Friday, December 3, 2010

Stranded in Seattle: A Brief Travel Interlude (And Why Trip Insurance Is Only Useful When You Didn't Buy It)

My trip had begun uneventfully enough with a pleasant breakfast flight to Seattle (trading, in the process, the dreary, wet late fall of east coast Washington for the dreary, wet late fall of west coast Washington), a trip to the Seattle Red Carpet Club, and then a glass of champagne onboard my connecting flight to Tokyo-Narita airport.

That's when things went south, and not, unfortunately, with me onboard and in the air.  "You may have noticed the plane is fairly warm," the flight attendant announced.  (Actually, after opening my air vent, it had seemed fine for once.)  "We're having some problems with our air conditioning, and we're going to have to have everyone leave the plane while we try to fix it."


On the way to the Red Carpet Club, I was already on the phone with first United--getting "protected" onto the next day's flights and investigating alternative routings (none available, unfortunately, other than an awful, knee-breaking economy-class booking through Vancouver and Taipei) and trying to clean up the mess made of my hotel reservations.  E-mails off to several folks in Thailand to give them heads-up that I might be delayed.

Monitoring (a far more reliable indicator of flight status than the normal airline web site), I saw flight 875 pick up a 30 minute delay, then 45... then saw it marked "DECISION," meaning that they'd set a time at which the airline would decided whether or not to fly the plane at all.  Ugh.

While I was on the phone with the United 1K international reservations desk (thank goodness for 1K--no wait on hold, and the agents I spoke with were able to give Anglo names like "Jason" without having to mute the phone and snicker, struggling to maintain a poker face from a cubicle in Bangalore) trying to nail down my flight options, I saw the flight go from "decision" to "departs 3:30pm"--only two hours late, but potentially tough on my connection in Tokyo, which was scheduled right at two hours.

Back at the gate, the airline announced they were just waiting for the crew to board, and we'd be on our way.  (Argh!)  The crew finally showed up--why they hadn't just disappeared to the lounge or employee ready room, I'm not sure--but then we got more bad news: the plane's auxiliary power unit (APU) was busted.  Among other things, the APU provides power for onboard systems should one of the plane's main engines fail.  Although Boeing, the plane's manufacturer, was just up the street a bit, we had to instead fly to San Francisco, where United has a maintenance base and where we'd switch planes for one with a functional APU.  (For those wondering, it's safe to fly non-ETOPS routes without an APU--hence the plan to fly to SFO--it's just when you get out over the ocean and more than 60 minutes from any airstrip that you need the insurance.)


But the plane had been loaded with enough fuel to get us to Tokyo, which would put us way overweight for landing in San Francisco.  Obviously, United didn't want to circle SFO and burn or dump fuel, wasting nearly 80,000 pounds of black gold.  Worse, after some checking, apparently Seattle didn't have the necessary tanker pumps to offload fuel safely on the ground, so after a few more minutes, the flight cancelled.  (I'd already seen on that the flight had gone to a scheduled departure time of 10:30am by then--meaning the next morning.  Sigh.)  Off to the Red Carpet Club to pick up hotel and meal vouchers for the night, and to debate whether or not to have the airline simply send me home, declare a "trip in vain," and refund me the cost of the ticket.

The SeaTac Marriott is a decent enough hotel, though I had to pay for internet access--too bad United didn't put me up at the Hilton, where I've got mid-tier status.  Speaking of Hilton, I had to make a new hotel reservation at the Bangkok Hilton, as thanks to the lost day, my plans to fly down to Phuket and stay at the Hilton there, do some birding in the mangrove forests and jungle and along the coast in the land where The Man With the Golden Gun was filmed were now toast.  Not getting to bird in Phuket was disappointing, but the whole point of my trip was dental work (making many of the expenses partially or wholly tax deductible to boot)--fortunately, I was able to reschedule my dental visits before leaving Seattle.

This is where trip insurance would have come in handy.  My non-refundable hotel fares could have been reimbursed, as could my Thai Air flight to Phuket which I'd now undoubtably miss (neither all that pricey, but still frustrating to be out).  Of course, had I spent the $100 or so in insurance, you can bet nothing would have gone wrong on my trip in the least...

I'd have liked to have spent the afternoon and evening exploring Seattle itself--a city I've been to previously only in the form of its main airport.  However, the importance of tying up loose ends for my trip (and dealing with a 9-hour time difference in the process) outweighed my sightseeing needs, and the weather in Seattle coupled with the fact I left my jacket at home not expecting to need it (Thailand is sunny and 80-90 degrees this time of year) kept me holed up at the Marriott.

Finally, the next morning, everything was ready to go, with two UA 875 flights now scheduled to operate from SEA-NRT.  Ours would go out first, at 10:30am, with the regularly-scheduled flight to follow at 1:30pm.    The only loose end remaining was my flight to Bangkok, for which I'd lost my confirmed business class seat due to the rescheduled flights and was now waitlisted (with the check-in agent very discouraging about my chances: "It's completely full.")  I won't bore you with the intricate inner mechanisms of how upgrades work on United, other than to say that between my top-tier status (1K) and the fact my rebooked flight to Bangkok was artificially showing now as being "full fare" (instead of discount) economy, I should stand a decent chance of being at the top of the list, should a business seat open up.  Well, that's to find out in Tokyo, 10 1/2 hours away once we're airborne.

Onward to the land of Siam...

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