We made our reservations for St. Barth entirely over the Internet, using St. Barths Online to locate villas and car rentals. We made reservations for our flights online as well, using the Web to get our reservations on WinAir from St. Maarten to St. Barth and back. We got the paper printout of the electronic tickets, having charged our fares with our credit card.
We made it from SXM to SBH on a flight earlier than our scheduled departure, but naturally our luggage was on the scheduled flight, so we sat at the airport till it arrived, having no benefit for the earlier arrival.
When the day arrived for our departure, we showed up at the airport at 2:00 PM for our scheduled 3:30 departure. Our arrival on SXM would be at 3:45 and our departure was on American Airlines at 5:56, an interval we hoped would be sufficient, as that is the last departure for JFK, our destination. We had reservations for a hotel in New York for our overnight stay pending our flight the next day to SFO.
Our ticketing agent put us on an earlier flight, 656 instead of 638, and check our two pieces of luggage Then he weighed our carryon bags and made me check mine. I had some misgivings, but what could go wrong, right? He said our flight was on time and leaving in fifteen minutes (it was now a quarter to three). Sixty-five minutes later, I went back and asked about our flight; there were delays, he said. There were two flights ahead of us, then ours. Ten till four, and our American flight left at about six. Our margin of safety was getting more marginal.
At 4:30, I checked again. Ours was the next flight, he said. I went back to the waiting room, where there were some increasingly anxious people waiting. A plane landed, emptied of people, then I saw ground crew rolling out two luggage carts, one of which had our bags on it. Someone came to the door to the taxiway, and a crowd formed. Louise and I got on the plane and watched as the ground crew loaded bags on board. They did not load ours; we taxied away with our bags still on the cart. It was half-past four; we still had a chance, right?
We arrived at 4:45, then sat on the taxiway waiting for another WinAir plane to leave. It finally did, and we parked in its place. We formed a line to go through St. Maarten customs then waited for the luggage. The carousel started up, and my carryon came through. We waited for the rest of our luggage, but the carousel stopped. Another plane came through, more luggage, but not our checked bags. It was 5:15, and hope was gone for our connection.
Louise stayed to wait for our bags, and I went to WinAir's ticket counter where I waited in line for an agent. I was told to file a missing luggage claim and go on to New York. I was also told that my bags may already be at Gate 5, the departure gate for our American flight. I went to the American line, reaching the counter at 5:30. Oops. Too late, boarding had closed.
Louise and I rescheduled our flight for the next day, losing our paid reservation at the hotel in New York. We asked the ticket agent at WinAir to reimburse us for our night's lodging in St. Maarten, and she said WinAir would provide no reimbursement. I told her we had arrived on the island at 4:45 and showed her our boarding passes. We had found out from other passengers that two WinAir planes had been taken out of service, causing the delays; the agent would not comment on that, but continued to deny reimbursement.
I asked to speak to the supervisor, Gloria Pantophlet. I also asked about our luggage, which had indeed been taken to Gate 5 without notice to us while we waited for it. It was returned to us. The agent took our passes and our electronic ticket and went into the back to talk to her supervisor.
When she returned the agent said it was our fault for missing the plane because we had not allowed two hours between flights. I pointed out that from our scheduled arrival at 3:45 to our scheduled departure at 5:56 was indeed two hours, but she said boarding closed at 5:30, therefore we did not have the required two hours, thus no reimbursement. This calculation was a surprise to us.
I reminded her when WinAir actually got us onto the island, but she was adamant that it was our fault and that there would be no reimbursement. I asked to speak directly with Ms. Pantophlet, so the agent disappeared again. She returned to tell us that Ms. Pantophlet was busy with other affairs and would see us when she was available. Nice customer service. We waited a half hour for her other affairs to be in order and asked the agent to call her. While the agent was on the phone, Ms Pantophlet came to the desk.
Ms. Pantophlet advised us that our proper procedure when our bags arrived was to report promptly to the WinAir ticket counter, file a lost baggage claim, and go to our American flight and check in. We then would have discovered our bags delivered to the gate. I asked how we were to know this, and Ms. Pantophlet said we should have read our the terms on our ticket envelope. I pointed to our paper printout and pointed out that we were never given a ticket envelope. She handed us one.
I said that wasn't sufficient notice and asked if that procedure was in writing. "It's not in black and white," she said, "but you should have read the terms and conditions on our Web site."
"Are you telling me that policy is on your Web site?" I asked.
"No, but you should have read the terms and conditions."
I again asked for reimbursement, and Ms. Pantophlet advised us that there was no one on St. Maarten with the authority to give us a reimbursement, that we should write to Claudio Buncamper, provide all relevant information, and ask for one. She gave us his email address.
This was a very unsatisfactory situation: after being assured we would get no reimbursement, that it was our fault for being late, we now are told no one on the island has the authority to grant our request. It would have been nice to be told this in the first place. Ms. Pantophlet's card gives her title as "Passenger Handling Manager." I will summarize her job of handling passengers in one word: NO.
We are, as one might expect, unhappy with our treatment by WinAir, and we have decided not to use that airline again.
There are two companies that support a staff of employees providing services to passengers of WinAir that WinAir itself does not provide. As we watched our luggage sitting in the cart unloaded on our plane, I wondered whose luggage was loaded. The Website of St. Barth Services promises "hassle free arrivals and departures, and Premium IV Total Service offers VIP services from the moment you land in St. Barth till you return home. Both services will arrange your check-in for you and deliver your luggage to your carrier. I am sure that WinAir is very happy to have a customer-paid crew on their unpaid staff taking care of business for them. Someone has to make sure your baggage gets on your plane, right? These are what I would consider basic services for passengers, but at which WinAir fails regularly. So regularly that customers are willing to pay someone else to get it right.
All in all, a bitter end to our lovely vacation.
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