Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Air Canada Nightmare in Naples Airport

My wife and I had just spent a lovely honeymoon in Italy. We visited Rome, seeing the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and the Vatican. After Rome, we toured Pompeii and then made our way to Sorrento. From Sorrento we visited Capri, hung out by the pool, and swam in the Mediterranean. All along the way we enjoyed great food, excellent wine, good shopping, and friendly people. The last night of our trip we stayed in Naples since we would be departing from Naples Airport early the next morning. And that's where our real adventure began...

Our taxi picked us up early in the morning at our hotel to bring us to the airport. Upon arriving at the airport we realized we had made a mistake. Apparently I had read the departure time on our tickets incorrectly and as a result our flight was already boarding. Our flight was booked through Air Canada but operated by Lufthansa. So we rushed to the Lufthansa desk to see if we could still make the flight. They showed very little interest in helping us, told us that basically we were out of luck and that we should go talk to the ticket office, despite the plane not leaving for another 20 minutes.

Unlike most airports I have ever been to, Naples Airport features a single desk with two windows for all the airlines present. After rushing to the ticket office, we were told by the very surly employee that Lufthansa could not help us because our ticket was not booked through them. Instead, it was booked through Air Canada, who did not have a presence in Naples. Therefore, the lady was not able to access their system and could do nothing for us.

With panic starting to set in, we made a quick call to my wife's parents at 12:30 AM EST, asking them to get online to talk with us on gchat since our pre-paid phones were almost out of minutes. We then discovered that wifi at the Naples airport costs a staggering 25 Euro for the day. But at that point, we had no choice. I also made a quick call to my mom asking her to get online as well. After a brief conversation with our parents, my wife's father called into Air Canada's help line. Unfortunately, after being on hold for over 30 minutes, his cell phone dropped the call. He then called again from a land-line and proceeded to wait on hold for a second time. Meanwhile, my mom also dialed into the helpline, hoping to increase our chances of getting a hold of someone.

Over 45 minutes later, my father-in-law finally got through to a man at Air Canada named 'Darla'. He explained the situation but was very surprised when they seemed completely uninterested in helping us what so ever. They told him that it was our fault that we missed the flight and therefore they were under no obligation to help. My father-in-law pressed on asking to speak to a supervisor, who basically repeated the same thing. When asked what they expected us to do, Air Canada's help desk replied with (paraphrasing): "Look, it's not that bad. They could be fighting a war in Afghanistan." Stunned by this response, my father-in-law kept pressing for more information. He was finally able to learn that this was the only Air Canada flight out of Naples and that the same flight was booked for at least the next two days. After getting nowhere, he finally hung up and it was my mom's turn to talk to Air Canada.

Interestingly, she reached the same Customer Service representative "Darla". Apparently Air Canada only employs one rep and one supervisor for the night-time shift, which would explain the extremely long hold times. She was told by Air Canada's representative that he had already spoken to my father-in-law and that there was nothing they could do. My mom told Darla that she was not asking for a "favor" or for him to do something for free, but that she needed Air Canada's assistance to get two of their customers who were stranded in Naples, Italy. She told Darla that she was willing to pay a change fee to switch us to a different flight and to pay an upgrade fee if the flight was full to get us into first or business class. Darla was not interested in that solution. She then asked Darla to speak to a supervisor. Darla refused, saying "He's sitting right here and he'll tell you the same thing." She told Darla that may be true, but she wanted to speak to him nevertheless. The supervisor, Tony, finally got on the phone. He said that my wife and I should be calling, not our parents. This may be true, but my mom reminded him that we only had an international cell phone with us for emergencies and that phone charges a lot per minute. She also pointed out that she had waited on hold for 45 minutes and we would not have had the battery life to make that call and it would have cost us a fortune for that many minutes just to be told they were unwilling to help.

