Sunday, October 30, 2016

More Pumpkin Carving, and Kai's Halloween Costume

Though he carved a pumpkin on his own last weekend, Kai wanted to carve a couple more pumpkins with me.

This time we used some Angry Bird templates.

Kai carved one Angry Bird.

While I carved an Angry Bird pig character.

Here's how the pumpkins look lit up at night.

This year, Kai said that he wanted a scary costume for Halloween. He picked a scary one alright.

I guess the days of cute costumes are past.

Kai also created a special video for Halloween.

Kai said that his favourite part of the video was Mom's screams. Ha!

Have a Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Kai Carving the Pumpkin

It has been our father-and-son tradition for Kai and I to carve Halloween pumpkins together. Years ago, I did all of the carving, but in the past couple of years Kai has started to carve much of the jack-o-lanterns after I got things started. This year, I had to go away for the weekend so Kai did the carving all on his own.

He even used the occasion to make one of his YouTube videos, complete with a little Kai humor.

He went on to finish up his jack-o-lantern.

The kid is growing up fast. He did a nice job all on his own.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

United Airlines' Response

After our awful experience trying to fly from Chicago to New York a couple of weeks ago, I wrote an email to the CEO of United Airlines, and also sent a detailed message to Customer Service via their website.

On Friday, I received a response.

I will show you their entire response below, but first let’s quickly recap what happened that day.
  1. Our 1PM United Airlines flight from O’Hare to LaGuardia was cancelled due to “air traffic control” and we were instructed by the airline to fly standby.
  2. We did not make it onto the first several flights we were standing by for, and as we were rolled over from standby list to standby list, we did not make much progress in moving up the list as the airline prioritized flyers “with status” over us.
  3. At around 6:30, my wife and son finally were able to get onto a flight. However, an hour after the plane had pulled out, it returned to the gate with three malfunctioning oxygen masks.
  4. One passenger volunteered to get off the plane and was compensated $500. Needing two more passengers to get off the plane, the airline told my wife and son that they would have to get off the plane as they were the last standby passengers. They did not receive compensation.
  5. At the gate for the next flight where I was standing by, the UA agent put my wife and son at the bottom of the standby list despite my explaining how they had made it to the top of the standby list only to be kicked off the previous flight.
  6. When the supervisor was called over, he told me that I would have to quiet my son who was understandably upset after hours of waiting and then seeing that other passengers were moving onto the plane ahead of us. My attempts to explain that he has autism and has difficulty waiting and dealing with unexpected events were dismissed by the UA representative.
  7. During the entire time from early afternoon to late into the evening, the attitudes of the UA personnel were uncaring and dismissive at best.

With that, here is the full-text of the response from Customer Care at United Airlines:

Dear Mr. Fukunaga:

I'm sorry your travel plans were interrupted as a result of Air Traffic Control.

I can certainly understand your frustration. I regret we were unable to get you on your way any sooner. I'll make sure to report your comments. We'll take that feedback to help us work harder and provide better recovery, while keeping safety our top priority and working closely with Air Traffic Control. I'll also send you and your family an Electronic Travel Certificate each, which will arrive via email in a few days. We hope this gives you a future opportunity to receive service you deserve.

As MileagePlus members, we thank you for your business and loyalty. We welcome the opportunity to provide better service for you the next time you fly with United.

Kind regards,

So they mention “Air Traffic Control” twice as if that is what my complaint was about. No, United, that is not this is about. I understand that flights get delayed or cancelled at times. It is your response to the situation that matters. And putting us at the bottom of the standby list after we had finally moved to the top of the list is not an acceptable way to handle this situation.

I am guessing that their response was a form letter or at least based on a template. But that is keeping with how they handled the situation to begin with. During our whole experience that day, the United response was consistently that of a bad form letter. Their personnel were not trained to adapt to the situation or to actually try to help their customers.

A day after this message came, I received another one from United that we would each be issued a $100 travel certificate valid towards the purchase of a United Airlines ticket. Sorry, United, that will not begin to make up for this entire experience.


