I am about to recount a flight debacle on InselAir so unprecedented in its level of incompetence that it is outstanding:
After months of planning, thousands of dollars in costumes, lodging, and fetes, I was dismayed when I received emails on the morning of Febuary 22nd telling me that my connecting flight from Curaçao to Trinidad had been rescheduled from 3pm to 9pm, then 11pm, then back to 9pm again. I spent the morning on the phone with InselAir’s customer service trying to speak to an agent. I first tried the customer service number in Curaçao where, after a long wait time, the agent put me on hold for 30 minutes and never returned. I then tried the Aruba and U.S. line from different phones at the same time to see which line would be answered first. After an hour on hold, Aruba answered and met my concerned with such trained indifference, I should have seen that as a sign of what was to come.
She told me that there were no other flight options. Period.
When I arrived in Curaçao from Panama at noon on February 23rd, I decided to make the best out of the 9-hour layover and tour the island. I arrived back at the airport at 7pm to check in for my 9pm flight. To my surprise, the flight was canceled completely! The agent told me that that the reason was that InselAir didn’t actually have a plane or crew to fly to Trinidad. They had sold tickets and rescheduled our flights without having a plane- the primary thing an airline company is supposed to provide! Still, I was still willing to give InselAir a chance.
As I waited an hour for a resolution, I looked around and noticed that the vast majority of the flights on InselAir were canceled or delayed. Passengers were crowded around the counters, visibly anxious and upset. The agents were handing out hotel vouchers for the night like hotcakes. Finally, the agent at the check-in counter told me that I could take a flight at 7am the next day to Trinidad. When I asked her for a boarding pass, she said I had to wait until the morning. She then gave me a voucher for a hotel and a taxi. The cab ushered 6 other stranded passengers and I to town. Still trying to remain positive, I calculated that I could still make it to Trinidad in time for a fete and to pick up my costume tomorrow as scheduled.
By the time we checked into the Plaza Hotel late that night- a place that hadn’t seen an upgrade since the Cold War and lacked basic amenities- their restaurant was already closed. The clerk at the front desk informed us we could feast on a 5-star chef’s tasting menu of hot dogs or burgers at the bar. It sounded delicious. Not wanting to risk the bar closing early, I went straight there after dropping off my things in the room.
To call it a “bar” is being generous. After walking through the dimly lit hotel casino, a woman seated at the back in front of a low-set door with a sloped roof that resembled the entry to a cave greeted me. Above the door hung the sign “Bar”. I half-expected to be causally offered illcit drugs with my meals in the dimly lit doorway. She informed me that I could have a burger-just one- which turned out to be a slab of meat between 2 thin slices of bread.
Up at 5am the next morning, the taxi provided by the hotel managed to arrive 20 minutes late. We got to the airport a little before 6am to find out that the flight had now been delayed an hour. However, that was only just the beginning!
After enduring this ordeal together, myself and the other 6 passengers tried to check in as a group. However, the agent at the check in counter called out my name warily and put my passport aside. I tried not to imagine what the look on his face meant as another group of 4 arrived trying to get on the same flight. Their ordeal had been worse than ours: one of the guys in the group had been delayed since TUESDAY (four days before) as InselAir kept canceling his flight! The accommodations they’d given them with their voucher for the night amounted to 2 bunkbeds in a motel room to be shared by 4 strangers (one of which was a woman), no dinner, and a cab driver that never showed up for pick up that morning. In comparison, our accommodations now seemed like The Ritz!
When everyone else had received their boarding pass, the agent gave me the bad news: the flight was overbooked and I wasn’t on it! I was even more amazed to find out that it was overbooked by 70 people, the equivalent of another aircraft- or all the passengers who’d been left stranded in Curacao for days. He implied that this was my fault for not getting a boarding pass for the flight the night before. Now I was livid.
Rather than have another aircraft read and waiting to take the passengers who couldn’t get on, InselAir informed me that the next flight was at 9pm- but it had now been conveniently delayed until 3am! Not even wanting to play the delay-delay-cancel game with them again, I demanded to speak to a manager. When the manager finally called me at the check-in counter, she told me she would do her best to find a solution, but the agent last night should have given me a ticket. She was waiting to see if someone would miss the flight, but warned me that there were several other people in my situation. I asked her if this lack of accountability was a hallmark of how InselAir functioned. “Lately it has been,” she said resolutely.
One and a half hour later, a Trinidadian woman, a Dutchmen, and myself huddled at the counter still trying to get to Trinidad. Accustomed to this level of incompetence, all the other delayed passengers had given up and left one by one. We watched the clock anxiously as the departure time for the 8am flight approached. I was still hoping to get on this flight and get to Trinidad around 10am.
The agent approached us solemnly at 7:30am. We held our breaths expectantly like pageant show finalist. There was one seat available on the flight and it would go to…the Trini woman! They promised the rest of us a voucher for breakfast in the meantime as they tried to sort things out. We never received those vouchers.
Three hours later, myself and the Dutchmen were the only ones still frantically trying to find a resolution that day. At 9:30am, they told us we would have to board a flight from Curaçao to St. Maarten. In St. Maarten, we would have to ask for Julie in hopes that she had tickets for us to get to Trinidad the same day, if not, we would be stuck in St. Maarten. We had no time to weigh our options, however, the flight was boarding right now!
We rushed through security and hurried onto the aircraft just before the doors shut. In St. Maarten, we realized we hadn’t been told how to find Julie. We hadn’t been provided with a secret handshake, password, or even her phone number and location in the airport. As we were going through immigration, a woman came running up asking for the passengers to Port of Spain. We hurried over to her and she confirmed that she was Julie. Breathlessly she told us that she had found a flight to Trinidad. The Dutchmen and I were about to sigh in relief when she added, “But I could only get one of you on the flight.”
Once again, I found myself tensing and holding my breath anxiously like a contestant on America’s Next Top Model. I resisted the urge to hold on tightly to the Dutchmen’s hand. Julie exhaled dramatically as she looked from one anxious face to another. “And the person who was checked in first was…Francois,” she exclaimed.
Feeling like I won a pageant crown I hadn’t even known I was trying out for, I wished the Dutchmen good luck and Julie handed me my ticket and rushed me to the flight that was boarding right then. I didn’t even have a chance to look at the ticket, as she shuffled me onboard.
I realized too late that the flight shuffled me from St. Maarten to St. Kitts, from St Kitts to Antigua, from Antigua to Barbados, from Barbados to Grenada, and finally from Grenada to Trinidad at 10pm that night. I spent the entire day disembarking, carrying my carry-on suitcase up the narrow flights of stair of the airplanes, going through TSA security screening, and re-embarking at every airport in the West Indies. I was so disoriented at one point and so far from my original destination that I had to ask the person sitting next to me what country we were in.
Between layovers, I frantically tried to get in touch with people in Trinidad to ensure that I wasn’t going to be labeled as a “no show” by the Carnival band, my costume wouldn’t be sold off to another reveler, my lodging was still secured, and other logistical issues were handled to the best of my ability from afar.
By the time I landed in Trinidad at 10pm- a full 21 hours after my original flight was scheduled to land- I was exhausted, hungry (not a single connection even included water), disoriented, but most of all thankful that none of the planes had fallen out of the sky due to sheer in competence. The only saving grace of this entire journey was that my flight didn’t crash into the Caribbean ocean.