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19/03/2007

Ice storm followed by customer complaints blizzard for Continental at Newark

After commenting on Jet Blue's handling of crisis communications after adverse weather caused severe problems and mass cancellations, I get to see a similar situation from ground level.

The storms that hit the East Coast of the US on Friday caused chaos across the region and shut down many of the airports around New York.

I was flying Continental out of terminal C at Newark airport on Friday when my flight to London was cancelled just before I was due to board.

Like thousands of other people I was stranded at the airport and then suffered what seems to have been very poor contingency and communications planning by airports and airlines.

There were a good few people in the endless lines for tickets and infromation at Newark on Saturday who were using their laptops to try and book alternative arrangements. Telephone lines to the company weren't working and no one was telling people in the queues what was going on - there wasn't even a tannoy announcment.

After seven hours in line - I spin you not - just to talk to anyone from Continental and then three hours on the tarmac in a plane waiting to take off (including an emergency stop on the runway halfway through, but that's another story) the only customer service message I got was the corporate video of the CEO telling me about the superior customer service on and off the ground. Twice.

From the look of Technorati a good few of my fellow passengers have already posted their views to the blogosphere, for instance:

Cosmic Zoo: Tell me WHY I don't like airports...: bemoaning "the general astounding lack of preparedness by the staff of Continental Airlines"

Scri_minus: Travel Disaster: "I urge you all not to use Continental if at all avoidable"

 Bitin' the Big Apple:Boycott Newark!:: "I love Continental, but their error takes them down a notch in my book."

Dena: Utter chaos: "Continental Airlines has major issues... I ended up standing in line for 7 hours without anything to eat or drink and no way to use the toilet."

Exist: If you can help it, NEVER FLY WITH CONTINENTAL AIRLINES: "It is now sat. night I have been on hold with continental at different times since 5am fri. for a total 9 hours and counting"

darhlink:  stRANded: "my flight got postponed hourly (4times!) until the airport closed.... that was precisely when absolute chaos broke lose."

It's another case of customer feedback being instant and very, very public.

Crisis communications needs to begin at the scene of the trouble. This situation hasn't hit the headlines in the mainstream media - and why would it - but it's top of the agenda for the thousands of people who experienced it.

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Comments

I've gotten to the point now that it doesn't surprise me anymore how people complain about things that they have no knowledge of. In this case it's how everyone is a "Monday morning quarterback" when it comes to running an airline during bad weather conditions. Most have no clue what it takes to run a successful airline on a 24 hour bases. I'd like to know what all these lovely whiners do for a living. So that I can micro examine their business and lives. Then complain endlessly every time they make even the smallest mistake. I don't even care if it's their fault or if they are just human in an imperfect World. There are many things that are out of the hands and control of the airlines, and the weather is just one of them. I'm just wondering what these very same whiners would be complaining about if their flight was horribly turbulent or worse, crashed, due to the bad weather. What answers were you looking for? Maybe the answers that the airline didn't have and were working hard to get, but they were being slowed down from doing their jobs in order to listen to a bunch of whiners because life just got tough for a few hours or days. Poor babies. If only there were more important things to worry about in the World.

FYI - I am an airline employee that does know what it takes to run a successful airline (even during horrific conditions).

Pesky customers, eh?

I think you've missed the point Eric. Nobody minds being grounded if conditions are dangerous, but we do mind if the issue is not communicated and we don't know how long we're going to be waiting, even roughly. Having travelled the same route as Antony I can confirm the communications by this airline were not acceptable. This has compelled me to respond to your comment, pass on my negative experience and never use this airline again. You're right we don't know how to run an airline in bad weather conditions, but we do know that customers are essential to your business, and keeping them informed is a basic principle.

BTW – Are you part of an airline comms team, as your attitude seems familiar.

