Tuesday, August 7, 2007

To British Air With Love

"The rule is jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today," Lewis Carroll.

Along with certain beliefs in human dignity, the innate fairness and logic of authority, and the inalienable rights of the individual, my middle class American cultural baggage imbued childhood memories of air travel (to visit my grandparents in the seventies) with a spirit of excitement and anticipation. My mother would dress my sister and me in our better clothes (athletic shoes, sweatsuits and shorts were not expected to make an appearance outside sporting venues) and make it clear that unless we wished to forgo a thousand delights and indulgences of childhood, under no circumstances were we to humiliate her with a display of anything less than our best manners. Although we always flew coach, the airplane felt like a privileged and highly civil means of transportation.

That era fades into a distant memory against today's backdrop of the airport of the future, a venue that manages to combine the charms of a Greyhound bus terminal with triage at a low-security prison.

Have kids, will travel

Along my journey towards adulthood, I've managed to acquire four children of my own, something that has not eliminated empathy for anybody who has ever had to spend hours cooped up in a plane behind some squalling brat. I can truly say I make every effort to make sure that that child is not mine and I fully support whichever airline it was that chucked out the little horror that refused to buckle its seatbelt, along with its whiny, enabling parents. Ironically, the same litigious spirit which allows the child's parents to feel their rights had been infringed on by the seatbelt mandate, would have also been invoked against the airline had the little troglodyte been allowed to experience what it deserved--having its head bonked at the first sign of air turbulence. As for those younger children whose behavior simply cannot be helped, a mother of twins once shared with me a gracious panacea--offering the unfortunate cabin-mates importuned by one's offspring free drinks, preferably hard liquor.

Despite appearances to the contrary, parents of young children actually get few breaks in today's air travel environment. Just try getting through the carry-on luggage scanning line with an infant in a stroller. In that vein, the one travel experience, I always grit my teeth for is our annual trek, with the children, to visit my husband's family in Mallorca. Past bad experiences with Delta and Iberia and Madrid's Barajas airport led me to the conclusion that traveling with one carrier for both legs of the non-direct trip and flying through an English-speaking hub might alleviate our problems. To others whose experiences have been less than satisfactory with Spanish carriers or any elements of the hospitality industry in Spain, I have one word for you "El libro de reclamaciones," a Franco holdover from an era when individual liberties might have been curtailed but, by God, the trains ran on time, and the consequences for poor service were serious.

So how did things go with British Air the past two years: 0 for 2 and I'm thinking of going back to sucking it up with Delta.

It all started late July last year when the long arm of Iberia managed to reach out and screw us from afar. It was one of those ridiculous strikes that only seem to happen in Europe. The Iberia baggage personnel occupied all landing strips of the Barcelona airport, shutting down Spain's number two airport, costing millions of dollars, creating a security and logistics nightmare, not to mention pain for thousands of travellers whose flights had to be re-routed in Barcelona and the surrounding airspace. For some reason known only to themselves, in an era when they tell you to show up three hours in advance for international travel, British Air considers that one hour is suitable connection time between flights in a major hub like London Gatwick. On the delayed outbound flight to London, the pilot came to reassure us that he had been in touch with the Atlanta-bound crew of the connecting flight and that we should sprint out as soon as the plane landed beause they would hold the plane. I told him that I was six months pregnant and asthmatic, with three children and could they please arrange to have one of those motorized carts or at least some airline personnel to escort us.

No personnel and no motorized assistance were forthcoming when we exited our plane. I did manage to sprint it out with the kids and make it to the terminal with the Atlanta-bound plane still there. So, imagine my surprise when they would not let us board. They pretended that this was some sort of formality of it being too close to the departure time (none of which prevented them, earlier, from telling a 6-month pregnant woman with three children to run through Gatwick to try and make the flight). The reality, which everyone who flies frequently these days knows-- the real truth--was that they had already given up our seats due to overbooking. What ensued was two hours with my tired kids (who had had to get up at 4am that morning to make it to the airport on time for the first flight) as the gate agent tried to figure out how to get us to Atlanta. Ultimately, the only way they could make this happen was to put us on a 5:30am flight the next morning to Dublin, followed by a noon flight from Dublin to Atlanta, putting us up for the night in some squalid, fleabag motel in the vicinity of Gatwick.

First Class All the Way, Baybee

Awful as my experiences flying have been, they have all been in Cabin Class, so I still held out the illusion that somewhere in first class people breathed a rareified air where the airline passenger is treated with something better than contempt and disdain. I am told this is true--if you fly Singapore Airlines, which sounds like a nod to the 1960s when flight attendants were hired on the basis of being young, cute and chipper. Meanwhile, on the major American and European carriers, those same attendants they hired back in the 60's are still flying and many of them ain't so elated about it.

