A TRIP THROUGH HELL

A MODERN FLYING TRAGEDY IN FOUR ACTS

ACT I: CANCELED BRITISH AIRWAYS FLIGHT

We got to the airport on Sunday before 18:00 for a delayed flight which was to leave at 22:30 as you saw above instead of 19:30. Then we were told that our agent CheapAair had dropped the ball (without telling us!) and BA had canceled our reservations (also without telling us!?). You can imagine our reaction to such a surprise. 

I spent about half an hour arguing with the airline staff and the airport manager. (All of whom were very nice and trying to be helpful, BTW).

When I tried to buy a new ticket BA would not sell it to us even though there were seats available!? Because some arbitrary deadline by 18:00 had passed.

After checking out alternatives on my laptop at the airport and finding out that there weren’t any, I decided that the best thing was for us to return home and for me to start all over and make new reservations. Which is what I have now done. So we are not to leave on Monday morning and fly to London via Houston.

ACT II: A 6-HR FLIGHT FROM PHOENIX TO HOUSTON

DIVERTED TO AUSTIN

Everything started great on Monday morning. We got to the airport in plenty of time. The checkin went lickety-split. The flight was full but we had comfortable seats.

We had started to descend toward Houston for an on-time arrival when captain announced that he will have to go into a holding pattern for 20-30 min because of severe thunderstorms around the airport. 

Still good for us, I thought. We had a 1.5hr connection.

After about 20 mins, the captain announced that more thunderstorms rolled in and that we would be diverted to the Austin airport for refueling. The length of this delay was yet to be determined.

There was still a chance we might make our flight, we thought, if the outbound flights were also delayed by thunderstorms.

Indeed, I got a text message from United when we landed in Austin that our London flight would be also delayed, but only by about half an hour.

At this point I realized we were screwed again. But I held out faint hope for the sake of my wife who does not handle disappointments very well. And she already had a nasty surprise the night before.

We landed in Houston around 18:30. Which means that our flight from Phoenix lasted over six hours. When I turned on the Wi-Fi I saw, of course, that our flight to London had already departed. It was 55 minutes late but it left while we were still on the ground in Austin.

CHAOS AT HOUSTON AIRPORT

The scene at the customer service counter in Houston was absolute chaos. Hundreds of people were lined up to have their flights rebooked. Take a look at the video I took after standing in line for about an hour. 

I must say though that the staff of the United airlines we’re trying their best to accommodate everyone. The passengers were irritable and impatient but there was no violence and no shouting. Everybody was quite civilized under the difficult circumstances.

Eventually, my turn came up and I talked to several good agents as well as the manager of the station. In particular I wanna salute a black agent called Bryan and his manager Liam.

They booked us on The only available flight to London tomorrow, Tuesday, at 8:30 PM. They managed to give us the last two seats and promised an upgrade in case of some no-shows.

They also gave us food vouchers and booked us at an airport hotel. We had a very expensive and very bad dinner at the airport, but beggars can’t be choosers. We got to the hotel about 10:30pm dead tired and very ready for bed.

Keep your fingers crossed for us that we make our flight tonight for London and it does takeoff. Bye for now.

ACT III – AIR SERBIA/LONDON HEATHROW

After a nightmarish 48-hr trip from Phoenix to Houston and on to London, we spent a couple of days in badly needed respite with our family in London. The last leg of the trip from London to Belgrade should have been a cinch. An easy-peasy 2.5 hr flight. Thanks to Air Serbia, it was a continuation of the nightmare.

First, everything with Air Serbia is a la carte. Only the air you breathe inside the cabin is free, For now….

When I checked us in online, the airline offered to “upgrade” our seats (I presumed to give us more legroom) for £9 ($11) each. Air Serbia also charged us £39 ($47) for each of our two checked bags. 

When we got to the airport, a female agent asked me to put our handbags on the weight scales. 

“What?” I said looking at her nonplussed. “You want to weigh our hand baggage?”  

(I have traveled about 3 million miles around the world and this was the first time ever in over 50 years that someone has asked me to weigh my hand bag).

“Yes,” she replied. “We have a weight limit of 8kg (17.6 lb) for hand baggage.”

When I placed the bag on the scales, she looked disapprovingly. “Oh, no. It’s 11.3kg.”

“So what do we do now?”

“You are going to have to take the stuff out.”

“I am going to have to do what?” 

“I am sorry, but we can’t allow hand baggage of over 8kg.”

I was shocked. “And what am I supposed to do with the 3kg of my personal belongings?” I asked. “Donate it to Air Serbia? Or to London Heathrow?”

