The travel adviser: People putting other people first

My experience shows that people matter, clients choose and use an airline or rental car based on their direct encounter with a human being.

iPad mini (photo credit: REUTERS/Robert Galbraith)
iPad mini
(photo credit: REUTERS/Robert Galbraith)
We have Waze to help us navigate.
Pilots use iPads to read their flight manuals. Airlines attempt to convince passengers they can weigh their own luggage, tag it, pay a fee if it’s overweight and stick it on the conveyor belt.
Moreover, when it opened Terminal 5, Heathrow Airport touted how few employees were needed; everything could be automated.
My experience shows, however, that people matter, that clients choose and use an airline or rental car based on their direct encounter with a human being.
Some airlines know this; others couldn’t care less, with their surly disposition almost threatening you not to argue with them. Other companies seem to take great pride in ignoring clients’ requests until firmly reminded.
Some airline slogans over the years epitomize this, ranging from the obscure “Making the sky the best place on earth,” from Air France; to the double entendre, “Virgin Atlantic, more experience than our name suggests”; to my personal favorite, “We move our tail for you,” from Continental Airlines.
After a very lengthy absence, United Airlines has resurrected one of their favorite slogans, urging customers to “Fly the friendly skies.” The campaign can be seen during NFL games, and was used during the recent US broadcast of the Emmy Awards. United is informing all who will listen that it is everything from “online friendly” to “EWR friendly,” referring to their hub at Newark Liberty Airport. The campaign is aimed at letting customers and competitors know that United is back in the game. Almost inspiring in tone, it evokes a warm glow about flying.
Sadly, in 2013, calling our skies “friendly” is almost insulting the intelligence of consumers, lending itself to ridicule.
Take the recent four days of anguish, angst and anger experienced by Alanna.
Bounced between both well-meaning and almost spiteful United employees, she was flown from Cleveland to Newark to Tel Aviv to Istanbul to Tashkent. Departing Sunday from a city once called the “mistake on the lake,” she left Cleveland in the afternoon for Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, only finally arriving early Thursday morning. Did I mention she’s a professor and was leading a group of 34 travelers on a Jewish historical seminar of Uzbekistan? Participants in the group, who were from throughout the English-speaking world, were instructed to convene in Tashkent, where the good professor would meet them.
Her ticket, originating in Cleveland, was issued on Lufthansa, using United Airlines to fly her from Cleveland to Newark to Frankfurt and then to Tashkent. The actual aircraft from Cleveland to Newark was a United Airlines plane, one of Lufthansa’s partners in the Star Alliance. Sadly, that Sunday, the winds must have been blowing in strong from Lake Erie, as Alanna’s 3:10 p.m. flight from Cleveland kept getting pushed back. Finally boarding at 4:30 pm, they only took off around 5:00 pm, and it was obvious to her that she would miss her flight from Newark to Frankfurt.
Racing through the Newark terminal, Alanna found herself at the customer service desk at United Airlines. Like Alice in Wonderland, the situation became curiouser and curiouser. She was scheduled to fly to Tashkent, yet United Airlines rebooked her to Tel Aviv. Yes, they both start with the letter “T”; yes, both are served by Star Alliance airlines, but how does one end up in the Middle East when Asia was the destination? Prof. Alanna reported that the United staff was warm and wonderful; they spent two hours on the phone with their Lufthansa colleagues and said that rather than risk a night in Frankfurt if she were to miss her flight to Tashkent, they would fly her to Tel Aviv the following day and then, miracle of miracles, would put her on an Uzbekistan Airlines flight nonstop to Tashkent. Accommodations were provided for her and Alanna alerted the group she would be a mere 12 hours delayed.
Unable to issue her an e-ticket on Uzbekistan Airlines, United took control of her Lufthansa ticket, giving her a boarding pass for her flight to Tel Aviv and a paper ticket on Uzbekistan Airlines. Younger readers may not know, but there was a time – say in the last century – when tickets were written by hand or printed on a dot matrix printer and presented to the customer. Nonplussed, Alanna boarded her plane the following afternoon, enjoying the flight attendants’ patter and her kosher meal. It was Tuesday night in the Holy Land and collecting her bag, she meandered over to Uzbekistan Airlines for their 10 p.m. flight to Tashkent.
