Travel delays can be a team sport

After weeks of walking between the raindrops of flight delays and cancellations, I got soaked coming home from Toronto after the Collision conference there. And while Air Canada started things by cancelling my Thursday-evening flight, I managed to compound it with some avoidable clumsiness of my own that ensured I would not arrive at my house until around 12:30 Friday.

Things started going sideways for my YYZ-DCA flight by midday Thursday, when the Flightradar24 app reported that the regional jet assigned to operate it had fallen hours behind schedule as it hopped from Montreal to Atlanta before coming to Toronto. Air Canada’s site kept listing this flight on time, but at 5:52 p.m. the airline texted and e-mailed that it had canceled AC 8786 due to “the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on aviation which includes government entry requirements, travel advisories, crew constraints, and local movement restrictions.”

That e-mail said the airline was “looking for an alternative flight,” after which I soon found one in United’s app: Air Canada’s last YYZ-IAD flight that night. Alas, Air Canada’s phone line dumped me after playing a goodbye-and-good-luck message: “Due to extremely high call volume, we apologize that we are not able to place you on hold.” And while its site had a rebooking tool, it didn’t list the Dulles flight.

An Air Canada CR900 regional jet at Toronto Pearson International Airport, photographed from a boarding ramp.

But Air Canada’s Twitter profile welcomed direct messages, so I tried that before accepting the site’s least-bad alternative, an nonstop to BWI at 8 a.m. Friday. I sent a DM asking for the YYZ-IAD flight and listing my booking code and then didn’t get an acknowledgment–until 14 minutes later, when a rep replied to confirm my requested rebooking.

“You will need to check-in for this flight,” the rep advised.

If only she’d added “in the next 20 minutes.”

I hustled over to Toronto’s Union Station for the next Union Pearson Express train and didn’t start to check in until reaching the UP Express waiting area. That’s when I hit an obstacle I had not experienced checking in via my phone the night before: AC’s mobile site didn’t show any way to upload my phone’s picture of my vaccination card or the SMART QR code generated from those records, instead directing me to take a picture of either.

Unfortunately, I lost my paper vax card a few months ago (which had until then seemed a sentimental-value problem), and I didn’t think to open my laptop and use my phone to take a photo of the picture of the card or the screenshot of the QR code saved in Google Photos. Instead, I selected an option to verify my check-in at the airport, thought I’d try to check in again using a different browser–and then got a message that check-in wasn’t available.

This whole time, I had been assuming I had 60 minutes pre-departure to check in. That’s the rule I’d seen listed before for international flights without checked baggage but had not researched further–leaving me unaware that YYZ’s cut-off time is 90 minutes.

Inwardly cursing my own stupidity as my train pulled out of Union, I switched back to my DM thread with AC, asked if I’d screwed up everything, and had a different rep assure me: “Not to worry, you will be able to complete the check-in at the airport!”

The rep was incorrect and the rule was correct. By the time I got to Pearson and jogged to the check-in area for U.S.-bound flights (while seeing in Flightradar24 that the IAD flight itself would depart hours late, because that incoming aircraft left Chicago three hours behind schedule), nobody was left at Air Canada’s stations except for two reps at a special-assistance desk who had passengers in line ahead of me with their own complex problems.

When my spot came up 20 or so minutes later, a fatigued but still polite agent said the system would not allow her to check me in–and besides, security and customs preclearance for U.S.-bound flights had already closed for the evening.

This agent said she would put me on the 8 a.m. Baltimore flight; having heard her colleague tell another delayed traveler that Air Canada would cover his hotel costs, I asked her if the airline could make the same accommodation in my case. To my pleasant surprise, she said the airline would reimburse me for up to $300.

As she then worked on my flight rebooking, I sat down on the nearest bench, opened my laptop to reserve a hotel, and got into a conversation with an even more frazzled traveler–a Toronto grandmother who had seen a flight cancellation thwart her attempt to visit her son in Alexandria. I described how I’d foolishly thrown away my shot at getting home that night, said it was a rough summer for airlines all over the U.S., and wished her luck getting to my city in the morning.

