Miracle of Miracles (3)

Getting There Is All the Battle, Part 2

Before I begin, an interlude:

Amsterdam is beautiful.

A city full of bicycles and canals, yet miraculously enough given the proliferation of “coffee” shops, no bicycles in canals.

As we strolled over one of the many, many spanning bridges, we heard floating over the water a drumbeat. Following the noise, we saw an endless stream of balloons. It was a wedding procession, and it stopped right in front of us. It actually went on for quite some time, but you get the point.

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Anyway, as you can see, the people are lovely and the city is gorgeous and I do not hold what happened at the airport the next day against them. And yes, it did turn out OK in the end through what can only be described as a Festivus miracle of the highest order, but for a brief and horrible moment, the outcome was in serious doubt.

So about that:

The next morning, rested and a little less jet-lagged, we headed to the airport. It was a 2 minute walk, since we were staying at the airport hotel. We debated on how early we needed to get there and settled on 3 hours, which seemed like a nice reasonable amount of time. No one advised us any differently.

We walked up to the KLM self-service kiosks, and tried to check in. Brian’s pass showed up, but mine did not. After trying a few things, the attendant referred us to the counter, which was staffed with only two people. In addition, some Finnish folk metal band called Korlispoornin or somesuch was having difficulty getting the airline to accept their gear for transport, which was only funny for the first 10 minutes. After that I started to resent the Hetfield wannabe in his Axl Rose dreadlocks and his leather trenchcoat for holding up the line with his steel toed boots, and I started to wish I had a pair of my own so I could kick something.

After 20 minutes, we finally get to the front of the line.

“Well, here you are,” chirped the KLM agent. “Your reservation is here, but I can see why you weren’t able to check in at the kiosk. You’re on standby.”

I stood there with my jaw slack while Brian calmly explained that there must be some mistake, as we had purchased the tickets 8 months ago and had confirmed seats.

“Oh, yes, you didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. “It’s just that we overbooked by 20 seats- shameful really, that really shouldn’t have happened- and you were among the last to check in, so you’re on standby. Sorry.”

Sorry. Sorry. She had no idea what sorry was.

So Brian told her our story, about the vital connection in Arusha we needed to make, and showed her the receipt for the 4 days of chimp camp we would be missing due to their incompetence, and she said she would forward that on to the gate agent, who would sort it all out.

Seething, we went through security, me trying to figure out how making it to a plane 7 minutes before departure yesterday was no problem yet getting to the airport 3 hours ahead was, today, late enough to get bumped. I would have been there at midnight had I known.

In Schipol, the gates each have their own individual security, so I had a good 30 minutes in line to see the more than 20 people who arrived after me, each of whom was holding in hand a confirmed boarding pass. “Don’t worry, it will be fine, they overbook all the time and I’m sure we’ll get on,” said Brian, as I tried not to sniffle.

We got through security, and went up to the gate agent, who was already surrounded by a handful of other irate screwed over safari-ans. Brian leaned over and said, “Let me do the talking.”

“Yes, I’m not sure what happened,” the agent said. “It never should have happened. I’m sorry. But we will get you on the evening flight through Nairobi, and you arrive tomorrow at 9 am instead of tonight at 9 pm. See? Not a big problem! And you get 600 euros!” She smiled brightly.

Brian glared at her. “Not a problem? We have a flight out of a different airport tomorrow at 8 am that only leaves twice a week. If we miss that we miss four days of our itinerary,” he told her. “Are you going to charter us a plane in Tanzania?” He pulled out our receipt and plunked it down in front of her. “600 euros won’t cover this.”

She frowned. “I’m sorry. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Are there any seats in business?”


“Is there a supervisor?”

“I’m the gate supervisor.”

While all this is going on, I’m standing next to Brian, with the realization sinking in that despite all the planning, all the running, all the layover-ing, the chances were incredibly high that I might miss the one thing I have wanted to do more than anything else in my entire life, the thing I have been planning for and saving for for years, by an hour. Because KLM was so greedy and careless that they didn’t know how to correctly book a flight full of tourists extremely unlikely to miss the flight, dismissing the devastated faces of the people whose carefully planned for trips were destroyed with a useless apology.

So I elbowed past Brian and stared the agent in the face. Resolving to be strong, I asked her if she understood that this wasn’t just a vacation- this was the experience I have studied for, dreamed of and saved for, for over a decade. And that if I did not get on that flight, if I missed the entire first half of this trip- which we would- my entire reason for being there in the first place was gone, ruined. And no amount of money would repair the fact that I would probably never get the chance again.

