Today was a bad day.
I’ve written extensively about how you can use your miles and points to leverage into amazing Business Class and First Class travel for over a year now. In that time, I have gone on some amazing trips and I’ve hopefully given you a glimpse into what’s possible. From fantastic food to showers at 32,000 feet, it can be simply devine but today … today was not one of those days.
As you probably know, we are wrapping up our luxury round-the-world trip and flying from Abu Dhabi (AUH) to New York (JFK) in Etihad’s Business Studio. That review is coming along with my review of the Etihad Apartments.
From there we were supposed to fly back from JFK to Vancouver (YVR) on Cathay Pacific First Class. If you recall, I was able to secure 3 First Class seats, which was quite a feat in of itself. From YVR we were going to take a quick Air Canada flight back to Calgary (YYC) and I gotta tell you, I was very much looking forward to seeing my dog again.
With this current trip, I constructed a Frankenflight by mixing multiple rewards into one trip. This provides you with a LOT of flexibility in your travel but opens you up to the potential of challenges if you misconnect.
And that’s exactly what happened.
For the record, nobody could have predicted this would have happened so it was almost impossible to plan for … well almost impossible.
The Bomb Cyclone happened. Prior to yesterday, I had no idea what a Bomb Cyclone was but now I am intimately familiar.
Our original itinerary had us into New York’s JFK at around 3:00 PM with our onward Cathay flight at 8:00 PM, leaving us 5 hours to make our connection. Plenty of time … or so I thought.
When we arrived at the Abu Dhabi airport 3.5 hours early, we had plenty of time to check out the airport and the Etihad Business Lounge but as we were checking in, the Duty Manager was going from agent to agent telling them to advise customers that the flight was delayed 13 hours … THIRTEEN HOURS?!?!?! Yes, 13 hours. This was by far the longest delay I have ever had to deal with and there was no reprise in sight.
The delay was because all New York airports were shut down thanks to this incredibly destructive weather pattern known as a Bomb Cyclone. In fact, there were over 4,000 flights outright canceled the day before, which leaves a huge backlog of passengers and flights trying to get home.
When I heard that the flight was delayed, I immediately sprung into action in order to find an alternative way home. I knew that there was a very strong possibility that we would misconnect with our Cathay flight as JFK was scheduled to reopen at 2AM EST with weather looking a lot more favorable for flights to arrive and depart on time. As the Cathay flight was coming from Hong Kong, in theory, there was very little chance that it would face any issues. If it was coming from HKG-JFK, it would have meant that they had flight clearance from the New York Port Authority and would have been in the queue for a gate assignment.
Etihad did a great job of making us comfortable and sent us in a limo (Mercedes Benz minivan) to the Marriott Al Forsan, which is an amazing property. This gave my wife and daughter some R&R time and me, some time to plot out our next move.
What Were Your Options?
To be honest, there weren’t a lot of options available to me, though I tried to piece together something for the entire day.
My first thought was that it made no sense to fly into New York because the rolling delays due to the shutdown of the airport would mean certain chaos at the airport with frustrated and angry people filling the airport demanding answers that reps almost certainly didn’t have.
While I did check Cathay availability for the next 3 days for the JFK-YVR route, there wasn’t a single seat available. Nothing for 3 straight days. This was true of every single airline that I looked at. I later found out through an Alaska rep that this is common practice in order to block off space for people that misconnected so they remove all inventory to accommodate those passengers, meaning if you are trying to find solutions on your own, you would be in for a bad time.
I checked all availability with Star Alliance Carriers and found the exact same result so rebooking myself was not going to be an option.
My next avenue was to see if Etihad was willing to fly us from Abu Dhabi to another North American city that they service directly. I wanted to avoid the Eastern Seaboard because they were similarly affected so my remaining options were Dallas, Chicago and Los Angeles. Dallas and Chicago showed no availability even for revenue seats for the next 2 days while flights to Los Angeles had some availability.
I first tried calling Etihad and dealt with reps that politely listened to my request and escalated the call to the ticketing agents. They were told that they needed to submit the request via email, which they did, and wait for a response. These reps promised a callback and unsurprisingly, none came for the entire day.
My next option was to jump in a cab back to the airport and deal with the Etihad staff there. I went directly to the Duty Manager with a couple of solutions in hopes that he could authorize a change in our flights. I had found a flight from Abu Dhabi to Frankfurt (FRA) on Etihad and then a codeshare flight from Frankfurt (FRA) directly to Calgary (YYC) on Air Canada/Lufthansa. The other alternative was to fly to Los Angeles (LAX) and then find out way home.
During my interactions with the Duty Manager, I was very polite and calm and explained the situation. Normally, this type of change would not be allowed without paying a change fee and a difference in fare but as this was an Irregular Operations (IRROP) situation so they have a bit more flexibility to accommodate abnormal change requests. Unfortunately even the Duty Manager could not unilaterally make the change as it had to go through Ticketing.