After a few hours of inadequate sleep in a Marriott Fairfield outside of YYZ and breakfast split between two Air Canada lounges, I finally boarded the Baltimore flight and slept through most of it. I rushed out of the terminal to the stop for the shuttle bus to the BWI rail station–and a minute later, the Toronto woman showed up, tired and unsure about how to get to D.C. I remembered my mother-in-law telling me about having the same experience years ago.

I said I was happy to walk her through what is, objectively speaking, one of the worst airport-to-rail connections in the U.S., and then we could take the train together if that would help. We had a pleasant conversation at the station waiting for the next MARC to D.C. that continued on the ride into Union Station, and then we headed to our separate family reunions.

Lesson learned: A trip interruption, even if partly self-inflicted, that only delays your return by 14 hours and allows you to be of some small service to a fellow passenger is not the worst thing in the traveling world.

Hertz IT needs some work

Renting a car for the first time in two years and change proved to be more high-maintenance than I’d expected, and I can’t even blame the crack this vehicle sustained in its windshield after a passing truck in southside Virginia kicked up a rock at just the right time.

Instead, my surprise was waiting in the mail two weeks after I’d wrapped up my drive testing for PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks report: a letter from Hertz Vehicle Control informing me that this car was “seriously overdue” and if that I did not return it within 10 days of receipt, “felony grand theft auto charges will be promptly filed with law enforcement.”

The problems with this letter started with its third line, complaining that I had not parked the car at the BWI rental-car center. Pursuant to the rental-car agreement for this assignment, I had dropped it off in Atlanta at the ATL rental-car center–where I had waved over a Hertz attendant to point out the windshield damage and then seen her note that by writing a large X on a window.

I had not asked for a printed receipt because I’ve spent a few decades renting cars on and off and had never had an issue with my return of a car vanishing down a bit bucket. I should have noticed that Hertz did not e-mail me a receipt, but I had a family trip to distract me and I had not received any feedback suggesting this car was lost–no e-mails, no phone calls, no late charges. Plus, my prior Hertz rental in the spring of 2019 had been completely satisfactory.

Not for the first time, Twitter made it easy to resolve this customer-service problem. My cranky tweet mentioning @Hertz about the nastygram got a prompt Twitter response inviting me to provide details via direct message; I did, and less than an hour a Hertz rep DMed to say “I have just sent an alert to the location to have them close out your contract and email you the final receipt.”

The next day, I got a reply to the e-mail I’d sent first to the address listed in that Hertz letter, apologizing for the mixup: “There was a delay in the contract being closed, which triggered the automatic overdue letter.”

I couldn’t resist writing back: “I have to ask: Is your normal first notice of an overdue vehicle involve a threat of felony grand theft auto charges? I did not appreciate being treated that way.”

The response: “I do apologize, unfortunately, the letter is standard verbiage that is sent to every file that is triggered as an overdue. That’s why we include at the bottom if it’s sent in error, to please let us know.”

I appreciate these apologies–especially if they stick and I don’t get any other letters asking about this vehicle–but the opening notice of an overdue car really shouldn’t include a threat of felony charges. On the other hand, I recognize that this could have gone much worse.

Ranking U.S. airport rail connections

PORTLAND–The easiest part of my journey here Thursday for this year’s XOXO festival was the last leg: a roughly half-hour ride on the light rail from the airport to downtown.

Many cities do not offer that kind of convenience, leaving visitors to choose between infrequent buses that get stuck in traffic and don’t have enough room for luggage or ride-hailing services that may not even save that much money over taxis (sorry, New Orleans; you’re guilty on both counts here). But not all airports with rail service get the basics right: a quick and obvious route from terminal to train, frequent service, a one-seat ride to downtown, and plenty of connecting service once you get there.

Here’s my sense of how 10 U.S. airport rail connections rate. It could have been an even dozen–I’ve also appreciated MARTA’s one-seat ride to ATL in Atlanta and availed myself of SEPTA’s less-frequent commuter-rail airport service in Philadelphia–but both of those happened in the prior century, and I’d rather refresh my memories of each first.