I said I tried to be strong, but by the end my eyes were brimming with big bushbaby tears and my voice was shaky. “I’m sorry,” she said again, poker faced.

Brian sighed, gently pushed me back behind him and summed up the salient points as I went to sulk with the other displaced passengers. In Tanzania, the vast majority of people flying into Kilimanjaro are going by land into the Ngorongoro Crater or Serengeti- so the delay was a major annoyance, but not ruination. Even the other screwed over passengers were angry on our behalf, me with my Jane Goodall Institute shirt and my obvious over the top excitement melting away like an ice cream cone tossed on the hot asphalt by a careless Dutchman in a neon blue uniform.

I sat there curled in a lump like a koala who just watched her mother get decapitated, getting increasingly worked up. So this is it. No chimps. No life-altering encounter with man’s closest relative. No Jane Goodalling for me. The fact that KLM kept repeating “You didn’t do anything wrong” only added insult to injury. A lifetime of flying, and this is the flight I get bumped on? Really?

It was around this time I really started to cry. And I’m not one who likes to cry in public. I do a lot of emotional things and I am generally able to keep it under wraps, but this, well, this was more than my brain could take. No, no one died, and obviously there are worse things in life that can happen, but I’ve been disappointed before, and I don’t think I’ve ever had the rug pulled out from under me like this. As the people around me tsk-tsked the gate agent, I put my head in my hands and watched all the the things I had been looking forward to since my 7 year old hands held my first National Geographic evaporate like mist.

I like to think I looked like this when I wept:

Though it was probably a little more like this:

Ugly cry.

Brian came back to the seating area, with a changed demeanor. The flight was boarding and they hadn’t cleared a single standby passenger. “Well, I can call these safari guys and see if we can stay in Arusha for 4 nights,” he said, admitting defeat, which did nothing to help my state of mind. I was done.

“Passenger Jones, passengers Vogelsang, please approach the desk,” said the agent.

Three uncertain souls rose from the 20 remaining and walked up to the counter, ready to book a flight through Nairobi.

“They aren’t together, but I have three seats,” she said. She looked at me intently and not a small bit fearfully. “YOU HAVE SEATS, OK?” She handed me my boarding pass the same way I hand a starving dog a meaty bone, as if fearful I might rip her fingernails off in the process. I blubbered a heartfelt but unintelligible sentence of thanks, got hugs from the other stranded passengers who God bless them, were gracious enough to be happy for me despite realizing that the other 17 of them were still screwed, and for the second time in two days lurched down a jetway, last on the plane.

I ended up in the rear of the plane next to a Dutch man and his son, who took one look at my red-rimmed eyes and murmured something that I couldn’t understand but assume was along the lines of, “This is why we don’t want tourists in the coffeehouses.” I hadn’t sampled as much as one tiny puff of Purple Haze, mind you- it might have made the morning more bearable, in retrospect- but the only thing I reeked of at that point was the saltwater ocean of my tears.

I spent the first hour of the flight scribbling furiously in my paper journal, chicken scratches of emo indignation and overwrought melodramatic fury. I can say that now, that it turned out OK. Had it not, well, I’d still be furious. More furious than ever. Brian, who has never seen me blog in analog mode, demanded proof. There were about 10 pages of this just covering the plane trips:

To this day we still debate why we got on when no one else did. Was it simple mathematics, that we were first on the list? Was it the bushbaby tears? Was it Brian’s showing of the itinerary? Did the agent somehow sense that, in the midst of my weeping and sniffling, I was also plotting the next vitriolic social media campaign against a company and thinking of myriad things the letters KLM could stand for, none of which are printable on a PG blog?

Or did she just want to get rid of me before I required tranquilization and forcible removal? I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t have thrown myself against the window like one of those Garfield plushie clings as I watched the plane pull away. I tend to think it was this, that the simplest resolution to the ticking time bomb that was me was to send me off the continent. I am OK with that.

Whatever the reason, I can only be grateful it turned out OK for me. Though no, I’m not letting KLM off the hook, because there were still 17 really nice people who were also incredibly excited about their adventures who didn’t get on that flight through no fault of their own, and for all I know they were just as demolished as I was about the whole thing. That sucks.