The first thing that set me against British Air this year was that they forced us to pay over $2000 to change two business class and six coach class tickets (for the children and nannies) to fly one day earlier from Mallorca. The service agent was completely unsympathetic about our experience missing the one hour window for the connecting flight last year and refused to give any statistics on the percentage of their Palma to London flights that actually make it on time. Nope, we had to pay the full "international" change fee for all fares.

So, imagine my surprise after purchasing my tickets five months in advance and shelling out a fortune in change fees, not to mention the cost of staying overnight in London, to compensate for their ridiculous one hour layover, when we get to the airport two and a half hours early the next morning only to be told by the bubblehead in charge of issuing the boarding passes that two of our party are on stand-by. I ask exactly how they plan to sort this out since, with the exception of my husband, one of the nannies and myself, everyone else is a minor and cannot fly alone. She replies that it's not the airline's fault: they are forced to overbook or "they will lose money since not everybody shows up to fly." It must take some practice to look people in the eye and say in so many words "We're not greedy bastards trying to get an extra 5 or 10% on top of our profit margin. It's economic necessity that forces us to screw you." Because the no-shows wouldn't have to pay their fare up front like everybody else, would they?

Bubblehead assures me that we will get on the plane it is just a question of re-assigning seats because of all the people who had the foresight to check in online 24 hours in advance grabbed up all the primo seats and made it impossible for our children to sit with their sitters in the economy cabin. She implies that it is our fault for not having the foresight to take advantage of the 24 hour advance check-in, something that I have just heard about for the first time that day. This seat re-assignment apparently takes computing and logistic qualities beyond those she possesses because she taps around for an hour with no results, as my children and baby grow more and more restless. Ironically, had the plane arrived on time, we still would have missed the one hour connection window due to the overbooking saga.

During this period the kids get thirsty, need to go to the bathroom, and the baby becomes hungry. My back starts to hurt and I ask for a chair to sit down and nurse him. She says that it's not possible to provide one. That's when it hits me: the revelation of how to extract myself from this situation. Denied a chair, I pull out one of the suitcases to the middle of the Club World First Class ticketing area, glare at her and sit down to nurse my baby. I do have more innate modesty and less need for drama than the breast-feeding mother traveling Delta who insisted on flashing everybody (my experience seeing the masses of flesh roasting on Spanish beaches is that what is most exposed is usually not what you want to see). However, I can also see that plopping myself down on top of a suitcase to breastfeed, surrounded by the gypsy encampment of my children, including my eight year old daughter singing girls' camp clapping songs: "Miss Merry Mac, Mac, Mac, with silver buttons down her back, back, back" is having the desired effect. Quite simply, we are not projecting that Club World First Class travel image with which British Air like to associate themselves. Too bad we don't have some domestic animals running about or some flint and firewood to start grilling out sausages, while we're at it.

Within five minutes: the solution arrives. Her matronly appearance, grey helmet-hair and perma-scowl let me know this is the answer to my prayers, the supervisor--"She who talketh to the computers." Remember the Spacing Guild in Dune? You start out with the novices who exhibit rather standard patterns of human interaction and appearance, moving all the way up to the guy floating in an orange cloud of Spice in the aquarium? When it comes to interstellar travel, he's your man. Unlike her younger colleague, this woman's typing produces results. In 10 minutes and we are finally issued boarding passes. I have achieved another one of those life lessons. If you are denied first-class treatment, even when you've paid a fortune to try and ensure it, find some politically correct way to act like their third-world nightmare of third class and you'll achieve the new standard in airline service--getting screwed, less.


Andrew C. Oliver said...

Minor correction...those strikes also happen in Philly. I was on a JBoss gig a few years back and the union baggage handlers did the very same thing and was stranded in the airport for hours. Had I had any belief that I would be able to recover it later if I left it...I would have...but it was made very clear to me that those same baggage handlers would probably be taking my warez if I did not... So I arrived at like 7pm...and left he airport at 2am. You know...when you write the story it is far my sympathetic than when marc did...and inspired my parody: http://blogs.jboss.com/blog/acoliver/2005/08/10/When_systems_fail_and_people_dont_care_pt_II.txt

It is those details he leaves out...leaving you with exotic vacation...2 nannies...etc. Ironically I blogged linking to that very post just hours ago (http://blog.buni.org/blog/acoliver/opensource/2007/08/08/Reminder-Come-see-us-tomorrow-at-the-Next-Generation-Datacenter-Expo-at-Linuxworld).. Sick minds think alike.

Jeff Haynie said...

Marc pointed me to this post - not sure how I missed it. My wife and I just laughed as we read this and talked about the many times over the past 7 years while we traveled with kids in tow each summer and winter for vacations. Each time, I swear I'll never do it again - and each time, we do it over and over.

We have 3 kids, I can't imagine 1 more. :)

Selene said...

Good post.