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Where’s Buzzy?                                          Honolulu Fiasco



Continental Airlines: Meltdown in the tropics
A flight cancellation causes chaos and the airline's handling of the fiasco just doesn't fly with passengers.
By Buzzy Gordon

In the showbiz world, Los Angeles and New York are rivals of sorts. But never did I imagine that a national airline might pick a side in this bi-coastal rivalry and spark chaos for a major airport and hundreds of fare-paying passengers.

The trouble began as Continental's three nightly flights from Hawaii's capital to gateway cities on the mainland -- Houston, Newark and Los Angeles, all scheduled to depart within 35 minutes of one another -- were fueling side-by-side in Honolulu. When the Newark-bound plane developed intractable mechanical problems, a Continental gate agent, demonstrating an astonishing degree of frankness, unabashedly announced that the head office had decided that the East Coast flight was not to be disrupted, even if the West Coast passengers had to sacrifice their aircraft for the cause. Houston, as the site of Continental's corporate headquarters, was untouchable.

The agent then casually dropped his bombshell: the Los Angeles-bound flight, due to depart with a full complement of passengers in 15 minutes, was being cancelled. Even though it was their plane that had broken down, Newark passengers were awarded the seats that had been yanked out from under those headed to California. All LA-bound passengers were instructed to leave the concourse and go back to ticketing for reassignment on flights the next day.

The stampede was on: passengers scrambled out of the waiting area and made a mad dash to the main airport lobby. As civility evaporated, the infirm and elderly were left in the dust. Continental abandoned any and all sense of professionalism and introduced the law of the jungle into Hawaii's prime facility for welcoming tourists.

Cut to the ticket lobby: a long line snakes from the ticket counter to the entrance doorways. It's 9:30pm and there are only three ticket agents assigned to handle the jostling crowd. Suddenly, a Continental representative walks to the middle of the line and cuts it in two, leading the second half up to the front and starting another queue parallel to the original. As people halfway to the back are suddenly leapfrogged forward, shouting breaks out; arguments erupt as angry passengers protest the arbitrariness of the airline's unpredictable behavior.

Amid the milling crowd of people, one person is conspicuous in his absence: the manager of Continental's operation in HNL is nowhere to be seen. Incredibly, each ticket agent is managing to process only about one passenger an hour! One is a trainee and floundering miserably as she tries to book passengers on rapidly filling alternate flights (sometimes involving connections), plus issue hotel vouchers. To top it all off, she forgets to issue transportation vouchers; supposedly processed passengers, suddenly faced with a whopping taxi fare, come streaming back to the ticket counter. An entirely new queue has to be started exclusively to distribute transportation vouchers.

As the hours of incompetence creep by, I manage to catch the eye of a young Continental employee doing absolutely nothing. She explains that she has just started her job and hasn't been taught to do anything yet. I suggest to her that the crowd of thirsty people, including children and old folks, could desperately use a drink. Fifteen minutes later, she starts handing out paper cups of lukewarm water and Coke. The fact that no one from Continental thought of this, speaks volumes.

Seemingly overwhelmed by the magnitude of the fiasco -- or underwhelmed by the mounting frustration of the restless travelers -- Jeff Moken, the young general manager of Continental in Honolulu, made his first public appearance three full hours after the cancellation had been announced. Aside from repeating his mantra, "We're doing the best we can," the extent of his involvement was confined to the most mundane tasks, bordering on the ridiculous, which appeared to grant him some sense of accomplishment and control. For example, instead of going from station to station solving serious and pressing problems, he focused on an attractive blonde woman, retreated back to his office to phone a hotel and report back to her, "mission accomplished": he had arranged a hotel room for her and her husband with two double beds instead of one king-sized bed!

I ask him whether Continental has any published guidelines for handling these kinds of incidents, or whether personnel ever rehearse cancellation procedures. His answer: It doesn't happen very often.

At 2:30am, more than five hours after the flight was cancelled, dozens of frazzled passengers -- including mothers traveling alone with small children, who were sleeping on the floor and an old man with a cane -- were still waiting in barely moving lines, wondering whether they would ever get accommodation for the night or a confirmed booking to leave the island the next day.

The cavalcade of horrors did not end for passengers even after we clutched tickets and completed vouchers in our hands. We were directed downstairs to collect our luggage, which had been loaded off of the plane. I was shocked to discover that hundreds of suitcases were left unattended in the middle of the downstairs hallway. Not surprisingly, I managed to retrieve only one of my two checked bags; I feared the missing one had been stolen. Although I continued on Continental for another four flights, they never got my lost luggage to me until my final flight home -- a full week later.

Of course, Continental's interim "solutions" were less than satisfactory as well. They did get me a good Honolulu hotel room at 3:30am, but the voucher they gave me for breakfast was for a dining room that was not open the next morning! Much worse, for my marathon sprint to Ireland, Continental had rebooked me on a flight to Newark that required me to stay overnight at LAX airport. Rather than give me a hotel room in LA, Moken gave me a voucher to use the first-class lounge to stretch out in for the night. Incredibly, that lounge closes every night from 1am to 5am, leaving me stranded once again.

A horrified supervisor at Newark airport finally took pity on sleepless me and upgraded me to first class so I could catch up on sleep over the Atlantic Ocean. I was still without half of my luggage for my entire week in Europe; when I e-mailed Moken afterwards to complain about the baggage fiasco, inter alia, I never received a response.

There really is no excuse for this nightmare scenario. Airlines should have cancellation procedures honed to a science by now. If there is no written checklist to follow, there should be. The same goes for rehearsal drills. Probably the most effective system is already in place -- it just has to be adapted from boarding SOP. The simple script: "Ladies and gentlemen, we regret the inconvenience caused by cancellation of this flight. In order to make reticketing as efficient as possible, please remain seated in the gate waiting area until the zone number on your ticket is called. We are having snacks and beverages brought here to make your wait more comfortable. For now, we invite all first-class passengers and those needing a little extra time to walk to the lobby to go with our customer service representative to the ticket counter." The zone numbers are called in turn until everyone is reticketed. Passengers with the longest waits in the gate area will be compensated with coupons for cocktails on future flights.

Is such a straightforward solution too much to ask of airlines that fly thousands of passengers a day?

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