But so far as this story goes, the drama ended the second the flight took off. Africa time? I wish the rest of the world worked on Africa time, at least the way I experienced it. KLM time, however, can shove it.

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  • Oh my oh my oh my. You had me in tears – don’t know how that KLM agent kept her poker face.

    You know you can turn this safari blogging into a book, right? Just on this chapter alone. So stinkin’ well written. Can’t wait for the rest of the chapters.

    • Aw shucks, thank you!

  • Tamara

    That ‘You didn’t do anything wrong’ business would have set me off for sure. I’m glad you made your flight though.

  • Amy

    They overbooked by TWENTY PEOPLE!!!! Do I ever hate airlines. I could be pushed to understand 2 or 3 but TWENTY?! I am glad that they “found” room for you, but that doesn’t stop my irritation over the attitude of airlines. I hate them, do not like doing business with them and will never fly Delta or Continental again. Now I can add KLM to my list.

  • This is funny (sort of) NOW, but I would have had to be restrained, I’m sure. And if they had told me that many times that “you didn’t do anything wrong” I surely WOULD have done something wrong that would have required customs officials in several countries to place me on the watch list.

    • I know, right? This sort of thing keeps security in business. I can see why travelers go loco.

  • It is absolutely ridiculous that airlines can overbook like that. It’s absolutely BS that as a passenger you can book months in advance and then the airline can just put you on standby because of their greed in overbooking.

    I am so glad you got on that flight.

  • I know you made your flight and all, but I still read this post on the edge of my seat in a “will they or won’t they” frame of mind. You’re good, lady. Real good.

    Also, I *hate* the way Schippol is set up. Because of the way it was set up there was a lot of confusion from the passengers of the Amsterdam-Dublin flight we were on. Nothing like what you experienced but there’s something really wrong with that whole setup.

    As an aside, we had a great experience with KLM so they don’t suck all the time. Just this one time. Very, very hard.

    • I have a friend who went through the exact same thing a week prior- 3 hours ahead of time, and she’s got highest level status on their partner Delta. So they remain on my s-list.

  • JaneK

    even though you told us ahead of time it was okay, I was still nervous reading it! Yea, they can go jump with United airlines. Glad it had a happy ending for you…. and for us, b/c we get to hear the stories and see the pictures!!

  • Schiapol is a small city–it’s insane. That said, I’m surprised it took you that long to get through security–I’ve always liked smaller security gate cluster setup because the 3 or 4 times I’ve been through there, I think I’ve pretty much just walked through. And that was the first place that I went through the body scanner, only they didn’t make us remove shoes, belts, coats, or anything else. I was amazed.

    I can’t believe KLM tried to f*ck you over like that. I had a sick feeling in my stomach as I read it, because I can’t even imagine missing something like that. I can’t believe they overbooked by so much–they’ve always been on my list of good airlines (I’ve had a few good flights with them) but now? They just got bumped WAAAY down the list.

    I’m SOOOOO glad you made it!!!!!!!!!

    • MEEEEE too. They made it sound like it was a fluke but I spoke with a friend who flew Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro- the same route- 2 weeks prior and the exact same thing happened to her. So no, KLM is a no go for me.

  • Jenifer Borke

    Total nail biter, even though you said upfront it all ended well! However, I think you SHOULD have thrown yourself up against the window while waiting just for the hell of it ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • RoseOfSkye

    I have three words for you: file formal complaint. Do it in writing. Keep it short and sweet. You’ll likely never hear back from KLM, but a few weeks after you write to KLM, you can then try forwarding a copy of your complaint to the Netherlands Consumer Authority (see http://www.consumerauthority.nl/about/contact). They will likely suggests or direct you to ConsuWijzer which is their arm that assists consumers on their rights. Unfortunately, ConsuWijzer can only talk to you in Dutch, although you’re free to submit your complaint in English. (http://www.consuwijzer.nl/Over_deze_site/Consumer_questions_in_English) If you can find someone who speaks Dutch who can translate for you, I suggest you send a covering letter in Dutch, which will be harder for them to ignore. As a statutory regulatory body, this kind of organization has to process complaints. They don’t take up every case, but if they receive enough complaints one particular type of violation or company, they can decide to formally investigate.

    • The more I learn about KLM, the more I hear this is their standard MO. Terrible.

  • Susan

    you are a super writer and I look forward to following your adventures! Thank you so much for sharing ๐Ÿ™‚