In my final hail Mary, I tried to see if they would put us on the same flight at a later date so that we could wait out the storm in 23˚C weather rather than -20˚C weather but alas, that was not possible either.
To their credit, the Etihad front desk staff did their best to convince the Ticketing department to make the change but in the end, they were unsuccessful as there were some difficult factors that they simply could not overcome.
- The biggest challenge that Etihad faced was that the ticket that we were booked on was an American Airline award redemption. In normal situations, Etihad cannot make changes to the ticket, only American can. I knew that but was hoping that because of the IRROP, they had more flexibility.
- While Etihad could have simply purchased a revenue ticket on our behalf, despite the fact that this was an American Airlines award ticket, they had no reason to. I later found out that the flight from AUH-LAX in Business Class would have cost 45,000 AED or about $15,000 CAD … each. As a non-statused Etihad member that is flying on an award ticket issued by a partner, it’s easy to see why they would have no inclination to make the change.
- I had no onward connection past JFK on this award so Etihad’s only obligation was to get us to New York, something I was trying to avoid due to the expected gong show that would await us there. As the flight was rescheduled for later the same day, Etihad was fulfilling its obligation to us as ticket holders.
- Etihad has no responsibility to ensure we connect to our Cathay flight, full stop. Cathay has no obligation to re-accommodate us because we would be considered no-shows if we didn’t make the flight.
- No Canadian credit card that I know of provides flight delay insurance for award tickets. I had used my Capital One Aspire card for my American Airlines taxes and the terms and conditions on the card state that I am afforded flight delay insurance if the “full price of the ticket is paid on the card”. I am almost certain that paying the taxes does not qualify but I will still call in to see if I am afforded any coverage.
- I had to deal with both Alaska Airlines and Aeroplan to try to cancel my connecting tickets and because Abu Dhabi is literally the other side of the world, time zones play a very large factor in what you can and can’t do. Both offices were shut down during the day in Abu Dhabi because it was late in the evening back in North America so I had to strategically structure my efforts first with Etihad and then with Alaska and Aeroplan later in the day.
- Because JFK is a major airport for many airlines, everyone’s call centre was backed up dealing with this issue so hold times were incredibly long (30-60 minutes).
- Here’s another kicker … the UAE does not allow VOIP calls so I had to make all my calls on my cell phone … not looking forward to that bill.
Alaska Airlines was showing availability from JFK-SEA-YYC on January 9th, which was 4 days after we were supposed to get home but it was the first confirmable seats available. Unfortunately, the cost was ridiculously high at 30,000 Alaska Miles in Economy per person. I booked the seats because I needed a way home and the Alaska rep told me that in the event that something opens up earlier, I could call in and have them make the change for no additional cost due to the Travel Waiver that was provided due to the weather system.
I canceled my 3 Cathay Pacific First Class tickets and was refunded 35,000 points for each seat as well as the tax ($5.90 USD each).
My next call was to Aeroplan. I pleaded my case to cancel and refund the miles (15,000 Aeroplan x 3) and while Aeroplan has a Travel Waiver in place as well, the YVR-YYC flight was wholly unaffected by the storm on the Eastern Seaboard so they could not extend the waiver. Due to Aeroplan’s ridiculous fees to cancel or change a ticket, it was better for me to simply lose the points. It hurts but such is life.
In the end, we are staying in New York for 3 days (or less if something opens up) without winter wear but with the combination of car rentals, the Subway, family, and a credit card, I’m sure we’ll survive.
The Lessons Learned
Frankenflights are an excellent way to build yourself a round-the-world trip but it comes with risks. If I could have started over, I would have done two things differently. First off, I would have used my US credit cards as they apparently provided more robust flight delay and cancellation insurance, even for award redemptions. The second thing would be to take out a separate flight delay/cancellation insurance policy. I would have cost something like $100 but it would have been money well spent as it would have allowed us to purchase winter weather wear as well as pay for any hotel and food we would need in order to get through our time in New York.
Ultimately, we spend 15,000 fewer miles on the trip overall but have Economy Class tickets to get from JFK-SEA-YY rather than our Cathay Pacific First Class flight from JFK-YVR and our Air Canada Business Class seat from YVR-YYC (no biggie).
Would I book a Frankenflight again? Without hesitation but I would make a couple of smarter decisions.
I hope that this doesn’t dissuade you from booking a similar flight but provides you with a necessary cautionary tale so that you don’t face the same situation yourself. It was a once-in-a-lifetime type trip with a once-in-a-lifetime storm system thrown in for good measure so don’t be scared that the same thing will happen to you.
Also published on Medium.