Friday, July 11, 2008

Flights of insanity


I’m back from my holiday, which was great. I’ll probably write a little bit about it this weekend. But first, some therapeutic ranting.

In January, I start planning a trip to China with K. We arrange dates, and I clear the time off with my supervisor.

I ring the only English-speaking travel agent I know of in Japan, since the website advertises deals on flights to Shanghai. Yes, the man on the other end of the phone says, but the best deals usually kick in two to three months before the departure date. Since we plan to travel in June and July, he advises me to wait a while before booking flights.

Just as well, because K and I break up in March. Denial (brief), anger (lengthy), bargaining (only in my head, thankfully), depression (also brief, also thankfully) and finally acceptance ensue. I’ve always wanted to see Angkor Wat, so I decide to go to Cambodia - and Laos too. I can’t carry my holiday allowance past August anyway, so why the hell not? Perhaps a little solo travelling will clear my head.

The English-speaking travel agent doesn’t seem to offer flights to those countries, though. But we live in the internet age - [Famousbrand] internet travel agents does. Their online booking system seems fairly sophisticated - I can book open-jaw tickets from Osaka, and one short hopper flight between Laos and Cambodia, which seems sensible.

In fact, I can book these both on the US website and the UK one. But for some unknown reason, it’s around £100 cheaper to book through the US website. I double-check with today’s exchange rates. Yep, definitely cheaper. They only issue paper tickets, but e-tickets aren’t worth that much money to me.

I book the flights. The paper tickets arrive a week later.

I buy a guidebook, and book a guesthouse for my first night in Vientiane. I plan my trip, look into overland buses, decide which temples to visit in Angkor, buy some novels to keep me amused while travelling alone.

My flight is due to leave on the Saturday. On Wednesday, I receive an email from [Famousbrand] restating my flight times and reminding me to confirm flights. I start to think about packing.

On Thursday, I’m at a school with no internet access. When I get home to my ethernet cable, I find not just one but two emails from [Famousbrand].



I load up Skype, and call [Famousbrand]’s automated helpline. I get through almost immediately, to my immense surprise. The woman on the other end of the phone is terribly polite, pulls up my information, and informs me that my hopper flight from Laos to Cambodia has been postponed. By three days.

My holiday is ten days long. If I take the postponed flight, I’ll arrive in Cambodia just in time to take a bus from one city to another and catch my return flight to Japan. There are probably people who travel the world to experience different forms of mass transport. I am not one of them. I want to see Angkor Wat, dammit!

The terrible polite woman is sympathetic. She checks her computer, and tells me there is a later flight on the same day, but she can’t change my booking without talking to the airline. She and puts me on hold while she calls the airline. A crackly version of Pachelbel’s Canon delights my ears.

The terribly polite woman can’t get through to the airline. She thinks it might be because it’s one in the morning in the western USA, where the call centre and the airline’s office are. Ah. [Famousbrand]’s helpline is twenty-four hours, but it seems the airline’s isn’t.

“Perhaps you should try calling back around nine o’clock?”

I set my alarm for nine a.m., San Francisco time. That’s one in the morning, Wakayama time.

Groggily, I drag myself out of bed in the witching hour, and hope my piercing alarm didn’t disturb my neighbours. I fire up Skype again, and call. This time, it takes a while to get through. [Famousbrand]’s jingle is rather annoying at the best of times - when tired and cranky, it’s almost an incitement to violence. I content myself with a few choice epithets to the automated voice recognition system.

“I’m. Sorry. I. Didn’t. Quite. Catch. That. Please. Try. Again.”

I get through eventually. The nice man pulls up my details, and I explain my problem. He explains that everything’s fine, my flight was momentarily cancelled and then reinstated, so it’s still leaving on the earlier date. He offers to send me a confirmation email.

“No, it hasn’t come through. No, not yet. Ah, here it is. Just a moment…Wait. The flight times are the same, but it still says the postponed date.”

“Oh, was the date a problem?”

