30 March 2015

My wife, Marge, and I returned to London (LHR) yesterday after last week’s OMG meeting in Reston, VA. We travelled from Reagan National Airport (DCA) via New York (JFK). Both planes left (more or less) on time. We were upgraded for the hop to JFK and the flight to London landed 40 minutes early.


Travelling outwards wasn’t so good.

“Flight AA101 to New York is cancelled”. It was Friday, March 20. We had just arrived at LHR to go to the OMG meeting. Our route was via JFK to DCA. Then a weekend in Virginia, and to Reston on Sunday.

We went to the American Airlines ticketing desk. The incoming plane had not been able to take off from JFK because of heavy snow. We were a little bemused. AA usually sends us texts about flight time changes, and they would have known about the consequent cancellation several hours before the scheduled departure time. But it was too late to do anything about that.

Nadine dealt with us. The least-disruptive option she offered was via Philadelphia on US Airways, about an hour and three quarters after AA101’s scheduled departure time. Marge had an injured foot, which was swollen, and she was walking with a stick. I asked Nadine if she could assign Marge an aisle seat.

US Airways merged with AA in December 2013, but for the present is operating as a separate brand, with a separate reservations system. Nadine disappeared into a back room for a few minutes. When she came back, she said that she had arranged good seats for both flights, but couldn’t issue boarding passes. She gave us documents to take around to the US Airways check-in desk.

The US Airways agent had some difficulty in checking us in. He asked if we were travelling under ESTA. We were. Some of our required information had been carried across from the AA reservations but some, including our temporary address in the USA, had not. There was also a problem with our frequent flyer numbers. He said that they were on our records, but he couldn’t get them to print on our boarding passes. I think that was not the only problem. He tore up five sets of boarding passes before giving us a set he was satisfied with.

Then I made a mistake. Marge and I are old enough and harmless enough to have TSA pre-check status. This means nothing at UK airports, but in the US it allows a fast track through airport security, no need to take off shoes and belts, or to take laptops and tablets out of hand luggage. I looked at my boarding pass – the front one in the set of four. It showed my TSA pre-check status and a frequent flier number. I didn’t check the other boarding passes. This would cause a problem later.

The last time I had flown US Airways was in 2002, and I hadn’t enjoyed the experience. I felt better when we boarded. The aircraft was a nicely-refurbished A330-300 with comfortable seats. Nadine had done a done a great job with the seat assignments: bulkhead seats with good leg room, close to the aircraft door, and an aisle seat for Marge.

Then the plane sat on the tarmac for two hours while some problem was resolved. I wasn’t too worried. We’d scheduled a good long interval for our connection from JFK – DCA (in case of weather problems) and arranged our Alamo rental car pick up for 7:30 pm at DCA. Even with the delay to our Philadelphia flight, we would arrive at DCA just after 9:00 pm, and Alamo DCA is open until midnight.

The flight to Philadelphia was fine. The plane was full, but the cabin crew were friendly and cheerful, the meal was OK and wine was served in large measures. The captain made up half an hour of the delay.

Then we landed. I checked our boarding passes for the Philadelphia – DCA connection. Marge’s didn’t show TSA pre-check status. We still had her original AA3365 boarding pass (JFK-DCA), which did show it.

After clearing Immigration and Customs, we went to Airport Security. I explained our problem to a TSA agent and showed her both sets of boarding passes. She shepherded us into the TSA pre-checked lane, and said that the agent at the desk would let us through. The agent at the desk would not. She said that she could go only by the boarding pass for the actual flight we were taking. I said that ‘pre-check’ was a personal status for all US-originating flights, not a flight-by-flight dispensation. She was adamant. She could go only by the boarding pass for the actual flight we were taking.

Marge and I agreed that I’d take all the hand luggage through the pre-checked line, and she’d have to join the long line for the routine checks. She emerged quite quickly. The first TSA agent had seen Marge leaning on her stick at the end of the line, expressed surprise at her colleague’s reaction, and escorted Marge to the front. That was a kindness, but Marge had to take her shoes off. After eight hours on a plane, her foot was even more swollen, and it was difficult and painful to get her shoe back on. She was still limping for our return journey, a week later, and needing her stick to walk any distance.

