Behind the scenes when tragedy strikes
I struggled a little this week deciding whether or not to share this story. The story is about what happened in Fort Lauderdale last Friday. I struggled with it because what happened was such a senseless act of violence leaving all of America stunned and with a broken heart. The killer in Fort Lauderdale doesn't deserve any further attention but I feel that one should know what goes on behind the scenes from a travel professional's perspective when tragedy strikes.
I am writing this through the eyes, texts and phone calls from my client who unfortunately experienced the day from Terminal 3. I want to make note that he was safe and in a totally different location from where the shootings happened. I want to share this with you because I feel it is very important for you to know that what we do as travel professionals sometimes shifts into an entirely different job description than crafting amazing vacations.
My relationships with my clients start at hello, continues through the entire planning process, vacation time and up through the day they come home. From elaborate multi-segmented adventures to simple flights. My story started January 5th with my client's simple flight from his hometown to Cancun with a connection through Fort Lauderdale.
Thursday night I checked flight status and notified my client that everything was on schedule for his 7:30 AM departure on January 6. I repeated the same thing Friday morning and wished him a great trip. When I have clients flying, I typically bring up flight tracker and monitor the flights. I also set up notifications to be sent to me as well as my flyers in case of changes or delays. Business as usual.
His flight arrived in Fort Lauderdale on time but I received a notification that his connecting flight was delayed from 2:15 PM to 5:05 PM. I notified my client but didn't hear anything back which wasn't very odd at all.
I worked on for the next 10 minutes. Then my email notifications just kept coming. "Bing, Bing, Bing"...one JetBlue notification of delay after the other. Immediately, I received a call from a colleague asking if I had any clients at the Fort Lauderdale airport. At this point I knew something was not right.
I put on the news here in the office, took in the situation and attempted again to reach my client. My heart truly sank when he didn't answer the phone. I was very thankful when he returned my call 5 minutes later.
He was aware of the situation but not the details. He said he heard that someone was shot in the baggage claim in Terminal 2. He said that people were panicking, watching monitors and getting restless because uniformed police with guns were running through the airport. I am grateful my client is a military veteran and knew how to handle stressful situations.
We agreed to keep communicating via text and he would keep me involved of the situation. My client immediately became my priority for the day.
Throughout the day I received notes, "Its mass panic here. People are running over people, even children", "There are so many police running through the terminal", "The situation is out of control, we don't know what is going on and people are screaming and crying" to finally "we are all being escorted to the tarmac for our safety".
Later the notes turned into "We've been on the tarmac for hours, they are passing out water but there is no food and we are not allowed to use any facilities", "Families are crying" and "There is no clear communication, authorities can't tell us anything".
Later in the afternoon, my client sent a few messages to let me know that the authorities were going to let them back in the terminal only to be told soon after that there were not going to be let back in. After hours of standing on the tarmac, they were all moved into one of the parking garages.
During the course of these events, I was already focused on my responsibilities as his travel professional. I knew that there would not be any further flights departing out of Fort Lauderdale on Friday, due to the nature of what happened. They hadn't announced that all flights were suspended yet but I had already been on my travel reservation system which is a direct link to the airlines rebooking him on another flight. I rescheduled him for the following day on a later flight just in case the airport was not fully operational by morning. This is what we do, I am my client's advocate, it is my job to do the best I can for him in any given situation, just as I do for all my clients.
Since his cell phone battery was running low, I also communicated with his mother and his friend who was waiting for him at his destination. I continued to keep them both up to date.
I felt sad knowing that for thousands of others affected by this who don't use a travel professional would have to wait on hold for hours to get flights rescheduled. Even more devastating, the travelers who may not have had a cell phone or the ability to make calls until they got to a hotel. For these clients, sadly, they could not get rescheduled on a new flight until the 8th, 9th and even the 10th of January.
After I had my client's flights rebooked, I immediately started searching for a hotel room close to the airport. At this point, people were still not allowed to leave the airport and all public transportation was still stopped. I knew though that once people were allowed to leave, there would be no hotel rooms available especially after a mass exodus. By 4:28, his new flight and hotel were confirmed.
I notified my client of the new travel arrangements. At 7:37 PM, it was announced that Shuttle Buses would be transporting thousands of people to Port Everglades Cruise Terminal 4. At 8:21 PM, my client was on the shuttle. At 9:53 PM, my client was safe and sound and resting.
I love my job very much but this was the first time in 24 years that something to this degree had ever happened. I have rescheduled missed flights, helped clients 'revise' their river cruise vacation when the water levels got too high and I even found a lost passport in Mexico for my clients who left it in a cab but this was totally different.
The point is that a travel professional can make the world of difference to a client who may end up in a stressful or unfavorable situation at any given moment while traveling. My client was never alone and I know from his own words that he felt comforted and secure knowing I was watching out for him. He did not worry, he knew he would be taken care of. My best note came at 4:39 PM "I know I can count on you"
We exchanged over 100 messages on January 6 from 11:45 AM to 10:07 PM. Though inconvenienced for the day, he felt happy to be alive. He had a new flight, he had a hotel room, and he had a new transfer scheduled on his arrival in Cancun. The most important thing is that he had peace of mind. (Oh, and Travel Insurance, all those out of pocket expenses will be reimbursed).
I have heard people in conversation say, "why use a travel agent", my question is "why wouldn't you?"
Written with a grateful heart, Lisa
Lisa D Fitzgerald, CTA, is the owner of Fitzgerald Travel. Lisa has 23 years of full service experience and is a graduate of the Travel Institute. She is knowledgeable in all forms of travel, with a focus on European Itineraries.