Thursday, January 24, 2008

Notes on Flying

As some of you know, but most of you don't, my grandfather passed away last Saturday. If the Victorian idea of a good death holds true, my grandfather certainly had one, able to make decisions about his health at the end and to have earthly closure to the 65 years of marriage he had with my grandmother.

His passing meant Sam, Joy, and I quickly settled our week and flew to Montgomery on short notice. We had a good, healing time with our family, telling stories and holding each other up, but the trip there and back proved a virtual guidebook on how not to treat airline passengers. So, since the airline industry is continuing its free fall and is looking on how to lure customers back to the skies, I offer my few notes on what practices might be off-putting to someone like me:

1. When a passenger's account is clearly marked "bereavement," don't assume that every mistake is their fault and act rudely toward them. On Saturday afternoon, I called to make our plane reservations and spoke to a polite, helpful agent who made the reservations, took my credit card information, and expressed her condolences. On Sunday afternoon when we arrived to check in, the agent rudely told me I hadn't paid for the tickets, expressed disbelief when I claimed the contrary, laughed at my worries of paying twice, and then charged me $20 a ticket for the privilege of flying with them.

2. When a passenger politely asks you to put a bag over their carseat to protect it while in your care, don't ignore their request. When we flew to Montgomery, I asked the agent to put Sam's carseat in a protective bag. They did so and the carseat arrived without a mark and in clean condition. When we flew out of Montgomery I made the same request, but noticed as they were loading luggage on the plane that our carseat was not bagged. Guess what? Not only did they ignore my request and not cover the seat, they lost it in the Memphis airport, so it arrived dirty and late.

3. When a passenger is sitting in a exit row and has a child sitting elsewhere on the plane, don't assume they paid extra for the seat and sharply rebuke them for sitting there. On our last leg from Memphis to Kansas City, the flight was full. I was assigned a seat in an exit row, Sam was assigned one three rows behind me, and Joy was assigned three rows behind him. Generally we've had good luck getting people to move so we could sit together, but on that leg, only one person volunteered, so Joy sat with Sam and I went to the exit row. I had barely sat down when the flight attendant appeared and barked at me, "are you traveling with that child?" I replied "yes" and she hurriedly continued, "well, you can't sit here, so we'll refund the price you paid to sit here and you'll have to sit with your son." I frankly was shocked first because the ticketing agent clearly knew I was traveling with Sam and yet assigned me that seat, and second because the flight attendant assumed that I wanted to pay for the privilege of not sitting with my family. When the attendant went back and demanded the other passenger in the row with Joy and Sam move, she said she would only if she could have a window seat. Thankfully the other two passengers on the exit row were willing to move over and the crisis was averted.

4. When a passenger calls to question a transaction, don't make them go through any extra hurdles once you've determined they are correct. On Monday, I called the airline to make sure we were not double charged and to see if I could have the $20 charge removed. The laconic agent kept me on hold and then responded that he saw the error and we would be credited the $60 dollars when we checked in Wednesday afternoon. As of this morning, the refund has still not appeared and I'm having to call back.

All in all, a frustrating trip made harder by our stress and state of mind. Genuine politeness would have gone a long way for us on this trip. But not all was bad. Tomorrow I'll highlight the good things that happened, just to restore your faith in a bit of humanity and to help us move on.

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