But we were through Security and headed to the US Airways lounge, now an AA Admirals’ Club. The first thing we saw inside was a departures screen, showing an hour’s delay for our flight to DCA. We were still OK for time. We’d be there two hours before Alamo closed. Soon after, there was another hour’s delay. I thought I should let Alamo know that we were on our way.

I phoned the Alamo number on my car rental confirmation and heard a recorded message that the number was out of service. I tried again, twice. Same result both times. There was also a fax number. I sent a fax, and had a return message “no response”.

I looked up Alamo DCA on the web, and found an 888 toll-free number. It wouldn’t accept calls from my cell phone (probably because it’s a UK phone).

On a difficult travel day, problems can build up incrementally. On a bad travel day, they can deepen excrementally. That Friday (what was left of it) was shaping up as a bad one. Our flight was delayed by another hour, until 11:03 pm. If Alamo closed on time, we’d be too late to pick up our rental car.

I had booked a pre-paid rental through rentalcars.com. I phoned their international number. After 10 minutes at £1.20 ($1.80) per minute of listening to depressing music, punctuated by the occasional “Sorry for the delay. One of our agents will be with you as soon as possible”, I gave up.

I sent rentalcars.com an email describing my problem. I asked if they could contact Alamo at DCA to say that if I didn’t arrive before closing time, I would pick up the car as early as possible on Saturday morning. I eventually received an apologetic response on Sunday, saying that they had just read my email, and asking me to confirm if I had picked up the car on Saturday.

The club closed at 10:00 pm. We went to the departure gate. Our plane landed at about 11:00 pm, and the passengers filed out past us. Then the pilot came out and said that one of the screws that secures his seat was broken. It was an easy replacement, and would take about five minutes. We passengers looked at each other and sat down again. No aircraft repair, no matter how small, can be done in five minutes. But it was done eventually, we boarded at about 11:40 pm and took off just after midnight.

When we had collected our luggage at DCA, it was after 1:00 am. This was 5:00 am London time and we had been travelling for 22 hours. The Alamo office is in the airport car park. I went over to check but, as expected, it was closed and deserted.

A little arithmetic suggested that it would be better to stay near DCA for what was left of the night, rather than take a cab to our weekend hotel and come back for the car in the morning.

I went to the service desk in the baggage hall. The man behind the desk was busy arranging ground transport for people. Although the sign behind him said ‘Hotels’ he was sorry, but he couldn’t help. He had had some hotel brochures but people had taken them all, and now he didn’t have any hotel numbers. This seemed to be a very limited database.

We looked for hotels nearby on ‘Around Me’ on Marge’s iPhone. On the fourth attempt I found one with a vacancy, and off we went in a cab.

When we got to the hotel, the reservations system was down. I had booked through the chain’s central reservations service and our reservation had not arrived at the hotel before the system failure. The desk clerk was kind to us and let us check in anyway.

When we got to our room I phoned the hotel we should have been at. It was after 2:00 am, but the night manager was charming. She offered to waive the ‘no show’ charge for the first night. I said I would rather pay for both nights so that we could pick up the car, get there as early as possible, check in immediately (rather than waiting for the 3:00 pm check in for the second day) and get our heads down. She checked us in there and then.

In the morning I used the hotel’s land line to phone Alamo’s 888 number – the one that wouldn’t work from my UK cell phone. I got through to a fully automated system and selected ‘Future Reservation’. After a bit of “I have J-O-H-N, John. Is this correct?” kind of dialogue, the robot voice said “This reservation appears to be in the past. Is there anything else I can help you with?” So, it appears that the system assumes that a reservation is in the past after the scheduled pick-up date time, rather than after the actual pick-up date time. No option for problems between the two.

I tried again with the 888 number and selected ‘Current Reservation’. I was offered three options: ‘Roadside assistance required’, ‘Lost keys’ and ‘Personal items left in car’. No others.

I tried searching the web for ‘Alamo DCA’. I found an Alamo page with the 888 number. I also found a Yelp page, but it had the same phone and fax numbers as on my rental confirmation – the ones that were out of service.