Uzbekistan employees had seen paper tickets; they did see her listed on their manifest; what they couldn’t see was how in the blazes United issued a paper ticket from Lufthansa to Uzbekistan, as they have no working relationship. Now, if she wanted to buy a brand new ticket they were more than happy to help, but nobody at United could answer their query – on whose authority did they issue her the ticket! As the clock struck midnight, Alanna’s strength was sapped and she slipped away to her friends, who conveniently lived close to Ben-Gurion Airport.
It was early the next morning that she reached out to her travel consultant, who was in shock to discover she was in Tel Aviv and not Tashkent. Immediately calling Lufthansa, he was firmly rebuffed, as the efficient airline employee correctly pointed out that the ticket was reissued by United Airlines.
Next phone call was to the United call center in Tel Aviv. Calm and collected, the United employee was unable to find any record of a paper ticket, as it had never been scanned into her electronic record.
He was kind enough to express that Alanna was justified in her confusion, pointing out that United had no way to issue her an involuntary rerouting on Uzbekistan Airlines, and his amusement that his colleague in Newark had done so. He was left with no choice but to insist she bring her paper ticket to the airport so that United ground staff could see this now famous document.
Phoning the good professor back, with the full knowledge that there was a morning flight from Tel Aviv to Newark and thus United personnel would be on duty, he recommended that she taxi over to the airport. Moreover, he informed her that Turkish Airlines had a 3:45 p.m. flight via Istanbul which would bring her into Tashkent at 1 a.m. He was fortified with the knowledge that Turkish Airlines was part of the Star Alliance, and that United could endorse their worthless paper ticket over to Turkish Air... or so he thought.
Upon arrival at the United counter, Alanna was rebuffed repeatedly, until she reached out to me with tears in her voice.
“Nobody will help me!” she cried. “They are all busy checking in passengers.”
Demanding to speak to anyone there, they refused to take her phone to talk to me. Thinking creatively, I told her to hold up the phone so my baritone voice could be heard over the airport noise. Thus did the Angel of Mercy at United, Muriel, hear my plea and agree to speak with me. Taking 45 seconds to bring her up to date, she asked if Alanna could wait one hour until the plane was checked in. With sincere pleasure, I told Alanna to calm herself and wait.
Once more, the kindness of a United employee brought both a smile and satisfaction to the client. Therefore, I was shocked when one hour later, the United station manager called me directly and told me to issue Alanna a brand new Turkish Airlines ticket from Tel Aviv to Tashkent – at the bargain price of $849. Dazed by her request, I asked how the passenger would be reimbursed if she purchased a new ticket. The station manager quickly replied, “If you won’t help, then goodbye,” and hung up the phone.
Regaining my composure, I called our United sales manager, who had already been briefed on the incident. He called this impertinent person, explained the reality, and her ticket on Turkish Air was provided. Scurrying back to the check-in desk at Turkish Airlines, Alanna boarded her plane, made the connection in Tashkent and was sleeping soundly in her hotel bed by 3 a.m. The group was ecstatic that she had somehow made it, and the rest of the tour went as planned.
What is irksome about the incident is the inability of two United Airlines employees to grasp the situation. Why United ever agreed to send her to Tel Aviv instead of Tashkent via Frankfurt escapes all reason. Why United thought that in 2013, a paper ticket on an airline they don’t work with would be acceptable, borders on gross negligence. And finally, after four days of frustration, with wellmeaning people trying to help her, why did Alanna’s last encounter with a United Airlines employee have to turn so sour? Did it really need my intervention? People do matter. They’ll pass over money without even thinking about it – for it is money they have and a flight they need. They’ll take their flight and be left with memories so strong they’ll need to brush them away.
People do matter. People most definitely matter.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem. For questions and comments, email him at [email protected]