This column should have been about the joys of travel. Or how Europeans view America. Or about some of the interesting people I met on my journey. But screw that. Let's talk about United Airlines.
Yesterday I was scheduled to take a 9 ½ hour flight from Rome to Washington DC then take a five-hour flight from DC to Los Angeles. I paid for what United (Which will now be referred to as Greyhound Bus Lines) calls "Economy Plus". For $200 extra you get more leg space and supposedly other extra benefits. Since I was looking at over 14 hours on a plane, it seemed like a good idea.
We got on board in Rome. Everything seemed okay. The leg space was barely negligible. After we took off I tried to turn on the in flight entertainment system. Nothing. A blank screen. I looked around. Everyone else in the "Economy Plus" cabin was pounding on the arm controls, but nothing was coming up. (Not even the cool thing where you track the flight with the little plane on the map). Nothing. Nada. Zip.
Now I know that you're thinking. "What's the big deal? So you don't see a movie." Let me explain something. You try sitting in a lumpy seat for nine and a half hours, not able to sleep because it's a day flight and we're flying from east to west, just staring at the back of the seat in front of you while there's a party going on in first and business class and the people who didn't spend the extra $200 in coach are watching three, four movies and tracking the flight. One of my TV shows was included in the entertainment package and I couldn't see that either.
iPod? Guess what? All those videos and TV shows you've downloaded for moments like this are worthless. They sap your battery in forty-five minutes, so after watching one and a half episodes of "The Office" my iPod went blank. A dead iPod doesn't do you much good when you're 38,000 feet over Greenland.
Everyone was exhausted from their vacations so talk wasn't really that much of an option, especially if the people you meet on line at the lavatory are as pissed as you are. If you didn't bring a book, you were screwed. I read the damn Greyhound air magazine "Hemispheres" cover to cover. (By the way, "Three Great Days In Berlin" seemed about as much fun as eye surgery.) I did the crossword puzzle and both sudokus. I read the sky mall and the emergency evacuation instructions. Only seven and a half hours left.
Now if that wasn't enough, the air conditioning kicks in. It's freezing in the cabin and they can't turn it off. There are no blankets because Greyhound (United) is cutting back. But we're "Economy Plus", isn't a blanket one of our benefits? Noooooo. Everyone is opening the overhead compartments to grab sweaters, jackets, sweatshirts and mittens.
I want you to take a few minutes. Go find a small cramped room, with no music or lights. No audio or visual sitimulation at all. Nothing to distract you. Turn the air conditioning on high, focus your eyes on the door and sit in a wooden chair motionless for about five minutes. I'll bet you won't make it. I did it for seven hours.
They apologized to us over the PA and gave us vouchers to be redeemed for unspecified rewards at the United (Whoops! Greyhound) website.
Now I won't bore you with the details about our last-second aborted landing and the tornado at the airport in DC. Or the four-hour delay. Or losing my seat reservation in the computer. That stuff happens. You can't do anything about it. That's travel.
Four hours behind schedule we finally boarded our plane to LA. While waiting, some of the people overheard my discussion with someone else who was on the Rome flight. Everyone agreed that what we went through really sucked.
We board, taxied to the long line of planes waiting to take off and then the captain announces we're going to have to shut down the engine because another fierce storm is about to hit. Again, there's nothing we can do but sit back and watch the monsoon-like rains pour down. If you looked out the window, it seemed like when you drive through a car wash, it was that heavy. After another hour, we took off. I leaned back; turned on my in flight entertainment system and guess what? No picture. It was déjà vu. Everybody around us started banging on their consoles trying to get a picture. Again, nothing. Nada. Zip.
Now the flight from DC to LA should be about four and a half hours, but because of the weather we we're heading north to go around the storms, adding an extra hour of flying time. Everybody in "Economy Plus" is complaining to the flight attendant that their TV consoles aren't working. It was then that I discovered I WAS ON THE SAME DAMM PLANE I took from Rome. The plane was sitting at the gate for four hours and nobody felt the need to fixed the broken system. To make matters worse, the guy in front of me leans back and his seat breaks, giving me half the space I should have had for my "Economy Plus" $200 legroom.
You'd think that Greyhound would be a little generous to us who had been waiting patiently for the flight to take off. Nope. They sold us soggy sandwiches for five bucks and what they laughingly called a cobb salad for seven. I watched someone across the aisle take two bites, and then push it away in disgust. Hey, we're "Economy Plus!" Where are our benefits? No freebies. No movies. No free drinks. Nada. Nothing. Zip.
Now I've got another 5 ½ hours of sitting cramped with a dead iPod and nothing else to divert my attention. I've already read "Hemispheres" and done the crossword puzzle. And then of course, the air conditioning kicks in again. It's freezing. All the blankets had been looted by the people in the regular coach section. Out come the jackets, ski parkas and thermal underwear. There's another party going on in first and business class but everyone in "Economy Plus" is miserable.
Since the delay had now turned our late afternooner into a night flight, most people went to sleep. I nodded off for about an hour, but it's a little hard to get comfortable with a sales rep from Westinghouse's head almost in your lap. However, they did pass out the vouchers and I got my second one of the day. In total, a 24 and a half hour trip.
Now I'm not blaming the in-flight crew, they were very nice and sympathetic. I am blaming the maintenance crews in Rome and Washington. They're either lazy or incompetent. I blame Greyhound (United) management for laying off essential personnel and for cutting corners wherever they can save a buck. I also blame George Bush, just because it makes me feel better and all the people who were partying in first class and business were probably republicans.
This morning I tried to claim my "Compensation" online from Greyhound. It took me two frustrating hours of trying to decipher their complicated instructions and waiting on hold to speak with their customer services representative who resides in Calcutta. I had my choice of $25, 10% off my next flight or 5,000 sky miles. Since I'm planning never to fly Greyhound again, I took the cash.
Oh, by the way, Italy was fantastico! If you ever have the chance to go to Venice, by all means do it. Just don't eat at restaurants on the Grand Canal that overlook the Rialto Bridge. Dinner for two costs roughly the same as Lexus. Do go. But fly a reliable European airline like Alitalia or British Air. Steer clear from Greyhound. And bring a book.
Better catch Alitalia before it either goes under or becomes part of Air France.