We endured a 48-hour journey from hell before my BA Gold Member status came to the rescue

People wait in line at the Miami International Airport
Sara found herself stuck at Miami International Airport during her nightmare journey home from the Caribbean - AFP/Getty

The first hint our journey home from the Caribbean might not go as smoothly as planned came with an American Airlines (AA) email that popped into my inbox on the evening before our departure.

“Adverse weather may affect your travel plans,” it warned sombrely, before explaining that predicted storms in Miami the next day could disrupt flights. It advised that we could change our booking without penalty.

As our 2.34pm departure to Miami from the Dutch Caribbean island of Sint Maarten was designed to connect with British Airways’ 10.30pm Miami-Heathrow service, I couldn’t see how this offer would help.

We had to get to Miami, but as we had a comfortable layover of more than four hours, I figured we could absorb a little disruption so I wasn’t unduly worried.

Arriving at Sint Maarten’s Princess Juliana International Airport the following morning, our flight was already slightly delayed, but there was still plenty of time. Then I saw a news report that storms and flooding had forced the temporary closure of Miami International Airport. Cue another delay to our flight, then a third. Things were starting to look tight.

The airport was packed, staff were scant and a refurbishment meant there were only a handful of seats and nowhere to grab a coffee or snack. Queues were snaking everywhere, and tensions rising as passengers realised crucial connections were in jeopardy.

We waited for over 90 minutes in the so-called “priority” queue, much of which was spent watching one couple engage in a blazing row at the desk before storming off. By then, I knew we wouldn’t make our connection. But the check-in agent found a later flight to London with AA, departing from Miami at 11.40pm.

Jubilant, we raced through security, overflowing with relief. That feeling of euphoria lasted 10 minutes, until my phone buzzed with an alert from AA that our flight from Sint Maarten had been cancelled. It was like mental torture.

‘We were going home – or were we?’

Third-party ticketing staff told us indifferently that AA took no responsibility because it was a “weather event” and we had to find our own accommodation for the night. I was shocked that they could wash their hands of us so readily and felt abandoned.

In Europe, airlines are compelled by Air Passengers Rights Regulation to organise accommodation on such occasions. Unfortunately, there is no such provision under US federal law and it is down to individual airlines to decide whether to do so.

We were told AA would email fresh flight arrangements that evening, but nothing materialised and, after hastily booking a nearby hotel online, we went to bed not knowing if or how we would get home the following day.

It made for a tense night, but the following morning – it was now Sunday, when we should have been landing at Heathrow – we headed back to the airport armed with steely determination to get on an aircraft, any aircraft, come what may.

AA confirmed we were on a midday departure to Miami, which was good news. However, it appeared that all that evening’s direct flights to London were full, so we would have to fly via Barcelona. Again, our hopes rose. We had a plan. We were going home – or were we?

At midday, when we should have been taking off, the AA flight crew still hadn’t materialised and no one knew where they were. Twenty minutes later, they trooped in, to sarcastic applause from the waiting passengers, and we started boarding.

But a further delay, caused by refuelling (why couldn’t that have been done earlier?), meant we departed 90 minutes late, putting our connection in doubt.

On arrival at Miami, where we had to clear immigration and customs with their interminably long queues (this was the Spring Break holiday, one of the busiest times for US airports), there was just 10 minutes before our Barcelona flight departed. Not a chance.

Rerouted on different flights

Our phones pinged with more messages from AA. We had been rebooked, but I was being re-routed to London via Raleigh-Durham International Airport in North Carolina and my husband, who was on a different booking number, was being re-routed via Atlanta.

As we said our farewells, with a promise to reunite at Heathrow, we realised both flight routings had short connection times of just an hour and, as my flight had just been delayed, my connection had shrunk to 40 minutes.

With fears that one or both of us could end up stranded in different parts of America overnight, we backtracked and lobbied AA for seats on that evening’s London flights in case spaces had materialised.

They hadn’t, so we enquired about the following evening (Monday), resigned to spending another night in a hotel. But these flights were fully-booked too. Would we ever escape?

As a British Airways Executive Club member, I thought it time to pull rank and brandish my Gold Member status (BA and AA are both members of the Oneworld Alliance). At last, a breakthrough – the agent found seats on Monday night’s final AA flight to London at 11.40pm.

Our relief knew no bounds, but I couldn’t help wondering whether we would have made it on to the flight without my priority status.

The next step was to reclaim our suitcase, somewhere in the vast bowels of Miami’s baggage-handling system, but after an airport worker told us it could take a minimum of three to four hours to retrieve it, we decided to stick with our hand luggage and buy toiletries instead.

From then on, all went smoothly, at last, and we arrived back at Heathrow 48 hours late having spent more than £500 on hotels, taxis, food and incidentals.

When I later contacted AA about our nightmare journey home, a spokesman said that in such instances its options were limited.

“Typically we have to balance determining safe weather conditions to operate and crew flight times which are often also impacted by weather,” he explained.

“When things beyond our control do cause a delay, we have to utilise the first available seats to rebook passengers on, which can be limited when unexpected disruption occurs. Sometimes we can get lucky with seat/aircraft availability, but much of the time it is never as straightforward as a rebook.”

A final sting in the tail

At Heathrow, there was one last sting in the tail: the long-stay car park at Terminal 5 had slapped on an extra £63 charge for the additional two days – despite our late arrival being totally beyond our control.

A Heathrow spokesman said that when customers overstayed the permitted time without notifying them beforehand, they were charged the standard daily rate for the excess.

“If a customer amends their booking or contacts the customer service team via our website or through the ‘manage my booking’ webform to discuss the issue, it enables the cost to remain at the pre-booking rate rather than having day rates apply,” she said.

I wish I’d thought of this while Stateside but, funnily enough, I was consumed with simply trying to get on a plane to get home. At least I’ll know for next time, but I obviously hope there won’t be a next time.

What our consumer expert says

As she points out, Sara’s experience is a useful reminder of the value of European legislation which compels airlines to offer meals and accommodation to stranded passengers and, in some cases, also offer compensation for delays and cancellations (though compensation doesn’t normally apply to weather delays). But that legislation only applies to international airlines operating direct point-to-point flights to and from Britain (or other European countries).

Some travel insurance policies do offer a certain amount of cover for flight delays. It usually kicks in after 12 hours and pays out a fixed amount per hour of delay, so Sara may have a claim on her policy. The other thing which would have helped in this situation is if Sara had been booked on a package tour – then the operator would have been obliged to look after her and make sure she had accommodation when necessary and to organise the return flight for her.

Nick Trend