25 June 2008

Dear American Airlines,

Allow me to start by saying that I'm aware the title of this post has been used recently for the title of a book. I heard an interview with the author a few weeks ago, and the title just stuck in my head. The impetus for his book was very similar to my motivation to write this post. He, over the course of a day or two, was grossly mistreated by American Airlines employees in an airport. He started composing a letter of complaint, and it snowballed into enough material to write a publishable book. I can assure you this post will not turn into a book. However, I can not promise that the similarities will end at the title. I have a feeling, based not only on his interview on TV (I think it was on Glenn Beck) but on the general sentiment I've heard being passed around about American, that my story is indicative of a pervasive and disturbing trend.

Typically, barring provocation, I am a very polite individual. When it comes to the service industry, I know precisely how hard people work (despite what the typical customer's perspective will tell them). I'll wait patiently in a line much longer than most, and I'm very tolerant of mistakes if effort is apparent. Some people, however, do not belong in service positions. There's an underlying ability to be nice in the face of all circumstances that exists at the core of folks who are cut out for customer service, and you've either got it or you don't. The individual working the A9-A11 gate at Charlotte Douglas International Airport for American Airlines yesterday clearly falls in to the "doesn't have it" category, and she should move on.

I'm disappointed with myself for not taking notes during my travails yesterday. And I had the camera in my suitcase too, but I did not get it out for visual documentation. Regardless, I hope you share in my agony.

Mandi dropped us off at the airport at around 5:50 a.m. yesterday. Lily, Avery, and I braved the morning airport rush, got our gate passes from the self-service machine, and headed through security. You've never been so on edge as when you're arguing with your 3-year-old to take off her shoes with a rushed mob of 150 or so business travelers staring at you impatiently from the back of the line. We managed to make it through with all of our belongings, got our shoes back on our feet, and began navigating the long hallway down to Terminal A. Our flight was scheduled to leave at 7:37, and by this time it was around 6:25. The gate agents were busy boarding an earlier flight, so I took the girls to an out-of-the-way part of the lobby so they wouldn't disturb anyone. Having seen our position on the stand-by list (#'s 6, 7, and 8) and concerned we might be casualties of a weight restriction, I went over to the gate to let the agent know that the girls were young children. This interaction, though rushed, was courteous in the most clinical sense. By that I mean the agent said "Thank you" to me as she made the notes in the computer, but the sincerity of her gesture left a lot to be desired. My inference, whether accurate or not, was that she'd have preferred to say "Thanks a lot douchebag, now go the hell away and let me deal with the paying customers". I'm good with body language that way . . I can promise you my interpretation is pretty close to spot-on. To quote My Cousin Vinny, "Dead-on-balls accurate."

Understanding my position as a non-revenue traveler, I went back to wait patiently without pestering someone who obviously was not in the mood to be social. The girls made the next 15 minutes seem like 3 hours, and then mercifully we heard the agent call "standby passengers Eaton and Slovick, please check in." Relieved, I gathered our bags and herded the girls toward the gate. Still approximately 60 feet from the counter and trying my best to quickly motivate the kids, I was taken aback when I heard the agent yelling to me "I've only got 2 seats!" As I got appreciably closer the wind somewhat fell out of my sails and my pace slowed. Now in recovery mode and thinking about my options for later flights, I kept walking toward the gate with a quizzical look on my face. When I was 20 feet away, the agent stepped out from behind the counter and repeated herself in a far-from-apologetic tone. Now again, an understanding of the service industry becomes enlightening. When I say her tone was unapologetic, don't confuse that with my placing blame on this individual for the circumstances. I know it's not her fault we didn't get on the plane. But that point is moot. If your concern for your clientele is genuine, your delivery of unpleasant news is saccharine-sweet. "I'm so sorry sir, but we only had 7 seats and there were 5 passengers in front of you on the list. Your listing will be rolled over to the next available flight to LaGuardia, hopefully you'll be able to get on that one." Or something along those lines. No one whose heart is in the job would argue with me on that point.

Instead, what came next was the proverbial lemon in the paper cut. Before she even got the exclamation point out of her mouth, she began with her ruthless follow-up. "Besides" she said, "you're not allowed to travel in shorts as a non-rev anyway!" In that moment, I had been humiliated by a complete stranger at a distance of about 6 yards. Bear in mind that I had already interacted with this agent once this morning, wearing then precisely what I was wearing now. Very nice Docker's hemmed khaki shorts, a sharp looking golf shirt that was neatly tucked in, a belt, and sandals. It was, after all, the 24th of June and the forecasted high temperature for the day was in the low 90's. When I spoke to her the first time, a point at which I might have been able to fix it, my attire was not an issue. Now, however, since she had me against the ropes, she decided to go for the knock out and add insult to injury. In my opinion, this woman was displaying a blatant abuse of the power inherent to her position by ruthlessly enforcing a rule that is quite obviously open for interpretation. Does the policy state that shorts are not allowed? Yes, it does. Do the gate crews at all of American's terminals across the country enforce it to this degree? No way in hell. How can I be so certain of that? Because I've flown in shorts at least a dozen times on a buddy pass, and it's never even been discussed.