Still persisting, my mom asked them what they expected us to do in this situation and how they would feel if it were their children stuck in a foreign country? To that, they replied that we had two options (again paraphrasing): "Tell them to go buy a ticket on Expedia with Air France or another airline. Or they can stay in Italy."

The fact that Air Canada refused to offer any help, even when we offered to pay them more money to have our tickets changed or upgraded, was astonishing. They even suggested taking our business to another airline!

While our parents were on the phone, I had called our travel agent in the States who said she would also call Air Canada. She again reached the same representative who told her that they had already spoken to my father-in-law and my mother and that there was nothing they could do. Additionally, she was able to learn that Air Canada and Lufthansa were no longer partners and therefore booking new flights would be difficult. Furthermore, our flights were booked with travel agent codes so even if they wanted to do something, which they clearly didn't, they couldn't. Our travel agent explained it was she who had booked the flights (through a 3rd party ticket-buyer) but the representative said that our only chance was if the company that actually booked the tickets were to call and negotiate a change.

The third-party ticket buyer wouldn't be open until 10AM EST, which was still another 8 or 9 hours away. I spoke with our travel agent again who basically said that while she thought there was a chance the company could get our tickets changed (for a fee), we wouldn't know until later tonight or tomorrow at the earliest. And even if they were able to get it changed, we may not be able to fly out for several days after that due to flight availability.

This back-and-forth with our parents, the travel agent and Air Canada went on for several hours. During which time, our laptop battery started running very low. We asked the Information Desk if there were plugs in the area, to which they replied "No. The only plugs are inside of security". Luckily, one of the ladies at the Information Desk took pity on us and said we could plug in behind their desk. This led to us standing at the Information Desk with our laptop out for almost 4 hours... While standing there, however, a lady came up to the desk in panic saying that her purse and belongings had been stolen. The desk seemed fairly unconcerned by this, which made us more concerned!

Once the phone calls were over, we talked it over with our parents online. We knew that if we kept trying with Air Canada, the best-case scenario would have us in Naples for at least two more days while we tried to negotiate flight changes and find one that wasn't full. Additionally, we had boarded our pet at home and had a car in the shop; so we really needed to get home. Therefore, we decided to take Air Canada's advice and buy tickets through another airline.

As you can imagine, last-minute, one-way, international flights from Naples, Italy to Philadelphia were not cheap (almost $2000 each!). The flights we selected would leave Naples around 5pm (keep in mind we arrived at the airport before 6am) and had stops in Munich and Manchester (UK) before arriving in Philadelphia on Saturday afternoon; almost 24 hours after our original arrival time. The three flights were on different airlines (Lufthansa, Singapore Air, and US Air).

At this point it was about 10AM local time in Italy (4AM in the States), so we told our parents go to bed and went to check in with the Lufthansa desk. When we got there, the same ladies who were so unhelpful when we first arrived were still there. We showed them our new itinerary that we had written down and were told we could check in but they were only able to print our boarding passes for our first two flights and that we would have to check in at the gate in Manchester to get our last boarding pass. Additionally, they could only check our bags through to Munich since our flights from Munich and Manchester were too far in the future (tomorrow). They said that once we arrived in Munich we would have to go out through customs, retrieve our bags, and then recheck them at the desk.

Once they told us they couldn't check our bags through to Philadelphia, they could see the level of exasperation and frustration on our faces and finally started to become more helpful. The told us if we came back at 1:30PM they would try to check our bags all the way through to Philadelphia. They also said we should go back to the ticket office, which now had a 45 minute line, and print out our itinerary so they could see all of our flight times and numbers.

After getting our itinerary, my wife and I found a nice spot on the wall to sit and wait for three more hours (apparently they don't have chairs in public places in Italy). This quickly turned into a frightening prospect, however, as we saw numerous drug-addicts and pick-pockets combing the crowd. Several of them came very close and gave us nasty stares since they could sense we were watching them. They were particularly interested in any young women travelling alone. We watched as one stood in line at the ticket office behind a family with their bags on a cart. He was obviously waiting for his opportunity to snatch her purse, which was also on the cart. But became frustrated when the father of the family never looked away. Twenty minutes later, he was right back in the same line behind a young lady with a large purse who was travelling alone. At that point, we decided to move closer to the check-in desk, which seemed to have less traffic and fewer pick-pockets.

