VIEW FROM THE PORCH - And they dare to call it ... 'customer service'


Like most, I have a few pet peeves -- just a few.

Whatever you do, don't get me started on people who chew gum with their mouths open. (I don't want to see it. Or hear it. Or even talk about it.)

And please don't get me started on the self-centered so-and-sos who talk on cell phones in restaurants and coffee shops.

"Hi Judy. It's me, Melvin -- the center of the universe. Wanna meet for coffee? While you sit twiddling your thumbs across the table from me, I'll yell into my cell phone loud enough to be heard in Pullman. It'll be fun."

And please -- oh, please -- don't get me started on the "customer service" provided by credit-card companies, phone companies, and our nation's wonderful airlines.

Oops! Bad move. You got me started ...

Recently, I flew to Atlanta for a meeting. (In case you're wondering, the meeting went well.) The next morning, I got up early to fly to New York. Atlanta weather was "deteriorating."

When I arrived at the airport, the big-screen TV showed that my flight had been cancelled. A friendly guy in a red coat pointed me to the end of a long line of people. "Lots of flights cancelled, sir. Just get in that line. Someone will be with you shortly."

Like a good boy, I went to the end of a line of 74 people. (I had plenty of time to count.)

The airline -- one of our nation's finest -- had three agents manning its 20 or so "customer service" counters. They didn't seem to be in a hurry. Nine other agents milled about, chatting with one another, laughing periodically, dusting dandruff off their red coats. They all had great senses of humor, but problems with eye contact.

"Why don't they help us?" the teenage girl in front of me wanted to know. Her name was Debbie. Her flight had been cancelled. Her aunt was waiting for her in Pittsburgh and Debbie had no way of getting in touch with her.

"Want to use my cell phone?" I asked. "You'll have to step outside to call. I have a thing about people who talk on cell phones in public spaces. But you can use my phone if that'll help. You don't chew gum with your mouth open, do you?"

"I don't have my aunt's number and it's unlisted," Debbie said. "Not too smart, huh?"

"Let's see if we can get you some help," I said.

I waved frantically at the nine agents milling about. After a few minutes, one of them waved back. "Just a minute," he chirped, then continued the amusing conversation he was having with one of his co-workers.

Finally, he sauntered over. His name was Harold. "Can I help you, sir?"

"Yes," I said, in my most courteous voice. "This young lady needs some attention."

Debbie explained her predicament.

"Let me see what I can do," the agent said. He walked to the counter, laughed some more with his co-workers, and strolled back.

"You're in the right line," he said and wandered away.

A half-hour later, Debbie reached the counter. Ten minutes after that, I did too. My cheery agent was named Audrey.

"I'm sorry, sir," Audrey said, smiling. "Your flight's been cancelled."

"You don't say?"

"Yes, but you're in luck. We've got you scheduled on another flight that leaves at 9 p.m. tonight -- just 13 short hours from now."

"Can I ask a question before you book that?"

"Of course, sir," Audrey said.

"There seem to be hourly flights to New York. Is there a chance you could get me on an earlier one?"

"Let's see," she said, plunking away on her computer. "I can get you on a 7 p.m. flight," she said, smiling again like she'd just done some great service to mankind.

"Is that the earliest flight you can get me on?"

"Let's take another look," she said.

"Great idea," I said.

She typed on her computer some more. "I could get you on the 5 p.m. flight, if you'd prefer."

"Let's see," I said. "Yes. After thinking about it, I guess I would prefer to go on the 5 p.m. flight. Is that the earliest flight you can get me on?"

"Yes, sir," she said.

"Are you sure?"

"I can check again if you'd like, sir." She seemed a little put out with me.

"Yes," I said. "Let's check again."

She typed some more. "There's one seat left on the noon flight. Would you prefer that?"

"I believe I would," I said.

She handed me a boarding pass and checked my bag.

"This boarding pass doesn't show my seat assignment," I said.

"The seat will be assigned at the gate, sir."

"I thought you said there's only one seat left."

"I did, sir."

"Then wouldn't it make sense to assign me that seat now?" I asked.

"Yes, sir," she said.

"Could you do that for me?"

"No, sir."

The noon flight departed Atlanta at 4 p.m.

"Sorry for the short delay," the pilot said. "Thank you for your patience."

I arrived in New York and hustled to meet some folks for dinner. (In case you're wondering, the food was pretty good.) After dinner, I checked into my hotel and went to bed.

The next morning, I received an e-mail from my new favorite airline. "Good morning!" it started cheerfully. Then went on to say that my flight -- the flight I was supposed to be on the day before -- had been cancelled.

"Imagine that," I said.

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