Friday, October 7, 2016

NYC Weekend - Our Last Day

We had one more morning left in New York City before we would have to head over to the airport to fly home in the afternoon. (Kai had school off on Monday due to Rosh Hashanah).

It had been unseasonably cool all weekend but on this last morning the temperatures were slightly warmer.

And that turned out to be a bad thing.

It was just over a half mile walk from our hotel to the Empire State Building, nothing compared to the 7-8 miles we had walked on each of the previous two days. But as we got near the NY landmark, Kai started complaining incessantly about being hot and tired.

With no line on a Monday morning, we were able to walk right in and get right on the first elevator. There are three observation levels, with the first on the 80th floor. Although it seemed air conditioned up there, Kai continued to loudly complain saying he could not breathe. We told him that he should sit down to cool off, both physically and emotionally.

But he could not sit quietly. He tried to lie down on a bench and we told him that he would need to sit up. All the while he continued to be upset. (Note to the United representative who told me to quiet my son on Friday: What you saw on Friday was a mild level of anxiety that emerged after hours of poor treatment by your airline. This is what he can be like when he is really upset).

We were all tired after our long weekend. I wasn't particularly patient or helpful in getting Kai to calm down. I was more upset that our visit here was spoiled because Kai couldn't tolerate a little discomfort.

As we waited in line for the elevator to take us up to the next level, a worker saw that we were all upset with each other and came over and spoke with Kai. She asked him what was wrong gave him a hug and then rode up the elevator with us. Kai started to cry, saying he was sorry for being so upset. Renata told him that he wasn't in trouble with her and he wasn't in trouble with us.

When we reached the 86th floor, she told him that she would give him a special tour without Mom and Dad.

She seemed to be an old pro at dealing with kids who are upset. And with parents,too. She gave us all the space we needed to calm down.

Her stepping in to help when it was not her job to do so was a very sharp contrast to the extremely poor service we experienced earlier on the trip.

After that, she went back down to her post while we went up to the top level, the observation deck on the 102nd floor. The skies were not as clear as we ideally would have liked. This is probably the best photo, looking south toward lower Manhattan, the area we walked on our first day.

We didn't take many family photos here as this was not a pleasant experience.

But as we walked out of the building, Kai remarked that he never calmed down so quickly before. Thank you, Renata!

By the time we finished up at the Empire State Building, it was late morning. We didn't want to get to the airport too late as we didn't have confidence that United would handle our return trip correctly.

But we had just enough time to take a taxi to Chelsea Market. That was the place we were to have dinner on Friday night, but we had to cancel our dinner reservations when our flight was cancelled. On this day, we quickly walked through the Market and chose a seafood market to take out lunch to have at the airport. My wife and I had lobster rolls while Kai chose a bowl of clam chowder. In our rush, I forgot to take pictures.

At the airport, we were relieved that United did still have us booked on our return flight, and that it was not cancelled or delayed.

We made it back without any unpleasant experiences.

It had been a long, tiring weekend. After other vacations, I always feel tired but happy that we went. This time I just came back feeling very drained, and wondered if it had been worth it. Now that it has been a few days, I can look back and see that we did have some good times.

But forgive me if I'm not ready to take another trip any time soon.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

NYC Weekend - Sunday

Sunday was our second and last full day in New York City.

We began with a walk down 34th Street where we saw the original Macy's, the site of the Thanksgiving Day Parade and also famous for the Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street. Here we are by Macy's, with the Empire State Building in the background.

From there we walked up Fifth Avenue and made our way to Grand Central Terminal. The main concourse is impressive.

But what Kai enjoyed most was a small gift shop in the terminal that had a number of novel items. His favorite was a gadget button that came in three choices: Yes; No; and well, one that begins with the letter F. I have to admit I thought it was funny, though totally inappropriate for Kai. He laughed and laughed and kept wanting to push the button so I had to pull him away.

