Lessons from a Flight Disruption

My “thanks” to Icelandair for the painful but necessary reminder about six important lessons when flying.

I tempted fate.  Prior to flying home from France, and for the first time in decades, I did not pack every essential thing in my carry-on.  Why should I bother, I reasoned?  Worst case scenario, a bag gets lost or delayed, but everything I have is duplicated at home, so there is no problem, just inconvenience.  Even the airlines know this, which is why it is close to impossible to claim compensation on delayed luggage when you’re flying home.

The weight of my fully-loaded carry-on is always close to or possibly even over the sometimes very low maximum airlines allow for carry-ons, so any opportunity to lessen the weight both for compliance purposes (yes, they do sometimes weigh carry-ons, and it seems this is done more often now) and for convenience purposes is to be welcomed.

So, with a minimalist load in my carry-on backpack, I happily checked in at Paris CDG for my flights, from there to Reykjavik, and connecting on from there to Seattle.

Within minutes of watching my checked bags disappear into the bowels of the airport, things started to go wrong.  There were strong and increasing winds at KEF (ie Reykjavik airport) and Icelandair was rushing to get all its incoming flights in and the subsequent wave of outbound flights out before the winds grew too strong for flight operations.  A multitude of text messages and emails came in to my phone, advising me of “delays” to both my flights, but with the “delays” actually being changes to the flight times making their arrivals and departures earlier rather than later.

Never mind, earlier departures, and a continued generous connect time between the two flights, were a good rather than bad thing, right?  What could possibly go wrong with that.

Alas, by the time the flight arrived at KEF, the weather had got still worse, and the airport was in the process of closing down, with all outbound flights for the rest of the day cancelled.

Lesson 1 :  Self-Help Beats Airline Help

As soon as an announcement was made on the plane (which wasn’t until after we landed), I immediately booked a hotel room in Reykjavik for the night.  With probably a couple of dozen flights cancelled, that suggested there would be at least 2500 people looking for overnight accommodation, and clearly not everyone would be fortunate enough to get an available room.

Validation :  After landing, we then sat on the plane for over an hour and a half.  We were told the winds were too strong to allow planes to use the regular jetways, and only two were rated as strong enough for the winds that were buffeting the plane.  It was going to take an extended time for all the incoming flights to have a turn to get to the special gates and unload their passengers.

As it turned out, no-one from Icelandair, at any point, anywhere, was booking passengers into hotels.  Several hours later I managed to talk to a staffer who said “book any hotel, we’ll reimburse you up to €200” and that was the closest to official assistance that was being offered.  I’ve no idea what rooms might have remained at that late point, and also didn’t care, because I already had a room arranged.

Lesson 2 :  Everything the Airline Tells You is a Lie

Waiting to get to one of the two wind-resistant gates was a very unpleasant experience.  The plane was being violently buffeted by the gusty winds on the ground, in a manner similar to moderately strong turbulence in the air.  Plus, no-one likes an open-ended period of captivity on a plane, when the terminal is close in view (as were also many other planes, parked around the taxi-lanes and ground holding areas, also waiting their turns to unload).

I asked a flight attendant how long we’d wait to get to a gate, and she immediately went into one of the standard lies that they’re presumably taught to deliver.  “We’ve no idea, we don’t know how many planes are ahead of us, we don’t know how long it is taking, we don’t know anything, we just have to wait until our turn.”

If she had said “I have no idea” she may have been telling the truth, but when we said “We have no idea” that was a total lie.  Of course someone, somewhere, knew exactly what sequence the landed planes would be rotated through the two gates, and of course, someone, somewhere, knew about how long it was taking for each plane to sequence through that process.  Furthermore, the two pilots up front were now in “stand-by” mode.  They had nothing whatsoever to do except gossip on the radio with the ground control service and other planes, and to ask what their position in the queue was, and chatter among themselves about the speed of processing planes.

But the flight attendant didn’t wish to be bothered (even though she too had nothing to do) or to ask the pilots this question.

I pressed, and pointed out to her that of course someone knew all this information, and surely it was the obligation/responsibility/duty of the pilots to find it out and share it.  Eventually she grudgingly said she’d ask the pilots.

Validation :  A short while thereafter, the pilot made an announcement, telling us everything I’d asked about.  There were three planes ahead of us in our queue for one of the two gates, each plane was taking about 30 minutes, and we’d be at a gate in little more than an hour.  As indeed happened.

The flight attendant avoided eye contact with me for the remaining hour.

Postscript :  The two “wind resistant jetways” were actually air-stairs parked away from the gates.  Not wind-resistant jetways at all.

Post postscript :  A couple of hours later, in the terminal, I noticed a lady getting very upset and angry in an interaction with the staff at an Airport Information booth.  I interceded.  The woman was very cross because the airport info people couldn’t tell her when the flight she was waiting to meet someone off would unload.  “No-one knows” was all the airport info people could tell her.

