May 7, 2013

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The Shortest Distance Between Two Points

This is another travel story.  I am including it because it has very clear and simple morals.

In 2009, my wife Cathy, our daughter Suzanne and I had planned a trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico during Suzanne’s Spring Break.  We could have purchased tickets for a non-stop Frontier Airlines flight, but they seemed expensive.  We searched on the internet and found that we could save $80 a person – $240 total, which is quite a bit – by flying on United Airlines from Denver to Monterey, California and from Monterey to Los Angeles.  In L. A., we would need to take a Mexicana Airline flight to Mexico City, and then to Puerto Vallarta.  We chose to save our money and take the more complicated route.

As we boarded the plane in Denver, the person taking our tickets said, “Have a good flight.  It is currently foggy in Monterey.”  It turned out she was right.  When we reached Monterey, the pilot tried to land, but was prevented by the weather conditions.  Instead, the plane was diverted to San Francisco.

An announcement was made that United would provide a bus to transport all passengers to Monterey.  However, no one wanted to go there.  Nearly everyone on the plane had chosen that flight because it was the least expensive one from Denver to Los Angeles.  The customer service agents were surrounded by passengers trying to find a new connection.  The agent for the line in which we were waiting quickly became frustrated.  He told us that we had been given the opportunity to change flights before we left Denver due to the weather, but we had chosen to come anyway.  Apparently that was why the gate attendant had told us it was foggy in Monterey, though she had not said anything about changing flights.  It was implied, perhaps.

That statement caused many of the frustrated passengers to become angry and the customer service agent to become less helpful.  Finally, Suzanne, Cathy and I were placed on the stand-by list for the last plane leaving that evening.  However, our checked baggage had been unloaded in San Francisco and would not automatically come with us.

Suzanne and Cathy waited at the gate to see if we would get on while I hurried to baggage carousel to find our suitcases.  I retrieved them and went to the United counter to check them in for the new flight to Los Angeles.  I explained the situation to the ticket agent and asked what would happen if we did not get on the new flight.  He shrugged his shoulders and said, “As soon as the bags go through security, they are leaving on that plane whether you do or not.”


I rushed back to the gate to find we were still on stand-by.  We spent the next 20 minutes, silently asking for divine intervention while politely asking this gate agent how soon we would know if seats would be available.  Finally, we were given seats – the last three people who made it from the stand-by list to the flight.

We arrived in Los Angeles some three hours later than planned, but we still had nearly an hour before the Mexicana flight was departing – though it was from a different terminal.  We picked up our bags and ran to the Mexicana check-in counter.  The lady there told us that we were too late and our seats had been given to stand-by passengers.  We politely, though with exasperation, explained what had happened.  She was punched some keys and looked at her monitor.  Then she said, “We do have three seats I can give you.  They are not together, and they are in first class.”

Well, if that was the best they could do . . . .  We toughed it out, putting our feet up and lying back in the big seats while flight attendants brought us food and glasses of wine.

As noted above, the morals of the story are obvious.

First, one should remember the admonition about being penny wise but pound foolish.

Next, it is not good business for employees in customer service to be rude or flippant to customers.  We have not flown on United Airlines since that night, and I would be surprised if many of our fellow passengers have, either.

That is going to change, though.  We have realized that there many fine, caring United employees; and we should not judge the whole company by one unpleasant experience (though that happens all the time).  We are going to fly United on a trip later this month.  I am sure that it will be a great trip.

Finally, remember to ask for divine intervention.  You often receive something even better than you anticipate.

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