Trip to NASA and Disney – Almost Not – Part 1

Saturday, April 1, 2017

They Left Us At the Airport. No this is NOT an April Fool’s Joke

Mary arrives at our house early, to “watch the chaos” she says. But I’m finished packing 5 minutes before she arrives! Still have to finish closing down the house and get everything into her car, including the kids, and leave the neighbor’s keys with their contractor that couldn’t get in this morning. We’re in the car and on the move at 10:52am, 7 minutes later than scheduled. Not a problem, there’s lots of time still! The flight is at 12:45pm and the airport is less than 30 minutes away with no traffic.

We arrive at the Detroit Metro airport just after 11:15am. I unload the car into the stroller: toddler in the back of the double long stroller, carry on suitcase in the front with the car seat piled upside-down on top. Diaper bag, my laptop bag, and 6-year-old’s little backpack are stowed in the carrier underneath the stroller seats. Two large suitcases on wheels stay on the ground, one for me to pull while I push the stroller, and on for my 6-year-old to pull. I say thank you and good-bye to Mary, and everyone is off!

There’s no line to wait in to check in for Frontier Airlines. I check in between 11:20 and 11:25am. I head up to the counter to drop off the two large suitcases and the car seat and get our boarding passes.

During this process, the woman there says to the shorter woman standing next to her, “I can’t get them seats.” They exchange words about this, then the taller woman addresses me again and says, “When you get to the gate, go up to the counter to get your seat assignments. They’ll do it there.” She gestures to the shorter woman, “She’ll do it there,” she amends.

“Okay,” I respond. “Thank you.”

All is well getting through security. As there’s no line, we go right up to the available TSA agent. Boarding passes are checked, my license is checked, each child’s name is called and each looks up properly in turn. We go into the short line to get through the scanners. Laptop in one bin. My tablet and the 6-year-old’s tablet and my phone in another bin. My shoes and my 6-year-old’s little backpack and the diaper bag in yet another bin. The carry on and the laptop bag just go straight on the conveyer belt. Pick my toddler up out of the stroller, and push it off to one side so it can get taken by a security agent. My older child walks through the metal detector when the security agent on the other side motions it’s okay. Then I put my toddler down and say “Go to Angel.” My youngest walks through the metal detector, no problem. Then I walk through and pick my toddler up again before a runaway situation occurs! I start to take my things off the conveyer belt, such as my shoes, and I look for the stroller. It hasn’t been cleared yet. We follow it to the security testing area, the agent wipes the stroller in multiple places, then runs a test. It passes, and I’m allowed to put my child back in the stroller. We collect the rest of our things off the conveyer belt, put all the electronics back in the appropriate bags, and I restock the stroller. My 6-year-old gets in the front seat and holds the carry on suitcase, so she doesn’t have to walk.

It’s the children’s lunch time, so we quickly look at our options on the terminal map. McDonald’s is the ready choice, and it’s there on the left hand side against the far wall after coming out of security. So we go in, are the second in line, it goes quick. We order. Oldest child gets a mighty chicken nuggets happy meal, with apple juice and apple slices. I order a 10 piece chicken nuggets to share with the toddler, and a milk for the child. The cashier rings up the 10 piece meal, which I didn’t want but didn’t catch until a man puts fries down in front of me.

I tell her, “Oh. No, I only wanted the nuggets.” So she rings up a refund for fries and refund for fountain drink. It’s a couple minutes before 11:50am.

The man packing our food comes up to the register and looks back at his order screen. “So no meal?” he asks the cashier. She confirms.

Once it’s all sorted out, I thank her, we take our food and navigate the long stroller out of the narrow aisled restaurant. I tell the kids we have to wait until we get to the gate to eat.

We roll up to the gate a few minutes later. I push the stroller up towards the counter, and ask a person standing in front of it “Are you waiting?” and point to the people behind the counter.

“Oh. No,” is the response.

