Not Worthwhile Anymore

I used to love Northwest Airlines, flying them regularly from Amsterdam to Minneapolis/St. Paul for my yearly fall vacations (until I moved to California in the fall of 2007). KLM and Northwest were an alliance, but while Amsterdam is KLM’s global headquarters, Minneapolis is Northwest’s and so all my flights there were operated by Northwest. In all my years of flying Northwest, the most harrowing experience I’ve had with them was a pitiful delay of about 40 minutes when, one time, take-offs were backed up on the runway due to weather conditions. When I heard the news of Northwest being bought by / merged with Delta (not exactly the nicest of airlines), I was thoroughly saddened.

I’m explaining all of this so that you know where I come from with the following account:

About a week ago, my road trip took me to Canada for a couple of days of Toronto and Kingston exploration. It was delightful, but as my girlfriend and I drove back to Rochester where she would board a flight to San Francisco we got stuck at U.S. Customs in Niagara Falls. The Customs agents wanted to have a chat with me because I was extending my tourist visa by another three months (somewhat necessary as I was only halfway into my road trip). This whole process was about as delightful as participating in a game of Russian Roulette (and is far from an unusual scenario for U.S. Customs).

My girlfriend and I had planned in a two hour buffer period for our stop in Niagara Falls and the U.S. border crossing. I suspected that they’d need to investigate, given that I have a revoked work visa in my passport, but to think that this two hour period was still not going to be enough? Be it oversight on my account, or simply a poor reflection on the U.S. Customs process and their pro-active hostility towards non-U.S. citizens, the net result was that we missed the check-in at Rochester airport by about 5 minutes.

Now, I’ve once missed a flight myself due to U.S. Customs; back in June when I flew from Vancouver to San Francisco, I wasn’t aware that the full customs process took place in Vancouver before the flight—rather than at arrival, as I’ve always experienced it coming into the U.S. before—and as a result of questioning ended up missing my flight by 15–20 minutes. However, the nice folks at Vancouver Airport (my trip was United/Delta) simply rebooked me to another flight later that day (on Air Canada, interestingly), at no extra cost. It was the kind of experience I was expecting to take place at Rochester, but it was far from what actually happened.

As we got there, the Northwest desk agents were already gone, so the agents at the Delta desk next to it (though I suppose nowadays affiliated thanks to the Delta-Northwest merger) said we should call Northwest booking. We called Northwest, and after five minutes of stumbling through their automated system1 we got to speak to an agent. An agent who, quite disappointingly, simply refused to rebook her to the exact same flight that was due to leave an hour later and still had seats available. Instead, we had to book a brand new ticket at pricy last-minute prices. We booked the same flight for two days later at $340, giving us a bit more time together, and gave them my credit card information as I promised her I’d pay for her rebooking if we wouldn’t make it due to my customs delay. The agent then took all the information and gave her a Confirmation number for the flight two days later. He told us she should get the details in an email shortly, as well.

Two days later we get to the airport for her new flight, well on time. She still hasn’t gotten an email with the details, but we had the confirmation number and flight numbers written down from when we spoke with the agent on the phone. Troublingly, when we got to the desk the confirmation number turned out to be insufficient. What apparently happened was that the agent we spoke to on the phone and who booked her new flight, failed to book it properly. He gave us a confirmation number without, apparently, booking the flight. The agent at the desk said that the reservation was put into the system, but it wasn’t paid for and so it lacked a ticket number.

It was at this point that I started to seriously question the validity of the term “confirmation number” under Northwest’s handling of the whole process, but out came the credit card again for yet another booking. Except this time, the price was brought up to $382 even though we had booked it at $340.

There are a couple of lessons we’ve learned from this story. First, never travel from Canada into the U.S. to catch a flight on the same day if you’re not a U.S. citizen. The customs process can be ridiculously time-consuming for completely arbitrary reasons, and it’s just not worth the risk, stress and frustration. For another, missing your flight sucks so if you have any way in which you can avoid it from happening, do it. Lastly, it’s important to remember that airports and airlines are not intrinsically linked. An airport experience can be both terrific and terrible, regardless of what airline you’re flying, and vice versa. In this case, however, Northwest just disappointed us on several accounts in a row.

  1. Precious minutes, since if we could’ve just gotten through in the first place when we rushed in, my girlfriend could have easily made her flight

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