Air Travel: No Better Than a Bus Trip

Regular readers of my blog know that my relationship with Florida is fraught. I love the beach and sunshine, but I have been traveling there since I was 11 years old to visit elderly relatives. Those trips didn’t feel like vacations, they felt stressful. I connect Florida with aging, the state serves as a reminder of our mortality, not to mention its ridiculous politics, and even though I know my grandparents and parents loved their lives there, it is a negative association. Others with the same history feel positively and have warm memories of their visits. I can’t explain why I feel the way I do, but I can’t seem to shake it.

I have also had difficult travel experiences, from an Amtrak trip that took 24 hours longer than it should have, to last year’s nightmare landing in Orlando in turbulent weather, then sitting on the tarmac for more than two hours before taking off for our final destination, Fort Lauderdale; it rarely goes smoothly.

All of that said, we looked forward to our trip this year. We planned it as a long weekend getaway back in December. We would meet close friends near Port St. Lucie and see NY Met spring training games. We would also visit Gary’s mother and other family. I was determined to approach this year’s trip with an open mind.

We got off to an uncertain start when, not long after I made the flight reservations, I received an email from JetBlue advising us that the departure time for the outbound trip was changed. If I wanted to reschedule, the email said, it could be done simply by clicking on the link provided. I wanted to adjust our flights, so I did just that and was directed to their website but was unable to make any changes. After repeatedly getting the same error message, I called the airline. I was told by the automated system that my wait time would be over 120 minutes! It gave me the option to communicate with them by text instead. I took that opportunity. They would text me when a person became available. I went about my business that day, keeping the phone close so I wouldn’t miss their message. Seven hours later, as I was driving on the Thruway, I heard the familiar ding of an incoming text. I briefly looked at my phone. It was indeed JetBlue. Perfect timing! I would have to try again later.

The next day, I called and this time after the maze of menus, I chose the option of having them call me back. They said the wait time would be about an hour and I did receive a call in that time frame. Things were looking up! I explained the adjustment I wanted to make to the JetBlue representative. It seemed simple enough. After the call was completed, I received an email confirmation, but the heading of the email said, ‘Your itinerary has been cancelled.’ Uh-oh. I opened the email, the body of which provided a new confirmation code. I went online and put that code in, and it looked like we still had our reservations. Okaaaay. I was cautiously optimistic.

I know this is a lot more detail than anyone wants to read, but there is a point to all of this. The point is that with all the efforts to automate and streamline operations and allow passengers to ‘manage’ their travel plans, my experiences suggest that it is all a clusterfuck. I don’t like to use coarse language generally, but I need to call it like I see it.

I should have known at that point that this trip, at least the travel part of it, was destined to be aggravating. It got worse. I thought, based on finding our travel plans intact, despite the heading of that email, that we had what we needed. I was wrong. As the date of our travel neared, and I had not received anything from JetBlue, usually they bombard us with emails, I thought I better check. Good thing I did. Turns out my trip was cancelled, though Gary’s was not. How that happened, given that we had the same confirmation code, I will never know.

This required another series of calls and call backs. Finally, I reached a human being. It took 90 minutes on the phone to re-book my flight. I had already tried to do it myself online, the system would not let me. It gave me the message that this was a duplicate reservation!  You gotta love these systems.

Eventually, I was successful – we no longer had the same confirmation code, but Gary and I were on the same flights. Phew! Now the only disappointment was that it became increasingly clear that there would be no baseball. Oh well, we and our friends decided we would keep our plans. We were staying on the beach on Hutchinson Island, and we knew it was lovely there. After a long winter, shut in by Covid, I was especially excited to get away.

Gary and I got to the Albany airport, bringing only carry-on bags, and boarded the plane. We learned that not only was the entertainment system not working, but the wi-fi was out as well. They offered no complementary future service and no rebate or credit. Fortunately, I had lots of reading material. Gary tried to sleep. Other than the ambient tension around mask-wearing, the poor flight attendants had to admonish passengers multiple times, it all went smoothly. I don’t understand why folks make a big deal about the mask, especially when the airlines make the rules crystal clear. And you’re allowed to take it off to eat and drink! I don’t get why it is such a hardship. Gary and I made it to Fort Lauderdale, got the rental car and were relieved to check into our hotel.

The next four days flew by – we visited with friends and family, sat on the beach, tried pickle ball for the first time and ate good meals. Before we knew it, it was time to return home.

On our final night at the hotel, I used the lobby computer to check in for our flight. Since we had picked up a few items to bring back to New York, we had too much to carry on, so I paid $35 to check a bag. As I went through the process of the online check-in, I found Gary had an assigned seat, I did not. I would have to take care of that when I got to the gate. I printed out the boarding passes and went back to the room. Again, this is way more detail than anyone wants, but I share it because it illustrates how complicated travel has become.

We successfully returned the rental car and took the shuttle to the terminal. We already had our boarding passes, but we needed to check the bag. We looked for signage to tell us what to do. We went to one of the many kiosks. I tried to initiate a transaction with my passport – the system kept freezing, nothing happened. We tried another station. Eventually we had success and were able to print out a baggage claim tag. I fumbled with it, trying to figure out how to affix it – not rocket science, but not clear either. We got on a long line to check the bag. There were three JetBlue employees seemingly set up to receive luggage. One was doing something on their phone (perhaps it was work related). Another one needed assistance from the third one so no progress was being made. Only one employee seemed to know what they were doing.

