Saturday, July 31, 2010

Reasons to Hate Air Travel (But in Perth!)

Perth is awfully pretty when you actually get there.

I don't like traveling by air much at all. This is rather unfortunate because I do love international travel, and the days of highly civilized travel via ship are long, long gone. You take the airplane or you don't *go* off the continent. Further, as I am a fairly penniless young squirt, I go via the cheapest ticket possible. This was the standard protocol I followed when I purchased a flight on Orbitz from San Francisco to Sydney, via United Airlines. It was the only direct flight to Sydney offered from SFO - Qantas only flew out of LAX - and I figured that a flight that minimized connections was significantly more likely to be on time. My final destination was Perth - incidentally, the most remote major city in the world - and I bought a flight on Qantas from Sydney to Perth. Seemed simple enough.

The flight over was very, very long, but this was not a suprise. A flight to Sydney lasts at least 14 hours. This is the way of the universe, since the Concorde was scrapped and teleportation devices were decisively given up on. The flight departed at 10:50 PM and I managed to stay up for at least six hours into the thing, in a half-baked attempt at fending off jet-lag. (Well, it actually seems to be working, as I write this). The airplane smelled like a fetching combination of urine and mold, which is about standard for United's unnervingly elderly international fleet.

I was luckily seated next to a very nice family on their way to New Caledonia - the wife was an employee of the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta and had been invited to that curious island to do work with tuberculosis victims. They decided to make a family trip of it. I was sitting in a row with her husband and their eleven year old, and we ended up chatting most of the way there - they'd done some pretty extensive traveling. You might as well befriend the people you're seated next to on deeply unpleasant long haul-flights.

We were twenty minutes off Sydney when the pilot came on the PA system. "The visibility in Sydney has dropped below our standard for landing, so we're diverting to Melbourne." Fabulous.

We ended up sitting on the foggy Melbourne airport tarmac for a good two hours, while the pilot continuously gave us confusing and fairly contradictory updates about the situation. First we were going to turn right around and go back to Sydney. Then we were going to be let off in the Melbourne airport. Then we couldn't go into the airport because the facility didn't have enough staff to get our bags off and ensure that we wouldn't invade Australia with our mysterious foreign diseases. Then we were just going to hang out on the tarmac until we all suffocated or starved, or at least that was what I thought they were trying to convey.

The Perth Old Swan Brewery. Perth is worth it! When you get there! If you get there! (Goddamn antipodal cities. Honestly).

I needed to tell my aunt to anticipate my late arrival, and I also needed to call Qantas and figure out what my Plan B would be. Obviously, I needed to borrow an Australian coded phone, since using my Iphone would cost roughly the gross national GDP of Andorra. I asked a flight attendant. "Oh, we can't do that. Just wait until we're in the airport." (Condescending voice). As it had already been an hour by then with no sign of progress or change, this was not exactly a satisfying answer.

All the attendants on the plane answered the same way, with a distinct lack of interest in helping me find a phone. The concept of of international passengers on a diverted flight perhaps wanting to contact other parties was a totally novel and shocking one to United's flight crew. Great. The attendant also told me that "we always contact Qantas and tell them what's going on." A Qantas employee told me later that day that United has never in recorded history contacted them to inform them of flight delays. I love being point-blank lied to by airlines, don't you?

We finally were allowed into the airport, which meant we had to clear Melbourne's customs. The customs staff were swamped by the denizens of the two diverted United flights, which meant that our bags took an hour to come off the plane, and the lines to get our passports stamped and our stuff inspected for exotic beetles and deadly parasites were glacial. In the baggage line, I did manage to meet a lovely woman from Perth (Juvena), who was returning from a trip to the USA. We decided to join forces in an attempt to somehow get ourselves to Perth in one piece. Salient travel advice: Two complaining people are always better then one.

The United reps we managed to flag down grudgingly told us that the company was only willing to fly us to Sydney. They MIGHT pay for us to go on to Perth from there (since we'd obviously missed our onward flights by then) but they might NOT, depending on how they felt about things. As Melbourne is closer to Perth then Sydney, this was not pleasing news. We were told to head to the United desk. Turns out two harried looking representatives were attending to a 200 person line of deeply pissed off United customers - and the line wasn't exactly moving fast. We calculated that by the time we actually navigated the line, we would have missed all the afternoon flights to Perth anyway.

Qantas, naturally, told us that we had missed our onward flights to Perth and they sure as heck weren't going to honor them. Our only real option was to just buy an onward flight on Qantas to Perth, and hope like hell that United might decide to recompense us. (Unlikely, since United is evil, though I will keep you posted). At this point, I was jet-lagged, hungry, and had spent the entire day shouting at various people. It was about worth 300 bucks to me to just get to Perth and get it over with. So, Juvena and I bit the bullet and bought tickets.

The Qantas city-connect flight was, at least, remarkably pleasant. Juvena told the story of our day to the flight attendant, who felt sorry for me and kept on dosing me with free wine, coffee, and cheese. I sat next to another nice couple who warned me sternly that wild kangaroos and koalas were NOT FOR PETTING YOU WILL REGRET IT VERY MUCH AND PROBABLY LOSE A LIMB OR SOMETHING. (True - look it up sometime). Also, some people jokingly call koalas "drop bears". This makes me awfully happy. Juvena and I decided to get together later in the week, both to hang out and to figure out what to do vis a vis the letter to United.

My aunt met me at the airport, and we had a good dinner at the Perth yacht club, near their home in South Perth. I had Groper fish for dinner. Cue jokes about a fish that engages in inappropriate touching. I managed to sleep at a rational hour - which was definitely made easier by the whole "spending all day shouting at people" thing - and was happy to have actually arrived at my destination, rather then wandered around the Melbourne airport like an increasingly desperate wraith for the next forty odd years.

I've lodged a complaint with Orbitz, and will be sending off a strongly worded letter to United on Monday. We shall see if I see any of my money ever again. Not holding out hope. But at least I am in Perth, which is very pretty, and I have not been eaten by drop-bears (yet). So things are really looking up.

1 comment:

  1. Me thinks you will experience more harried adventures in the coming months that will make you long for United's fine service. Travel safely, and take (reasonable) chances!