I found a central customer service number on the Alamo web site. I tried it and reached a person! I explained my problem. She said that my reservation would have cancelled out when I didn’t show up by closing time. I would have to make another reservation. Because I had booked and prepaid through rentalcars.com, Alamo couldn’t process a refund. I would have to contact rentalcars.com.

Then she said “I can give you the number of someone at DCA you can speak to. Maybe they can do something locally to help you out.”

I phoned and a cheerful woman said “No, your reservation is good for 24 hours. You can pick up your car any time up to 7:30 pm today.”

We checked out of the hotel. The rate charged to my credit card was much higher than the rate quoted by the hotel group’s central reservations phone line. The reservation had been emailed to me, but not notified to the hotel. I unpacked my laptop, showed the email attachment and the desk clerk (not the woman on duty when we arrived) refunded my card with the difference, courteously but perhaps not entirely happily.

We went to the Alamo office at the airport, and I explained what had happened. The dialogue (as best I can recall it), then went:

Agent: “We have no car for you.”

Me: “About a half hour ago I was told we could pick up at any time up to 7:30 pm.”

Agent: “The reservation is good, but we have no car for you. When you didn’t show, we gave the car to someone else. You can upgrade, if you want to. We have full size and premium available.”

Me: “This is a prepaid rental. I have been paying for it since 7:30 pm last night. You gave my car to someone else after I had paid for its rental”.

Agent “I see what you mean. What do you want me to do for you?”

Me: “I’d like you to give me the car I paid for, at the price I paid for it”

Agent: “Then I’d have to steal a car from somebody else”

Me: “Like you stole my car yesterday? The one I was already renting?”

The agent printed out the contract, I signed it and he sent me to choose one of  two available Intermediate Group cars. This was all done calmly, almost good-humouredly. No impatience or frustration (at least on the agent’s part).

Life got better from then on. We drove to our weekend hotel. The room was cleaned and ready, close to the elevator but not right next to it (I’d mentioned Marge’s injured foot when I called in the early hours). I just had to show my passport and pick up the keys. We drove to Reston the next day. Our apartment couldn’t have been better and was about five minutes’ walk from the OMG meeting. And, as I said above, our trip home couldn’t have been easier.

So, what happened on our outward journey? Two people were inconvenienced for a little over a day, and had to spend some of their planned ‘weekend away’ in sleeping off fatigue and jet lag. This doesn’t rank very highly in a world dealing with violence in the Middle East, fragile economies, natural disasters, Ebola,  global corporate tax avoidance …

And it was alleviated by kindness and consideration from people we encountered along the way – Nadine at American Airlines, the TSA agent who helped Marge, the night manager at our weekend hotel, the woman at Alamo customer services who gave me the number for the helpful woman at Alamo DCA.


But, as you might expect, it got me thinking about governance. From our perspective – being on the receiving end – I can only speculate and raise questions.

American Airlines / US Airways

It seems that moving passengers from AA’s reservation system to US Airways’ system is difficult. Our US address didn’t show, and the agent had to type it in again. He discarded five sets of boarding passes before he would hand a set over to us. And they turned out not to be entirely correct. Marge’s TSA pre-checked status was omitted, the frequent flier number on my boarding passes was Marge’s, and there was no FF number on her passes. I’m sure that our agent wasn’t incompetent. The system just seemed to be hard to use.

Our air miles have been posted for three of the four flights – even though I had Marge’s  FF number on my passes and she had none on hers. The missing one is the PHL-DCA on March 20. It’s only about 100 miles, hardly worth chasing, but as Marge said “We really earned those miles”. For me, it’s another symptom that the system isn’t working well.

We have been transferred from AA twice in the past three years:

  • To British Airways, an AA code-sharing partner in the OneWorld Alliance, because of a cancelled flight
  • To Delta, a competitor airline, a member of the SkyTeam Alliance, because a delayed flight caused us to miss a connecting flight.

Both times it happened very smoothly. There is a long-standing process for rebooking people between airlines, based on the industry more-or-less standard Passenger Name Record (PNR).

I wondered why AA decided to bring an apparently hard-to-use, not yet-fully-integrated system into production, where it caused problems for (at least two) passengers. The inter-airline PNR-based process must have been included in both AA’s and US Airways’ systems. Why not continue with it until the integrated system is more complete, robust and easy to use?

