Spendi ng two weeks in Indonesia earlier this month was a delight, despite searing poverty and torrential downpours, the eruption of a volcano, an earthquake and a tsumani nearby. The people were gracious and welcoming, the culture vibrant and the food interesting. It was on my return to Washington that I ran into my arch nemesis: United Airlines.
I managed to leave Jakarta just fine and on time, thanks to Singapore Airlines. On a flight of less than 90 minutes, beautifully clad "stewardesses" - a word they embraced - brought economy class passengers hot towels and a hot meal. We even had a choice between fish and rice or chicken and potatoes. We touched down in Singapore five minutes ahead of schedule, with full bellies and clean hands. I spent the night at the airport transit hotel and, at 5 a.m. headed to the United transfer desk to pick up my boarding passes for my flights to Tokyo and then Dulles Airport in Washington. I was clearly naive.
The United transfer area looked like the seventh ring of Hell in an otherwise empty airport. Toddlers were fussing, elderly passengers appeared to be comatose and two college-age students had buried their heads in their hands. Undeterred, I stepped up to one of the two women behind the desk and cheerfully asked for my boarding pass for flight 804. Miss Chin, the clearly overwhelmed and surly UAL representative, said through clenched teeth, "It is cancelled. You can leave tomorrow." When I inquired as to why it was cancelled, she said, "Mechanical difficulties" in a tone that demanded I back away slowly.
She didn't know that I had a compelling reason to return home as scheduled: My comedy heroes Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were holding a rally in Washington and I had left a meeting two days early to be among the crowd. But Miss Chin did not seem to follow my reasoning and insisted I go hang out somewhere for another 24 hours. She clearly thought her rudeness would counter my determination. But she had met her match: Soon I boarded a United flight bound for Hong Kong. Sure, I knew it wasn't getting me much closer to Washington but I was counting on the fact that Miss Chin wouldn't be at the transfer desk in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, a close relative of hers was.
I talked my way onto a flight to San Francisco, reasoning that I would at least be on the right continent as my destination. But I paid a high price - the agent informed me that my upgrade to Economy Plus - for which I had paid dearly weeks before - was no longer in play. My requested vegetarian meals were gone and I would have to content myself with a middle seat in the last row of the plane. She told me several times I was lucky they were even putting me on a plane to a state thousands of miles away from my original destination.
So, lucky me, I wedged myself into a middle seat near the busy lavatory and spent 12 hungry hours refusing to eat the chicken or beef that was proffered. Once in San Francisco, I learned that some suspicious packages had been sent from Yemen that day and so I was required to endure two additional TSA screenings in San Francisco. Go Giants! I also learned that United had graciously booked me on a red eye back to Washington that night even though it was only 8:30 a.m. in San Francisco. Apparently Miss Chin's influence crosses the Pacific.
So here I am, finally resting up at home after surviving United Airlines. I missed the Stewart/Colbert rally though I did watch it on Comedy Central. The good news is that United managed to get my suitcase home with me. The bad news is that I ever chose to fly on United in the first place. As we increasingly become global travelers, wouldn't it be a good idea for airlines like United to concede that there is more to their obligation than getting us from Point A to Point B at some point in time? Shouldn't some effort be made to treat us courteously, to honor our carefully made travel plans to the best of their abilities? If they cancel our flights, shouldn't they still try to find a good way to get us home in the seats we had originally paid for? And, like the Indonesians who ask often, "How can I help you?" shouldn't United employees treat us with some modicum of civility? I'm just asking...