How My Decision to Fly “Day Of” Backfired

An unusual snowstorm blanketed SeaTac airport on Monday, February 6, 2017 and caused a whole bunch of problems. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

I realized something was wrong on Sunday night. My phone went haywire with messages and alerts warning me of impending bad weather in Calgary and Seattle. My hometown of Calgary was going to get hit with a winter storm, and Seattle – where I planned to connect through to meet Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Inspiration – was also going to get slammed with an unusual cold front that would bring freezing rain and wet snow.

On this website, and over the years, I’ve always told people one thing: always fly in the day before your cruise. But, like most advice, it isn’t always followed by the person giving it. And that was the case here.

This doesn’t look good. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

This looks worse. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

I had elected to fly to Los Angeles on the day of the cruise in order to spend a much-needed weekend at home. Flying from Calgary to Los Angeles barely takes three hours, putting an early-morning flight to catch the ship in the realm of possibility. Added to that, I was overstocked with Alaska Airlines frequent flier points. For $70 and 35,000 miles, I could book myself into LAX on Alaska via Seattle, and out in First Class on Delta Air Lines. So, back in December, I pulled the trigger on flights.

I felt pretty good about that decision. It saved me money, and seemed to use my time efficiently. Besides, it never snows in Seattle. Right?

The Weather

YYC Calgary International Airport, 0400. Pictures can’t do the intensity of the snow justice. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Monday morning, 0330. My cab pulls up out front, and I wade through five feet of snow to climb in. My flight to Seattle is, inexplicably, listed as “On-Time”, despite the fact the inbound aircraft – due at 11:56pm the night before – still hadn’t actually made it to Calgary yet. Alaska 440, which would take me to Los Angeles from Seattle, showed an on-time departure of 8:55am.

Inside YYC’s International Terminal, things are calm. SeaTac would be the opposite experience. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

As the cab slipped and slid its way through the deserted streets – and the snow that just kept falling – I started to get a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. My first flight, Alaska 2115, is operated by a Bombardier Q400 Turboprop. It’s a nice enough aircraft, but it’s the first on the cancellation line when bad weather hit. But as the cab made the journey to YYC, my Alaska Airlines App told me the inbound had landed. Alaska 2115 would depart on-time at 6:15 am.

The Delay

Much to my surprise, boarding began at Gate E90 at YYC right on time at 5:40 am. I was on the plane five minutes later, settled in to window seat 3E.

Our departure time came and went, and the problems began. First, the baggage door froze open. Not so surprising in -25C weather, but being a Canadian-built aircraft, you’d figure Bombardier would have thought of that. Warmers were brought in, and the door was thawed for 45 minutes.

It’s frosty outside! And all that ice buildup on the windows is affecting the plane’s cargo and cabin doors. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

With the cargo door shut successfully, the main cabin door was closed. Almost. Ice buildup meant that the door wouldn’t make a firm seal, and a little light in the cockpit stayed lit. The First Officer came out to try to pry the thing shut. Then it wouldn’t open. Then it wouldn’t shut again. Finally, the door was opened, blowers applied, and the door shut.

Fast-forward through two de-icing procedures, and we lifted off at 7:48 am – nearly two hours behind schedule.

Missing my connecting flight was assured, but I figured there was a chance – a slim one – that it would be as delayed as my incoming flight. As long as I could make it to the ship by 4:00 pm, things would probably be fine.

Then we landed in Seattle – and it became clear I’d be going nowhere.

The weather in Seattle was…frightful. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Seattle was having a worse day than Calgary, with thick, heavy wet snow bringing SeaTac to its knees. My connecting flight to LA wasn’t just delayed; it was cancelled outright. And it was joining an increasing number of cancelled flights that seemed to grow by the minute.

My trip to the Carnival Inspiration wasn’t going to happen.

Surviving An Unexpected Weather Event At the Airport

Disembarking from my flight in Seattle and stepping into a sloppy winter wonderland. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Firstly, and most importantly, stay calm. Yes, you need to be someplace – but so does everyone else. Yelling won’t make it better. Screaming or berating employees or threatening them won’t make your flight un-cancel.

Fortunately, I never saw any of this at the airport. People remained calm, courteous, and respectful – if frazzled.