TSA

I think that our situation at TSA in Philadelphia must have been a rare case – someone who has pre-check status, but it has not been carried forward from a cancelled flight to the boarding pass for a replacement flight on the same day (although her husband’s has, in identical circumstances) and who is also injured and is walking, with some difficulty, with a stick.

I doubt that there is a specific rule for this situation. I’d guess that:

  • Either, there is some general tolerance at an agent’s discretion. If so, I assume that the first agent hoped that her colleague would exercise her discretion and let Marge through.
  • Or, there is a hard rule: only if the pre-check logo is printed on the boarding pass for a flight that departs from this secured area; no exceptions. If so, I assume that the first agent thought “This woman needs help” and hoped her colleague would, out of compassion, turn a blind eye to the rule.

In the event, the second agent refused. Perhaps she thought (whatever the governance actually is) “It’s all very well for her to say I should let this woman through but, if anything goes wrong, it’s my donkey on the line, not hers. I’m being cautious”. Understandable, and no blame, but unfortunate for Marge.

rentalcars.com

I have used rentalcars.com (formerly carhire3000.com) several times per year for more than 10 years, but this is the first time I have had a problem where I needed their help urgently.

First, I think that they ought to keep rental companies’ contact information up to date, and let customers know if there are changes. They deal (at least in the US) with a small number of major rental companies.

The (888) 826-6893 automated service number for Alamo covers all three Washington DC airport locations and Union Station. Given the bad weather and airline delays, I would guess that I was not the only rentalcars.com customer who needed to contact Alamo on that number that day. But it might have been Alamo’s fault, for not telling rentalcars.com about the change soon enough – Yelp also had the out-of-service numbers.

Second, I think that many of rentalcars.com’s customers who need help might call at international cell phone rates. At the least, rentalcars.com could say how many people are in the queue ahead of a caller, rather than just “Sorry for the delay. An agent will be with you soon”. Even better would be an estimate of waiting time.

Better still would be the ability to, for example, send a text that my problem is urgent and receive a response with a code for the subject line of an email that would be given urgent attention. I’d pay a premium for a service like that – better than waiting for some indefinite time at $1.80 per minute, and much better than getting a response to my email two days later.

Alamo

I have rented from Alamo many times over many years, often through an agency, sometimes directly.

I wondered why they introduced the automated phone system with so few options and no option to speak to an agent (at least on the services I tried). On the main Alamo web site there is a number for speaking to a customer representative, but it’s available only Monday through Friday 8:00 am – 5:00 pm Central Standard Time.

I’m sure I was in a small minority of help requesters: a pre-paid rental, booked from outside the USA through a third party; the contact phone and fax numbers on my rental confirmation are out of service; my UK cell phone can’t connect to their 888 helpline; I can’t get in touch before closing time by any reliable means. When I got through the next morning, my problem didn’t fit the regimented categories in the automated system.

I assume that in the future the Alamo automated help system will be accepted by customers for the mainstream of help requests. Might it then become easier to speak to a person about non-typical problems? Or does the saving from the automation make it cost-effective to leave a small minority of customers unhappy and frustrated? After all, I did get a car eventually. As I said above, I can only speculate.

I also wondered about the different understandings of reservation policies by:

  • The agent at central customer services who thought that my rental would have cancelled out as a no-show when the DCA branch closed at midnight, and I would have to make a new reservation;
  • The cheerful woman on the phone at DCA who said that my reservation was good for 24 hours from the scheduled check-in date and time;
  • The counter agent at DCA who agreed that my reservation was good, but that there was no car of the requested group, and that was OK – even though I was already paying for the rental as contracted. His suggestion was that I buy an upgrade.

This really does seem as if a better shared understanding of business policies is needed.


March 20-21 was, for us, a bad day for travel, but we’re over it. We’ve used American Airlines, rentalcars.com, Alamo and the group that owns the hotel we stayed at near DCA many times, over many years. We’ve had few problems and will continue to be customers of all of them – but we’ll know a little more about how to prepare better in future.

They say that experience is the best educator. It’s just a pity that you have to fail the exam before you take the course.