A tale of flight cancellations on Christmas Eve Eve

December 23, 2004

This is how it works when you're flying Continental and you're flight gets cancelled on December 23rd:

I go to continental.com the morning of my 5:45pm flight to check in and print my boarding pass. I'm able to do this successfully, and even able to change my seat on the flight. During this process, continental.com apparently neglects to inform me that the flight I just checked-in for has already been cancelled by the FAA due to weather conditions in Cleveland.

Luckily, I decide a few minutes later that it would be a good idea to check if my flight is going to be on-time. I go back to continental.com and check my flight status.

Status: Cancelled

No instructions about what to do about this are listed.

I call Continental customer support at 1-800-300-1547 and select option one for checking flight status. I'm told that I'm being connected, followed promptly by a busy signal.

I call 1-800-300-1547 again, and again select option one. This time I am put on hold for five minutes and am then connected to Juan.

Juan is obviously not a native English speaker and his hispanic accent makes him somewhat hard to understand. He informs me that my flight is indeed cancelled, that all flights going to Cleveland today are being cancelled, that all flights going to Cleveland tomorrow (Christmas eve) are full, and that all flights going to Cleveland on Christmas day are full.

I ask Juan what I'm supposed to do about this. Juan tells me that I can try to get a flight on December 26th or that I can cancel my itinerary and they will apply the money that I spent to a future Continental flight.

I tell him that this is unacceptable, and I will think about what to do about it. I hang up.

Fifteen minutes later, I call 1-800-300-1547 and select option 2 to speak to a customer service representative. I am once again connected to a busy signal.

I call again, and this time I am put on hold for ten minutes before being connected to a woman who's name I can't pronounce. She is also, obviously, not a native English speaker. I explain to her my situation, and ask her what Continental can do for me. She tells me the same thing that Juan did - flights are completely booked on Christmas Eve and on Christmas. However, she also adds that "they are under consideration." When I ask her what "they are under consideration" means, I gather that "they" are deciding what do do about this and that I may be able to get an earlier flight if I call in later. I thank her and hang up.

At 2:30pm, I call 1-800-300-1547. I'm put on hold for 45 minutes. This is enough time for me to surf on over to southwest.com and discover that they have no fewer than five available flights for me to choose from on Christmas Eve. $140 fully refundable dollars later, I have a Southwest e-ticket to Cleveland in hand.

Eventually, I'm connected to Darlene at Continental. Darlene is a native English speaker, and although she has the same story to tell as the previous two service reps, she is considerably more apologetic about it. She doesn't seem to know anything about "they are under consideration," but makes the very reasonable suggestion that I might want to stop by the airport because Continental will be more receptive to giving me a full refund on the spot if I speak with someone in person. I thank her and hang up.

On my way home from work, I stop by the airport. Initially, I speak with a male service rep who also looks at the flight schedules in his computer and gives me that "guess you won't be home for Christmas, huh?" look, completely lacking any kind of empathy. He has to run and I am handed off to Ashley. I tell Ashley that I would like a refund for my flight to Cleveland, but if at all possible, I would like to keep my direct flight back to Raleigh on January 2nd. Ashley tells me that this is impossible, that I can get a refund for the whole roundtrip or no refund at all. I tell Ashley to refund me for the entire trip.

I go home, cruise on over to southwest.com, and $140 fully refundable dollars later I have an e-ticket back to Raleigh for January 2nd.

By comparison, the cheapest one-way flight from Cleveland to Raleigh that is listed on continental.com for Jan 2nd is a seven hour, two connection ordeal with stops in Providence, Rhode Island and Newark, New Jersey. This, at a non-refundable price tag of $337.80. If that isn't to one's taste, one could opt to pay a non-refundable $460.10 for a direct flight.

The End

A philosophical question we can raise from this story is "What good is a full-service airline when their core service is worse than a discount airline?"

Consequently, if I were a betting man, I'd buy Southwest (LUV), and sell Continental (CAL).

[Update: I arrived in Cleveland, safe and sound, on Christmas eve. I hope everyone has a merry Christmas!]