January 7: Kuwait and Switch

Guten morgen!

That’s how we say “good morning” here in far-off Washington DC. You might have thought that I’d be in Germany, what with it being the seventh and all. I laugh at your foolish optimism! Allow me to tell you what really happened.

Yesterday morning, I headed over to my parents’ house to drop off my car and catch a ride to the airport. My mother asked if I’d called to request a vegetarian meal on the plane; I had not, since I thought that all planes were strictly pay-for-meals these days. Turns out that international flights are not, so although it was sort of late in the game, I decided to call the airline and see if I could wrangle a meal out of them.

“Please say your confirmation number,” the automated system told me. “As some letters are hard to distinguish, like M and N, please use common first names, like ‘M as in Mary.’” I put aside my dislike for the recent trend of including letters in so-called confirmation numbers, and read off my code.

“F as in Frank, M as in Mary, Q”—here I thought about adding “as in Quentin,” but I decided that that was going to cause more trouble than it was worth—“M as in Mary, T as in Ted.”

There was a pause. “I’m sorry,” the system said. “We could not find confirmation number SMQMT.” Ah, yes. I can see the issue; I have a number of good friends named Srank. I tried again a couple of times, but after discovering that the programmers also apparently hung out with Sred and Srancine, I decided that I didn’t need the meal that badly and hung up.

This turned out to be just as well, since when I got to the airport, I found that my flight was leaving over two hours late on account of fog in Chicago. This meant that I would not be catching my connection, which was really only of academic interest, as it was soon revealed that I did not, in fact, have a ticket at all. I had a reservation on this flight, such that a ticket could have been purchased for me—but somehow that final step had not actually taken place.

I attempted to simply buy the ticket myself, planning to have my company reimburse me later, but due to the fact that the flight was not actually going to make its connection to Germany, the airline was unable to sell me a ticket. Other people were being rerouted through different cities, but they couldn’t do that for me, because I didn’t have a ticket. The best they could offer me was a business class seat on a flight out of Dulles the next day, but at a price of $7,300, we were all clear that that wasn’t really an option. I called my company to inform them of the issue, and suggested the new ticket to my co-worker who’d set it up, just to hear what a heart attack sounded like over the phone.

He called the travel agency who’d set this ticket up, but couldn’t get them to pick up as they were apparently not open on Sundays, and had no emergency contact number. Evidently we should have gone with a fly-by-weekend operation over a fly-by-night one. Either way, that’s my company’s issue now, not mine.

I found another ticket online that was leaving the next day out of DC, and as it was only a hundred dollars more, I bought it. Continental took my credit card number, issued my seat assignments, and sent me an email congratulating me on my purchase and assuring me that my eTicket would be along in less than three hours. If it was not, I should contact them.

You may note that I have mentioned this airline by name. This means that I wish for you to recall information about them specifically, and that I was therefore likely either quite impressed or quite offended. Given the general tone of my emails, I suspect you can intuit where this is going, but read on anyway; it’s quite a story.

Five hours after purchasing the ticket, I logged on to discover that I still had no eTicket receipt. Now, I did have the email with the reservation assuring me that I had bought these seats, but as I try to only fall for the same trick once per day, I thought I’d do well to email their customer service. When another hour and a half had passed and Continental had not bothered to respond to my email, I got on the phone to talk to them.

Next followed some periods of hold music and being transferred between operators. At one point, I was asked to please hold for a second and patched through to a broken part of the system, which apologized for being nonfunctional and hung up on me. A mere forty minutes later, I was speaking to Ursula, who told me that the reason I hadn’t received an eTicket was that despite their assertions to the contrary, Continental had not actually sold me a ticket.

I asked Ursula, in what I’m afraid was an unnecessarily rude tone, if this wasn’t the sort of thing that Continental should perhaps have informed me of at the time of purchase. With a touch of asperity in her own voice, she agreed that it seemed the sort of thing they might have liked to do. More hold music ensued, and eventually I reached Dori at the web help desk. Dori explained to me that the reason my purchase had not gone through was that that was not actually a valid ticket for them to have sold me. I pointed out that I had received specific seat assignments, and she clarified that it was not that the seats were not available, but rather that the price was not valid for a next-day booking. To get that price, I would have had to have bought the ticket at least two weeks in advance. The best she could do for me for this one was seven hundred dollars more.

“So what you’re telling me,” I said quite calmly, which I think was more than reasonable of me, “is that I was offered a ticket price. I then purchased this ticket, and received a confirmation of my purchase. However, you did not actually have this ticket to sell me, and waited until I called in to try to sell me one almost twice as expensive?”

“I tried to get the computer to accept the class code, and it automatically rejected it,” Dori said. “There’s nothing I can do about it.”

“So essentially, your entire website is a bait and switch?” I asked, still calmly. Perhaps Dori predicted my next line, which was going to be, “Are you aware of how illegal that is?”, because she asked me to hold while she tried to find someone who could make it accept the code. Less than a minute later, she was back telling me the good news that it had accepted my price.

“We lucked out this time,” she smiled. Although I wasn’t quite sure that the process I’d gone through amounted to luck, I thanked her and hung up. Before going to bed, I checked their website and found that I was now the proud owner of a ticket. They still hadn’t bothered to email me the confirmation, but I really hadn’t expected that from them at this point.

My father remarked that he didn’t think this process could get any more glitches. I say he’s playing the long odds. Anyone feel like taking him up on that bet?

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