I worked in night clubs that had dress codes, and every person who worked there knew precisely why the dress code existed. It was a fall-back crutch. If you wanted some knucklehead tossed out, find some nitpicky thing in the dress code he was violating and say it's "no exceptions". It's implemented for people to hide behind when they're uncomfortable addressing the real issues. In this instance, I believe she was smack-dab in the middle of a power trip, she just wanted to be right that day. To quote Randall from Clerks, "There's nothing more exhilarating than pointing out the shortcomings of others."

As you can imagine, my reaction to this final barb was less than favorable. I passed right over the lack of seats on the plane and began pleading my case, rather perturbedly, about the excessive rigidity she was showing in enforcing this policy. She very curtly cut me off and said that I wasn't going to tell her how to do her job, and that the discussion was now over. Infuriated, I called my mom (not running to mommy, but she's the AA employee, perhaps she could reason with this woman). In my fury I explained to my mom in no uncertain terms that the agent in question was one of the three biggest bitches I'd ever met in my life. Unfortunately for us all, I was well within earshot of the woman (and not really trying to be discreet). That mistake in judgement pretty much ended my chance at resolving the conflict with her, so after a few more sarcasm-laced exchanges I stormed off down the terminal toward security. The last thing either of the two agents at the gate said to me (she had reinforcements) as I left was, "You know, your mom could lose her flying priveleges and her job over this." I knew that was an empty threat, but it didn't make it any less infuriating (both to myself and to mom). I dragged the girls back through security and tried to devise a plan.

My first attempt involved swallowing my pride and appealing to the mercy of a ticket counter employee. I tried to get an audience with a supervisor, but he didn't typically arrive until 8:30 or so. At this point it was still 7:15 or so. The employees at the ticket counter, aside from their less-than-believable uncertainty about their supervisor's schedule, were exceptionally polite and helpful. But come on folks, billion dollar airlines don't let low-level supervisors at mid-sized airports just come and go as they please with no precise accountability with regard to scheduling. Don't play me for a fool, I can see right through your vagueness. Their advice, being not in a position to clear me to travel as-is, was to go through to the concourse and purchase a pair of pants. They let me leave our bags behind the counter while I went through security (again), since the plan was to come back at 8:30 to talk to said supervisor about repealing the aforementioned suspension of my flying priveleges. While in the security line, Lily freaked out at the sight of three very nice Amish men behind us, which only compounded the uncomfortability associated with taking kids through the metal detectors for a second time. Once through we darted around to all of the reail stores in the concourse looking for a pair of pants, only to be shot down at every turn. Even the Johnston & Murphy store carried above-the-waist garments only. My last ditch effort was a stop at the Nascar store, where I was (mercifully) denied pants yet again. I came within inches of asking random travelers for pants from their suitcases, but I stopped short of that.

Dejected, we left the secure area to again wait at the ticket counter. At precisely 8:29 I rounded up the girls and headed for the maze. Once at the head of the line we were given the "Oh shit, he actually came back" look by the agents, and they called us over. They explained that somehow the supervisor may not be coming in that day, and that they were sorry. Then, without my having to ask, the woman ticket agent offered to try to get me in touch with the manager, whose office, she explained, was right below the gate where the incident took place. That manager is the only employee whose name I recall, and it's for completely random reasons. Her name is June Miller, and I never even met her. The name just stuck because I've got a friend named June (whom you'll read about later), and one of my favorite all time books is "Death of a Salesman", by Arthur Miller. So somehow June Miller stuck. In an ironic twist of luck, Ms. Miller's secretary happened to be right behind that very ticket counter at the time, and she told me she was going to head down to talk to her boss, and that just in case she decided to let us travel I should get our stuff together and come down there too.

So we did. Got our bags, herded through security (where an agent said "Haven't you guys already been through?" . . "This is our third time, actually" I replied) and hustled back down to the gate. At this point it was pushing 9:00 and the next flight to LaGuardia was leaving at 9:15. I put Lily on my back, told Avery to keep up no matter who she had to run over, and started tearing ass through the terminal. As we arrived at the gate, the secretary met us about 20 yards shy of the counter and told us that she'd spoken to Ms. Miller and that her response to our plea was an emphatic "Absolutely not!" Now, as utterly nice and polite as this secretary was to me the entire time, I have to believe that this was a fabrication. You're telling me that a manager with an airline that's laid off 15,000 people and gone bankrupt twice in the last 6 years has so little to worry about that she's passionate about enforcing the non-rev dress code at the Charlotte airport on a Tuesday? I call bullshit. The fact is, the gate agent with whom I had the confrontation was the head person in charge on this day (due I'm sure in part to the unexplainable absence of the ticket counter supervisor and Ms. Miller), and knowing the response before she even asked the question this secretary probably just fabricated the conversation with Ms. Miller in order to put an end to the situation. With no hard proof of this (and with no open seats on the 9:15 flight) I once again put my tail between my legs and turned to walk away.