From Grand Central, it was a short walk over to Rockefeller Center. There we went to the Nintendo store. Before the trip, Kai was hoping that we would buy him some plush Mario characters there. But he lost that chance the day before we left when we found out that he had been deceitful about his homework. We stuck by that punishment, but he still wanted to visit the store. While there, he enjoyed taking pictures of some of his favorite items.

And he had fun playing a Mario Kart game on the Wii U.

There were some big Mario characters in the store.

There were several plushies; not as many as at the Pokémon Centers we saw in Japan, but enough to interest Kai. In the end he bought this Chain Chomp with money given to him before by his Bubbe.

At another part of the Rock, we saw these cardboard figures of the Today Show cast.

Of course, we had to walk over and see the famous skating rink there.

There was also a Lego store that had a miniature Rockefeller Center.

From there we walked up to Central Park. Kai had been happily playing Pokémon Go throughout our time in New York, but he was especially looking forward to going to Central Park as he heard that there were many Pokémon to be found there.

Central Park is huge, and as we had already been doing a lot of walking, I thought it would be better to take a carriage ride to see some of the park. We settled on a pedicab tour. A pedicab is a human pedal-powered rickshaw. We took the one hour tour which took us all around the lower loop of Central Park. The driver explained the sights as we passed by, and made several stops for us to see things up close and to spend more time.

Here he took a picture of the three of us at The Bow Bridge.

And this is one of the lakes.

We stopped at Strawberry Fields, the memorial to John Lennon, located very near the Dakota Hotel where he was shot and killed, and where his widow Yoko Ono still lives.

The pedicab ride was a nice way to see the Park and to rest a bit after all the walking. Kai enjoyed it because he saw a lot of Pokémon. Afterward, he wanted to walk around the Park more to find even more Pokémon. But Mom was particularly tired so we decided to sit at this statue which was a Pokéstop with a lure module that was attracting a lot of Pokémon. Here we saw a lot of people playing Pokémon Go, ranging from kids to even a couple of senior women.

Next on our agenda was to find a place to eat. We would be seeing a Broadway show in the evening, so we wanted to have a late afternoon meal (late lunch/early dinner). We chose a steakhouse that was about halfway between Central Park and Broadway.

Our waiter struck me as being a bit overly formal and polite, which seemed phony to me, but as I don't frequent these types of places that often, I thought maybe that is how it is. We each ordered a filet, medium rare, and ordered three sides to go with: sauteed mushrooms, garlic mashed potatoes, and steak fries (for Kai). When the food arrived, the waiter placed a filet in front of my wife, and what appeared to be a hamburger in front of Kai. My dish was not served. I told the waiter that we did not order a hamburger; we had ordered three filets. He took away both plates. A couple minutes later, someone else came from the back to confirm our order; I told him three filets, medium rare.

Several minutes later, they brought out the three filets, along with a side of sauteed mushrooms. But when they did not bring out the other sides, I had to call the waiter over again. He had completely missed that we had ordered the garlic mashed potatoes and steak fries. I was halfway through my filet before those were brought out.

Along with the horrible treatment by United Airlines on Friday, we were seeing some awful customer service on this trip. As this was not a cheap place to eat, I was especially surprised by how badly they had messed up our order.

After the meal, we walked over to Times Square. Kai loved going into both the M&M store and the Hershey's store across the street. We did not buy any chocolate, but enjoyed seeing all of the unique items.

Times Square was crowded and bright and crazy, but you have to see it. Kai liked it as there were plenty of Pokémon to catch.

In the evening, we went to see The Lion King, the huge hit that is now the third-longest running show in Broadway history. This was what I had most looked forward to on this trip, having heard so many rave reviews from friends, relatives, and in the press. I had gotten great seats from months ahead of the trip and had sky high expectations.

It turned out to be quite a letdown.

The costumes were great but other than that, I thought everything was just okay. The storyline was nice though simple. I knew some of the songs from before, but did not think that most of the music was all that memorable. That would have been fine if Kai or my wife had really enjoyed it, but they both agreed that is was just okay.