The whole process was stressful. So many steps, so many glitches…and we weren’t through security yet.

Gary and I paid for TSA-Pre to expedite the security process. We approach the security line. The person checks our documents, we walk a little further and another stops us. “Will your bag fit?” she asks Gary.

“Yes, I put it in the overhead compartment on the flight down.”

“Let me measure it.”

“I don’t think that is necessary.”

“Yes, let me check.”

She takes the bag, and it doesn’t fit into their compartment.

Gary and I object. “I’ve taken this bag more times than I can count onto planes. It always fits.” “I’m sorry, we can’t allow you to go ahead. You have to check it.”

“Who is your supervisor?”

She points vaguely behind her.

We make our case to the guy we think she pointed to.

He says, “You have to go to the ticketing area.” We realize we are getting nowhere.

Fortunately, we left enough time for this nonsense. We walk back from whence we came and looked for the correct line to get on – someone tells us we need to use the kiosk. We don’t want to do that – we want to deal with a person. We are directed to another line.

We finally get to the counter and plead our case. Getting nowhere, we give up – we’ll check Gary’s bag. Another $35, but at least we can get through security and go to the gate. Gary watches to make sure they attach the baggage tag and put it on the conveyor belt. We leave, both of us beyond frustrated. We get through security without further incident.

I still need to get my seat assignment. No one is staffing the gate desk. I stand there waiting. Now it is only 30 minutes until the flight. When someone finally comes, they tell me to go sit down – I point out that there are no seats in the gate area (it is crowded – Gary has gone to sit at another as yet unused gate). The employee shrugs and tells me he needs to meet a plane and will be back. I go find Gary at the other gate where there are seats. I sit for ten minutes, stewing. I fire off a few angry tweets, decrying JetBlue’s service. Then I go back to our gate where there are now three JetBlue employees behind the desk, though no one looks up to acknowledge me. I approach and explain that I need a seat assignment and am hoping they can place me near my husband. They tell me they aren’t ready yet. One says, “It will take about ten minutes for the system to boot.” I back up. There are other passengers waiting to be helped.

I wait. Eventually another passenger approaches the podium, and they are helped. I figure now it must be my turn. The agent hands me a boarding pass. I am five rows behind Gary. Whatever, at least I have a seat.

We board. The woman sitting next to Gary is willing to switch with me. It isn’t essential that I sit next to Gary, we have flown by ourselves and separated by the aisle or rows apart, but it is more pleasant to be next to each other. The flight proceeds, this time with working wi-fi.

Looking back at the flights and our experience at the airport, I wonder why I got so easily riled up, why was I so frustrated? The process of changing the reservations was absurd, but the other stuff wasn’t that big of a deal. The additional fees were annoying, the extra steps irritating, but it shouldn’t have gotten me so agitated. I need to get back to meditating! There is something about air travel, and it precedes Covid, that ramps up the stress. There are so many delays, so much ‘nickel and diming’ us, the online systems are not user friendly, and the airports are woefully inadequate for the crowds of travelers, that I start to wonder if the trip is worth it. But I want to go places! I have sites to see! I don’t want to get to a point where I am dissuaded from exploring the world. Maybe I need to adjust my attitude, accept that it will feel like a giant cattle call, no more luxurious than bus travel, and allow that more often than not there will be a delay, and make peace with that. Or, is there some magic to planning air travel to improve the experience that I am unaware of? Suggestions, please!

The beach at Hutchinson Island – worth the hassle?

3 thoughts on “Air Travel: No Better Than a Bus Trip

  1. Hi Linda! I sympathize— I recently came back from a big trip to Jordan and Egypt. It was truly amazing. But my luggage didn’t make it to Jordan until 3 days after my arrival. My flight times were not close together— Lufthansa simply left my bag in Houston… once I just accepted that I would have nothing (except one extra pair of underwear and a scarf), it was a lot easier. When my bag finally arrived, I felt overpacked! I told myself that since I wanted to experience travel again, I just had to suck it up! Multiple COVID tests/lots of paperwork— no fun! But I have to say it was all really worth it— and maybe this time will teach me to bring a change of clothing in my carryon?!

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  2. I think about the concept of customer service and all of the employees we have had over the years in our office and there weren’t any people working for Jet Blue who we encountered who made me think this is someone I would want to hire. Given the number of people we encountered, it makes me think there is something going on there with culture or leadership that is trickling down through the organization. In any case, it did not make me feel good about flying with them again soon.

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  3. Wow wow wow! I had no idea you’d been jerked around repeatedly by the airlines. That’s so crazy but, sadly, not unusual these days. The automation of customer service has really diminished the ability of businesses to address customers’ needs. If you stop by my house every so often, you you’re likely to hear someone screaming “REPRESENTATIVEREPRESENTATIVEREPRESENTATIVEREPRESENTATIVE” into the phone. To no avail of course.

    That said, your photo is lovely as I’m sure your travel companions were. 😉

    We all need a vacation but often need a vacation from the stress of our vacation!

    💙

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