Friday, August 8, 2008

Position Closed

Words that are all too familiar to people who travel by air in the United States. Airlines struggle to make enough money to keep their businesses running. Fuel costs so much now that airlines are starting to get rid of extras on flights. Snacks, drinks, in-flight entertainment...all of these things and more are going the way of the dodo and at the same time, airfare keeps going up.

One way that airlines have cut back on expenses is to eliminate people. At one point in time, you could walk in to any major airport in the US and see lots of employees checking people in, printing tickets, and tagging baggage. It seems that every airline now has self check-in kiosks and maybe one or two people to handle the luggage for a group of kiosks.

On Wednesday, I tried to buy a roundtrip ticket from Honolulu, Hawai'i to Vienna, Austria on Delta. Why Delta? I had a large voucher that I needed to use with them. It didn't cover the entire ticket cost, but most of it.

I logged in to delta.com and started the buy-a-ticket process. I got to the end of it failed to complete the reservation. It gave a cryptic error report saying it had processed my reservation, but could not get tickets. It warned me not to click next or back in my browser because my credit card could be charged again. It also gave me my reservation number as NULL and told me to call Delta to complete the reservation. Total failure, on to the phone.

Called Delta and they looked it up by my SkyMiles number. Because I had tried to buy the ticket online, I had to be transferred to the online customer service center.

For the next 53 minutes, I was on the worst voip link in the world to India. The audio quality was barely good enough for voice. It became incredibly annoying when you have to keep repeating 20, 30, or 40 digit alphanumeric identifiers to the person on the phone (agent: "that's A as in apple, 1, 3, C as in California, P as in polymorphism, W as in Wonder-Bra", me: "ok, got it, Alpha, 1, 3, Charlie, Papa, Whiskey", agent: "what?  can you repeat that and please spell out your letters."). In the end, the support representative was unable to complete my reservation. He even involved his manager, but they were unable to make it work. They told me that I would have to go to the airport and buy the ticket in person. At this point I am wanting to know if my voucher is still around or if it vanished in the process. I wanted to know if my card had been charged anything. The guy on the phone was unable to answer any question, he just told me to go to the airport and see a ticketing agent.

I gave up on Wednesday and decided to resume on Thursday. You have to stop and wonder why an airline wants to make ticketing so much of a process for someone. I mean, I want to give money to the airline. Something that most people don't want to do. They already have most of my money, I just want to give them more. Why make this a hard process?

On Thursday at lunch, I headed over to HNL and went to lobby 4 to talk to a Delta ticketing agent. Oh, I forgot it's 2008. Airlines don't have ticketing agents anymore. Crap. I talk to a Delta employee who is helping people enter the only queue and explain my situation. She tells me to wait in the queue.

When I finally get up to the self check-in kiosk, I wait for the person tagging luggage to walk over and I get her attention. I explain that I have tried to buy a ticket online but failed, called and tried to buy it on the phone but failed, and I have been instructed to talk to a ticketing agent at the airport to buy my ticket. The bag tagger says, "ok, well just touch the screen to start..."

I interrupt, "no no, you didn't hear me correctly. I am trying to buy a ticket, not check in. I need to speak to a ticketing agent." She looks confused and asks for some explanation again. Did I try delta.com? Did I call? Yes, all of these things and I was told to come here. The airport. I am instructed to go wait by a POSITION CLOSED counter.

As I stand next to the POSITION CLOSED sign, I turn around and look back at my options in lobby 4. Trying to talk to an airline is a choose your own adventure sort of thing. Maybe I should have gone to the first class counter and played dumb. Around that time, a nearby POSITION CLOSED position becomes open and someone is there. On the computer. The computer works! They do actually have working positions!

I wait for my turn and explain to the lady what I'm trying to do. She locates my reservation. The dates and times are right, the fare is right, the destination is right. Wow, I'm impressed. Now to pay for it. I tell her I want to use my voucher and pay the difference on the credit card. She fills in the blanks and clicks MAKE IT SO or whatever and the computer rejects the payment.

She struggles with this for a while. I ask what the problem is. She says that my voucher was originally for a ticket to Canada. That's travel from the US to Canada. I am trying to apply that credit to a ticket from the US to Austria. For some reason, the payment processing system is unable to decompute the Canadian ticket taxes and recompute the Austrian taxes and arrive at a zero net result. Ummm.....oh-kay. Why aren't we just subtracting again?

She keeps at it and is able to get me booked on the flights and even prints an itinerary, all without paying! She gives up and calls the international reservations office. Explains it to them and they both agree that what I'm trying to do is definitely not the norm. OK, but do it. I mean, according to policies and what was explained to me, this is doable. I am not violating the Warsaw Convention or the Contract of Carriage or anything else printed on ticket envelopes that no one ever reads.

The international reservations office is able to override The Gibson and process my reservation as a ticket change from my original Canadian travel plans. Downside is they took another $75 from me to process it as a ticket change.

I finally left with my tickets paid for and everything in order. I asked why I couldn't use the voucher online because I was originally told I could click "Apply eCredit" and that would work. She said I could do that with a voucher. Just enter the voucher number and then enter a credit card and it'll use up the voucher first. I said I did that, but it didn't work. She then said, "oh, well not for this ticket. it wouldn't have worked for that."

What?

She helped another person and I think the position returned to POSITION CLOSED before I even left the airport property.

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