The trouble with airlines
We flew with American Airlines, British Airways, and Iberia. Iberia was the clear winner here. Fifteen years ago, when I flew on Iberia, I was yelled at by a flight attendant for using my portable CD player mid-flight. I was told the laser could somehow interfere with the aircraft’s navigational equipment – so I wasn’t expecting much. Both planes were awesome, comfortable, and the entertainment systems were well designed and responded quickly. There were, however, some anxious moments when departing Madrid. As we headed north west over the mountains, the aircraft rolled around in a manner to which I’m not accustomed. This was the only time I remember literally being held in my seat by my seatbelt and not gravity. The passengers were stunned into silence. And for about twenty seconds, even babies stopped crying. We were sat over the wing, and from what I understand, this is the section of the aircraft with the smoothest ride. I can’t imagine how that pitching, yawing, and rolling felt to passengers in the tail section. It only lasted about a minute, and was probably a result of high temperatures, low altitude, change in altitude, low aircraft speed (we were departing so this was normal), and mountain related turbulence.
Both Fiona and I had experiences with American Airlines that fell way short of our expectations. For me, it was their inability for them to show any compassion to Desmond’s illness before we departed. They would waive the change fee for the flight, but still insisted on $6,404 (they waived the change fee, so generously reduced from $7,004) for us to fly the next day. The rep was rude, cutting me off constantly, and desperately tried to hang up on me, and consistently refused to help me find alternatives. It took several attempts to talk to the rep’s supervisor, who, eventually, helped me find an alternative I could barely afford. We would be to pay an extra $2,020 for a one-way flight to Manchester, but then we’d obliterate our miles to come back. This option left us in Spain an extra three days (because one can never use miles when one really needs them) and we would have been routed from Malaga to Boston via Helsinki (on Finnair), Hamburg (airline uncertain) and Berlin (on Air Berlin). It felt like she was palming us off onto other airlines. Des felt better and we made the flight. I was reminded by the rep that I should have purchased a flexible ticket. The airlines, all of them, know that the cost of flexible tickets are prohibitive for casual flyers. Insurance would have refunded the trip for us, but then we wouldn’t have had the trip.
American Airlines also dropped the ball when we checked-in at Malaga. Desmond and I checked-in without a problem, but the gate agent told us there was a problem with Fiona’s ticket – a problem with no apparent cause, and the only resolution was for American Airlines to reissue her ticket. This seems simple enough, but it took an hour of pleading from Fiona and Jose, our Iberia check-in agent, for AA to re-issue the ticket. The phone number that American Airlines provided Iberia was never answered, and Fiona had to call AA using her rewards number. The AA rep on the phone initially refused to speak to the check-in agent, just telling Fiona that there was “not a problem on our end, just tell them to check you in.” Of course, there was a f**king problem. Finally, and with much reluctance, the AA rep took Fiona out of the conversation and spoke with the gate agent directly. We could only hear one side of the discussion. Jose was a saint, and I do worry that any other agent wouldn’t have worked as hard as he did.
You have a passenger here, she is stranded in Spain. She is your customer but I am working hard to get her home and I can only fix this with your help. It’s not her fault. I can’t check her in because the ticket you gave her isn’t valid. You need to re-issue the ticket.
From our side of the conversation, it sounded like AA gave Jose ninety-nine reasons why they shouldn’t have to re-issue Fiona’s ticket – a process that would take a mere fifteen seconds. In the end, they re-issued the ticket, just like Jose told them an hour earlier.
Thank God we arrived at the airport three hours early because Des wanted to go to the Iberia lounge.
British Airways has its own problems. The flights to Berlin from Manchester for Des and me were anything but cheap, and I still had to pay for a simple glass of water. I think that’s pretty dire. However, I’ll always have a soft spot for British Airways and give them the benefit of the doubt given how they were flexible and bent fare rules to make it possible for me to visit my mum during her last year.
This is the current state of air travel. We don’t really have any choice. American Airlines flies to the places we need and they don’t physically abuse us in our seat. So that’s the low bar of airline travel and customer satisfaction. We’re didn’t die en route and we’re not physically assaulted.
It’s been a long time since I’ve flown from Madrid, maybe ten years. But in the years since, a new terminal was constructed to handle all the OneWorld flights (Iberia, British Airways, American Airlines, Qatar etc). It’s spectacularly big – it feels like you are outside. Think of one of those massive train stations you see in the 1930’s black and white films with the big arching airy ceilings – St. Pancras or Paddington in London are good examples. The terminal goes on forever, it is the biggest terminal I have been in.
The baggage claim is something else – imagine the love child of a Fisher-Price toy and 1970’s brutalist architecture. The drab concrete walls contrasted with industrial yellow supports, and weird air vents (I assume that’s what they are) that protrude over the carousels – Dr. Who from the Tom Baker era. I’ve never been anywhere quite like it.
And finally, the ratings.
Des loved the “Dali” lounge in Madrid. For Fiona and I, it had the most selection of food and booze. They had ice cream, sushi, fish pizza (I tried it not knowing it was fish pizza and nearly threw up in my mouth), Spanish Omelette, and great view of the apron – which is important for a seven-year-old.
I think, for me, it was between Madrid and Manchester. Manchester didn’t have such a great selection, but the airport was crazy busy and the lounge was a rescue. So here they are, the final ratings.
1: Dali VIP Sala, Madrid, Terminal 4 South
2: VIP Sala, Malaga international airport.
3: Terraces Lounge, Manchester International Airport
4: Admiral’s Club Lounge, Logan Airport, Boston
5: Galleries Lounge, Terminal 5 North, London Heathrow
6: Admiral’s Club Lounge, Terminal A East, Philadelphia.