The NA Tour #1: WestJet’s Bogus Journey

So I went to North America recently.

There’s a lot to unpack from my trip, and I don’t just mean my bags. There’s a lot of thoughts and feelings I have about my trip that I’m still working through now, more than two weeks after I got back home. I spent about three weeks travelling in Ontario and the eastern United States, and I have a lot of things to talk about.

Let’s start with how I ended up stranded in Gatwick for two days.

The Plan

I had a lot of stops to hit on this journey. The very first one was Ontario, since my aunt – whom I had not seen in 21 years – lives close to Kingston. I planned to spend three days in total in Kingston, spending time with my aunt and seeing how the town had changed since I was eight years old. I also had a friend, Ronnie, in Toronto who could take care of getting some of my larger pieces of baggage to Pittsburgh, where I would be later in the journey, meaning I wouldn’t have to spend time and money hoofing them around on the various other flights I was going to take.

The plan was to fly non-stop from London Gatwick to Toronto Pearson with a low-cost Canadian airline that, prior to booking with them, I had never heard of before: WestJet.

Image result for westjet

Once I was in Toronto, my friend Ronnie would pick me up and take me to Union Station in the city centre where I would board a VIA Rail train to Kingston, which would arrive in the late evening.

In late spring, roughly 40 days before I planned to fly out (a little trick I’d been taught by veteran air travellers) I booked my trains, and then bought a ticket for WS 004 out of London Gatwick on Saturday June 23 at 10:55. Unbeknownst to me, this was the start of a bizarre adventure.

Dawn of the First Day

Given that there’s twenty six miles drive – most of which is along two different motorways – away from Gatwick Airport and you’re advised to arrive three hours before departure for international flights, I would’ve been travelling on the M25 and then the M23 at 07:00 in the morning – peak rush hour. This didn’t seem like a good idea, so the previous night I stayed the night at my aunt’s, who lives much closer to Gatwick than I do.

I awoke early in the morning for the taxi, which took all of ten minutes to get me to Gatwick North Terminal. I queued up, checked my two bags – one oversize, as always – and proceeded through security to the terminal, where I waited for my gate to be announced. So far, everything had gone smoothly.

The trouble started the moment my gate was announced. While walking down to it, I noticed that there were maintenance technicians surrounding the plane – never a good sign. Boarding of international flights usually begins about 45 minutes before scheduled departure, but 10:10 rolled around and nothing happened. Almost immediately thereafter, a four-hour delay was announced, pushing back the departure time to 14:25 and the arrival time in Toronto  to nearly 17:25 – not nearly enough time for me to get to Union Station to catch an 18:40 train to Kingston.

When I informed the man on the desk of this, and asked what I should do, the only response I got was “well I guess you’re not getting to Kingston tonight.”

We were given lunch vouchers, told to go and get something to eat, and return to the gate afterwards for updates. The only update we got, around 13:00, was that the flight was cancelled and we had to go back through international customs and immigration to the WestJet ticket desk to get hotel vouchers, since the best that WestJet could do for us would be put on a rescue flight the following day.

Once back through customs and reunited with our baggage – which was initially not signposted correctly – we had to wait in an exceptionally slow queue for hotel vouchers. I was near the front of the queue and had to wait a good 45 minutes for mine, and I’m told by other passengers that it took those at the back seven hours to be served.

The hotel vouchers were also supposed to cover dinner for that night and breakfast the following morning, which we discovered upon arrival at the hotel, five minutes walk away, they didn’t. However, after myself and a small group of other young, well-connected passengers went back to the terminal to debate this, WestJet did eventually get in contact with the hotel to rectify this situation.

I spent the rest of the evening having dinner and drinks with this small group of people, and we traded stories about ourselves of why each of us were going to Canada. Between us we finished off two bottles of wine and two rounds of tequila shots.

Tequila: the ultimate antidote to unwelcome consciousness

Second Verse, Same as the First

I awoke on Sunday June 24 not – as I had planned – in Kingston, but still in London Gatwick, and with an apocalyptic hangover. Tequila is pure poison. Never drink it.

My new flight, WS 4103 was scheduled to fly out of Gatwick at 14:25, so I decided I’d check out of the hotel round about 11:30. While watching an episode of Altered Carbon on my laptop, I got a phone call on the hotel landline – never a good sign. They informed us that checkout had been pushed back to 16:00. This confused me, since that was well after the plane’s scheduled departure time, and I said as much to the person on the other end of the phone.