I suppress more murderous thoughts. He offers to call the agents, and puts me on hold. I wonder how much money Pachelbel’s descendants get from telephone holding systems. Just as it occurs to me to look up whether the Canon is still in copyright, I’m cut off.

I call back. I explain my problem again. This time, the answerer grasps my problem first time. She offers to call the agents. I’m put on hold again. I compose some lyrics for the Canon. Most of the words are four letters long.

A friend comes on MSN. I rant to him. As I’m composing a particularly choice description of [Famousbrand], I am cut off.

I call back. Again. I explain. Again. I am put on hold. Again. I start to really empathise with this guy.

I am not cut off. But the man comes back, having been unable to get through to the airline. He suggests that I call back in two or three hours.

By the way, it’s now half past three. In the morning.

I know that people in the call centre don’t make the rules, I know that they’re working a demanding job. I know that their pay probably isn’t worth it. I know that they’re the front line for incensed customers for their entire eight-hour shift every working day.

Unfortunately, I’m exhausted and pissed off, two things that do not improve my already sarcastic nature. I am, unfortunately, quite rude to him. I feel guilty. If you’re reading this, guy from [FamousBrand], I am sorry. I tell him that I can’t call back in three hours, because I am in Japan, and in three hours I have to get up to go to work. He says he’s sorry, but there’s nothing he can do without talking to the airline, and he can’t talk to the airline because they aren’t answering their phones. And I can’t authorise him to do anything without sitting on the other end of the phone.

Screw you, [FamousBrand]. I’m going to bed. I have school in the morning.

I wake up, three hours later. I don’t have to drive far, and today’s school is one that likes to force-feed me coffee in the mornings, often with chocolate. However, it’s also my biggest and busiest school. I have five classes to teach. In the staffroom, I rewrite my lesson plans to minimise the amount of talking I have to do, and have another quick cup of coffee.

Autopilot is a wonderful thing. I survive my lessons. Usually I head back to the office after school, but today I skive and head home at two fifteen. I call [FamousBrand] again, and speak to yet another customer service representative. She can’t get through to the airline either. I begin to wonder if it actually exists.

She suggests I call back tomorrow - even though it’s Saturday, the helpline is still open. I suggest I don’t do that, but instead go to Laos, since that flight hasn’t been postponed. Yet. She sees my point. And gives me the phone numbers for the airline offices in Osaka and Tokyo. 10 Helpline Points for me! She also assures me that if I can get the airline to agree, [FamousBrand] will automatically OK the change of flights.

I ring the airline office in Tokyo. Luckily, the woman speaks English. Unluckily, she claims to be completely powerless, and that I’ll have to speak to the travel agents through which I purchased the tickets. Argh.

I call [FamousBrand] again. It’s rather lucky that their helpline is free of charge. Still not a peep from the airline. The [FamousBrand] representative is still unable to help.

I call the airline office in Osaka. Another English-speaking person. But this one, joy of joys, listens, absorbs the nature of my problem (especially the bit where I’m leaving tomorrow). She looks into alternative flights. There are none on the day I want to fly, after all. In fact, they’ve cancelled half the flights on that route that week. The next flight after my planned on is in fact three days later. But there is also one on the day before. With my travel plans, that flight makes more sense. She offers to look into it and try to put me on that flight, and email me. At last, a productive result. And it only took seven hours of phone calls and as many different representatives on the other end of the phone.

I start packing.

The next day, I fly to Vientiane. At Osaka airport, I wander past the airline desk, and try my luck with a face-to-face confrontation.

My flights leave and arrive on time, my stopover in Bangkok is not too trying and at Vientiane airport I find a taxi, get into town and check into my guesthouse with an unbelieveably small amount of hassle. I like Laos already.

I spend a day in Vientiane, but it doesn’t include finding an internet cafe. I take a bus to Luang Prabang, check into another guesthouse, and wander into town. Eventually I find an internet cafe with working Skype headsets. The Osaka office of the airline hasn’t emailed me. I suppose actual competence was too much to hope for.

