Welcome to my nightmare – Flying the not-so-friendly skies of United

I’m back. In spite of the abuse inflicted upon me by United Airlines.

As you  may remember, I was due to return on July 4th.  This was after Delta Airlines had canceled my previous flights each time that the president of Costa Rica extended the border closure (first April, then May, then June).  While I understand that Delta couldn’t fill daily flights with only Costa Ricans and foreign residents and without tourists, they could, I thought, have reduced the schedule from two daily flights to one or two per week.  However, they didn’t. My backup plan all along was to buy a ticket, if and when necessary, on United, who had continued to fly during the pandemic.

Well, after three and a half months, I needed to return however I could.  On the last Friday in June, CR extended its tourist ban through July.  I expected my Delta flights to  be canceled, but it wasn’t– until four days before departure. I was pleased to see, however, that Delta had moved my reservation over to United, which meant I wouldn’t have to buy another ticket. Go, Delta.

That’s when the real nightmare began. I was booked on United for Sunday, July 5th on two flights: one from Jacksonville to Houston and one from Houston to Costa Rica. The very next day, I got a message that the flights were canceled. I called United to select another date and was told that I couldn’t make any changes, since Delta had made the original reservation and only they could change it. So I called Delta.  That is to say, I tried to call Delta.

A fun fact about Delta: Delta does not outsource its customer service and thus pays higher salaries than do airlines, such as United, who do. So Delta’s response to the current crisis has been to cut a majority of its call center staff.  When you call Delta, you get a friendly message saying that they are too busy to help and you need to call back later. However, if you keep dialing, after the tenth time (or so), you get a different message:  that they cannot help at this moment but will call you back if  you enter your number. Once you leave your number, it can take up to four hours to get a callback.

Well, over the next three days, I changed my United flights through Delta, saw them canceled by United, and called Delta to rebook not once, not twice, but five times. United canceled some of the flights within four hours of confirming them; and, after a while, they stopped notifying passengers. This meant that I had to log on their website every few hours to see if the flights were still on and if I had seats.

I spent night after night not sleeping, calling and waiting for callbacks, and wondering if and when I might be able to leave, until I finally got through to a senior Delta agent who, upon seeing my history, decided to refund my Delta ticket. (Normally they only give credits.) That way, I could make my own reservation and any changes needed. I thanked her and booked and paid for a reservation on United for July 10th.

I soon discovered that those flights were canceled and called back in desperation. The United agent said maybe I’d be able to go in August.  Since I had spent hours searching other options, I knew there was an early morning flight from Houston on July 6th.  This would require leaving Florida Sunday night and spending the night at the Houston Airport Marriott. And it meant buying a one-way ticket from Florida to Houston.  The cost of the flight out of Houston had soared from $950 to $2,000. I guess when you’re the only game in town, you can screw over desperate customers.

Another fun fact: My original ticket with Delta allowed for two bags at 70 pounds each, as did my ticket from Houston to Costa Rica. My new ticket from Florida to Houston, however, allowed only for 50 pounds per bag. So I flew to Houston with 40 extra pounds in two carry-on bags to be repacked once in the hotel in Houston.

Now, we all know that the hotel business is suffering terribly right now. Even so, I was distressed to find that there was no doorman at the Marriott to help me with my numerous bags. Not even a cart. And this particular hotel has a really big, really long lobby. After balancing and dragging everything to the check-in counter, I then had to bring my bags up to my room. It took a couple of trips, but I did it.

Monday morning, I arrived much earlier than I had to at the United terminal. The situation was as follows: Any foreign resident who left CR after March 25th was considered a tourist and could not return during the tourist ban.  I, however, had left on the 22nd and had the legal right to return.

Therefore, when the agent checking me in looked at my documents and told me I would not be allowed to travel, I was prepared. I had the copy of the March 25th law, an email from the American consulate in Costa Rica, and an email from the Costa Rican consulate in Miami. The agent wouldn’t even look at it. She said that only a representative of the consulate, who was in the airport, could clear me. I was in a panic because I feared I would miss the flight, lose all my money and be stranded in Houston. And, I was perplexed as to why the consulate representative wasn’t at the United counter, since this was the only flight in the airport departing for CR and there were a few hundred people checking in. After a while, though, a supervisor who saw I was waiting checked my documents and said I was legal and could check in.  I was so stressed that I had trouble following the instructions at the kiosk. When the agent saw me struggling, I apologized, and she calmly said: “That won’t help you, sir.” Ah, my Zen mistress.

Relieved to the point of tears, I made it through security and sat down in the food court near my departure gate and had a nice breakfast. And, finally, I relaxed.

At boarding time, I walked up to the gate and presented my ticket. That agent said I was not allowed to go to CR and wouldn’t let me board. I almost lost my shit.

I told the agent politely, so as not to give her an excuse to kick me out of line, that I had gone through this downstairs, that I had been determined to be legal, and that my bags were already on the flight. She said that nobody had  told her anything.  She then told me I’d need to talk to the (now famous) consulate rep and then asked me if I knew what he looked like. I told her I didn’t.  I suggested that she use the handy microphone at the desk to call him. She didn’t.  He finally arrived at the gate, identified himself, examined my documents, and cleared me to board. I did my deep breathing exercises while affirming “I-will-not-have-a-stroke-I-will-not-have-a-stroke” as I found my seat.

Oh, and the final blow:  Sitting in first class, with a seat which reclined into a bed, was lovely. However, for the entire four-hour flight, I was served one box of assorted crackers and a little tin of hummus. And water. And coffee, but only when I asked for it. In first class. I didn’t expect the usual fresh-cooked meal, but I’m pretty sure they could have been a bit more generous, especially for the exorbitant prices they charged. Shame on them.

There were more adventures upon arrival, but nothing worth reporting. I am now ensconced in my nice home and an unable by law to leave the premises for any reason for 14 days. I can’t go to the market or the bank or for a walk, even if masked. But I’m kind of glad, since it will probably take that long for me to decompress, catch up on my sleep and recover from the trauma of traveling in the Age of Covid.

I am very happy to sleep in my own bed. And, although I do miss being around loved ones, I am enjoying the silence.

Stay safe.