The Travel Adviser: Sandy, I never knew you
Clients were stuck in Europe unable to get to New York; others on the East Coast forced to wait out Sandy until they could find space.
El-Al passengers waiting to board flight Photo: Sukree Sukplang/Reuters
I grew up with two Sandys. One was the effervescent Sandy Duncan who mesmerized
me playing Peter Pan, a character that I have often tried to encapsulate. The
second Sandy was a baseball player; in fact, Sandy Koufax was the epitome of
what every Jew growing up in LA should have been – athletic, proud of his
heritage and famously insisting he would not pitch on Yom
Recently, a third Sandy took over my life.
One thing you
can always expect in the travel business is unexpected shocks. There’s
There’s recession. There’s volcanic ash. And there are giant super
storms named Sandy, which last month upended a large swath of territory that
included New York City and New Jersey. When all was said and done, airlines
cancelled more than 20,000 flights, erasing almost $200 million from their
As the winter season has only begun, the lessons one can learn
from Sandy should be memorized by all travelers.
Our office, along with
thousands of other travel agencies throughout the world, worked 24/7, nonstop
for three straight days. Staff were surly, sleep deprived, challenged and
chastised by customers simply desiring solutions to their problems.
vast majority of airline sites were ill-equipped to handle the storm. Too often
they had the following notice flashing across their top of their sites:
‘SUPERSTORM SANDY ADVISORY: For customers affected by Superstorm Sandy, we offer
the ability to change your flights. Learn more by calling our number.’ When you
attempted to call the airline, be it American Airlines or JetBlue, the wait
stretched into hours.
In Israel, most of the airlines affected were
overwhelmed by the sheer number of calls and the most common sound one heard was
of the constant busy tone.
Initially several airlines were ill-equipped
to make the simple decision whether to depart Tel Aviv and attempt to land in
JFK or Newark Airport. The first crack in the armor came from United Airlines,
who early Sunday morning announced that no flights would depart Tel Aviv from
Sunday evening until Tuesday evening.
This early warning allowed travel
agents to rebook all clients who were simply flying via Newark to a destination
in the US, like LA or Chicago, to fly through Europe bypassing Newark
completely. One of the advantages that UA has, being part of the Star Alliance,
is that Lufthansa, Swiss Air and Air Canada could process, space permitting,
those United fliers.
Online, though, UA passengers were told they could
only take another United Airlines flight forcing them to delay their trip by
As the day darkened, both Delta and El Al were emphatic
that they would be able to land in JFK and Newark before Sandy
Both online and via the telephone, clients were assured that
they had selected an airline they could rely upon.
Consider the Phillips,
an older couple living in Israel’s north, with a lengthy bus ride just to get to
the airport. Flying on Delta Airlines, via JFK, their desired destination was
Several phone calls to their travel consultant and Delta
Airlines gave them the confidence to board the bus to Ben-Gurion Airport. Sadly
though, they had no access to a cell phone.
Sometime after 7:00 p.m. as
the Phillips meandered down the highway, Delta decided to cancel their flight.
They discovered that fact when they arrived at the airport. No compensation for
the bus was offered and they found refuge with friends not far from the
Russell M. heard the news from his taxi driver as he was
approaching the airport. El Al too, was forced to cancel both their night
flights to Newark and JFK. Joel Z was apoplectic when he too, on his way to the
airport after being assured that his plane would take off, was forced to
hightail it home.
Business clients and leisure passengers started phoning
incessantly, demanding compensation for wasted taxis. At this late hour, there
was no chance to rebook them on a European airline until the following morning.
Letters from lawyers arrived asking who to sue; others took a calmer attitude
realizing it was better that they stayed at home.
Then Sandy hit land and
the damage was almost as forecast: Newark Airport bereft of electricity;
LaGuardia Airport turned into a tributary with water throughout. Public
transportation and Wall Street, along with schools, remained shut. Hotels were
happy to extend hospitality to stranded passengers as everyone waited with bated
breath for word when the airports would reopen.
Then the emergency trips
Her grandmother died, she had to get out.
mother was having an operation, he had to be there. Three days of canceled
flights meant a backup of near historic proportions; approaching what we all
went through during 9/11.
Clients were stuck in Europe unable to get to
New York; others on the East Coast forced to wait out Sandy until they could
Moreover, all those passengers whose flights were canceled
were not automatically put on the first flights when airports reopened. No
airline would bump, nor should they, the passenger whose good fortune had him
scheduled to fly after Sandy had ended. It’s something that we get queried about
The Phillips agent rebooked them on Delta, calculating that
there was a plane on the ground at Ben-Gurion Airport and that JFK would reopen.
After three days they finally boarded a plane, confident they would be in
Baltimore before noon. A few hours sleep on the plane, combined with an
excellent entertainment system, left them feeling relieved the worst was
After breakfast was served, the pilot’s announcement that they were
landing in Detroit as JFK had not been cleared for landing had them fraught with
worry. Happily, a Delta representative met them in Detroit, rebooked them on a
flight to Baltimore and the reunion with their family finally took
Menachem was not as triumphant. His phone call was short and
simple – his mother in New York was to undergo surgery and he had to be
Simply finding a seat was near impossible; but there was one in
business class if he flew Tel Aviv to Rome on El Al and Rome to JFK on American.
Finding this an opportune arrangement, knowing the storm had passed and that JFK
had announced she would reopen the next day, he purchased the ticket.
next when Menachem checked in, the El AL representative tagged his bags all the
way to JFK. In Rome, he approached American Airlines to find out which gate his
plane departed from. Curiously, American told him that, while JFK was open,
American had cancelled their flight the previous evening.
Why El AL
boarded him was a mystery and why El Al said they were ignorant of that fact is
Bouncing from American to El Al, with both vociferously
refusing to take responsibility, Menachem started calling and emailing his
travel consultant. She worked nonstop to find a solution, completely aware that
he would be stranded in Rome as both airlines were impotent.
a flight via London to Boston was her ingenious solution and AA permitted his
ticket to be reissued. Even better news awaited him upon arrival at London; AA
found space for him on a flight to JFK.
Barry L. was due to return to
Israel from LA via Newark on United toward the end of Sandy’s visit. Astute
enough to realize it may prove impossible, he started contacting his travel
consultant asking about alternatives.
Assuaged that he would be able to
fly back via Frankfurt if Newark remained closed, Barry was able work
uninterrupted, and after 48 hours with the airport still closed, his agent
quickly rerouted him via Frankfurt.
Weather, that act of God, is still
the largest challenge for the airline industry. Even with better forecasting, no
airline is able to mothball planes at every destination to clear up the backlog
of passengers. No airline, as good as it may be, is able to deal with the
onslaught of consumers desperately trying to make changes.
reason there are still travel agents, prospering throughout the world. So, next
time you have to decide on whether to purchase online or from a travel agent,
check carefully when the next storm is due.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of
For questions & comments, email him at