ORD: You do have to walk what feels like half a mile of underground corridors to get to the Blue Line station, but then you’ve got a traffic-free 45-minute, $5 ride to the Loop that runs 24 hours a day. Bonus: CTA is one of the very few U.S. transit agencies to take NFC phone payments instead of making visitors choose between paying a paper-fare surcharge or buying a smart card that will collect dust in a drawer later on.

PDX airport rail stationPDX: TriMet’s Red Line light rail takes you to the middle of downtown in about half an hour, the station itself is just outside one end of the terminal, and trains offer almost round-the-clock service, even on Sundays. As in Chicago, you can pay your fare via NFC; unlike CTA, Tri-Met also caps your daily fare at $5 if you use that option.

DCA: National Airport’s Metro connection checks off all the boxes, including a walk from the station to the terminal shorter than many of the planes waiting on the other side. And having spent the years before National’s new terminal opened in 1997 taking a shuttle bus to the Interim Terminal makes me appreciate this convenience even more. But: On weekends, Metro opens too late for even 8 a.m. flights.

SEA: Each time I’ve taken the 38-minute ride on the Link light rail from Sea-Tac to downtown Seattle, I think of Steve Dunne from “Singles” and his dreams of a Supertrain for commuters. Having to walk through a parking garage to reach the airport station, however, is not so super.

SFO: Putting SFO’s BART station at the end of a wye was an epic blunder: At best, only one in two southbound trains from San Francisco stop at the airport—at a steep fare of $9.15 from Embarcadero–and taking Caltrain can require separate BART rides from Milbrae north to San Bruno, then south to SFO. I appreciate being able to walk from the BART station to T3, but everybody would be better off if the Airtrain inter-terminal shuttle went across 101 to a single station for BART and Caltrain.

DEN: The RTD’s A line electric commuter rail replaced a bus that only ran every hour or so with service every 15 minutes during the day, and being able to end your trip downtown at beautiful Union Station is a treat. But at $9, this is on the expensive side.

BOS: You have to take a bus to the T’s Blue Line stop (so does this even count as airport rail access?) and then connecting to the T’s other lines is as much of a mess as anything in downtown Boston. And if you don’t already own a CharlieCard, you’ll pay a paper-fare surcharge because the T doesn’t seem to grasp the importance of selling its smartcards in all of its stations.

EWR: Newark’s station on the Northeast Corridor allows Amtrak to serve as a connecting “flight”–United will sell you that routing if you want to travel from Stamford or New Haven to one of its own destinations. But if you’re only going to Manhattan, NJ Transit’s schedule can leave you waiting at off hours, and the $13 fare is the second most I’ve paid to take a train to a U.S. airport.

CLE: Fun fact: Cleveland was the first North American city to institute rapid-transit service to its airport. And if you start your journey to Hopkins from downtown, your commute can begin in the historic confines of the Tower City complex. But Northeast Ohio is not exactly a paradise of rail transit, which cuts down on the utility of this connection.

JFK: Taking the Long Island Rail Road from Penn Station to JFK’s Airtrain was easy enough the one time I did that a few years ago, but if I had to make that commute more often I imagine I’d tire of the $15 combined cost of LIRR plus Airtrain–or the slower ride on the subway.

BWI: For passengers coming from D.C., BWI’s rail station takes the basics of Newark’s Amtrak connection and makes them worse: MARC runs less often than NJ Transit, especially on weekends, and instead of a short monorail ride you have a bus that takes longer and runs less often. Also, the BWI rail station itself is a miserable concrete bunker that doubles as a cellular dead zone. If, on the other hand, you’re coming from Baltimore, you can take the light rail direct to the airport—but I wouldn’t know about that.

So what about my own favorite Washington-area infrastructure project, phase 2 of Metro’s Silver Line? That will offer a one-seat ride from Dulles to downtown at what I’m guessing will cost $6 and change at peak hours, $4 off-peak and should take about 50 minutes, going by a published 43-minute estimate of travel from Rosslyn to Dulles.

(Having the station be across the hourly parking lot from the terminal doesn’t bother me a bit; the added walking over the rejected station option closer to the terminal, factoring out moving walkways, is 260 feet, and if that’s too much pedestrian locomotion then Dulles isn’t the airport for you anyway.)

They can’t finish that thing soon enough, and when they do I anticipate it will occupy a spot on this list right after National.