Vancouver Diaries

Vancouver snowstorm, Air Canada and my travel plans to India

It all started on the day before Christmas, Dec 24th 2008. Unprecedented snow the day before and on the morning of 24th resulted in Air Canada canceling all short and medium haul flights from/to Vancouver. 22nd was the last day I had gone out to work for the year and I did find it extremely difficult to navigate the snow and the windchill outside. Thereafter, I stayed indoors and worked from home the next day and the day after. I did not quite realize how bad the situation was until the evening of 24th when I went out again and only then came to know about the flight cancellations. I also noticed Karen’s (someone I know from my gradschool days) facebook updates about her having to wait almost 6 hours before finally catching a flight to Haliax! I was scheduled to fly on 27th morning, my first flight to Calgary was with Air Canada. I was alarmed and disturbed. What was worse is that I had only an hour and half of stop over time between my connecting flights with Lufthansa and given the conditions, I was pretty sure that my flight from Vancouver would be delayed. You might ask why I chose not to fly earlier to Calgary when I booked my tickets? Well, it was my stupidity. When my travel agent gave me the itinerary, I did not quite go through it meticulously and sort of trusted their judgment. Besides, I had made my travel plans long back, during the summer of the same year in the middle of a busy period. I did not quite anticipate this unprecedented snowfall and severe weather conditions back then. The bottom line is, I was now screwed and desperately wanted to reschedule my flight and get a reservation to an earlier flight to Calgary.

I called Air Canada reservations on 24th evening and after the regular “severe weather conditions in certain parts of the country has caused flight disruptions. If your travel plan is imminent hold on else call later …” crap and being put on hold for more than one hour, no one responded to my call. All of the Christmas morning, I continued trying to call them but without any success. This was my second mistake. Instead of calling them, I should have directly gone to YVR and talked to the Air Canada reservation counter. On Christmas evening, the weather became slightly worse and even though by now I was determined to go and talk to Air Canada in person, I could not go out.

On the Boxing day morning I was pretty much determined not to wait any more no matter what. I went straight to Air Canada desk at YVR. After standing in the long queue for about half an hour, Air Canada told me that I should really talk to Lufthansa since my original ticket number was a Lufthansa number. Well, I headed straight to the Lufthansa desk at the International terminal. After understanding my problem and after a little effort, they were able to book me for a flight to Calgary on the same day, 26th evening. I also got a boarding pass right away. I was delighted and decided either to spend the whole night in the Calgary airport or call my friend who lives in Calgary and if it’s not a problem for him, spend the night at his place.

I came home at once. The flight was only few hours away. This was when I realized that me not procrastinating and doing some planning beforehand was intelligent thing to do and so immensely useful. I had virtually done everything that I wanted to do before I left. I had even competed 90% of my packing before 26th. Had I not done so, it would have been a mess. All I had to do now was some last minute things like getting rid of the garbage, doing some laundry, finalize the packing etc and I was ready to go.

On the evening of the boxing day, I left for YVR, fortunately I got a cab right away just in front of my apartment (there were 12 inch of snow all around). Taking this as a good omen, I headed towards YVR. I did not know what was still left in store for me on that day.

On reaching YVR, I checked in directly and headed straight to the designated departure gate.

I was waiting at the departure gate with no schedule information around and no flight updates available on the large display screens. As the scheduled departure time passed away, I became anxious. With no announcements, I decided to check the flight status online (YVR fortunately has free wifi). To my agony, I discovered that the flight had been canceled. What pissed me off was that there were no announcements whatsoever and no instructions on how to rebook alternate flights and collect our checked in baggages. Other co-passengers met with similar fate and one of them, traveling with entire family including small kids, broke into anger at an Air Canada official right there and then. With no announcements regarding where to collect our checked in baggage from, I became worried. I came back to the baggage collection area. I noticed large areas in the corner with lots of luggage simply dumped and left aside. I was told by a security officer that those were the baggages from the passengers of the canceled flights that remained unclaimed and I must find my baggage there. What a chaos and mismanagement! There were others too in similar shoes as I was and they too were looking for their own baggages. I must have spent more than an hour looking for my baggage and not finding it there when suddenly there was this announcement that fresh baggages from canceled flights from the evening were coming in on a certain belt #. It was about 9 PM by then! 2 hours has passed since the departure time of my scheduled flight! I immediately rushed for the belt and after waiting for another 20 minutes or so got back both my baggages! What a relief!

The next task at hand was to rebook my tickets. I went down and walked towards the Air Canada booking counters. To my expectation, I found a huge queue before the counter. Others, who had learnt a hard lesson trying to call Air Canada’s toll free number for a rebooking didn’t want to take any chances this time. At this time, for the first time in the evening, I felt a little better. I looked around and found so many passengers just stranded at YVR late on the boxing day. There were passengers who did not even live here and were looking for a hotel/INN nearby. The snow had yielded to rain by now and it was chilling cold. Lots of passengers decided to spend the night at YVR. Most of them were probably hoping to meet their family and loved ones on the Christmas day and were left stranded at the airport instead. I WAS NOT ALONE! After standing at the rebooking queue for an hour, I did finally manage to talk to an Air Canada rep. I explained to her that I was traveling internationally and I must make my connecting flight at Calgary. She managed to give me a wait listed ticket to Calgary in the 6 AM flight! She told me that even though it was wait listed, I would still probably get a seat. She also told me which queue to stand in the morning for checking in my baggage. It was almost 11 PM by then and I realized that my ordeal for the day was over. I couldn’t do anything more – I had done what I could and all I could do next was to wait patiently for my flight next day morning.

