Wednesday, 14 September 2011


A couple of weeks ago, when Hurricane Irene was not even thought of,  we went with my son Sriram and his family from Newport, New Jersey for a short vacation to Corpus Christi in Texas,  to join my son Sankar and his family for his birthday celebrations at his sister-in-law’s. Two days into the holiday,  Hurricane Irene came into being and took on great significance, since it was predicted that it would hit just where we resided, bang opposite the river from New York city.  Initial relief at having escaped the fury of nature, turned to alarm as we realized (a) our return flight was cancelled. (b) our apartment could be in one of the areas most affected by the hurricanes, with rains pouring into the 10th floor balcony and entering the rooms.  My son narrates what happened  next….

Continental- OK breakfast but shoddy Airline

It started with a call to my colleague, Jimmy at work on Thursday the 25th of August, when he mentioned the “I” word. Irene, he said was expected to cross New York City on Sunday which meant I could have problems with my flight back from Texas scheduled the same day. Soon after, I started tracking the hurricane on the Weather Channel in Corpus Christi, where I was visiting my brother’s sister-in-law and husband (Meera and Moey)  along with my parents, Vandana and Samyukta. My brother, Shankar and his family were already holidaying there. My vacation for the most part hitherto was gulping Shiner Bock, a local favorite brew and goofing around with my nieces and daughter, amidst dips at the pool in the backyard.
 At some point during Friday morning, it was reported that  some of the airlines including JetBlue and American canceling all weekend flights into most of east coast including all the New York Airports. However, Continental’s website continued to show through all of Friday afternoon, that my flight back was on schedule for Sunday. The Weather Channel, which I watched more of that day than I had done all my life, presented ominous scenarios Irene could unleash on NYC (bringing  to mind devastating pictures of flooded streets, submerged train lines- images straight out of disaster movies such as “I Am Legend”, “Day After Tomorrow”, etc).
 The pithy cancelation mail from the airlines came on Friday evening - almost telegraphic, with simply the notice of cancelation. I promptly call Orbitz and put on hold for almost four hours (surely a record, at least for me!). I did get a reprieve for about 45 minutes when I was doing Samyukta’s bedtime routine and Vandana took over from me the  Muzak from Orbitz..
 At some point the family got tired of the sight of me on the phone, being only half engaged in the general merry-making and urged that I abort this attempt. They offered other recommendations like heading to the local airport the first thing next morning to rebook from there, try calling the next morning when there are more agents to answer calls.  My father, the eternal optimist in the American Way emphatically stated that the airline would contact me and accommodate me in Monday’s flight,.
 I subsequently called Continental directly only to be told that my call could not be taken due to the high call volume -  absurd and frustrating. I vaguely remembered someone saying that they were in a similar situation last winter with canceled flights but got lucky with the Elite number as those calls are always taken.  I googled to see if that number was floating around but had no luck.  I then tried my luck with Facebook. Facebook, which had subjected me to asinine updates

like the colors of people’s underclothes and more recently to people’s cravings, could serve some higher purpose after all. My status update was changed to a request to my friends to send me the 1800 Elite number. My ever reliable friends (and one family member) replied with alacrity providing details of THE number and their account numbers. I promptly called this number and was asked to stay on hold while it played a recorded message. It got a little tiring hearing Continental’s spiel on how important I was and how their “congress of chefs and sommeliers” cook gourmet spreads for me and prepare my wine while I fly.
 It was my brother's  birthday on the 27th which was one of the main reasons we were visiting Corpus Christi. I joined the rest of the family in their Birthday chants and merry making at the stroke of midnight; the bluster from Continental continued to flow into my defenseless ear.
 My sister in-law’s birthday gift was the Beatles Rock Band and the whole family was harmonizing Beatles songs into the wee hours of the night. A couple of hours into the call, a live voice finally appeared on the other side and exclaimed Beatles while people were belting out Taxman in the background. Fantastic I thought - she listens to the Beatles and I have to milk that! In the course of the  small talk we indulged in on Beatles, she mentioned that she had trouble getting her hands on White Album. Now unless you are looking to shop in Circuit City or lurking around half-empty Borders, this should be a relatively easy task. I said that her best bet was buying it from Amazon in the hope that it would earn me some goodwill.
 Within an instant, she said that there were no flights available to any of the New York airports from Houston till Friday, the 2nd of September. She said all available tickets were already booked by passengers from other Airlines, which made no sense at all. I was incredulous and asked if she could redirect me to New York via any other place, while she put me on hold for another 30 minutes or so. She came back with what she said was the best option available. Fly to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania via Cleveland and Houston from Corpus Christi and then drive from there into New Jersey. The earliest date available to the journey with this tortuous itinerary was Tuesday, the 30th of August.
 In the meanwhile, all mainstream Channels continued to present an apocalyptic picture of New York and how prepared the city was getting for this cataclysmic event. My building in Jersey City was right on the Hudson riverfront and there were messages from the Condo manager  to the building newsgroup asking residents to move things from their balcony, stay away from the glass windows and move to the corridor if things got really worse. The Cassandra in me imagined gale forces breaking my apartment’s windows, and inundating the wooden floors and molds proliferating consequently. I also had visions of all our significant documents destroyed in the deluge.

I called my concierge and asked him to move things around so nothing was in the balcony or by the windows. He not only moved it within minutes but also called to confirm that everything was taken care of and provided some peace of mind on that front. Clearly he was not schooled in the Continental customer service academy.
 We finally made the trip back traveling most of Tuesday which for most part was thankfully smooth. We reached home in the wee hours of the 31st fatigued and worn out but relieved to find that everything in the building and apartment was almost as we had left it. I felt much better and more fortunate as the day progressed when I heard more horrific tales of Continental’s monumental missteps, which I am sure there were plenty more of. Two sets of families, both supposed to fly back that Sunday from Vegas and Aruba respectively, were instead driving back in one case  and returning on the 5th I of September n another.
 Like I said before-OK breakfast and lousy airline!!