure that all of their needs are met in as a result of this situation. We
are working closely with all regulatory authorities to undertake a full
investigation and assess the condition of the vessel.”

“In addition, we would like to thank the U.S. Coast Guard for their exceptional response and support in this incident We are indeed fortunate that we have such dedicated professionals protecting America’s coastlines and waterways. We also want to express our gratitude to the vessels and crew members who assisted with the transfer of guests off the Empress of the North, as well as the Alaska Marine Highway system for supplying the Columbia and her officers and crew for transporting our guests back to Juneau. The cooperation and support from all parties involved has been exemplary.”