Laying over for a few hours in London after a recent road trip, I jumped onto the Heathrow Express to squeeze in a quick lunch with one of my favorite airline executives. An Australian working for a major U.S. carrier, he promptly slapped me right between my groggy eyes with a full plate of righteous indignation.
"Your columns were much better in the old days, mate, when you explained and analyzed the airline business," he began. "All you do now is complain. You’re acting like you don’t know a bloody thing about the airline business."
"Well, uh, what I’m trying to do…" I stammered.
"You’re smarter than that," he continued. "Why don’t you explain what goes on so travelers don’t think all airline executives are fools and creeps. You make us all seem like blithering idiots when you know bloody well what we’re doing and why we’re doing it."
"Well, uh," I started again. "What I’ve been trying to do is be the customer. I’m trying to react like a customer, not an analyst. Why can’t you give business travelers good service at fair prices and then take responsibility when you foul up? How come we have to understand your needs all the time?"
My airline friend peered over his pint of bitters and smiled. "You know how complex the business is. Just explain it to your readers and make them understand."
"Okay," I said. "I’ll try. Honest."
After assuring me that I was now "being a mate," my airline friend walked me back to Paddington Station. All during the 15-minute ride to Heathrow Terminal 3 and the 15-minute walk to my check-in station, I promised myself that I’d be more understanding in these columns.
When I got to check-in, the agent looked over my business-class ticket and scowled. "You’re going to have to get your seat assignment at the gate," she said.
"Excuse me," I said. "Is there some problem?"
"No, no problem," she replied. "But I can’t give you a seat or a boarding pass here. You have to do it at the gate."
Ah, I thought, a chance to be understanding!
"Oh," I said, "that’s disappointing. Could you explain why you can’t issue me a boarding pass?"
"Let me see," she said, turning to her keyboard. "Oh, here’s why. You didn’t actually request a seat assignment in advance and we’re rather full tonight."
"Well, actually," I replied, "I confirmed my seat, 6J, in New York before I left."
"Really? Let me check," and she scurried away to a different check-in desk.
Moments later, she returned. "Well, I see you do have a confirmed seat, but I still can’t give you a boarding pass. You’ll have to do that at the gate–or you can try in the club."
Despairing of an actual explanation, I took my understanding self to the club. Before I could open my mouth, the agent at the front desk said, "Where’s your boarding pass? You need a boarding pass."
"I know," I replied. "The agent at check-in said she couldn’t issue one. She said I could try to do it here."
"Well," said the agent, "leave your ticket with me. I’ll see what I can do."
So I took my understanding self to a seat and plowed through some notes. When I saw the "Go to Gate" message next to my flight on the departure board, I returned to the front desk.
"Did you manage my boarding pass." I asked.
"What boarding pass?" the agent said.
"I came in about an hour ago and you held my ticket and said you’d try to get me a boarding pass."
"Oh, yes, I remember," she said, taking my ticket off a pile of papers. "I never got to it. But you need a boarding pass. You’d better hurry. You’ll have to do it at the gate."
So I took my understanding self down another dreary set of corridors to the gate, went up to the podium and presented my ticket and passport.
"You need a boarding pass. You should have gotten it when you checked in," said the agent.
"Yes, I know, but the woman at check-in said she couldn’t give me one. I have tried."
"Well," she said, "it’s late now. Go over there," and waved me and my ticket to an auxiliary desk where an agent was peering intently into a computer monitor.
So I took my understanding self to the auxiliary desk and said, "Hello, I need a boarding pass."
"Just a minute," came the reply as the agent continued to scan the monitor.
Without ever looking up, he scooped my ticket and passport off the counter, slapped it on the keyboard, pressed a few keys and grunted. Moments later, a boarding pass spit out of the printer.
"Thank you," I said and walked away. But when I looked at the boarding pass, I realized it didn’t have my name on it. The seat was correct–6J, exactly what I confirmed back in New York–but the name on the pass was "Andrew van Diken."
So I took my understanding self back to the auxiliary desk, where the agent was still peering at his monitor.
"Excuse me," I said. The agent didn’t look up. "Excuse me," I said again. "Could you help me?"
Finally, the agent looked up. "Yes?" he said.
"You just gave me a boarding pass, but it has the wrong name on it."
"Let me see that," he said, snatching my documents out of my hand. "Oh, yes, I see the problem. You’re Brancatelli, 6J."
"That’s me," I replied.
After a minute or so on the keyboard, the agent served up a corrected boarding pass.
"Here you go," he said. "Next time, you really should get your seat assignment and boarding pass at check-in. We’re really not equipped to do that here."
"Yes, I see," I said. "I’m so sorry."
"Well…" said the agent, turning back to his monitor.
"We try to be understanding."