An Open Letter to Continental Airlines

Big confession here from the lady who gets paid to travel the world: I arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport last Sunday morning, en route to cover the Antigua charter yacht show, and realized I’d forgotten my passport.

First time in 10 years. Felt like an absolute idiot.

My first move was to call my husband, who had just dropped me off. Luckily, I had arrived two hours before my flight, but he would still have to race  home and back. Our house is 45 minutes from the airport, which means 90 minutes total driving time. That would put me 30 minutes before my international flight’s takeoff, by which time the Continental Airlines check-in counter would be closed.

My next move, then, was to talk with the Continental representative wearing a tie and appearing to be in charge. It turns out his name was Carlos, and he was quick to tell me that he could not help me until I had my passport in hand. I tried to explain (politely, with a smile and an acknowledgment of my own stupidity) that by the time I actually had my passport, it would be too late for him to help me. I needed to get things in motion sooner if I was going to thread the thinnest of timing needles.

Carlos again told me he could be of no help. I thanked him, still smiling (even though he was not smiling back), and asked him for the name of the supervisor on duty. He told me that he was the supervisor, then looked over my shoulder and asked the person behind me how he might help them.

So much for Carlos.

I next planted myself on the cold floor outside the check-in area and whipped out my cell phone and reporter’s notebook. I called Continental’s 800 number, punched in my frequent flyer number (which should have alerted them to the fact that I am a very good customer), and asked the woman on the other end of the line to help me figure out Plan B. She told me to go find the supervisor on duty, which gave me a chuckle. I told the Continental rep on the phone that I would happily take a flight later that afternoon, knowing full well that charges would apply. I had my credit card ready. She told me that the next scheduled Continental flight to Antigua was in six days, and that her database didn’t show any other options on other airlines that might help me today.

Deep breaths, I thought, still freezing my butt on the floor and watching Carlos help all the passengers except for me. I pulled out my laptop and searched American Airlines, which I knew from prior experience flew into San Juan, Puerto Rico, with connections to Antigua. I called the American Airlines customer service rep, who also was of no help.

Kayak.com proved my saving grace in locating a Newark-to-San Juan flight later that day on Jet Blue, and thank goodness I’d traveled to the Caribbean enough to know that the local airline Liat had hopper flights from San Juan to Antigua. My forgetfulness would cost me a solid $550 in new, one-way tickets, but at least I finally had Plan B so that I would make it to my work at the boat show on time.

My wonderful husband was flooring the accelerator in our Volvo at that moment, with about 40 minutes left before my original flight’s takeoff. At that point, I started to lurk in front of the check-in counter and make small talk with the guys wearing overalls and Continental nametags. I was doing my best to keep smiling, and they reciprocated with kindness and offers to do what they could to help me. One of them got on his radio and asked Carlos to come over.

At that point, Carlos, who was still not smiling, asked for my boarding pass (which I’d printed out at home the night before). He took it to the Continental counter without a word as to why. I stood waiting cluelessly, wondering if he was canceling my seat altogether.

A few minutes later, he returned with a checked-in tag for my bag and told me that the minute my husband arrived with my passport, I should find him.

I thanked the overalls crowd and Carlos alike, met my fantastically lead-footed husband outside a few minutes later, and ran with my bags in tow to find Carlos, who had moved to another part of the terminal. He asked a Continental employee to get my bag onto the carrier immediately and told me to run to security, which I did, before also running the entire length of the C concourse at full triathlon speed to get to my gate just as my row was being called.

In the end, both my bag and I made it to Antigua in time for the boat show, and I am thankful for the help that Carlos gave me in the end.

But at the same time, I find it incredibly frustrating to be a frequent flyer who has to chat up workmen in overalls to get a smile, a nod of sympathy, and an offer of help. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that a person who travels less than I do would have been far more flummoxed, and thus more likely to receive no help and have to forgo their trip entirely.

I realize that times are tight, flights are fewer, and everyone is emotionally stretched, including managers like Carlos. However, I managed to maintain my composure and smile during an incredibly stressful time. I also managed to find a solution that included a viable Plan B. Quite frankly, anyone who understands airline travel routes would have been easily able to do the same if only the time had been taken to try.

An airline as large as Continental, in the airport that serves as its hub, should be able to offer at least that level of composure, kindness, and assistance to its frequent flyers when a problem arises.

I didn’t realize until that day how low the customer service standards had dropped for Continental Airlines, which I always fly out of Newark because I assume I am paying for more than the flight itself. Big airlines like Continental talk about how we should all book through them because discount websites don’t offer any help if something goes wrong, but in my case, it was Kayak.com that was in fact best positioned and most available to save my skin.

My experience last Sunday was surprising, to say the least. I plan to keep it in mind the next time a competing, discount carrier offers the routes I need at a lower price.

Of this, Continental can be sure, I will not be forgetful.

4 comments

  1. I think you’re being too hard on Continental and too gracious to Kayak. Your husband is the real hero here for fixing the base problem — you forgetting your passport.

    As a frequent flyer myself (CO Plat – over 100k EQM’s this year) I can understand the frustration you say you felt due to your perception that Continental was not smiling enough; not sympathetic enough by not helping you rebook this flight (BTW you don’t say that Carlos was actually rude, just not sympathetic enough to your plight. He needed the one document that proves you’re legit, that you are who you are and you’re allowed to fly internationally). But in the end, it was you who had ultimately caused the problem, not the airline. So what Kayak showed you other flights. That’s what they do; they’re an online flight aggregator. You probably could have gotten this info from any number of online travel sites. So I’m not sure how exactly they were your “saving grace”. They just provided you info that you wanted Continental to tell you.

    You said you were a frequent flyer to the Caribbean, so you probably should have already been aware that Continental had a limited flight schedule to your destination. I agree that it would have been great if Continental could have told you that there were flights available later that day on JetBlue, but I personally wouldn’t hold it against them if they didn’t. Again, Continental didn’t forget your passport.

    I’ve been in plenty of situations where I thought a service provider could have been a bit more sympathetic or accommodating, providing at least a hint of caring or a smile during my plight. And yes, I’ve gotten peeved because of it. But ultimately, when it’s by my own hand that I’m in a bad situation, like forgetting my passport (which I’ve done once), I’ve got no one else to blame but myself.

    1. Yep, no doubt about it: I caused the problem, and my husband is the hero for ultimately helping me to solve it.

      But if all I’m paying for is the actual flight–and no real assistance in my time of need as a frequent flyer–than why am I paying Continental’s higher fares in the first place? That is the crux of what I’m saying. They justify higher prices by saying they offer better customer service. Not so in my case. Not so at all.

  2. Wow. You sound like a spoiled brat. YOU forgot your passport which Carlos had to have in order to process you, for either the scheduled flight or a later one. I don’t understand why it is that you are mad at Continental Airlines for your own stupidity. You were supposed to be there, with passport in hand, two hours before the flight. Your passport arrived well beyond the cutoff and you think Continetal should have kissed your ass because you are a frequent flyer. In other words, rules shouldn’t apply to you. Give me a break. Grow up. Better yet, embrace humility. Sorry. I forgot how special you are.

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