I faxed and mailed this letter to Continental on Wednesday, March 21st. We'll see if I ever get a response:

March 20, 2007

Customer Care - HQSCR
Continental Airlines, Inc.
P.O. Box 4607
Houston, TX 77210-4607
Fax: 832-235-1806

RE: Flight 1147, Friday, March 16th, 2007

To Whom It May Concern:

On the morning of Friday, March 16th, 2007, my husband and I set out for O’Hare Airport for flight 1147 from Chicago to Newark, connecting to flight 80 from Newark to Geneva, to visit my father, who is currently undergoing radiation treatment for colon cancer. Although all of JetBlue’s flights had been grounded, and all the municipal employees at Newark Airport had been sent home 40 minutes before our plane took off, our flight departed. About an hour into the flight, flight 1147 was diverted to Cleveland.

In Cleveland we were told to deplane, and were met at the gate by a Continental agent, who, in a very unpleasant manner, ordered everyone to stay in the gate area, said that he had no further information, and that there would be updates every 15 minutes. My husband asked the TSA representative in the area if there was somewhere he could smoke. The TSA representative directed him, and several other smokers, to an acceptable smoking area that they could go, provided that they had their boarding pass with them for return entry. Upon attempting to re-enter, the TSA representative told them they could not return into the gate area, as their boarding passes were not marked “Cleveland”. Naturally, nobody had a boarding pass marked “Cleveland”, as nobody intended on flying there.

One of the smoking passengers had left his bag in the gate area, and was denied re-entry. Subsequently, two Cleveland policemen came into the gate area, and began looking for the smoking passenger’s unattended baggage. One of the policemen picked up a bag, and asked if it belonged to anyone. It belonged to a passenger who was dealing with the unpleasant Continental agent at the gate, and at this point that passenger had become frustrated with the situation and used some foul language. The police told the passenger to calm down and change his choice of words to describe the Continental agent before returning the passenger’s property to him.

Moments later, we were told to leave the gate area, and go to the ticketing area, where Continental agents would rebook us onto new flights. Thankfully, my husband and I both had our cell phones, and I was able to call him to let him know what was happening. We almost didn’t bring our cell phones with us, as we were planning on visiting Switzerland, where our cell phones do not work. Had our flight re-boarded and taken off, I don’t know how or where my husband and I could have reconnected. We met in the designated area, and waited for four hours while two Continental agents attempted to help everyone who was on that flight (it was sold out and there were over a hundred passengers to take care of). The line was poorly managed, and those who were resourceful and unscrupulous enough cut in. At the end of 4 hours of waiting, we were told to wait until midnight and call an 800 number, and that someone at the other end of the line would help us rebook. We were given a coupon for a discount on a hotel, and were sent on our way.

At midnight, I called the customer service line, only to be put on hold. At 1:45am I gave up and went to sleep. When I called again at 7am, all I got was a busy signal. We decided to go back to the airport, even though we had no flight.

Upon returning to the airport, we waited for another four hours while three Continental agents attempted to help re-book all the passengers from flight 1147. A group of 30 people who were chartered for a separate flight were treated specially, and were allowed, one by one, to cut in front of everyone else in line, although we had all been standing for over two hours. This caused a near riot when a passenger from flight 1147 demanded a cessation of this special treatment of the chartered passengers, to the applause of those who were in line. Representatives of the Cleveland police had to step in to take control of the situation. They informed us that cutting in line is not against the law, that it is within the policy of Continental Airlines, and that if we didn’t like Continental Airlines, we didn’t have to fly Continental Airlines. At the end of four hours, my husband and I were told that the first flight to Newark would not be until Monday, and that from there we could be put on standby for the Monday evening flight to Geneva. We asked if we could connect earlier than Monday through another American city, or another European city. There were no other options available. We asked if we could be sent home instead. The agent found us a connecting flight that evening from Cleveland to Detroit, and then on to Midway on Northwest. When I inquired about getting a refund, the agent said “for the whole ticket price? You’re going to have to pay for the portion to Cleveland!”

I never did get through to a representative on the phone. The earliest I got through was on Monday, March 19th. By then I was so angry that a phone call wasn’t enough.