We had debated going up to the top of the Empire State Building afterward to see the nighttime view of the city. But Kai really wanted to get back to the hotel and have his iPad time, and we were all tired, so we decided to put that off until the next morning.

We would have a half day left before having to head home.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

NYC Weekend - First Full Day in NYC

After our long day and arriving at our hotel at nearly 1 AM, we slept in the next morning. It was late morning before we took our first NYC subway ride and made it down to Battery Park at the south end of Manhattan.

Kai was already having a great time as he was seeing a lot of Pokémon in the park.

But besides finding Pokémon, our main objective was to take the boat to the Statue of Liberty.

This was the first time that my wife and Kai would see Lady Liberty up close. It is so much more impressive to see her in person from on the island than it is just from photos or on television.

It is also great to see the Manhattan skyline from the boat. Even on this cloudy, cool day, the view was good.

After we came back from Liberty Island, we walked through lower Manhattan. Here we are by Wall Street with Trinity Church in the background.

Then we made our way over to the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Bridge is, of course, another icon of New York, but I was still surprised to see how many people were walking across.

Kai said he was scared to cross but I wanted make the walk. He was nervous the whole time and wanted to hold my hand on the entire crossing except when we took pictures.

But the long walk was worth it as some great NY pizza awaited us on the other side. We went to the famous purveyour of NY pizza, Grimaldi's, at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. We had to wait about a half hour before we could be seated.

But the walk and the wait were worth it when our pizza came. We ate up this large pepperoni, mushroom and olive pizza.

We were all very hungry after the long walk and that made the pizza taste even that much more delicious. My wife said it was the best pizza she ever had.

After that we took a taxi and went to see the 9/11 Memorial. I had previously spoken to Kai that the Memorial was a solemn place and we would not be playing Pokémon there. As we approached the area, he dutifully put away his phone without me having to remind him.

While viewing the Memorial, we saw that there was no line to get into the 9/11 Museum so we decided to visit that as well. We rented headphones so we could listen to the audio tour as we walked through the museum. For those of us who lived through 9/11, we will never forget that day. For youngsters like Kai who only know of it from history books, the museum helps to tell the full story of the day.

We stayed at the museum for a couple of hours and then took a taxi to Chinatown.

Chinatown has no shortage of souvenir shops, many which have off-color items on display. Kai laughed and laughed at the t-shirts and license plates that had inappropriate words or photos on them while I tried to get him to move on.

We found a place for dinner. We were not very hungry as our pizza lunch was quite late. Kai had soup, my wife enjoyed a noodle dish, I had crispy duck, and we shared some dumplings. The dumplings were great but the duck was more soggy than crispy and frankly, the duck I had in Michigan was much better than this one in Chinatown.

Kai and I ended our day by walking over to Little Italy to get some cannoli while my wife got a foot massage back in Chinatown. We did get her a cannoli and double espresso, and we all enjoyed our dessert back at the hotel. (It is hard to see, but that is a cannoli in Kai's right hand).

So despite our late start, we were able to do a lot. During our long wait the day before, we were thinking whether we would go home and try to fly the next day instead. But because we endured, we were able to see and do as much as we did.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Why I Never Want to Fly United Airlines Again

The morning of our scheduled departure, we received a text from United Airlines that our flight out of Chicago to New York City was cancelled. The reason given was "air traffic control." (I still don't understand this; it seems to me that air traffic control would be a reason for the flight to be delayed, but not to be cancelled entirely.) We were instructed that we would have to fly standby.

This was to be our weekend in NYC, a special getaway that we had been looking forward to for some time. We had planned to get out there early enough to have dinner and enjoy a bit of the city before turning in early to rest up for the remainder of the weekend.

Our original flight was to depart at 1:00 PM. I put our names on the standby list for the following flight, at 2:00 PM.

My wife and I picked our son up at school and drove to the airport. We found out that we were 13th on the standby list and that it was a full flight, meaning that our chances of getting on this one were small.

So it wasn't a big surprise when we didn't get on that flight. But I was hoping that we would get on the following one or the one after that.