Secondly, start looking at your options. For some reason, Alaska’s site and App don’t allow you to rebook cancelled flights. This is a shame. When I have had cancellations with Air Canada, often their system rebooks me on a new flight before I’ve even learned the flight was scrapped in the first place.

This meant calling the 1-800 number, or standing in line. Frankly, the 1-800 number can be a sucker’s game. You’re only going to drain your cell battery and rack up your airtime by staying on hold. Instead, find the nearest Customer Service center. I found one near the C Gates and immediately knew I needed to proceed to Option Three.

When you cancel this many flights…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…this happens. This giant queue for Customer Service…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…took nearly four hours for me to get through. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Option Three: book a refundable hotel for the night. Once I saw how long the line was to speak with an Alaska Airlines representative at the airport, it became clear I was stuck in Seattle for the day. I used my IHG App to find nearby hotels, and picked the Holiday Inn Express SeaTac. If I’m going to be delayed, I may as well rack up some points.

You should always have the App of your favorite hotel chain on your phone. I’m partial to Fairmont Hotels when I travel for pleasure, but if I just need a good, clean, inexpensive place to stay, Holiday Inn’s are my pick. And no matter where you are, there’s probably one or two nearby.

I snagged a room for $144, which seemed decent. But I didn’t really look that closely at my options, so I logged in again an hour later – by ten in the morning, my app gave me no available rooms outside of Downtown Seattle. I kept my room.

Now, I booked a fully-refundable rate so that if, by some miracle, I made it out of Seattle, I had until 6pm to cancel the room without penalty. Of course, that didn’t happen. As it turned out, it would take me nearly four hours to clear the line for Customer Service. Add a quick lunch in the airport, and I didn’t leave SeaTac until 2:30 pm.

The realization that I won’t get to LAX: difficult, but I knew the risks when I booked. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

My fourth tip: be flexible. Since this cruise was so short – and the cancellations were racking up – I knew flying to LA was out. During the four hours I was in line, I tried to come up with a bunch of different scenarios. It’s always good to provide ticketing agents with lots of options. The more options you have, the better your odds are.

I knew I had a decent chance of flying back to Calgary on Tuesday. But, I have to be in Vancouver on Friday, and I also knew that a quick 30-minute flight up to YVR might be more doable. Worst-case scenario, I could also take the bus. Or the train. Or drive.

Even if you don’t have to be in a nearby city, start asking the agent to route you through other cities. If there’s only a few Seattle to Los Angeles flights and they’re cancelled, see if they can do Seattle-Portland-Los Angeles, or Seattle-San Francisco – Los Angeles.

Finally, accept this is happening. The most unhappy people I saw were the ones that couldn’t comprehend that they were going to be delayed or not make it at all. The happiest people – relatively speaking – were the ones I overheard who stood in line and said, “You know what? If they can’t get me out today, I’ll just get them to fly me home. It’s not worth the stress.”

Because that’s just it – one glance out the window at the horrific snowfall and even the most optimistic person would have to conclude the odds are stacked against them. And when that happens, well, it’s best to go with the flow.

The Aftermath

By Tuesday, the weather had improved dramatically. Sometimes, that’s just how it is with flights – one day earlier or later, and there’s no problems. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

I’ll be honest: Monday wasn’t fun. Monday was like Dante’s tenth circle of Hell; an endurance test that made my feet hurt, my head ache, and my stomach growly. When you travel on your own, no one’s going to save your spot in the aforementioned line so you can get a sandwich – or use the bathroom.

But Alaska Airlines did its best to keep people happy. Employees walked around with bottled water, cookies and chocolates and handed them out at the gates and in the lineups. Every single representative I dealt with was so darn nice, even as they explained that no, they didn’t know where my bag was.

They were also understanding: a quick call today to Alaska Airline’s Mileage Plan resulted in my frequent-flier points being refunded, along with the cost I’d paid in taxes for the ticket. Someone is tracing my luggage. And I made it back home yesterday afternoon.

While I didn’t get to sail aboard the Carnival Inspiration, I hope you’ll join me later this month as I head to India to do a river cruise on the Ganges with G Adventures. It promises to be quite the journey – and I don’t think I’ll be delayed by snow.

From the Deck Chair will return next week.

 

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