I explained to the lady that the airport info people were more for the purpose of explaining where to go to get a taxi and that sort of thing, and suggested she contact her friend on the plane and get her friend to find out.  She said she had already done that – the friend on the plane had been told the same lie I was originally told about no-one knowing what order/sequence planes were being sent for unloading.

I suggested she contact her friend again and encourage the friend to be more forceful in her questioning on board, because of course the pilots absolutely knew exactly their place in the queue.  (Surprisingly, that flight landed 15 minutes prior to my flight, but still had not unloaded its passengers, even though mine had unloaded over an hour before.)

Lesson 3 :  The Airline Doesn’t Tell You Everything

Eventually, the plane got to one of the two “gates” – ie, air stairs – and people scrambled to get off the airplane.  None of the flight crew gave us any advice at all about what to do once we got inside the terminal, but I passively “went with the flow” figuring that clearly “the crowd mind” had some obvious sense of purpose.

The only thing they told us, and which the various emails and texts that were steadily flowing in to my phone from Icelandair confirmed, was that we would all be automatically rebooked onto alternate flights, and so we didn’t need to do anything except wait for an updated flight message.  Naievely, I believed this made sense and I was happy to trust their repeated promise.

I had already ascertained that these weather closures were not all that rare, so I guessed the regulars on the flight knew what to do, and simply followed the most confident people.

I wryly noted as we walked through the concourse that we walked past an Icelandair Customer Service counter that was completely unmanned.

Validation :  The passengers headed to luggage claim, and then sort of dissipated.  It made sense that the next thing to do would be to wait for one’s bags to be offloaded, and so I patiently waited.  I recognized a few of my fellow passengers also waiting, and was not worried when the minutes stretched out.  Clearly, with the winds, it would take time to carefully unload the bags, I reasoned.

But after perhaps 45 minutes, there were still no bags, so I went to ask at the lost baggage what was happening.  The girl there gave me a lost baggage form to fill out without anything more than a grunt, and it was only after I’d done that she then told me that if I was a connecting passenger, they were not unloading the bags at all!

So that was almost an hour of my life wasted, because no-one had told us that.  I asked what I should do, and the girl grudgingly told me there were airline staff waiting to help after we exited the Customs Hall.

So I left the Customs Hall (and she achieved her objective, getting rid of me) only to find no sign of airline staff anywhere.

Eventually, I enquired at the Airport Info desk and they pointed me to a place, around a corner, totally out of sight, where there was a nightmare long line of people waiting for a few customer service agents.  I did a quick mental calculation and guessed the line was several hours long (the next day, a fellow passenger said he waited three hours in the line).  So I found a roving airline employee and asked her what the line was for – she said it was for rebooking flights.  I said “but aren’t you doing that automatically” and she agreed, and confirmed there was no advantage in standing in line for hours when it would be done automatically, anyway.  She laughed at the foolishness of the people waiting in line.

I asked about hotels, and she said to simply book anything anywhere for less than €200/night and they’d reimburse that plus transfers and meals.

So I left the people in the line to their fate and took the bus into town for the night.

Lesson 4 :  Everything the Airline Tells You is a Lie (Part 2)

The one consistent message from Icelandair was there was no need to do anything – they would automatically rebook flights for everyone.

But eight hours after I’d landed (and probably more like 10 hours after the airline knew there’d be no outgoing flight) I still hadn’t received any new flight advice, and I was starting to get concerned.

So, at midnight, I spent 2 1/2 hours on hold calling Icelandair to see what was happening.  Interestingly, it was taking almost three minutes for each person in line to go away (messages kept advising how many calls ahead of me there were), which suggested to me there were only one or two agents on duty.

Validation :  When I finally got through to an agent, she confirmed my flights had not been changed, and she changed them on the spot for me.

Clearly, for peace of mind, what I should have done after immediately booking a hotel room was then immediately call Icelandair and change my flights.  It is definitely a case of “first in, first served” in such cases, and politely waiting your turn in line does no favors.

The people who waited three hours in line at the airport were perhaps the sensible ones.  They saved the cost of 150 minutes of international phone call that I incurred, and got their flights sorted sooner.  The absolute myth of the “automatic rebooking” is reprehensible in its venality.

Postscript :  Twitter isn’t a Silver Bullet.  I tried tweeting a direct message to Icelandair asking about the status of my flight rebooking.  I didn’t get a reply until after my 2 1/2 hour wait on the phone.

Lesson 5 :  Beware of the Truth Changing

So, after the waiting-on-hold marathon, I had a new flight, a new seat assignment, and even an email from Icelandair confirming it.  Yay.  I happily went to bed, with the alarm set for an appropriate time for the new flight the next day.

