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 370 (photo credit: Sukree Sukplang/Reuters)
El-Al passengers waiting to board flight 370
(photo credit: 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 Kippur.
Recently, a third Sandy took over my life.
One thing you can always expect in the travel business is unexpected shocks. There’s war.
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 earnings.
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.
The 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 several days.
As the day darkened, both Delta and El Al were emphatic that they would be able to land in JFK and Newark before Sandy arrived.
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 Baltimore.
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 airport.
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 started occurring.
Her grandmother died, she had to get out.
His 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 find space.
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 constantly.
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 over.
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 place.
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 there.
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.
The 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 another question.
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.
Finding him 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.
It’s the 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 Ziontours Jerusalem.
For questions & comments, email him at
[email protected]