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Contrasting an airline that doesn’t care about its passengers with a cruise line that does

March 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Nancy waiting in Fort Lauderdale, not suspecting the time crunch to come

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First in a series

By Donald H. Harrison

LIMA, Peru—Were it not for cruise ships like the one we embarked upon here in the wee hours of Monday, Feb. 22, I believe I’d be ready to consign my leisure travel to the lazy boy chair in front of the television in my home.   I’d much rather go nowhere than to have to subject myself constantly to airlines.

I’ll tell of the Delta Airlines experience by which we arrived in this South American capital and port city—an experience that I believe typifies what happens on airlines today.  The story I will tell is not about some fabulous exception; rather it concerns the low standard of service that is becoming common place. Airlines may try to excuse themselves by saying they have to adopt certain customer-adverse policies and measures because of the difficult economic times, but I believe the problem goes much deeper. 

It seems apparent that airlines no longer value their customers, except as numbers on a chart.  An attitude of contemptuousness has taken hold of the airline industry, an attitude that began in the board room where such policies were approved as all-but-eliminating sufficient leg room in economy class, charging passengers extra for luggage, and nickeling and diming passengers for snacks and beverages, movies and other amenities.  This lack of appreciation for customers eventually was transmitted through middle managers all the way to the service personnel. 

I’ll start my story in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where Nancy and I had attended a wedding.  We arrived at the airport there, which seemed comparable in size to San Diego’s Lindbergh Field, about two hours prior to our flight.  Because our ultimate destination was an international one rather than a domestic one, we were not able to check our bags curbside but instead were required to do so inside the terminal.  However, the terminal was so crowded that we were not permitted to simply check our bags.  Instead we and other passengers were herded into an area across a corridor from the counters and told to wait there until the time our flight was called.  Then and only then could we proceed to check our baggage.

No one explained why this procedure had been adopted, but by asking questions we were able to ascertain that the baggage belt was working only intermittently, requiring many bags to be ferried by hand. We waited well over an hour with other passengers, who either were standing with their baggage or sitting with it on the floor, until finally we were permitted to proceed to the ticket counter, where there was little or no order.  By the time we actually got to a ticket agent, another twenty minutes had elapsed.  To add insult to injury, once we  arrived at the ticket counter,  an agent curtly told us we should have been at the counter a half hour earlier.  We replied that had been our intention, but her own colleagues had prevented us from doing do.

The counter agent processed our luggage and handed us our boarding passes and quickly moved on to another customer.  We worked our way through lines to a screening area where an employee checked our ticket against our passports.  They didn’t match; the ticket agent somehow had given us the wrong boarding passes, made out in someone else’s name.

Nancy told me to wait with all the carry-on luggage—and she charged back to the ticket desk—explaining what had happened.  “Find the agent who helped you,” she was told.  “She’s not here,” Nancy answered in a panic. “And our flight is about to leave.” 

Grudgingly another ticket agent got onto the computer, and issued proper boarding passes.   Nancy dashed back to where I was waiting, and with the new documents we were allowed to proceed—to security, where we had to go through all the regular procedures of removing everything from our pockets, taking off our shoes, putting my laptop computer in a separate tray, and so forth.  As I gathered up everything, Nancy ran ahead to the gate.  As she turned the corner, she heard an agent say “last call for Donald and Nancy Harrison.” 

“We’re here, wait!” Nancy shouted at a dead run.  

Nancy found that they had reassigned the airplane seats we had reserved—and that the gate agents were completely unaware what was happening in the ticket area.  “Do you want to go without your husband?” they asked Nancy, “because we’re closing the doors.” 

“He’s coming,” Nancy replied.  “He’s at security, just putting his shoes on.”  “Well I don’t see him coming,” the agent said.  “Do you want to board anyway?”  At that point I made my appearance.  They whisked us down the gangway and put us into the seats by the boarding door.

Next, we went to Atlanta where we caught the flight to Peru, thinking that embarkation was blessedly uneventful.  But we were incorrect in our assessment. Although we had no problem boarding the plane, it later developed that one of our two large bags did not.