Validation :  When I got up the next morning, I checked my email and found a message from Icelandair.  They had switched me to a different flight.  Oh yes, and in doing so, they didn’t bother to re-assign me a seat (and I’d paid extra for their ‘More legroom’ option).  Fortunately, it was for a later flight, but it was still a pinprick of additional annoyance and hassle (and this time only 45 minutes on hold to get a seat assigned).

The Ultimate Lesson

I’m embarrassed at having broken one of my cardinal rules, and guess I deserved the overnight “punishment” that followed.  Always, always, always, pack everything you need for an unexpected several day period without the rest of your luggage, into your carry-on.

Being the nerd that I may be, the thing that distressed me the most was that I didn’t have the power supply/charger for my laptop.  And I had a raging cold, with only enough cold medicine at hand for a few more hours, not an extra day of traveling.  Plus the usual other things that it would have been nice to have – toothbrush, razor, etc.

Even if you’re on just a single flight to your home, the plane might be diverted or cancelled.  Always, always, always, pack everything you need for an unexpected several day period into your carry-on.

And About Those Bags?

Oh yes.  Upon arrival back home at Seatac Airport, neither of my bags turned up.

Which saw a repeat of lesson 3 (the airline doesn’t tell you everything).  The way their bag matching systems work, they knew before the flight took off from Reykjavik that my bags weren’t on board, and they could have told me on board during the eight hours about this, and they could have made an announcement in the Customs Hall for me and the many others without bags that there was no point waiting 40 minutes at the baggage carousel for nothing to happen (but I think this is against airline policy to admit in public that anyone’s bags have been delayed).

And then lesson 2 (everything the airline tells you is a lie) – I asked the Icelandair contractor in the Customs Hall two questions :  could I file a lost bag report online, and if not, where did I do it at the airport.  Answers were “no” and “there are people outside the Customs Hall waiting to help” (an eerily identical statement to the one offered the previous day at KEF).  Both statements were lies.  There was no-one outside the Customs Hall, and Icelandair doesn’t even have a lost luggage service office anywhere in the airport (I know because I wasted 20 minutes looking).  But I could and did file a report online.

The bags arrived two days later.

11 thoughts on “Lessons from a Flight Disruption”

  1. How nasty was the descent and landing in KEF? I’m guessing based on the wind speed that the winds were aligned with the runway and not crosswind?

    1. It wasn’t too bad at all. A bit bumpy, but I’ve had lots worse.

      I think the winds were not up and down the runway. If they were, that shouldn’t be a reason to close the airport. You just take off and land faster.

  2. I have never flow Icelandair. I see them as a lower priced option to Europe. After your experience with this trip, would you fly them again? I had been thinking of a quick trip to Paris and/or Milan and airfares were astronomical, so I punted. But I never considered Icelandair.

    1. They’re a fine airline and the concept of changing planes in Reykjavik is usually a good one because most flights go very close to there on their route to/from Europe anyway.

  3. Happened to me- I got dumped in Portland, Maine – no info, no updates. Watched the crew go off to a hotel. Nothing for the pax except blankets to sleep on the floor. Ended up taking a bus and taxi to Boston. No reimbursement!

  4. There is no real difference between airlines. They all tell the same lies about delays, lost bags and schedule changes. Your best advice is to buy travel insurance and to use a travel agent. When you call your agent they can book a room and also rebook your flights in most cases. Unfortunately, a travel agent cannot go out to find your luggage but can reccomend a good insurance coverage.

    1. Hi, Helen

      I agree about most airlines being very much the same as each other, and not in a good way.

      Not sure I agree about travel agents. Sure, a good travel agent is worth their weight in gold, but how to find one? And, even the best travel agent isn’t going to be available at 3am on a Sunday morning or whenever an emergency strikes. Sure, some agencies contract with 24 hour emergency services, but then you’re not dealing with “your” agent but with an unknown person in a call center, with probably only fair to middling skills and no particular interest in helping you.

      That is the huge and unavoidable shortfall in travel agent servicing. When we travel, particularly internationally, problems occur outside of 9-5, Mon-Fri. While travel agents like to claim they are there in an emergency, the reality is that they are not.

      1. We use the travel agents available to us with our American Express card – and it is worth the yearly fees for the benefits we get with it! A couple of months ago we were flying from DC to Ireland, via Chicago, when our flight to Chicago was delayed – meaning we wouldn’t make our Dublin flight. I immediately called Amex, and the agent (never had worked with her before) stayed on the phone for 45 minutes with me to make sure we were rebooked onto another flight leaving shortly thereafter to Dublin via London. We ended up arriving 3 hours later vs a day later. The gate agents wouldn’t have made it happen if I didn’t have her help. They are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Highly recommend seeing if your credit card company has similar services available!

  5. Nothing new here – airlines lie every day about irrops. Good advice about not waiting at the airport to fix the problems. Great advice about booking hotel on the plane (or call a competent relative to do it). And yet reason #1001 why I rarely check bags – ever – and never have the problem of delayed or lost luggage.

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