I wanted to have light dinner – so found a Tim Horton’s around that was still open. I finally got something to eat. I wanted to rest a little bit. After all, if I can make it, I will have a rather long journey ahead of me the next day. I know YVR pretty well. I realized that I would not get any comfortable sleeping areas in the domestic section. So I promptly walked to the International terminal. There too I found passengers wanting to travel to United States stranded and left to spend their nights at YVR. Fortunately, in spite of many sleeping passengers, I managed to find a place. I finally stretched myself and tried to relax.

Right now, as I recall the incidents, I am not sure how those hours passed. I did not want to read and stress myself. I was unable to sleep either. I spent some time chatting and browsing. For a while, I talked to others in similar shoes. I never had an opportunity previously to watch YVR during late nights. I found janitors cleaning the floors, people just falling flat on the ground trying to get some rest, stupid commercials continuously running on the TV screens and keeping us company, passengers with canceled or delayed flights or flights pretty early in the morning arriving late at night, the huge screen in front showing flight schedules for US bound flights on 27th …

I was trying to assess whether I should blame anyone for all this chaos and mess?! So many like me not able to be with their loved ones back home. So many spending sleepless nights at YVR. Who should take the blame for not letting us meet our loved ones? Is it going to be the city of Vancouver for collecting taxes from us and not remaining prepared enough for the snow? I had heard a few flying in from the east discussing how unprepared and inefficient Vancouver was as opposed to Toronto/Ottawa etc with regards to snow. They even went on to say that they were not looking forward to visiting the city again. Should I blame Air Canada for being grossly inefficient, incompetent and not being prepared to handle the weather and the rush during holiday season? Should we blame ourselves for not anticipating this and taking corrective measures? I don’t know. I am pretty sure there would be angry discussions on the cbc.ca regarding this but I had no energy left for the day to do any digging. Finally I felt asleep.

I woke up just before 4 AM on the morning of 27th. It was time for me to get ready. I freshened up and walked towards the check-in queues. To my surprise I found sleeping passengers occupying the floor and forming a queue at the same time. Passengers flying all over Canada could be seen here. I felt sad at the predicament of all these hapless people. We waited there until counters started to open just before 5 AM. To the surprise of many, Air Canada started calling for passengers flying at 6 AM. Obviously, those who were towards the front of the queue and had waited night long had no priority. Where as I moved forward, I could see angry passengers arguing with a certain Air Canada lady. I did not have time to think. If I were not to make the flight, I would be stranded in Calgary and also possibly at Frankfurt as well.

When I handed in my wait-listed ticket, the asian lady doing the check-ins looked at me with wrinkles as if I was in the wrong queue. I explained to her my predicament, that I must make this flight, otherwise I would be stranded elsewhere, outside Canada. I told her that I was instructed by an Air Canada official to stand in this queue the day before when the ticket was issued. She discussed it with a coworker, grudged that the flight was already full and then agreed to check-in my luggage with lot of disgust. When I told her that I had only one bag to check in, she was dissatisfied. “Only one bag? “, as if having more bags would be even bigger grounds for disqualification from boarding the flight as I was only a standby and confirmed ticket holders had priority. She gave me a wait-listed boarding pass with yellow tag and somehow (not sure how/why) checked in my baggage which was 2 kilos over weight. “good luck” she said and I murmured “I wouldn’t need your wishes to make this journey!”

I headed straight through the security checks, to the departure gate. I handed my boarding pass (the second person among the stand-by passengers) to the official there who would have the final numbers, explained to her my situation. She assured me that she would issue me a final boarding pass as soon as she had definite numbers about available seats. I met another funny interesting guy there who was traveling to meet his family in Saskatchewan (through Calgary). He was stranded for 2 days. He had spent the entire night before at YVR, just like me and also had a wait listed boarding pass just like me. We waited in patience.

Eventually, after clearing wait listed passengers with kids*, both of us got a confirmed boarding pass (with a seat #). We celebrated with joy. This guy called his dad to inform him that he was finally making his way to Calgary and that he should be home soon. What a final relief to be able to leave Vancouver! Our flight took off at 6:30 AM. We watched a beautiful day break from the window as we headed towards our immediate destination. “all my bad luck is now over with this flight”, I told to myself. I did not know what more was waiting for me at YYC. At YYC, I parted ways with this other guy – we had become good buddies by then and headed towards the luggage collection area.

(… to be concluded) …

* passengers with confirmed reservations were cleared first

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