ABOVE THE PACIFIC OCEAN, Dec. 27, 2010 — I want to tip my hat to Sen. John Kerry’s staff.
Oh, I know the START Treaty was a really big deal for America’s credibility and world peace. But my thank you is for something personal and pedestrian. Without Kerry’s crackerjack Boston office, I’m not convinced we’d have made it out of the country, not sure I’d be sitting here, stocking feet stretched out, listening to Mozart 34,000 feet above the clouds.
Instead I might have been among those left behind, in Boston, in that blizzard dumping 18-plus inches of snow and paralyzing the airport.
It began a week ago when, during a Christmas party conversation, I realized we’d never gotten seats for the plane-trip marathon we’d booked from Boston to Christchurch, New Zealand – three flights, 21 hours in the air, leave Dec. 26 and arrive Dec. 28 on the other side of the Earth.
On Tuesday evening I called Air New Zealand and the charming Kiwi reservation agent quickly slotted Kathy and me into seats from San Francisco to Auckland and then Auckland to Christchurch. She suggested we might want to watch the big storm already crashing ashore in Los Angeles. Then I then called United Airlines, the carrier of our first leg, Boston to San Francisco.
“It’s overbooked,” a reservations clerk somewhere overseas let slip. No seats available. But, she tried to reassure me that something likely would open up at the airport if other passengers upgraded to first class. Likely?
Somehow, three months after booking the biggest trip of our lives – to a place I’d envisioned from breathtaking pictures — I expected a seat on each plane of megabucks booking. And so on Wednesday morning, I began another round of calls.
Things quickly turned Kafkaesque. United Airlines sent me to Air New Zealand, which sent me to an LA travel agent, who sent me to Vayama.com, the online ticketing agent, where I finally reached someone after sitting forever on hold. And what did Vayama supervisor Andy have to say? He assured me that I would get a seat once we got to the airport even though United couldn’t offer me one at this time.
But I can be stubborn, so I called United back. This time, Indroneil, a reservations agent in New Dehli, walked me through the same drill. When I asked to talk to his supervisor, he informed me that person was just too busy.
“Call back in a few hours,” he suggested.
Instead, on Thursday morning, two days before Christmas, I called the main number at 77 West Wacker Drive, corporate headquarters for United Airlines. No one answered – at 9 central time, 9:12, 9:37. A robot connected me to a voicemail box that was full, which in turn kicked me back to the robot.
Desperate, I called my senator. At Kerry’s office, a polite and patient aide by the name of Greg listened attentively and then give me the email for Cheri, the senator’s transportation person, who was en route herself for the holidays. Things were not looking good – particularly when I finally reached a living receptionist at United’s 77 West Wacker Drive in Chicago sometime around 10.
“Can I speak to the assistant for the vice-president of customer relations?” I asked.
“We have no such office,” she said.
“Can I speak with the assistant for the company’s CEO then?”
“Who can I talk to?”
“What? No one works for United Airlines?”
“If you leave me your name and phone number someone will get back to you.”
Of course, someone never did – other than Greg in Sen. Kerry’s staff. That evening I had a voicemail from Greg and an email from Cheri telling me to check my phone. Somehow, I don’t know how, they had gotten me two “economy plus” seats in row 16 – by the bulkhead, and with extra legroom.
Just how important was this? On the afternoon of our flight, the blizzard closed in just as boarding began. United’s ground crew acknowledged the flight was oversold and kept raising the ante in search of volunteers willing to wait until Wednesday to board a coast-to-coast flight.
Had we been among those unassigned seats, I’d have been tempted. Odds are our bags, loaded at the last minute, would have ended up in Singapore instead of tucked in a compartment over my head. And that is if we had gotten on the plane at all.
Greg and Cheri , by the way, also managed to get us seats with a bit extra leg room on the last leg of our return flight.
As for United, it signed me up as a rewards mileage customer before I boarded the flight.Somehow I doubt I’ll ever build up enough miles in its Friendly Skies to qualify for a free ticket.