This is not like my normal posts here. This is a story. And while many stories are non-fiction, or based on fiction, this story is different. This story is true.
The day started off like most December days at Boston Logan Airport. Passengers were bustling about the terminal happy to be out of the bitter cold New England weather. The lobby was decorated for the season and holiday music filled the air. A couple of children were laughing and chasing each other in circles as people wove their way through the stanchions lining up to check into Iberia flight 2626, Boston to Barcelona.
Following normal airport etiquette, passengers filed into line, keeping their luggage close at hand and quietly talking with their own party. Once luggage was checked and a boarding pass was in hand, they made their way through security to quietly wait at gate 12. It was getting late now. The flight wasn’t set to leave until 10:25 pm. The shops and restaurants in terminal E were closing down one by one.
Boarding had already begun when a 30 minute delay due to mechanical issues was announced. One of the bars reopened for any thirsty passengers and the wait began. Later a 1 hour delay was announced. Eventually the flight was canceled. Passengers were directed to go back to the check in desks for a hotel voucher, unless you lived in Boston. Those who lived nearby were simply told to go home.
An Airbus a330 can carry ~250 passengers and this flight was full. The line for a hotel voucher quickly filled the stanchions, then wrapped through the empty terminal. We were there for several hours. The airport employees brought out cases of water and SunChips for the never ending line. A small group of passengers, who later would be among the first of the “chosen ones”, were sent to the Embassy Suites. The rest were sent to the Courtyard Marriott. Two hundred and eighteen people checked into the Marriott at 3:00 am that Sunday morning.
The passengers had started to talk among each other by now, sharing their stories and vital information that no one was getting from the airline. Waiting for the hotel shuttle, I spoke with a soldier on military leave. He was trying to get to Turkey to be with his dying Grandmother. He was also wearing shorts and a sweatshirt. When you leave from some place warm and fly to someplace even warmer, you don’t expect to be standing in line outside in a below freezing wind. Information wise, it seemed everyone was told to wait for an email with new flight itinerary. People wondered if they were supposed to stay up all night in case the new flight was going to leave early in the morning. When we got our hotel voucher, I asked the clerk if the plane was fixed, what time would it go. I was told probably around 2:00 – 3:00 pm that afternoon. That made sense. I also knew if that plane couldn’t be fixed, they would get another one for all of us, whether it was an Iberia Airways plane, or one they rented from another company. I mean, they couldn’t just leave us all stranded in Boston. Boy was I wrong about that.
I had a restless night of sleep and awoke to the sound of doors opening and closing in the hall and good morning greetings in English and Spanish. I even heard a faint, “did you get an email?”. On hearing that, I instantly sat up & checked my phone. The only email from Iberia I had was an online check in confirmation, oddly timestamped after the flight had already been canceled. I also didn’t check in online.
I nudged Howard and asked him to check his email. He made the actual booking so he would probably get the email before me but there was nothing new in his inbox. The night before he did get an email from Iberia. It said to wait for another email with our new booking information. This email had a phone number to call and a link to click to check your booking status. He clicked the link but it wasn’t working. There wasn’t any time for that though, we quickly got dressed & went down stairs to use our meal voucher before breakfast was over.
On the way down, I stopped by another room on our floor. We met the occupant, another passenger on flight 2626, in the elevator the night before. He gave us his room number and asked if we would touch base with him in the morning. He hadn’t received any kind of email from the airline so I gave him the phone number that was in the email from the night before. Later I learned that along with the link in the email that didn’t work, neither did the phone number.
The dining room was filled with passengers from our flight, many looking familiar by now. Everyone was asking about the email we were told to wait for. I met one girl who had received an email. She had been re-booked for the following Thursday, 5 days after the original flight. I saw her a few more times over the next couple days, silently wandering the hotel halls alone, staring at her phone. She was like a displaced ghost, waiting to cross to the other side.
Back at the airport, everyone lined up in the stanchions just like we had done twice the day before. A guy commented on how it was human nature to queue even if we didn’t know why. He was on his way to Barcelona for a job interview. One of those all day interviews with company meetings the following day. Had the original flight gone as planned, he would have had a day to explore Barcelona and rest up for the interview. The company paid for his ticket and purchased a new ticket for the next flight out when he told them what happened. Now he would have to rush to the interview as soon as his plane landed. He would still be walking in late.
For the other passengers, a few had been re-booked, but it was for the end of the week so they just booked their own ticket and were told to go to the check in desk for a refund. People who booked with a third party, like Kayak.com or Kiwi.com were trying to re-book through them. Unfortunately, but not surprising, the airline hadn’t officially canceled the flight so they couldn’t get re-booked until the cancellation was in the system.