So I go right up, and say to the first of the three people who turns and visually acknowledges me, “Excuse me. I was told when I checked in to come up here at the gate to get our seats.” One of the other two people look familiar, I think it’s the shorter woman from the check-in counter.

The woman helping me asks for my tickets. I hand them to her. She hands them back and says, “You don’t have seats on this flight.”

“What do you mean?” I ask confused, not understanding what she’s implying.

She tells me all the seats on the plane have already been assigned. I respond that we are supposed to be on this flight. She says it’s oversold, and explains that since we were the last ones to check in, we don’t get seats, and so we will not be able to get on the flight.

“That’s not an option,” I reply flatly and shake my head slightly, as if by saying otherwise it will change the reality she’s telling me. “We have to be on this flight.”

“How long ago did you check in?” she asks.

I look at my watch. It’s somewhere between 11:55am and noon. “30 minutes ago, 35 minutes ago, somewhere in there.” I answer, amending myself as I do quick clock counting on my analog watch.

She hmms thoughtfully. “Just wait, and we’ll see what we can do,” she replies.

Okay. I trustingly agree and turn away. At some point during this exchange, my 6-year-old got out of the stroller. I push the stroller off and my eldest and I look for seats. I find two, and try to verbally direct my child to them, but another family gets there first. Some other passengers help us spot two seats together, and I send my oldest to grab them before they are taken too. I manage to maneuver the stroller over. I get my toddler out and into the other open seat, then hand out lunches. I sit on the floor.

The gate attendants make an announcement that Frontier is looking for 2 people to give up their seats on this flight in exchange for a $600 travel voucher each, hotel accommodations overnight, and tickets on tomorrow’s flight which leaves at the same time, 12:45pm.

After a while, they start the boarding process. I tell the children to wait here, and head back up to the counter myself. I ready myself to debate and defend what is rightfully ours, like I’d seen my Mother do countless times while I was growing up. I find and address the same woman I spoke with before.

“So what zone are we in?” I ask matter-of-factly, as if asking for the time the plane is supposed to leave.

“You don’t have seats on this flight, Ma’am ,” she answers sternly.

“We have to be on this flight,” I retort.

“You are not getting on this flight,” she states with a tone of finality.

“That’s not an option,” I repeat, raising my voice one notch for emphasis.

“You were the last ones to check in, and our policy is that order of check-in determines seating,” she explains firmly.

“We bought our tickets back in January, before plenty of other people bought their tickets I’m sure,” I respond back at normal voice level but full of sass, as I point out to the general seating area.

“But you don’t have seats on this flight,” she starts to go into repeat.

“I’d like to speak to a manager, please,” I inform her flatly, intentionally with no emotion.

“I _am_ the Gate Manager,” she says with authority, emphasizing the word am.

“Then I’d like to speak to _your_ manager,” I respond matching her tone escalation, emphasis on the word your.

“They are in Denver,” she informs me victoriously, as if that makes them unreachable.

“So call them,” I respond obviously.

I don’t remember her exact statement to this, but the point was she refuses to call and let me talk to them. Instead she finishes by saying, “… someone who is getting irate with me.”

I wasn’t getting irate with her. I wasn’t yelling, no one in the area was looking or staring at us. I wasn’t swearing, because I don’t do that, my Mom raised me not to swear. I wasn’t even angry with her – yet. Plus, the Xanax I had taken for my fear of flying so I could get on this plane flight was working well. I’m not sure I even could have gotten irate with her. So, to prove she’s wrong, I drop my voice back to normal level and reply, “I’m not getting irate.”

“Then sit down and wait,” she orders me like I’m a child and she’s the parent, and points to the chairs across the way from the counter.

I turn away from her and walk to the chairs. I start to sit, then think a better idea is to go sit with my children. So I do so. As I head away, I notice the gate manager woman I was having the verbal exchange with picks up the phone on her side of the counter and makes a call.

