The Slightly Longer Way Home

This posting tells the story of how I got back from Infocom conference in Toronto in May 2014. There were a few hiccups along the way and this post is mainly about telling the facts, spiced with some appropriate commentary. It’s not a rant where I swear not to fly airline X ever again or how one night of missed sleep was the worst ever experience of my life; no, those would be just petty whinings about first world problems. In the end, all was fine, so that’s all that counts.

So, it was May 1st and I was in Toronto attending the Infocom conference. Conference had been very nice but it was now time to fly back home. I had tried to take a late return flight so that I could stay longer at the conference, so I was scheduled to fly from Toronto to Chicago and onwards to London and Helsinki. The first two legs were on American Airlines, the last on Finnair. In case you’re wondering why I took that routing, the reasons were mainly that it was the best tradeoff between price and lateness of departure (to be honest, it was the cheapest flight and left the latest, so this was an easily resolved tradeoff). I had been mildly concerned about the routing, since I only had 50 minutes for my connection in Chicago.

I got to the airport in Toronto in good time for my flight and all looked peachy. Then I checked about the incoming flight and noticed that it was posting a delay leaving Chicago. The delay got longer and longer and I was getting more than mildly concerned. As I was having a hot dog for dinner, I heard an announcement where they asked somebody with a really weird name to come to gate A12 (my gate). When they called the same person again, I realized it was me they were calling for. To be honest, my name is not the easiest for non-Finns, but this was by far the most curious mis-pronunciation I had ever heard.

I made my to gate A12, handed my boarding pass to the attendant, and then got the good news. They had figured out that I would miss my connection in Chicago so they had proactively booked my onto a British Airways flight direct from Toronto to London. The catch? That flight was posting a 5-6 hour delay and would leave between 2am and 3am (it was about 8pm at this point). However, I should still make my original flight from London to Helsinki, so I thanked them profusely and took the new flights. After a fair amount of tapping at the computer, the attendant finally got me a paper that I should take to BA and check in with them. As a side note, I cannot help but wonder how archaic the airline computer systems look, everything is purely text-based with lots of cryptic commands to be typed in (and sometimes seems like things need to be done multiple times for the command to work). Then again, maybe that kind of stuff is the least-common-denominator that is guaranteed to work everywhere, but couldn’t some of that stuff be actually automated?

So, how do I get to the checkin for BA? For those that aren’t familiar with how flights from Canada to US work, here’s some background. You actually go through US immigration and customs at the Canadian airport so that you arrive in the US as a domestic passenger. This is very convenient and similar pre-clearance exists in some Caribbean islands and Ireland. This of course means that gate A12 is in some sense in the US and BA checkin is in Canada. They told me to walk back towards the security checkpoint and that somebody would let me out. This actually worked. I walked to the security checkpoint, explained my situation, and got out back to Canada. My bag that I had checked in was waiting for me at the transfer belt. Then again, this thing must happen pretty often, so I probably shouldn’t wonder why it was so smooth.

Interestingly, my original flight to London was AA 98 and I was rebooked on BA 98. It’s a good thing there weren’t any further rebookings on different airlines, since Air China doesn’t seem to have flight 98… Who knows where I then would have ended up in.

Next up, checking in with BA. I got to the counter, told them I had been rebooked by AA, handed over the paper, and everything was ok. They found me on the BA flight and eventually figured out which was my flight to Helsinki, and I got checked in without any hitch. I even got an exit row seat. Well, the only hitch was the 5-6 hour delay which was caused by the late arrival of the plane from London. Then again, I have a funnily-colored piece of plastic which lets me in the BA lounge and they said they would keep the lounge open until the flight leaves, so things could have been a lot worse. I was probably the only person on the whole plane who was happy about the delay, since without it, there wouldn’t have been enough time for me to be rebooked on it. In other words, the delay meant I would be getting home on schedule.