“Actually, I think there’s been another delay with your flight.”

So it was from the hotel, not WestJet, that I initially discovered that the flight’s departure had been again delayed, this time to 20:00. This would, again, mean even if I did get to Toronto, it’d be far too late to catch a train to Kingston. I met up with the people I’d been eating with last night and we decided to go to the terminal together. At this point we finally got emails from WestJet informing us that our flight was delayed.

When we got to the terminal, we discovered a large group of impatient and angry passengers milling about near the WestJet kiosk. No-one from either the crowd or WestJet knew anything, other than that the prognosis on our flight was increasingly pessimistic and would be addressed for certain at 18:00 sharp.

We waited several hours in the terminal, queuing up much as we had done yesterday – although for what, nobody bothered to tell us – and waited for an announcement. 18:00 came and went, and the supervisor, who I had cornered earlier and demanded an update from, failed to appear. Eventually, at 18:30, a member of the Gatwick Airport staff – not Westjet themselves – announced that the flight was cancelled, and that we would be given hotel and meal vouchers.

This time, however, we were not put up at the hotel five minutes walk away, but three seperate hotels that all required bus or taxi rides to get to. They initially offered us absolutely no transport assistance to get to the hotel, but ultimately the same Gatwick Airport official ran down to the taxi stand and chartered several taxis to get the 200+ stranded WestJet customers to their hotels, presumably at Gatwick’s own expense.

At this point, I’d had enough, and as soon as I got to my hotel room, I sat down, plugged my phone in, called their freephone customer support number and demanded that they rebook me on a different flight with a different airline, as was required of them by EU regulations. They put me on hold for over an hour, but eventually realised I wasn’t going to go away, and so grudgingly put me on a British Airways flight at 16:55 the following afternoon.

This flight was, however, from Terminal 5, London Heathrow, 34 miles drive away along two motorways. Would WestJet provide me transport assistance, I asked? No, they replied – I had agreed to be put on a different flight out of a different airport, so that was my problem. Given that I had at least won a significant victory in making them rebook me, I conceded to this, booked a seat on a Heathrow Express coach, spent some time with other stranded passengers in the hotel lounge, and went to bed.

John Carpenter’s Escape from Gatwick

I awoke on Monday, June 25, still not in Toronto. In the morning, I took the bus back to the North Terminal and went to the coach station.

Only to discover that there’d been a major accident on the M25, and that almost all coach and taxi service between the two airports had been suspended.

At this point, I called my parents, went to the Gatwick national rail station and booked a train ticket straight back to my hometown, hoofing all my luggage up and down several flights of stairs in various different train stations until I got back to Kingston (the one in England), where my dad was waiting for me in the car. Heathrow’s only a 40 minute drive away from us, and so we simply drove there. We got there well before the recommended three-hour point.

Once at Terminal 5, I discovered that WestJet had not given me my British Airways booking reference, so it took far longer than usual to actually check in, but once a helpful member of staff found me in the database, they were able to quickly get me checked in. WestJet had not transferred my exit row seat booking or my oversize baggage fee to the new airline, so I had to pay those charges again, although later they did at least refund the money I’d paid for those privileges on their airline.

Once on the flight, I had a very enjoyable time catching up on Blade Runner 2049 and Black Panther, which I hadn’t yet seen, as well as discovering a new French police proceedural called Les Témoins, which I can highly recommend. The flight left Heathrow slightly behind schedule, but as is usually the case with such flights, it made up time on the way, and arrived on the tarmac at Toronto Pearson about thirty minutes ahead of schedule. But we only got into the gate about ten minutes ahead of schedule, because we had to wait for a while as a tow truck pulled a plane in front of us, its livery indicating that it belonged to…

… WestJet. Because of course it did.

But then, finally, I was off the plane and in Canada. Getting through immigration and customs was lightning fast, much quicker and friendlier than their counterparts in the United States, and Ronnie was there in the arrivals lounge waiting for me. After all this hardship, it was fantastic just to see a friendly, familiar face, and he immediately drove me to somewhere we could get food – a Hong Kong-style café, at his recommendation. I called my aunt to tell her that the visit was back on, cut short as it would be by the two-and-a-half day delay I’d experienced.

We got back to Ronnie’s house, and got ready to book VIA Rail tickets and a hotel in Kingston, when, all of a sudden… the power to the entire suburb went out.

Oh come on.

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