The children finish eating and play some. The gate attendants make a long boarding announcement and by the time most people have stopped listening they add, “and we are still looking for 2 volunteers to take tomorrow’s flight in exchange for a $600 travel voucher and a hotel stay for tonight.”

When the gate attendants make their next boarding announcement, it’s for passengers flying with children to board. I think I should take my kids and go get in line, because I’m a passenger flying with children. But it takes too long to clean up lunch and wrangle them back into the stroller. So I wait more and watch the line.

After the boarding announcement for all passengers, all zones, I collect my children and their things and get everything set on the stroller as before. I wait until everyone who wants to get in line gets in the line, and then wait for it to get short. There appears to be two people hanging back, also waiting. One standing near the end of the line, one sitting beside the line on a chair. When it passes her, the one on the chair gets up and gets in line. I steal myself for the confrontation about to occur, and head to the back of the line with the stroller. I want to get in line before the last passenger, but I do not want cut off the man who appears to also have been waiting. As I approach, he graciously motions with his hand for me to go first. “Thank you,” I say, and line up the stroller behind the other passengers.

Right before my children and I get to the front of the line, 3 or 4 other people join the man who was hanging back but waiting on the line, and they all get behind me. I don’t look at them, instead I just push the stroller up to the place where boarding passes get scanned, and turn it diagonally as if doing so makes it easier for me to step forward and offer my tickets, but really it’s to block the lane so no one can get around us. I don’t even move forward, I stay at the back of the stroller, making my stand.

The gate manager confronts me with something akin to “What are you doing?”

“I’m getting on this flight,” I tell her sternly, without raising my voice.

“There aren’t any more seats on this flight,” she reiterates strongly.

“There _are_ seats on this flight,” I respond neutrally, emphasizing the word are.

“Yes, but they are not for you,” she retorts.

“I don’t care,” I respond contrarily.

“If you don’t step aside, I’m going to have to call security,” she threatens.

“Yes, _Please_, call security,” I respond genuinely, strongly emphasizing the word please.

The gate manager looks stunned for a second, then slowly turns and picks up a phone on the wall next to the door that leads to the airplane. She wouldn’t let me escalate to her manager(s), this was the only escalation path I saw so I could make my case.

The gate attendant that was the shorter woman from the check-in desk, holds out her arm towards the people behind me and says, “Please come around this way.” She guides them behind the gate counter to the boarding pass scanner and door to the plane.

The gate attendant says into the phone “I have a non-compliant passenger…”

I just stand there and wait. Hands still on the stroller handle, not moving, not yelling, not even talking. The door is closed behind the last passengers. The gate manager goes behind the counter to wait.

Promptly one security officer, then immediately his partner, appear from somewhere off to my right. They both go up to the counter, and the first starts talking to the gate manager. “She’s trying to get on the plane, but she doesn’t have seats,” the gate manager tells him. I wait patiently for my turn to speak.

A third officer approaches from my left side, behind me, but seeing nothing going on, he turns and walks away. A fourth officer comes up from the ramp to the plane, I can see through the window in the door, but as he’s opening the door the second officer on the scene waves him off. He motions in reply and turns around and goes back to the plane.

Then it’s my turn to speak with the security officers. The gate attendant gets back on the phone that’s on her side of the counter.

“What’s going on, Ma’am?” the second officer asks kindly.

“We bought our tickets for this flight back in January,” I start explaining calmly, “before some of the other people here. We were here at the airport and checked in an hour and twenty minutes to an hour and twenty-five minutes before the flight. We were at the gate well over half an hour before takeoff. When I checked in they said I had to come to the gate to get my seat assignments. When I got here, she said we didn’t have seats, because the flight is oversold. It’s not my fault they oversold the flight. We have people meeting us in Florida. We had our tickets before others. I did everything I’m supposed to according to the times they say. We should be on that plane.”