Flight 1147 never should have taken off from O’Hare when it was clear that Newark was shutting down due to inclement weather. Everyone on that plane would have been much better off going home that night than getting stranded in Cleveland, ending up in interminable and pointless lines, and wasting between one and four days stranded in a city they never intended to visit.

This was my first flight with Continental, and it will very likely be my last. Because of Continental Airlines, our vacation was ruined. Without exception, this has been the most unpleasant travel experience of my life. I am fortunate to have purchased travel insurance, so the cost of the flight, the hotel, and incidentals will be covered. I feel very strongly that the least you can do to begin to regain my trust as a paying customer is to offer us travel vouchers. Continental Airlines will be keeping the $1068 that we paid for our tickets, as we are being reimbursed by our insurance. It would cost Continental Airlines nothing to award us vouchers.

I request a reply, in writing, to the address above, detailing how you plan to process reparations to us, and to the rest of the passengers on flight 1147.

Very concerned about our treatment,

JP

I sent this letter to Continental Customer Care on 3/20/07. So far, have not yet been received are reply from Continetal or have we received a refund or other credit to the partially un-used ticket:

I have never in my entire life, been more disappointed in any airlines as I was in Continental Airlines last weekend. I travel all over the world on business and pleasure and have experienced many things. But I have NEVER been told by any airline, that "they could not help me and they knew nothing" like we were told by the Regional Continental Airlines Manager at the Roatan, Honduras airport on Saturday 3/17/07. Our flight # 1781 from Roatan, Honduras 3/17/07 to Newark, NJ was canceled due to weather problems in New York. There were 15 people at our resort that spent the day trying to get help from Continental including the resort manager Yolanda @ Anthony's Key. We tried in person at the airport, all day on the phone and internet to no avail. At the check-in & ticket counter at Continental, the agents told us they could no help us. We were left completely stranded and without help by Continental airlines. No only us, but a plane FULL of people were left stranded. We were eventually told, they could get us on another flight next Saturday 3/24 a full week away. Outrageous! Anthony's Key Resort had guests coming in on that flight that Continental re-routed through Houston. We would have happily agreed to be re-routed through Houston too but were told no seats were available on any of the Houston flights. In the end we contacted another airline, Taca, who were very nice AND helpful. We purchased 2 new tickets to fly from Roatan, Honduras to Miami Florida on Sunday 3/18. When we arrived in Miami, we went straight to the Continental ticket counter. There we were told the first available flight they could put us on was Weds, 3/21 morning. They refused to transfer us to another airline, or help with accomodations stating it was not Continental's problem because it was weather related. NOT ACCEPTABLE! Continetal IS reponsible for transporting people. My husband & I spent approx. $1500.00 to get back home to New York. And THAT was cheap because we selected to DRIVE the 1300 miles from Miami to New York in a rental car which took us 22 hours. Not to mention the time we lost at work which could have jeopardized our jobs. I am asking Continental, to give restitution, refund our expenses and credit us for the un-used flight they were unable to provide if they want me, my family, friends etc. to fly with them again. I have written the media about Continetal's LACK OF CUSTOMER service and hope that when they call me tomorrow I will be able to tell them that Continental Airlines has made restitution in a satisfactory manner and I would then fly with them again. If you need further information, receipts, etc.

Take the fight to Washington:

Rep. James Oberstar
Chairman
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee
2167 Rayburn Office Building
Washington, DC 20515


Senator John D. Rockefeller
Chairman
Senate Subcommitee on Aviation
425 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

I just had a nightmare experience with the same management staff at the Continental desk in Roatan.

All they could do was shake their head and tell us they could not help.

PATHETIC.

I just had a nightmare experience with the same management staff at the Continental desk in Roatan.

All they could do was shake their head and tell us they could not help.

PATHETIC.

I just had a nightmare experience with the same management staff at the Continental desk in Roatan.

All they could do was shake their head and tell us they could not help.

PATHETIC.

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