Our Family’s First Flight Didn’t Happen

If you’re anything like me, you’ve thought a lot in the past year+ about what it will be like when you finally board that first post-vaccination flight. Erik and two of our kids were scheduled to walk through airport security for the first time last week, and they were pretty excited and only a little nervous. Except, it didn’t go according to plan.

Maybe you heard that Southwest Airlines experienced two major disruptions last week. They had some kind of nationwide computer glitch, and ended up canceling a lot of flights. I bet you can see where this is going. I was supposed to take Erik and the kids to Oakland Airport at about noon on Tuesday, and I couldn’t wait to get them out of the house, because Tuesday was also the day that our cleaning crew visited for the first time since March 2020. Fortunately, there was only going to be about an hour of overlap between when the cleaners arrived and the family cleared out. I spent the morning nagging them to please put that document in your bag, yes I know you feel like the counter is the place it’s meant to be right now, but I’d feel so much better if I could watch you put it in there and zip it up. And, hey, did you pack a bathing suit? Did you pack a raincoat? Etc.

Then, at about 10:30, Erik received a curt text informing him that the flight was canceled. Naturally, our cleaners arrived right at that moment, so we had to put the emergency aside to greet them and put the dogs in the yard and let them know where we wanted them to start. Why does everything always have to happen at once?

Once the cleaners were settled in, we went online to see if we could reschedule there, but because we had a companion attached to the itinerary, we were advised to call instead. Then the web site stopped responding anyway.

Erik spent about half an hour hitting redial, without even being able to get into Southwest’s hold queue. After awhile, I took over, and succeeded in getting put on hold, with the phone robot lady telling me my wait would be about two hours. We went out to lunch. I stopped by Nutmeg’s high school to pick up her yearbook (she was already away at camp and couldn’t do it herself). I walked home, all the while listening to Southwest hold music playing on speaker from my back pocket. Why yes, everyone I encountered was impressed by my soundtrack.

Just as I was about to arrive home, a Southwest agent picked up. Right around the same time, Erik received a text telling him their flight was rebooked, for Thursday, and it had two layovers. I told the lady I really, really hoped she could find something better than that, since our youngest is still unvaccinated, and having him meet two airplanes full of people and visit three different airports was bad enough. He didn’t need to be in four airports and on be on three planes in one day.

The agent, who was amazingly cheerful considering what an absolute nightmare day this must have been for the staff, helped us check several other airports for better alternatives. We tried flying out of San Francisco and San Jose in addition to Oakland, and we tried flying into Chicago in addition to Milwaukee. Eventually, I realized that this would be easier if I was on the web site looking for flights while we talked, so just as the agent was started to book us on one so-so flight, I discovered a better one, a direct flight from San Jose to Midway, that actually left Wednesday instead of Thursday. She backed out of the flight she’d been about to book to try booking the one I suggested, but informed me that there was only one seat available on that flight. Then, when she tried to go back to the flight she’d been about to book, there was only one left available on that flight. So the flight they ended up taking was even less ideal: Morning departure out of SFO, three hour layover in Denver, and evening arrival in Milwaukee, on Thursday.

One interesting thing I learned during this process was the concept of co-terminals. Co-terminals are airports that the airlines consider interchangeable for purposes of ticketing. The agent told me that San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose are all co-terminals, but that Milwaukee and Midway are not.

What that meant for our situation is that if we rebooked our canceled flight to arrive at Midway instead of Milwaukee, we would have to pay the price difference between our booked-ahead prive and whatever the flights cost at the last minute.

Personally, I thought that was ridiculous considering that Southwest had just canceled the flight and wasn’t able to rebook it until two days later, but since it didn’t end up making a difference in our case I wasn’t about to waste this poor woman’s time arguing about it now.

It’s a very weird feeling when you cleared your schedule to go on a trip, then suddenly, you’re not going anywhere. When we got back from lunch, the kids kind of sat around the living room, staring at each other. Their stuff was in bags. Finally they went off to the park. That night we enjoyed a family game of Settlers of Catan, and although I was disappointed for them and their shortened trip, I couldn’t help appreciating the unexpected family time.

On Thursday, I drove them to SFO and they flew to Milwaukee without incident. They were there just in time to swim in their grandparents’ pool one last time, since those grandparents sold their house the very next day to downsize to a condo. Really, we told everyone, we were very lucky, because if this same SNAFU had happened when the family was on the way to a wedding or a funeral, they might have missed the event altogether. And the last time we had a cancellation that led to a delay of more than a day, we had been headed to Florida for a visit of just a few days, so we ended up having to drive there instead. (From Wisconsin. Driving to Florida from California would be insane.)

Still, I can’t help mulling over what we could have done better. I regret listening to the instructions on the Southwest web site to wait to rebook until I could get through on the phone. What I probably should have done: Book a new flight online ASAP, and just cancel the old flight. Yes, it would have cost us more that way, but I bet we could have gotten them on a Wednesday flight if we hadn’t waited nearly two hours. And we have quite a few Southwest miles in our accounts so we feel a bit flush in that currency. But on the hectic day, it was hard to think what would be the best thing to do until it was too late.

Oh well! Now I’m just hoping that my own first post-vaccination flight goes smoothly next month, when it’s my turn to visit Wisconsin, along with Nutmeg.

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