But we never made much progress on the standby list. Some people at the top of the list were chosen for flights, but we didn't seem to move up much. When I inquired why, I was told that people with status had priority while we had none.

We were just schmoes whose flight was cancelled by the airline.

At least that is how it felt like from the treatment we received from nearly everyone with the airline. The gate agents were the worst; no apologies and very dismissive treatment when I politely tried to see if there was anything they could do beyond just rolling us over from standby list to standby list, from flight to flight. One man at the Customer Service desk was more sympathetic, but all he could do was tell us that the earliest flight he could put us on was 11 AM the next day. He suggested that we keep waiting and see what happens.

As we waited, I noticed that the gate agents sometimes made announcements asking for volunteers to give up their seat and take a later flight; in exchange they would be compensated $300 or $400. I asked an agent if we could be compensated for our troubles and she replied that those people who give up their seats had confirmed reservations. I explained that we did, too – on a flight that United cancelled. The agent just shrugged.

At about 6:30 PM, our name was finally called. However, there were only two seats so we would not be able to fly together. I told my wife to go on with our son and that I would hopefully get to go on the next flight. I was relieved that we were finally making progress in getting to our destination.

I went to the gate of the next flight and settled in for another wait. Over an hour later, I received a text from my wife wanting to know which gate I was at. It turned out that the plane she and my son went on had a mechanical problem – three oxygen masks weren't working so they asked for volunteers to get off the plane. One person did volunteer and received $500 compensation. When no one else volunteered, they told my wife that she and Kai would have to get off as they were the last standby passengers who boarded. And, there would be no compensation for them.

When they arrived at the gate where I was waiting, I spoke to the gate agent about the entire situation and explained how they should be at the top of the standby list because they had made it to the top of the list only to be kicked off the previous flight due to mechanical trouble. The agent told me they would be 10th, at the bottom of the list.

I tried to stay calm as I again went through the rationale of why they should be at the top of the list. The agent responded as if I was asking for some huge favor. She said that she could get fired if she moved my wife and son to the top of the list.

I asked to speak with a supervisor. When the agent got her supervisor on the phone, I could hear her say that some people who missed a flight wanted to be moved up on the standby list. She hadn't understood what I had been telling her at all.

The supervisor arrived at the gate as boarding began. I had to explain everything to him just as I had to the gate agent. He said he would take care of us but as he typed away at a keyboard, others were boarding the plane. Boarding group 1 was called, then 2 then 3 then 4. Still no confirmation that we would get on the flight.

During this entire lengthy process that began in the early afternoon and now extended well into the evening, Kai had stayed remarkably patient. For those of you who are familiar with kids with autism, you know that dealing with unexpected events and having to wait can be extremely difficult challenges. But Kai handled it all incredibly well. We were very proud of him.

However, as the agents called Boarding Group 5 and then some standby passengers, he got upset that we would be left behind. Frankly, so was I. Kai got a little frantic but I did not think it was to an unreasonable degree. But the supervisor asked to speak with me privately and told me that if my son didn't quiet down, we would not be getting on the flight. I explained how my boy has autism and how waiting was difficult for him, but the man didn't want to hear about it.

So I tried to reassure Kai that we would get on this flight while still wondering if we actually would, and trying my best to stay calm myself as well. As much as I had been extremely frustrated by this whole ordeal, I knew that this man was our last hope for flying out this evening.

Finally, after everyone else had boarded, we were given boarding passes. We would make it out. (I don't know if the supervisor had anything to do with our getting on the plane. It seemed to me that no one else was left so we were probably still at the bottom of the list and just happened to luck out that the flight had enough openings for us).

It was nearly 1 AM when we finally reached our hotel.

During this entire ordeal, the thing that infuriated me the most was the near total absence of caring by anyone associated with United. It is hard to tell if the airline hires people who have no aptitude for customer service, or if they just have become numb because this happens so often and they are given no means to help. Either way it is unacceptable.

I don't know that any other airline would have handled this situation any better. But to continue to fly United would be condoning this horrid service.

Just out of principle, I say "enough."

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