As I’m explaining my side to the security officer, one of the gate attendants ducks around him and hands me a piece of paper. I take it, and see with a glance that the top says “NOTICE TO PASSENGERS DENIED BOARDING”, but I don’t stop talking to the security officer.

“I see you’re shaking,” he says gently. “Don’t get worked up about this, we’ll get it worked out.”

“Oh the shaking is a different issue,” I assure him. “I’m okay.”

“I’ve seen lots of people trembling at this point,” he tries to soothe me and says a little more.

“As I said,” I inform him in what I’m hoping is a gratitude way, “the shaking is a different issue I have.”

When we’re done, he turns back to the gate attendant and asks in that way police officers have of asking for an explanation about something that’s clearly been done wrong, “Why aren’t they on this flight?”

She pauses her phone conversation to respond to the security officer. As she answers yet again with the same lines of:
• flight is oversold
• we were the last checked in
• it’s policy that seats are assigned in order of check in
I begin skimming the denied boarding notice in my hands. The second section starts “If a flight is oversold”. So I fast read that section. “… no one may be denied boarding against his or her will until airline personnel first ask for volunteers …”. “If there are not enough volunteers, other passengers may be denied boarding … with the following boarding priority…” “1. Passengers who are physically or mentally challenged…” “2. Minors 17 years and under…”

I stop reading, hold up the paper, and call out to the gate manager, “According to the policy you just gave me, we have priority because they are children.” Both security officers look at me, then look back at her.

She turns her head into the phone and says “Now she’s challenging based on priority…”

While she has her phone conversation, the second security officer comes back over to me and asks for my id. “Sure,” I say, and fetch my license out for him. He scans it or takes a picture of it on his phone device, then hands it back to me.

I continue fast reading the denial policy. I get to the part, after “7.” that says “NOTE: Accompanied children have the same priority as the adult passenger who is accompanying them”. At this point I finally realize there’s no way we’re getting on this flight. So I start skimming further down into the policy.

“If she had have selected seats when she bought the tickets,” I hear the gate manager saying to the security officers.

“I did pick seats back in January,” I interrupt. “After I got the email from Orbitz for the tickets.” Now that I’m looking up, I can see she’s off the phone and futzing with what I assume is paperwork.

“Well that’s the problem,” she replies in an informative way, instead of a hostile way for the first time. “Orbitz didn’t buy your seats.”

“I’ve seen that before,” the second security officer comments, and he adds something about it being a real problem with those kinds of sites.

I go back to fast reading. In the third part of the policy, which started with “If you are denied boarding involuntarily, you are entitled… ”, I see 6. which to my eyes says “Another airline is able to place you on flight or flights that are planned to reach your final destination…”

I again stop reading. I point at the spot on the paper, look up, and call to the gate attendant again, “It says right here that you are to put us on a flight with another airline.”

She says matter-of-factly, “We don’t have partnerships with any other airlines here.”

Now I start to get mad. That isn’t possible. There are many other airlines in this terminal alone, and Delta in the other terminal. She didn’t even try to see if there were other flights on other airlines they could put us on.

She comes to the closer side of the counter, though still behind it, as she works on whatever, and says, “I just spoke with Passenger Services (I think she said Services was the second word), and they have authorized a thousand dollar (and some cents amount I didn’t catch) check for you. Take that and go find your own flight on another airline.”

I’m nearly stunned by her callousness. “I want to talk to them,” I respond in a low voice.

“I just hung up the phone,” she replies confidently, implying she will not call them back.
My mind races as I try to process the horrible way this day is turning out and what my next step could be.

“A thousand dollars isn’t going to buy us two tickets on any flight on the same day!” I protest.

“Well, that’s what they’re giving you,” she replies.

“A thousand dollars doesn’t even cover the cost of the plans you’re making us miss,” I add.

A silence ensues.

The security officer steps towards the gate manager and puts his hand on the counter. “Is that cash?” he asks.

“No, it’s a check,” she responds, a little confused.

“But it’s not a voucher or credit,” he tries to confirm. “It’s like cash, she can spend it right away, on something else?”