The soldier I talked to the night before got to the airport an hour before Howard & I did that morning. He was a bit panicked because the board showed our flight leaving at 10:59 am. That was 20 minutes from now and no one was at the check in desk. We would never make it through security and to our gate in time. I told him the plane won’t leave with all of us here. They won’t fly and empty plane. Or would they?
Other passengers were on the phone with customer service, seemingly getting nowhere. Calling customer service was a whole new adventure, literally. It was like one of those phone call adventure games. Flight 2626 was actually a Level flight, operated by Iberia. When you called Level customer service you were told to call Iberia customer service, when you did that, you were told to call Level. If, and only if, you could get out of this infinite loop, you were told that you could only re-book your flight at the airport. So there we waited, like the customer service reps told us to.
In line, Howard & I took turns staying with our luggage or walking around. At one point I went to look at the board. Our flight was still there, but the time had changed to 2:59 pm and it said we were flying via EasyJet. Had they found us a new plane? If so, it was going to be tight to check us all in so we could get through security and to the gate in time. Especially since it was well past noon and there was no one at the check in desk.
Some rumors had started to spread as well. I heard that they did have an EasyJet plane for us but that one had mechanical issues too. Howard checked FlightRadar24.com to see if there were any EasyJet planes nearby, hopefully waiting for us to board. If there was, it didn’t have its’ transponder on.
Eventually, the originally flight was cancelled. Everyone who booked through a third party could get re-booked on the next possible flight or flights to their destination through the third party. The soldier rushed of to his new flight. A few other passengers, who had purchased new tickets, were flying out that afternoon on other airlines. Howard and I briefly considered buying new tickets but the price was going up and up as the seats sold out. It wasn’t that urgent that we get to Barcelona, we just wanted a short vacation. We decided to wait it out and see what happens.
What happened was an angry mob of passengers when two employees showed up to tell us all we had to call customer service to re-book.
The situation was so insane Howard actually lost his temper. He never does that. He still came off as cool and collected though, just forceful as he pushed through the crowd of passengers toward the employee and told her to talk to the customer service rep in Madrid, the rep who was telling us we had to re-book at the airport. She didn’t want to take the phone, but he pushed it closer to her face and demanded she take it. She did and began speaking in Spanish
From the look on the face of everyone there who spoke Spanish, the airport employee and the customer service rep had some choice words for each other. This did however give the passengers some hope. After the call, we were told to line up again and the 2 employees manned the check in desk. As each group approached the counter, our names were written down and we were told we were being re-booked. We would have an email with the new information in an hour. I wasn’t holding my breath for this but I didn’t want to risk missing a flight, so we went to the before security bar to wait for the email.
While sipping our beers we talked to a Croatian guy who was on our flight. It turns out he was one of the chosen ones. The night before he was at the Embassy Suites and had received an email with new flight information. He was leaving that evening hoping to eventually get home to Split. I said good day and thank you to him in Croatian and he smiled. Other passengers wandered in and out of the bar. The most asked question was still, “did you get an email?”.
There was a guy who started filming the first night interviewing people about the canceled flight. I think I said something sarcastic into his camera. He got me on camera a second time in the bar. This time he was in a video call with this girlfriend. She was pretty. He was anxious to get home to her. He had given up and bought a new ticket by this point too.
After 2 hours at the airport bar, it was no surprise we didn’t have an email with new flight info so we headed back to the hotel. We went to the restaurant with our dinner voucher where Tim joined us for dinner. Tim was the guy from the elevator the night before. Over dinner we learned his destination was Lyon, France and that he was considering giving up and going back home to Maine. I told him not to give up. A rock climber girl from our flight also joined us. Her boyfriend / climbing partner was in the room with the flu. Awful, but at least he had a comfortable bed to lay in.
After I ate I started calling customer service. It was a long tedious night. I took notes. Howard tried too. We got nowhere. Why wouldn’t they just re-book us on a flight?
EU Regulation 261/2004 requires airlines to compensate passengers in the event of denied boarding due to overbooking or cancellations over 2 hours. A lot of Americans don’t know about this. Some EU citizens may not think it applies to flights originating in the US, but it does if the flight travels 3000 km or more. We are all entitled to compensation. Howard and I made sure everyone we talked to knew about this. I hope everyone on flight 2626 files a claim and gets the maximum compensation.
We got up late after another restless night. We had a lunch voucher instead of a breakfast voucher for this day. Again, the dining room was filled with passengers from our plane. We had lost a few, but our numbers were still strong. A guy at the table next to us was on the phone, yelling at a customer service rep. Others wandered from table to table asking if anyone had any information. No one did.
