Barnett on Business Travel



November 17, 1991 -- Travelers are fast to grumble if a flight attendant doesn't greet them like visiting royalty or if a check-in line moves too slowly.

But airline employees have their share of gripes and tips for happier traveling, too. Here is a sampling of suggestions that might make your next trip a little smoother. Airline employee names have been changed to protect their jobs.

Their biggest complaint is when you arrive at the airport minutes before takeoff and then get pushy, loud or impatient in fretting that you'll miss your flight.

"Business travelers work on tight deadlines all day, but when they get to the airport, they forget we work on deadlines, too," says Leanne, a ticket agent with Midwest Airways at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. "By coming to the ticket counter 10 minutes earlier, we can calculate your (frequent flyer) mileage and check into your upgrade with less hassle."

People with 200,000 miles in their frequent flyer account shouldn't expect to leapfrog in line over a grandmother making her annual pilgrimage to Pittsburgh, says Marty, a ticket agent with American Airlines in Dallas/Fort Worth.

"It doesn't matter how many miles you have with us," he says. "If you don't give us enough time, we can't help you."

Adds Tom, who works the airport counter for TWA at Los Angeles International, travelers "know all about punctuality and time constraints in their own business, but when they come to the airport, they check their brains at the curb."

A gate agent with United at the San Francisco Airport advises every traveler to "always get your seat assignment in advance, call before you leave for the airport to see if the flight is departing on time and be cooperative at the gate. Board the plane as your seat number is called."

Gate agents say they are starting to stop passengers who try and jam ahead of others.

Flight attendants have plenty of legitimate grievances. While they are paid to serve and most take pride in their work, they are not indentured lackeys.

Nancy, an American Airlines flight attendant, says most veteran travelers do not want to check their luggage before takeoff and wait for it at the carousel. So they pack clothes, files, samples - everything - into garment bags and try to stuff them into the overhead compartment or in a closet that's already bulging with bags.

"We call them 'mobile homes' and some passengers will carry one all the way from home to the plane, drop it at my feet and tell me to 'find a place for it.'" says Nancy. Or if they cannot stuff it in the overhead compartment, "they'll jam it in a closet without hanging it up, which is a violation of FAA rules. Then we have to dig in and find the hook."

Travelers who complain that a particular flight attendant isn't smiling when she's serving ought to be a "stew for a day," says Ellen, a cabin attendant with TWA.

"I hate it when I'm walking down the first-class aisle and all of a sudden this glass is shoved in my face. The person makes no eye contact with me or even grunts, he just shakes the glass in his hand and figures I'm supposed to know what that means. My feeling is that if he's going to treat me like I'm not there, then I'm not - and I just keep on walking."

Just making a flight reservation today over the telephone can cause problems if the passenger doesn't listen closely, says Janet, a reservationist with Continental Airlines in Salt Lake City. Unless you listen attentively, you may not understand the consequences of the restrictions.

A classic example, she says, is the traveler who books a low-price fare that requires a Saturday night stayover.

"He goes to the airport on Saturday morning and tries to scoot home early on that restricted ticket and then gets angry because we won't bend the rules," says Janet.

A reservationist for 14 years, Janet says today "it's not enough to just ask for the lowest fare. That fare may expire in four days, it may not apply on the day you're traveling. We have 40 different fares into one market (city)." It's wiser to be as precise as possible, she advises.

Know precise departure and return dates and book as far in advance as possible if you want to fly on a low-cost but restricted ticket.

"But if there's a remote chance you're plans will change, buy the cheaper ticket going and a non- restricted ticket on the return. You'll save in the long run and won't be tense if the meeting runs long and you're not concentrating because you're worrying about missing that inexpensive flight."

Diana, a telephone reservationist with Alaska Airlines in Seattle admits she gets a "little irked" when some passengers balk at giving specific travel dates and times. "They don't want to be pinned down but also want the absolute rock- bottom rate and flexibility (to change their minds), too. You can't have it both ways today."

Another "major misunderstanding" adds Holly, a central reservationist with America West Airlines in Phoenix, is in "making a reservation and actually paying for it." She claims that when she tells a caller "all fares are subject to change until you pay for your ticket" the phrase "just doesn't sink in." Then, when the passenger calls back to give the reservationist the green light, the fare is gone.

Contends Holly: "People don't understand 'capacity control.' We allocate blocks of seats at certain rates, and when they're gone, so is that favorable rate. It's not bait and switch. It's just a fact of life."

This column originally appeared in the Albany Times Union.

Copyright 1990-2009 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.