“Just do it, Sir. I am being polite,” she said. 

“What if I paid for the extra 3kg weight in our hand bags?” I asked.

“Sorry, Sir, 8kg is the limit.”

Then she called the next passenger. “You can come back when you’ve done it,“ she told me.

I turned back and looked at my wife. She had a very worried look on her face. “What’s happening?” she asked. I explained. 

Luckily we had a third bag which was only about a third full since we left some gifts with our London family. So my wife and I started to rummage through our two handbags to dig out about 3kg worth of stuff and shoved it into that third bag. Which we then added to our checked baggage.

“That will be £52 ($115),” the Air Serbia agent said.

All and all, we spent almost an hour checking in. AFTER we had already checked in online.

The next disappointment was when we got to our “upgrade” seats. They were so cramped that I had to stick both of my knees diagonally so I would not hit the back of the seat in front of me. I remained that way for the duration of the flight. So much for “extra legroom” which we bought.

As if adding insult to injury, the flight was also nearly an hour late departing. The captain blamed “heavy traffic over Bavaria” (southern Germany) for it. 

Whatever. When we got to Belgrade we were both so dead tired as if we had made a trip around the world. 

Excluding the two days we spent in London, the trip lasted about 64 hours (2 days and 16 hrs). That’s close to a record trip around the world on commercial airlines which an Etihad Air executive flew in 2018 (see the map).

Bottom line? We will never again fly to British Airways. We will never again use CheapoAir. We will never again have anything to do with Air Serbia.  And we’ve paid for all these bad experiences not just in dollars and pounds Stirling, but more importantly I frayed nerves.

As a friend of mine recently said, “perhaps the time has come to start traveling again by ship.” 

PS: BTW I see that we are not alone at casting stones at Air Serbia. The TrustPilot website is showing that 81% of Air Serbia passenger reviews rate the airline as “BAD”.

ACT IV – SECURITY CHECKPOINTS: INCONSISTENCIES AT SKY HARBOR

As my friends and family know, I have traveled about 3 million miles around the world. So I have seen my fair share of airport security procedures. And the inconsistencies which mitigate the whole purpose of having such a system in place. 

You know the the general drill by now: shoes off, belts off, jackets off, liquids out, laptop out, but also out with probably anything with a battery just to be on the safe side.

Well, when my wife and I traveled recently from Phoenix to Savannah, Georgia via Dallas, Texas, the TSA people in Phoenix let us through with our shoes on and without having to remove anything from our handbags. That was in Phoenix Sky Harbor Terminal 4. 

But when we traveled some 10 days later from the same airport’s Terminal 3 to Houston, it was back to the whole TSA enchilada – shoes, laptops, the works.

“Did you know that last week, at Terminal 4, I did not have to do any of that?” I asked the TSA guy.

“Well, that was Terminal 4, This is Terminal 3.”

In other words, the whole airport security thing comes down to individual interpretation. The more zealous or capricious the TSA officer, the more hassle for the traveler – without any discernible extra security benefit. 

Our experience at Heathrow on July 1 was another case in point. 

SECURITY CHECKPOINTS: THE NAZIS OF HEATHROW

After having been thoroughly abused by the Air Serbia checkin agents at the Heathrow Terminal 4 (see another post about that), we had to face the “Nazis of Heathrow” – the security staff with whom I had bad experiences before. 

Once I was just in transit there from Germany to India some years ago, and a Heathrow security agent told me I could take only one handbag with me aboard the aircraft. Never mind that Britain was back then a member of the EU and that the same baggage rules should have applied to London as to Munich. 

“What?” I said in shock. “I am just changing planes here. How do you suppose I got to London from Munich with two handbags?”

“Sorry, Sir, but that’s the rule,” the Indian-sounding chap said.

“Well, it’s a stupid rule and I will not stand for it.”

With that, I just walked past the agent and boarded the flight with my two handbags.

Another time more recently, the Heathrow security Nazis harassed my wife because she did not have some of her makeup and other cosmetics in a plastic bag.  Again, we were just transiting through Heathrow, having been vetted by other security agents in the US.

Back to July 1, we had to do the whole drill again – shoes off, laptops out… etc.

But that was not enough. My handbag was picked out for special treatment. First a woman, then a man, opened it and checked absolutely everything. They even made me open my case for sunglasses, and remove the cover from my iPhone and external computer disk. 

They must have spent 15 minutes looking for something that was not there. My wife and other passengers just shook their heads in disbelief.

Only at Heathrow.

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