“Oh, yes,” she nods and agrees. “It’s a check, not a credit.”

“Right,” he says. He turns to me. “So they’re going to give you a check, which you can spend at another airline if you want,” he recaps as he casually steps over to me. “Okay? Is this all settled?”

Not seeing any other recourse, just kind of shrug and shake my head. I don’t agree, but I no longer fight. Not yet anyway, I need more… something. I start fast reading the policy again, the fourth section, “Amount of Denied Boarding Compensation”. It says “Passengers … who are denied boarding involuntarily from an oversold flight are entitled to…” “Over 2 hours arrival delay: 400% of one-way fare (but no more than $1,350)”. I’m sure we paid well over $500 for the two seats on the flight that just left us at this airport, but I don’t remember the exact amount. $1,000 is less than 200%!

The gate manager steps out from behind the counter. “We have to go back to the check-in counter for me to get you the check.”

At this point I don’t have a choice but to just go along. She walks beside and slightly in front of me as I push the stroller. The shorter woman from before also comes, walking a few paces behind me. Clearly I’m being escorted.

At the check-in counter, the shorter woman waits with me while the gate manager goes back to their office. While we’re there, I politely ask the shorter woman, “Can you tell me how much we paid for our tickets?” Hey, she wasn’t the one who had been horrible to me!

“Sure,” she replies amenably. “Last name?”

“German,” I say.

“$520.40,” she tells me after a moment.

“Thank you,” I respond. I do math while we wait for the gate attendant to return, so I have the correct numbers ready. 400% is $2,080 and change. Plus there’s the $95 in bag fees we paid also.

“What about the bag fees? Will they be refunded?” I ask the shorter woman.

I don’t remember her exact response, but she agrees and uses the check-in desk computer to process the refund. “It will take 5 to 7 days for the refund to show up on your card,” she tells me.

“Okay,” I respond.

The gate attendant returns with check in hand. I get ready to make my case for more money. “I called Passenger Services again,” she says brightly, acting like a different person now, “and got them to give you $2,081 and 60 cents,” she finishes as if she’s done me a favor.

“Oh good,” I reply evenly, “that 400% of what we paid, which is what this policy says we should get.”

She asks me for my address so she can fill out the check properly, and we get it squared away and then she hands me two new tickets. “Here are your tickets for tomorrow’s flight.”

My mind is already on the next step. Can I afford seats for today on another airline? Do we call Mary and go back home? Notice they did not offer me an overnight stay at a hotel.

I take the tickets, then have a thought and look at her. “Is this flight oversold?” I ask bluntly.

“Yes,” she replies honestly. “But I’ve already assigned you seats. You’re all checked-in, you will be on that flight.” She’s talking like she expects me to say thank you.

“Where are our bags?” I ask instead.

“They’re on the plane,” she replies.

“What will happen to them in Florida?”

“They will be locked in our baggage office overnight. You can get them tomorrow.”

“Okay, that’s good.” Except, I realize, I can’t leave the airport even if I wanted to. “But I don’t have a car seat now,” I say to her.

“Hang on,” she says, and goes back into the back. A couple minutes later she comes back out carrying two seats, one for little infants – which my toddler is not – and one for larger children. “Frontier has a couple car seats. I didn’t know which would fit,” she says with a half-smile.

“That one,” I say pointing to the only one that will fit my 31 pound, 35 ¾ inch tall, 21 month old. She hands it to me. I take it.

Then we exchange a very awkward “have a nice day or whatever” pleasantry. I hoist the car seat over my shoulder by its straps, and push the stroller away.

Go to Part 2 – Despair to Relief – Child Was Unexpectedly Separated From Parent.
Go to Part 3 – Delta Airlines – It’s Happening Again…

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One Response to Trip to NASA and Disney – Almost Not – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Trip to NASA and Disney – Almost Not – Part 2 | As I Live and Learn