So now it's time for Plan C. I've exausted my patience with regard to begging for mercy and arguing the rules. I felt like Lou Pinella after he's just tossed 2nd base into right-center field . . I was toast. Somehow, some way, I was going to have to get something a little more full-coverage on my lower extremities if this day was to end North of the Mason-Dixon. I called my mother-in-law to beg her to bring me some of my father-in-law's pants, but she wasn't home. Then I called Mandi and told her she was going to have to leave work to come and get us. That went over like a fart in church. My last resort was June. June lives down the street from us, a full 32 miles away from the Charlotte airport. June works nights at a local hospital and her scheduled days of the week vary. Knowing that, I try to communicate with June via email whenever possible, just so I'm not calling the house when she's trying to sleep after a 12-hour overnight shift. But email wasn't going to be an option today. So I called her, and it went to voicemail. Downtrodden, I tried her cell, knowing full well that she rarely turns it on when she's inside the house. When that didn't work, I nearly gave up hope. I was seconds from walking to a taxi stand and cabbing it home to get pants. On a whim, however, I called June's home number one more time. Miraculously, and with the sounds of an angel choir in the background, she answered after one ring. Her voice was obviously of a person who'd just woken up, and I contemplated just apologizing and hanging up. But I really don't like to lose. So I swallowed my pride, again, and begged her for help. I asked her to go to my house, get me some khaki pants, bring them to me at the airport, and then go on her merry way. All before she'd even fed her kids breakfast. Thankfully, she agreed. I would have totally understood if she'd said no . . $4.00 per gallon for gas, 60 miles in her van that probably gets 24 mpg . . we're talking at least a $10 out of pocket expense just in gas, not to mention the hassle of getting the kids dressed quickly and hustling them in to the car. No one would have blamed her for declining. But she didn't. She saved my ass like she has numerous other times, and by 10:30 I was dressed to the nines and ready to try my hand at this stand-by thing just one more time. Mercifully the security line was very short this time, and the girls had finally gotten the hang of it. You know what they say, 4th time's a charm! Ironically, while I had gotten through the metal detector with no issues on the first 3 tries, this 4th time (the only one in pants) my belt set off the machine. This, I hoped, was not a harbinger.

The girls and I went to have a little lunch in the concourse . . of course they couldn't agree on what to have so we waited in not one but two ridiculously long fast-food lines. When we finally sat down to eat our Pizza Hut and Quizno's lunches, Avery looked at me and asked why I had to change pants (dude, what the hell have you been paying attention to these last 4 hours???). When I explained why, she calmly said "Well, I think you looked way better in the shorts." Great, thank you Martha.

We finished our lunch at around 11:30 and took a leisurely walk down toward the gate, again. The next flight didn't leave until 1:15, and it appeared as though there were enough open seats for us to get on. That is, of course, as long as the gate agent didn't go in and delete our reservation from the system like she'd done for the previous two flights. So we stopped along the way to look at the hanging displays, watch the juggler, and marvel at the length of one bartender's braid. Airports are great for people-watching, aren't they? We got to the gate at around 12:00, and I made sure we sat about as far away from the counter as we could while still being able to hear the agents' calls over the loud speaker. The last thing I wanted, after 7 hours in the airport, was for the agent to see me and do something vindictive that would keep us from flying. She was still at the counter, after all, but did not appear to be the one working our flight. Then, in the one stroke of luck we really needed, I watched her reach into the closet at the end of the counter, grab her purse and her travel mug, and say goodbye to the agent left at the gate. Her shift was over. She walked away through the terminal without even a glance in our direction, which I was perfectly happy about. I tried to avoid watching her as much as I could, but I had to keep glancing out of the corner of my eye to see if she was really leaving. She was, and I've gotta tell you I got up and did a little Snoopy dance right there in the terminal. Don't worry, no one saw me.

We got the last three seats on the little plane to LaGuardia, and as soon as we took off the girls both fell asleep post haste. I can't blame them, they'd been up since 5 and had probably walked a total of 4 miles in that airport. That's a lot of work, and they needed the rest. I wanted to nap too, but this post was racing through my mind so fast that I decided to order a $6 airline beer instead. It's expensive, I know, but they keep them on dry ice, so it was absolutely perfect. Just a hint of ice crystals inside, nice cold can . . even Miller Lite can taste great at 34,000 feet under the right circumstances. Two hours later we landed on time, got in the car and headed upstate. The 5 hour drive to Ithaca seemed like a blink of an eye compared to the day we'd had, and I'm glad the whole ordeal is finally behind us. For the next week the posts will be nothing but cute kids, amazing birds, and quaint country scenery. Cheers.

1 comment:

Carolyn said...

oh my Lord what a day! The Snoopy dance part was my favorite, that and Ave asking why you changed. Um.....HELLO, MCFLY!?!

Glad you made it there safe...love you lots, relax and enjoy the lake!!!
xoxo