So here it is, the full story with all the gritty details. From cancelled flights to unannounced delays, from death marches through the Madrid airport to sleeping in moldy hotel rooms.
Chapter 1: The cancelled flight
Our tale begins in the fall, shortly after booking four tickets with Iberia Airlines to visit my family in the US this Christmas. Normally when I go home for a visit, I go for 4-6 weeks, since I so rarely get to see my family, but this year we were bringing along Rainer’s nephew, who had school off from December 20 through January 7, so we had to limit our visit to these dates. I wasn’t quite ready to fly alone with a baby yet, I was going to save that for my next trip back. We ended up booking our trip from December 20 to January 5, to maximize the time I would have with my family and that they in turn would have with Oliver. A few weeks after we booked, we received a letter that our return flight had been cancelled and we were rebooked on a flight later in the week. This wouldn’t work because Rainer’s nephew Paul had school. We called and complained, how can they just cancel our flight and move our dates? Apparently, as the agent explained to us, there were more important routes that the planes were needed for, and Iberia would not book us on another airline (we asked), so our only option was to fly back two days earlier than planned. I hadn’t been home in 18 months and instead of 16 days, I was now only going to have 14 days with my family! Was there an apology at least? Nope, only a, “Tough luck. You should have read the microscopic fine print.”
Chapter 2: Customer service? Iberia don’t need no stinkin’ customer service!
We flew out of Frankfurt, through Madrid, to Washington DC. In Madrid, I went up to the Iberia gate agent to ask if there was a way for us to get seats next to each other for the long trans-Atlantic flight, since we were not seated together. He ordered me to, “Sit down and take a rest,” because the gate agent had more important things to do than work, like chat with a Madrid airport security guard (who doesn’t have to do much apparently, there was no addition security and our passports weren’t even checked as we boarded the flight to DC – so even if the rest of my story doesn’t deter you, there is probably a higher risk of being blown up by a terrorist if you fly Iberia). During the flight, the attendants didn’t seem interested in clearing away our dinner trays, I guess if all the passengers are pinned in their seats, it makes a lot less work for the crew!
Chapter 3: The Waiting Game
Our vacation came and went much too quickly. Our flight home to Germany was to depart Dulles Airport at 8:55pm. At 6:00pm, I called Iberia’s 1-800-number from my mom’s restaurant to check whether the flight was on time. I called 5 times and was hung up on 5 times. I went to the computer and checked the Internet. Everything was set, the flight was on time. We made the 20 minute drive to the airport and my brothers dropped us off.
We should have gotten suspicious at the enormous line, or the fact that it wasn’t moving. We didn’t reach the Iberia counter until 9pm, 5 minutes after the scheduled departure of the plane. It was not until we reached the agent that anyone bothered to inform us that Iberia had sent the wrong plane from Madrid and it was not large enough to accommodate the number of people booked to fly that evening. We needed to wait for a larger plane to arrive, our new departure time was 2:30am, arriving in Madrid at 3pm the following day. Why they couldn’t tell everyone waiting in line when we first got there, I don’t know. It would have been nice to have my family there to pick us up and take us home for the wait… but back to the check-in: Three Iberia agents were needed to book our connection at 4pm to Frankfurt. We strongly doubted that it would be possible to make this flight. We asked if there wasn’t a later flight they could book us on, but no, they assured us that this would work – after they spent 30 minutes trying to rebook our seats because they insisted that we had booked e-tickets for Rainer, Paul and I, while booking a paper ticket for Oliver. I stated that I booked all tickets online at the same time, but somewhere this got screwed up and, it seems, the employees were doing this for the first time (this is a recurring thought throughout our entire experience with Iberia).
By the time we were out of the line and able to get to a pay phone (since our German cell phones don’t work in the US), my family was heading to bed and it wasn’t worth it to drive out, bring us home, then drive us back to the airport, so we headed out to the gate for the long wait.
To make the 5.5 hour delay up to us, Iberia issued us $36 in credit ($12 each) for any restaurant in the airport. The thing was, the restaurants and food places had all closed or were in the process of closing. The only place open was a Starbucks, so we bought $36 worth of muffins, cookies and coffee to tide us over.
The boarding time came and went. The flight took off after 3am. The flight attendants didn’t seem to know how to install the bassinet for Oliver, and they never brought us the flight pack with diapers, wipes, a bib, and blanket, or the two jars of baby food that we received for him on the flight to DC two and a half weeks earlier.
Chapter 4: The Madrid Death March
We arrived at 4pm, the same time that our Frankfurt flight was departing. Just outside of the arrival gate was a customer service desk, where we joined the line of all the other passengers who also needed to be rebooked. After about 45 minutes, Rainer made it to the front of the line, where the agent informed him that we needed to change terminals and go the the help desk at the H gates. “Why?” Rainer asked. Apparently this guy wasn’t in the mood to rebook people anymore and decided to just send the rest of us to someone else. He refused to help any more people. Nice.
We had to take the shuttle and walk forever to get to the next customer service desk. Here we were informed by a female Iberia employee that we needed someone in a red coat and she was only issued a green coat. We needed to leave this desk and find another service desk. It only took her directions, a janitor, and three info desks to direct us to the appropriate counter. During this time I had to remove my shoes due to the screaming blisters that had developed on my feet. We arrived at 4pm and had been looking for help since then, what time do you think we were finally helped? 5pm? 6pm? 6:30pm? Nope, we (and many of our fellow passengers who’d made the march with us) finally got to someone willing to help us at 7pm.
Chapter 5: A Birthday to Remember
We wanted to be in Frankfurt that night. It was Paul’s 16th birthday and he was completely miserable. The agent told us to calm down, if we raised our voices at him, he would be forced to yell at us and then there would be hell to pay and we wouldn’t like that at all. He informed us that the last flight to Frankfurt with Iberia was already full and we wouldn’t be able to get to the gate in time even if it wasn’t. So we told him to book us on another airline. He proceeded to list slowly, one-by-one, all the flights that would have gotten us to Frankfurt if the first guy had helped us, but that by now, we had already missed, or wouldn’t be able to catch. Thanks dude, that’s so helpful.
In the end he booked us on a flight the next morning and promised us a 4 star Madrid hotel with dinner and breakfast included. And what was his response to the fact that it was Paul’s 16th birthday? An apology? A weak Happy Birthday? Nope, he just shrugged his shoulders. Did they even get us a taxi to the hotel? Nope, we had to wait 20 minutes outside in the cold with a baby for a dingy hotel shuttle.
Chapter 6: The Final Chapter a.k.a. Let’s just get this sad story over with
Not only did the hotel room smell musty, there was mold growing in the corners, the paint on the bathroom ceiling was peeling off and underneath was a nice layer of rusty orange mold. In the basement restaurant that reeked of chlorine bleach, we were given a choice of two options for our dinner. Paul’s dinner was still slightly frozen, none of the dinners were very appetizing. We went to bed to try to get some rest, until 10pm came along and we found out that our room was directly above a nightclub. When morning came, we had to leave for the airport before breakfast was served, not that we really cared at all at that point.
The final leg of our flight was uneventful, except for one humongous security violation. The reinforced cockpit door stayed open for much of the flight. Ummm, you’d think that with the Madrid bombings and all, Iberia would take security a little more seriously.
At least our bags made it.