I made my way to the lounge where the nice lady at the front desk explained the facilities, and suggested me to take a cocktail or two, but not too many. 🙂 She also promised to wake me up in case I fall asleep so that I wouldn’t miss the flight. I found a seat with some power next to it and got a beer. I now realize I was tempting fate by taking the beer instead of the cocktails she had suggested… This was about 9pm, so all things considered, everything had gone super smoothly. At some point, I took a nap for about an hour; the chair was pretty comfortable and I had a nice nap. Eventually, the long wait was over and we were invited to board the plane.

And that’s when the s..t hit the fan.

We got everybody on the plane, but the ground handling was having a slow time with the bags and cargo. In fact, they were so slow that around 3am the flight crew ran out of working hours, which got the flight canceled. 🙁 The story that went around said that if the ground handling had been about 15 minutes quicker, we would have been able to fly. Not sure if it’s true or not, but it makes for a nice twist to the story.

The next order of business was for BA staff to figure out hotels for us and transportation to those hotels. There were several large conferences in Toronto at that time, so hotel rooms were apparently in very short supply. Eventually, at some time after 4:30am we were let off the plane, told to pick up our bags, and then we’d be taken to a hotel. All things considered, I’d say everything went pretty smoothly and I was in my hotel room at 6am. (You can read another account of the same flight here.)

Sure, there was some confusion, as in on the plane they told us to go pick up the bags, see the person next to baggage claim about hotels, but the person next to baggage claim said we should have had vouchers given at the gate. She called the gate and this was resolved. Likewise, at the hotel, the receptionist wanted to see our vouchers, but common sense triumphed again. All in all it was a pretty smooth thing, considering the time of the day and the number of people on the plane.

They had told us that they would be rebooking us and the easiest way to have some influence on the process would be to call BA at 1-800-AIRWAYS. The catch? They don’t open until 7am so when I got to the hotel at 6am, I came up with the following plan. First, I called American, just in case since my original ticket was with them and because my frequent flyer status is with them. As I suspected, the agent told me that since the ticket has been rebooked on BA, I should talk to BA. I thanked her and came up with the following idea. Even though BA’s North American number wasn’t answering, it was daytime in Finland and BA has a regular number in Finland and not an expensive service number. This is important because I get free calls to regular Finnish numbers over Skype, so I took out my computer, and dialed BA in Finland.

I explained my case and the person said that even though I’m now on BA, the original ticket is on AA, so I should talk to them. When I said that I had just called AA who told me to call BA, she then forwarded me to AA in the same call and I got to speak to another person. The connection was really poor so I had a hard time understanding her, but we sort of managed. I asked about being rebooked on AA to JFK and on to Helsinki on the direct Finnair flight which would get me home Saturday morning (as opposed to the Friday evening in the original schedule; this was now Friday morning). Unfortunately no seats were available on Finnair. Transatlantic flights seemed all to be very full, but at one time the plan was for me to fly from Toronto to Dallas, then to London and Helsinki, getting there at 4:30pm on Saturday. At that point, I was put on a long hold and after I got back on, she told me that she had talked to BA and that I was rebooked on the re-timed flight on Friday and then onto Helsinki on the same flight I would have gotten via Dallas. She even patched me back to BA where I got a confirmation of the flights. It was a good thing the call was free since it took 52 minutes to get all of this sorted out (out of which I was probably about half the time on hold). The other thing for which I’m grateful to the AA agent is that she called BA directly and all I had to do was wait.

With this settled, I took a quick shower and took a nap. Understandable, since I had gotten up at 7am on Thursday, and since then had taken two one-hour naps, one in the lounge, one on the plane while we were waiting. This was also the first time in my life that I took a day room in a hotel and put the bed to good use. Next time I could maybe try it with somebody else in the room… 😉

After the nap, I wandered downstairs and asked the reception about food vouchers. I got two vouchers, total value CAD 35 and told that I could use them in their restaurant where they had a buffet lunch for CAD 20. Food was ok, not great, but it was free so why complain.

BA had also sent me an email with information about the new flight and when to check in, so a bit after 1pm on Friday I was back at the airport and in the checkin counters of BA. It took the checkin person a while to figure out how to get me to Helsinki since with all the rebookings, my ticket was quite a mess. In fact, according to AA’s iPhone app, I had also been rebooked onto a Chicago-London flight on Friday evening. But in the end, I got all my boarding passes, luggage was tagged to Helsinki, and everything looked good. There were lots of familiar faces at checkin, but everyone seemed to be in reasonably good mood, as in nobody was shouting, crying, or doing similar stuff. In fact, throughout the whole experience, things had remained very calm.

