A Grants Pass couple stranded in Puerto Rico for a week following Hurricane Maria are contemplating legal action against United Airlines for allegedly failing to accommodate travelers marooned after the storm.
Micah Pitts and Dawn Dalton planned a weeklong vacation in mid-September. By the time they returned home to Southern Oregon, they’d been gone for over two weeks, endured the aftermath of two hurricanes, held a spur-of-the-moment wedding and, they said, were abandoned by United Airlines when their return flight and subsequent “makeup” flights were canceled.
When Hurricane Irma hurled toward their Sept. 16-23 vacation destination, Dalton says the couple considered canceling. When they called the resort, they learned they wouldn't get a refund, but they were told they’d lose only a couple days of outdoor fun due to the weather, so they decided to go and perhaps even find a way to help with cleanup efforts.
Little did they know that Hurricane Maria was just a stone’s throw behind Irma.
“We got two good days of weather and fun before Hurricane Maria came roaring through,” said Dalton of the Category 5 storm.
“By the time we were told that we should consider leaving Puerto Rico due to Maria, we were unable to make arrangements.”
Staying in the well-built Wyndham Resort, the couple was moved, without even asking, from a ground-level, ocean-facing room to a safer upstairs room.
“The night of Maria, our doors were clanking loudly and the floor even felt as though it was moving. We took all the couch cushions and placed them on the floor in our closet area and got a little more sleep before heading downstairs to the 'ride out' zone on the second floor, where all guests were required to check in by 5 a.m.,” Dalton said.
Following the disaster, the resort accommodated stranded travelers at no additional cost, offered free meals and helped with travel arrangements. Their airline of choice didn't respond the same way.
Having confirmed their return flight with United before cell service faded, the couple arrived at the airport Sept. 23 for their scheduled departure. Four other airlines were helping stranded passengers, but the United counter was empty.
“Other airlines were doing a first-come, first-served basis, where people would stand in line and know they would get on the next airplane out. United was just absent. They just didn’t show up,” said Pitts.
“When Dawn called customer service, they told her it was too dangerous to fly after a hurricane. She told them other airlines were flying out, and she was told, 'Then you should’ve flown with them.'"
Passengers without hotel accommodations slept in rental cars or sat outside the airport during a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew each night, Pitts said.
“People were having to go out to their rental cars and sleep and get up the next morning to go stand inside the airport. They were kicking people out at night. There were no vendors, no food, no water. People were eating out of vending machines. People whose hotels had sustained a lot of damage had basically been kicked out into the streets.”
While spending an extra week at the resort, the couple “made lemonade out of lemons,” Pitts said.
“We weren’t married when we left but had always thought about being married at some point in time. Since we were stuck at the resort, and made a bunch of friends, we wanted an interesting wedding story,” Pitts said.
Their impromptu wedding party included other stranded passengers, including a photographer, a ship captain who married them and myriad others who helped with everything from makeup and flowers to a flower boy who sprinkled pieces of paper for the ceremony.
After Pitts and Dalton tied the knot, and with cell reception slowly returning, United promised a return flight Sept. 30, seven days beyond their original return date. That flight got canceled, but the newlyweds had a stroke of luck when they were included on a roster of nearly 3,800 passengers rescued by Royal Caribbean Cruises.
“Royal Caribbean took 3,800 refugees from different port cities and gave them a five-day cruise to Fort Lauderdale. As soon as we boarded the cruise, we logged into wi-fi and called United, and we basically said, ‘Since you couldn’t get us off this island, we’re getting ourselves off this damned island,'” said Pitts, noting that he expected his return flight, despite the location change, to be honored.
“Instead of honoring our round-trip ticket after abandoning us in Puerto Rico, they actually charged us for a flight change,” he said.
Numerous phone calls to United Airlines were not returned Monday.
“We have tried talking to them online and through Facebook and Twitter,” Pitts said. “Customer service has been incredibly unhelpful. Had they just said, ‘Ya know, we are so sorry. Here’s where you can call to get customer service and get refunded.’
“The hotel put us up and fed us and didn’t charge us a dime during the time we were stranded. Royal Caribbean totally went above and beyond. ... United Airlines could have been a third hero in our story. But they’re not. They’re the villain.”
— Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at email@example.com.