One Thirty finally rolled around and surprisingly they were able to check our bags through to Philadelphia. We proceeded to go through security and wait at the gate for our flight to leave.

My wife and I arrived in Munich around 7:30pm local time and decided to get some dinner and have a couple German beers. Our connection was not until 6:30am the next morning and we had nowhere to go until then. To our surprise, the airport started to completely close down around 9:30pm. By 10 o'clock, everything in the airport was closed. We couldn't even find a vending machine to buy a bottle of water. Eventually, we did find a security guard and asked him if there was anywhere still open or if we were stuck there overnight. He told us that while nothing in the terminal was open, there were places open just outside of security.

We were originally reluctant to go through security, not knowing how safe the area was (especially after our Naples experience) or what time customs opened in the morning. But the guard explained that the area around the airport was very safe and that customs would be open in plenty of time for our flight in the morning. Taking his advice, we went through passport control and exited the airport. We were very surprised to find a lively, semi-covered outdoor plaza with several shops and restaurants still open. After walking around for a bit, we sat down at what turned out to be the largest, outdoor beer garden in the world (according to them). The place was very nice and had an excellent selection of German beers.

The beer garden closed around 1AM in the morning and we walked across the plaza to a 24-hour McDonalds, which had one free hour of wifi. This kept us entertained until a little after 2AM but unfortunately the airport wouldn't reopen the ticket lines to check in until around 4:30. Those two and a half hours were brutal. We were exhausted but didn't want to fall asleep in a strange city with our carry-on luggage and risk getting robbed or missing our flight in the morning. We managed to stay awake, check into our flight and make it through security in time to board our plane to Manchester, UK.

If you've never connected on an international flight in Manchester, it's a bit of an odd experience. You arrive in one Terminal, are then bused to another Terminal to go back through security, and finally bused back to the original Terminal for your connecting flight. Unfortunately, the Lufthansa people at Naples Airport were only able to print our boarding passes for our first two flights (we didn't even have seat numbers). But since you have to go back through security for connections in Manchester, it turned out to be a bit tricky without boarding passes. We had to try to go through security with our passports and our itinerary (printed in Italian). This caused quite a bit of confusion for the folks in Manchester. But eventually, they sent us to a customer service desk where a very nice US Air representative helped us get checked into the flight, get seats together, and even got us a good zone number so we could board early. He even walked us down to the bus and made sure we go to the right Terminal.

After a couple hours in Manchester, we finally boarded our last flight home to Philadelphia. My wife and I slept virtually the entire way after not sleeping for over 24 hours. The total time from when we got to the Naples Airport to when we arrived at Philadelphia Airport was approximately 38 hours. The whole thing was one of the most frustrating and exhausting experiences of our lives and we were so happy to make it home safely.

We are so thankful to our parents for all of their help throughout this ordeal!

I should also point out that while there were several people involved in this process that were EXTREMELY unhelpful (and often downright rude and disrespectful), there were also several people who went out of their way to aid us in our journey: the lady at the Information Desk in Naples, the nice couple from Penn State we met while waiting for our flight, the security guard at Munich Airport, the US Air representative at Manchester Airport, and our driver who brought us home from the Philadelphia Airport. We'd like to thank all of your for being so kind and helpful on a day (or days) when so much else was going wrong!


Pat Marcello said...

OMG, Jay! You don't know me, but I'm a friend of Jane's from wayyyy back. We've been virtually holding her hand while you've been going through your ordeal. Thank heaven you two are back and safe.

And just think of the stories you'll be able to tell your kids. :)

PHL Taxi said...

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