Airline horror stories: Locals tell of being treated poorly, rudely


You! Yes, you! Stand up! No, sit down. Here … no, not there, HERE! We’ve got our eye on you. You’re guilty of …something. We’re not sure what yet. But when we do we’ll let you know. We have no idea when that will be, of course. But just sit tight and don’t complain about it, because if you don’t, we’ll give you something to complain about.

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Is this the plot of the next hot new dystopian teen movie series? A delightfully naughty S&M scenario?

Nope. Just a distressingly normal day of air travel. We’ve all seen United Airlines, Air Canada and other carriers frantically try to spin bad customer service decisions like calling the cops to drag a seated passenger, bloody and with broken teeth, off the plane to bumping a 10-year-old from his family’s vacation flight.

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Now other travelers, including some local ones, are coming forward with their own horror stories of their shoddy treatment from major carriers. Whether the problems stemmed from things that airlines don’t control, like weather, or things they very much do control, like overbooked flights, the ticked-off travelers say that it’s not that the unexpected occurs, but how the airlines and their employees didn’t treat them like valued customers, or even like humans. Instead, they were treated like potential troublemakers — ones paying for that privilege, no less.

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Local travelers say that airlines are following strict guidelines and policies, even those written into the fine print, at the expense of more humane solutions that could have been made to accommodate paying customers. For instance, it’s been suggested that instead of forcing a doctor off a United flight to accommodate airline personnel, they could have rented a car for those employees to drive the three or four hours to their destination and left the guy, unbloodied, in the seat he paid for.

“It’s fine to have a list of the ‘top risks’ or the ‘strategic risks,’ but what actually causes harm or even disaster to an organization is more often than not the result of a bad decision,” writes Norman Marks in Internal Auditor magazine. “Perhaps there have been a series of bad decisions, where people didn’t think through well enough what might or might not happen.”

In other words, “They don’t care! And it would be such good PR if they went back to caring!” says Duree’ Ross, who knows from good PR as the president of South Florida PR agency Duree’ and Company, representing Palm Beach County businesses like Brio restaurant in CityPlace and Bravo! in Jupiter’s Harbourside Place.

Just this week, she and her family endured a disastrous flight home from a family ski trip in Colorado that was fouled by bad weather but made worse by non-communication, missed connections and a lot of hurry up and wait that could have been remedied by someone just talking to them.

“I totally understand (issues) but what happened following (the issues) was awful,” says Ross, who got home a whole day late and on a different airline after her family’s original United Airlines flight from Colorado was diverted from Houston to Austin because of weather, but then sat on the tarmac for three hours to be assigned a gate where the plane could refuel.

By the time they got back to Houston, the Ross family and all of the other passengers had missed their connections, and the airline was vague on when they’d be able to book a new connection or get their luggage released. Her father, back at home, called airline customer service, “which was an awful experience, but he got us rebooked (on American). I understand the Mother Nature issue but everything else was handled very poorly.”

Ever the PR maven, Ross recounted the entire ordeal on Twitter, where someone from United finally responded: “We’re disappointed to hear this. Were you able to reach your destination yesterday?”

“No. We’ve only just landed 24 hours later,” Ross tweeted back. “On another airline.”

Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport figured prominently in another high-flying horror, this one told by Riviera Shores’ Jimmy Barron. Similar to the case of the doctor on the recent United flight, the unnamed airline Barron was flying interpreted his displeasure at flight changes as hostility.

A few years ago, he and his girlfriend got something to eat during a stopover from their Las Vegas vacation back home to Palm Beach International. “To our knowledge, nothing ever was said about (the flight) being at a different gate,” but after traveling to the other side of the airport, “the gates had been changed to one that was back on the other side of the place.”

After “literally running all across the airport” to find a huge line at their new gate, Barron and his girlfriend were told they’d have to be issued new boarding passes, which showed that they were now in different seats separate from each other on the flight, which airline employees admitted had been overbooked.

“It was totally packed, but some flight attendant starts yelling at everyone, saying we all need to find our seats because we’re running behind. Mine was all the way on the very last row, which is OK, because I was glad to have a seat,” he says.

More like, he kind of had a seat. As Barron was finally relaxing, “here comes that same flight attendant accusing me of being in the wrong seat. My boarding pass had been changed, so I gave her (the new one) and she said ‘Where did you get this?’ in this tone of voice. I got in my seat, and I was so pissed off, so when the person comes around to ask if I want something to drink, I said ‘No thanks.’”

Although Barron swears he was emphatic but polite, “the next thing I know, here comes that same flight attendant with an air marshal, saying ‘Do you need to speak to me about something?’ Things like this upset me, but I knew better. When we were deplaning, and the crew says goodbye, I didn’t say a word. They were looking at me, so accusatory, and the pilot muttered something like ‘There’s the criminal.’”

Another West Palm Beach resident, a teacher escorting teenage students on an international trip, was straight-up accused of being a criminal by airport security when she landed in Auckland, New Zealand.

“They singled me out and questioned me - in front of my students - (on) whether or not I was a prostitute,” says the teacher, who is African-American, but was informed later by their guide that she’d been apparently mistaken for one of several prostitutes who had been “coming in from non-specific African countries when there are big conventions in town or something. I’ve decided (years later) to be flattered by this ridiculous lapse in observation skills. Albeit, yeah, I’m rather resentful the word of a circle of teenage boys was deemed more valid than my own.”

Comedian Jenn Hellman, who lives in North Palm Beach, was also suspected of … unladylike behavior by an airline crew member, this time a flight attendant, who took the word of another passenger over her. Apparently, as their flight sat on the tarmac “for almost an hour waiting to take off … I moved around to lay down and rest my head in my boyfriend’s lap,” she says. “I accidentally pushed a little on the seat in front of him as I was getting comfortable and the person in that seat got up, started to yell at us, cocked his fist and then threatened to take it outside. I was horrified.”

But it didn’t end there. Hellman recalls that “the one flight attendant who was actually close by did nothing and when another came to address the situation, they accused me of trying to have intimate relations with my boyfriend on the plane. To diffuse the situation they moved us to the last row of the plane and had the people in the last row move to our seats. It was humiliating, offensive and clear that staff was not trained to handle a hostile situation. They didn’t even hear our side.”

In all of these situations, the travelers say, the airline or airport staff could have eased tensions with some basic courtesy, like pulling the teacher aside to ask her for identification and the purpose of her trip before asking if she were part of an international prostitution ring, or not treating Barron like a jerk for reacting to having his seat changed twice. None of them were expecting special treatment, they say. Just to be treated like customers who’d paid to be there, and were just trying to get home.

“They could have been nicer about it,” Barron says. “It was totally uncalled for. They could have handled the whole situation better.”



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