On the six-and-a-half hour flight to Peru, some of the flight attendants evidently were in a bad mood.  Instead of placing snacks on trays, one flight attendant practically threw them onto the passengers’ trays in economy class, as if she were dealing cards at a poker table.   When Nancy asked another attendant  near the end of the flight, “if you have time, could I please have some water?” he responded in a surly tone, “I don’t have time!”—making several passengers wonder what had prompted him to exhibit such hostility.  He might simply and courteously have responded.  “I’m sorry, I won’t be able to get back to you before we land.”  Evidently he was having a bad day, and decided to take out his pique on passengers.

After arriving in Lima, we sought to retrieve our bags.  It’s a sickening feeling when the bags on the carousel keep repeating themselves—but your bag is not among them.  Eventually, after every other bag was taken off the carousel by passengers, we had to admit the obvious.  Although Nancy’s bag had made it to Lima, somehow mine didn’t.  We reported the problem to a courteous gentleman at the baggage desk, who was able to establish that my bag was still in Atlanta.   Normally, this is not a problem, he said, as the bag could be sent on the next flight and delivered to the person’s home or hotel. The problem was that our cruise ship—the MS Rotterdam—would be leaving Lima Monday afternoon and the next flight from Atlanta wouldn’t arrive until late Monday evening.  “Perhaps,” I suggested, “the bags could be delivered at the next port,” which would be Guayaquil, Ecuador, on Wednesday, February 24.

The baggage agent said that he never had to deal with the problem of reuniting luggage with a passenger on a cruise ship before, and was uncertain what the procedures were.  He asked a colleague to photocopy our passports as well as an information sheet with Holland America’s contact numbers.  He said he would leave a message explaining the situation for Delta’s morning supervisor of luggage in Lima, and gave us that person’s contact number. 

I went with another Delta employee who wanted to photocopy our passports at the Delta office – which was up a floor and down a corridor—only to find that the office had been closed and that she had no key.  So she radioed for assistance, and eventually someone opened the door, and she copied the documents.   Meanwhile,  Nancy dashed ahead to find the driver whom we previously had engaged by long distance phone calls and emails to take us from the airport to the cruise ship terminal.  She was concerned that the driver,  Renato Monteverde of taxilimaperu.com, would have become discouraged after waiting for us for such a long time, but there he was with our name printed on a placard and with a smile on his face. 

Monteverde helped to rehabilitate our image of the travel industry.  He got us quickly, efficiently and politely to the Port of Callao, where MS Rotterdam was docked.  Security guards checked the ship’s manifest against our passports and ran our luggage through an X-Ray machine.  Once aboard, we were escorted to the front desk to report our missing luggage.  Although the problem had been Delta’s, not Holland-America’s, the ship’s personnel did everything they could to help.  Immediately and with a cheerful smile, they presented me with a courtesy kit of toiletries, so that I’d be able to shave and to brush my teeth.  The next day, a loan of a sports shirt was made to me so that I would have something different to wear at the captain’s informal reception for new passengers.   Meanwhile, personnel aboard the ship made contact with Delta Airlines to arrange a rendezvous for the luggage.  They had hoped it would be in Guayaquil, but in fact it did not catch up with us until the following day, Feb. 25, in Manta, Ecuador.

While not having my suitcase was an inconvenience, thanks to Holland America – and to Nancy who volunteered to shop in the Miraflores area for a few more necessities—it was not the serious problem it could have been. 

Holland America proved to be a company adept at solving passenger problems rather than causing them.  This made me feel glad that I would be taking this ship all the way to San Diego, rather than having to fly home by an airline. It was good to be treated like a mensch instead of as a serf.  I was certain that the rest of my vacation would go well, now that I had put myself in the hands of the right segment of the travel industry – the segment that believes that next to safety, service to customers is the highest value.  As I shall describe in part two of this series, Holland-America was soon to find itself facing some tough tests of that philosophy—tests not of the cruise line’s making.

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Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World