I call [FamousBrand] one more time. Unsurprisingly, they still can’t help. There’s a surprise. I call the Osaka office of the airline - but Japan is two hours ahead, and it’s already closed for the day. I give up, and find a restaurant for dinner.

The next morning, I call [FamousBrand] for the last time. Surprise, surprise, they still can’t get through to the airline. They suggest I call back between nine and five, Pacific time. I work out the time difference - that’s between eleven p.m. and seven a.m., Laos time. Idly, I glance at the opening times on the door of the internet cafe.

It says 0700-2300. I wonder what the opposite of “synergy” is.

I call the Osaka office of the airline one more time. And speak to the most helpful man yet. He offers to put me on the flight on the day before my cancelled one. All he needs is a photocopy of my paper ticket to be faxed over to Osaka.

I ask him to hold on for a second, and ask the owner of the internet cafe if they have a photocopier. They don’t.

The helpful man does his best to get the necessary information from my ticket, but for some reason it’s not the standard layout, and I can’t find the code he needs. But all is not lost - the airline has a local representative in the town. The only problem is, he’s at the airport, and I’m in the centre of town. It’s not that far, but it would take me all morning, and I don’t have much time in this town if I’m flying out a day earlier than planned. He gives me a phone number, and wishes me luck.

I try to call, but can’t get through to someone who speaks English, and my Lao is not what it might be.

I try one last avenue. The internet cafe doubles as an informal travel agent, and one of the services they offer is flights. They might have contacts at the airport. I explain my predicament to the man behind the desk. He doesn’t speak much English, but asks me to wait while his colleague finishes her phone call.

“She has… [short conversation in Lao with his buddy] … experience!”

Good to know.

Eventually, she finishes her phone call. I explain my predicament, and show her the ticket, pointing out the date. She takes the ticket, and makes a phone call. Then another one. Then she fiddles with a computer, while making a third phone call. She puts the receiver down on the table while she types some more. Perhaps she likes Pachelbel just as much as I do. Eventually, she finishes and turns to me.

“It’s OK. Because the flight was cancelled, you can just turn up in time for the flight on the day before instead. If you show them this ticket, they will let you on. It’s low season, so the flights won’t be full. But you should go early, maybe three hours before, just in case.”

I decide this is the best answer I’m going to get. I thank her, and in my gratitude book a boat tour to a local cave for the following day. I decide to put the whole thing out of my mind until it’s time to go to the airport.

The boat tour is fun, and the caves mildly diverting. I spend too much money in the local market and the backpacker second-hand bookshop. I eat a lot, and give myself mild temple fatigue.

On the day of the flight I’m going to try to take, I arrange to get to the airport three hours before take-off. But three hours before a 10:20 flight is forty minutes before the airport opens. It’s not exactly a major hub. I sit on my backpack, try to read, make alternative plans for if this doesn’t work, and fret.

Eventually, quarter of an hour after the scheduled opening time, the doors open. I am the first one inside. I power walk to the check-in desk, my fifteen kilos of luggage barely slowing me down. I am first in line at the airline desk. I brandish my ticket for the cancelled flight, fully prepared to argue my way onto this flight. If I have to read out the paragraph from the front of my passport in a suitably aristocratic manner, I will.

(A friend of mine used to claim that declaiming that paragraph, beginning ‘Her Britannic Majesty requests and requires…’ in his best upper-class accent, once saved him from arrest in the USA.)

I explain myself. I flex my argument muscles, ready for use. I wonder if I should fight with fire or ice. I hand the man behind the desk my ticket.

He looks at it. He says something to the man at the next desk, and shows it to him. Then he types something into the computer.

“Do you have any baggage to check in?”

That’s it? I want to ask. It’s that easy? Do you know how long I spent on the phone arguing about this? Do you know how this almost ruined my holiday? Do you know how many times I was told how much hassle it would be to sort this out? I’ve got all these arguments prepared! It’s really that easy?

He gives me a funny look.

“Just this backpack. Thanks.”

He hands me my boarding card.

“Have a nice flight, madam.”

I will.

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