So, back to the lounge and my seat from yesterday. I think it still had the imprint of my behind on it… This time the wait was only about 4.5 hours, as opposed to the 5-something hours yesterday, so in total I ended up spending about 8-9 hours in that lounge. But since there’s food, drinks, power, and wifi available, things could be a lot worse. For a more epic story about the hardships of spending extended time in lounge, check out this one. For an epic story without hardships, check out this one. 🙂 )

Finally boarding time came along and I got back on the plane, same exit row seat as the day before. The flight attendant next to the exit was a funny guy and we have lots of fun chatting and cracking jokes. They had changed the crew from the day before to let the original crew get a bit more rest. I start things off by jinxing everything when I ask when would the crew run out of hours this time. He told me that we were still good for 5-6 hours and that until he took out a pad and a pen, I wouldn’t need to worry. Given what followed, we had several laughs later on when he started jokingly writing on a pad…

The departure time had been announced as 7:40pm and when 7:40pm came around, the captain made an announcement that the ground handling was still loading bags on the plane and it would take another 20 minutes for that to be finished. 20 minutes later there was another announcement that it would take another 15-20 minutes for the loading to be finished. You can imagine the groans these announcements caused in the crowd that had all gone through the canceling in the middle of the previous night.

The flight attendant told me that BA had recently changed their ground handling agent in Toronto so this was a “new company”. He called them Laurel and Hardy which was appropriate given their recent track record, but it turned out that it was actually Swissport that was doing the handling. I could understand Billy Bob’s Ontario Ground Aviation having problems loading a 747, but Swissport isn’t really a newcomer to aviation handling so that really was a strange experience. They did get the earlier flight of Friday evening out on time, but ours was a bit different, again.

Then Laurel and Hardy finally got everything loaded but then they had problems closing the cargo door. You can imagine the reaction this announcement got from the crowd. 🙂

Finally L&H delivered, got the door closed, and we got on our way, a bit over 2 hours delayed. Since I had a 4 hour connection at Heathrow, I wasn’t worried and I made my connection just fine. On the flight from Toronto to London, I had two glasses of wine, ate dinner, fell into a coma for 5 hours, and awoke 40 minutes out of London. I usually cannot sleep much on planes, but having just gone 40 hours with about 4-5 hours of napping might have had something to do with it.

So, all is well that ends well, and in the grand scheme of things, this wasn’t really much. In the end, I was 20 hours delayed in getting home. In the 15 or so years that I’ve been traveling more actively, I’ve only had 1 or 2 similar cases so the odds are pretty low. Having a funnily-colored piece of plastic naturally helps and I regularly make the appropriate ritual sacrifices to aviation gods to smoothen my travels.

The best part of the story? On Thursday night, when I was sitting in the lounge waiting for the 2am flight, I kept checking the status of my original flight from Chicago to London. That thing left over 2 hours late, so even with the delayed Toronto-Chicago flight, I would have made my original connection. And with a 4 hour scheduled connection in London, I still would have made my original flight to Helsinki. Oh well… You win some, you lose some and I still think rebooking onto the direct BA flight was the right thing to do and would do it again in a similar situation.

In the end, I think everything went as well as they could, given the circumstances. I was really positively surprised at how AA proactively rebooked me as opposed to letting me get to Chicago and be stranded there. Likewise, BA in Toronto did a very good job in handling the situation in the middle of the night and we got hotel and food as we were supposed to get. Everybody remained very calm and the whole thing was very civilized. On the second day, I saw several familiar faces among the BA staff, so many of them had been working the night before (well, through the night before) and probably hadn’t gotten much more sleep than we did. Still, everybody was friendly and things went well.

Things happen in modern air travel and I think it’s important to not get too worked up about them, take things with a smile, keep up the good humor, and consider it a new experience. And these events make for nice stories to tell. 🙂

 

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