There were so many people left in limbo. Everyone had their own story, their own reason for traveling, and their own astonishment at how we were all being treated. For Howard and I, our story began 2 days ago when we were trying to check in to this flight. The clerk at the Iberia desk saw we had one way tickets and wanted to know when we were coming back to the U.S. We told her we didn’t have the tickets yet as it would be 6 months before we returned. We showed her our tickets to Bulgaria for Wednesday, so we could prove we were leaving Spain, but they wanted proof we were leaving the EU. We said our plan was to leave Bulgaria at the end of January by train, heading to Macedonian which is not an EU member. It’s a complicated trip that involves 4 different trains. It says right on the railway’s website to buy this ticket at the train station, it can not be purchased online. You also can’t purchase train tickets more than 30 days in advance. The clerk and her supervisor were texting with their main office in Madrid but we were still refused boarding. After almost 2 hours taking up one of the check in counters, Howard asked, “if I buy a bus ticket to Bucharest, will you let us board?”. Tired of dealing with us, the supervisor said yes. Romania is in the EU, but at that point I don’t think they cared. We read that this could happen to us sometime, but it was based on the airline. No worries though, this is the last time we will ever fly on Iberia.
On the shuttle back to the airport were a couple girls. They were long term travelers too. I told them about the stupid bus ticket we had to buy. They didn’t have that problem traveling with one way tickets because they were from Canada. Canada has a different travel deal with the EU apparently. They had actually been enjoying the hotel stay after an extended time living in hostels. The girls said they hung out in the room watching TV the day before, not even bothering to go to the airport, just waiting for an email that never came.
In the airport the stranded passengers gathered at the check in desk. No employees were around and our flight was no longer listed on the board. Instead of forming a line, conglomerations of luggage formed, like piles of hay in a field, waiting to be bailed. No reason to keep our luggage separate. We were all traveling together. Like a united family, together in our quest to get on a flight. Some of us sat on the floor in a circle around an invisible campfire. Few people had any information. Across the group a girl cheered, “I just got the email! I’ve been re-booked!”. We all wished her well. There was no jealousy or envy when someone was chosen. If one of us was saved, we were all saved in a way. The camaraderie we shared with our fellow passengers was amazing. United in the face of a common enemy, we came together. Different people from all over the world, getting along perfectly, and supporting one another.
Stories and information were shared thoughout the group. The water was long gone and the box of SunChips was empty. I heard rumors that the hotel was being stingy with the food vouchers now. We talked about collecting rations. Someone offered up a candy bar.
When an employee appeared to talk to us, we heard the same thing we had heard before, call customer service to re-book. Again, that did not go over well but it’s not her fault. The employees that man the Iberia desk at the airport don’t actually work for Iberia, they work for Swissport, a company that contracts to fill the rolls of airline desk employees. They do not have the authority to re-book passengers. Iberia customer service was our only hope.
Everyone was mulling about, cell phones pressed against ears, hoping for some help. The girls from the shuttle said screw this and went back to enjoy another night of TV and a fluffy bed at the hotel. Howard got through to a rep and declared he was not getting off the phone until he had a new flight. Another guy, on hold with customer service came over to me and said, he was told he had been re-booked for 9:45 pm the previous night and he missed his flight. He did not receive an email, call, or have anyone he spoke to from Iberia give him this information until now, almost 24 hours later. He was with a large group including children and Grandparents. About 7 or 8 people I estimated. This meant there was a flight to Barcelona the previous day with empty seats. Empty seats went over seas when almost 200 people were still trying to get there.
Howard got off the phone with good news. The service rep put him on hold for a bit, but came back with new flight information. We had been re-booked on British Airways for 9:00 pm that night. We had been chosen.
As we were unpacking our electronics to go through security, the 2 girls from the shuttle ran up to us. They had just arrived back at the hotel when they got the email. They had been re-booked on an Iberia flight leaving right away. They had just enough time to get to their gate. Our gate was at the opposite end of the terminal so we parted ways.
I wondered about the other passengers. Did the soldier get to his Grandma’s bedside in time? Did that other guy get the job? Did Tim go back to Maine? Is that girl still wandering the halls of the Marriott? What about all the other passengers still struggling to get re-booked? I probably won’t ever know, for once you have been chosen, there is no looking back.
I checked my email later that week and heard from Tim. I forgot I had given him my business card. He never got an email from Iberia and never made it to France. He was back home in Maine. He was trying to get compensation from the airline but not having any luck.
We filled out the paperwork with air-indemnite.com, a third party service that resolves EU 261/2004 claims for a percentage of the compensation amount. We read that we would have more luck using a service than dealing with the airline directly. I’ll update this post when there’s new information.
Flixbus canceled the bus ticket to Romania and gave us a voucher for the cost. We will most likely use them again within the next year so we aren’t out anything regarding that.
If you were a passenger of Iberia flight 2626 on Saturday, December 7, 2019, I hope you made it to your destination!