I woke up this morning in Malmö Sweden. I am coming off a quick set of trips to Cape Town and Malmö. Wonderful trips. A lot of flying, but both destinations were wonderfully worth it. I met amazing people, saw the disparate beauty of both cities, got some personal processing done, and even made a little money here and there.
Now, I have a standing policy not to bitch or whine about travel difficulties because they are both inevitable and simply part of the payment for being blessed with the ability to travel around the world.
Since Heathrow Terminal 5 was completed and Charles de Gaulle was upgraded, there have been very few reasons to pitch a fuss. Yes, flights have been delayed or cancelled here or there, but nothing really beyond the pale.
This morning, however, was bizarre. This isn't so much a complaint as it is a retelling, as might a guard or a prisoner from the Stanford experiment might provide.
We arrive from Copenhagen and the captain gleefully tells us as we stand to deplane that we are 10 minutes early. Then he tells us that we are at the wrong terminal and need to take a bus to Terminal Five. It is pouring out. We all work our ways out of the jet and onto the bus which shuts its door when it's half full and drives away. I was lucky enough to be in the bus, but many people were just standing there in the rain all singing a song in unison, the only lyrics to which were "What the fuck?"
So I watch them recede into the haze as we drive around the curvy track to T5. Upon arrival (and you can't make this up), the bus stops just shy of the canopy in front of the door and we all walk out, again, into the rain, under the canopy, and then into T5. After that most of us went up the stairs (yes stairs) through T5 and then down the escalator to catch the bus to Terminal Three.
The bus arrives and, you guessed it, parks a few meters down from the canopy and we walk out again into the rain and onto the bus. The bus fills about 70% and we drive away. Then we stop at another door at T5 and about 30% more capacity comes along. Mind you, this is after the first bus left people in the rain half full.
Now safely operating at 110% capacity, the bus wobbled its way to T3 where we all got off, walked through some more puddles, and into the building.
One would think this was the end, but the train of inconvenience had now pulled into Bizarroville. Don't stop reading here.
We walk up the stairs and toward the gates. There are friendly people in the hall asking who is on American Airlines. This is a very rare case where I am (it might not happen again) and I say, "I am." They say, "Are you in business class?" I say "No." They say, "Do you have status?" I say "Yes." And they point me to a line.
This is okay because I very much want to get new seats.
I get into line and things just feel wrong. Something malevolent lurks here.
The people in front of me seem to be getting a lot of questions simply for changing planes.
I approach one agent. In the line next to me I hear:
"Why were you in Berlin?"
"I live there."
"Why do you live there? "
"Why do you live in Berlin? "
"Why do you care? "
"These are security questions, sir. Why do you live there? "
"It's my home! "
"How long will you be in charlotte? "
" 90 minutes"
"Why so short? "
"Where are you transferring to? "
"YOU ARE HOLDING MY TICKETS! "
"Where are you transferring to, Sir?"
"New Orleans, its right there on the ticket."
"What do you do for a living?"
"Why do you want to know these things?"
"Sir, these are security questions."
And ... this was just a normal German guy.
The punch line, when he was about done the woman told him that he could refuse to answer the security questions if he wished.
Mind you. .. this was an American Airlines desk, not TSA, not border control.
They did this to everyone. Except me. I walked up and said, "Hi, I'm Jim Benson. I'm headed on to Seattle. I'd really like to get new seats, but the web site and the app both wouldn't allow it. It's strange because there are a lot of seats."
"Why aren't you in business class?"
"My clients booked coach tickets this time."
"You usually don't fly coach."
"Sometimes things work out this way. I'd just like seats that allow my legs to stretch a bit."
He then typed for a time long enough to allow the entire conversation above to happen. Then he said, "What seats would you like?"
I smiled a little ... "Well, I don't know the exact ones that are available but I'd like a bulkhead window seat."
He typed for an equally impossible time, during which the poor German guy next to me was about to explode.
The guy then said, "Okay I got you this seat on the flight to Philadelphia. It's window and bulkhead."
He then prints out all my boarding passes and shreds the previous one.
Then he types for a crazy amount of time. Maybe four minutes. Then looks up and says, "Okay, let's see what we can do about the Seattle leg."
What he could have possibly been typing can only be the stuff of conspiracy theories.
So he pounds on keys for a good long time and comes up with a better seat to Seattle.
Then ... he prints out all my new boarding passes and shred the other ones HE JUST PRINTED.
Meanwhile, the German guy is somewhere between tears and violence.
The guys hands me my boarding passes and says, "Next time make sure you are in business class." But he says this as a warning, not as a recommendation or good natured ribbing.
I walk out into the hall and find three directions I can go. There is a person in each hallway saying "Departing flights this way." I stop, I find myself there with a lot of other lemmings looking at three leaders and having no idea which cliff to run towards.
As we stand, the yelling people become more impatient. They yell louder and don't seem to recognize that they represent options of equal and terrifying weight from the lot of us who have just been perplexingly interrogated.
I finally just start walking, everyone follows.
I get to the American Airlines lounge and hand them my ticket for entry. The woman says, "DO YOU HAVE YOUR CARD?!"
"My ... business card .. sure ..."
She glares, angry that her vague and nonsensical request was not met with immediate understanding and compliance.
"YOUR FREQUENT FLIER CARD! THE PHYSICAL CARD!"
"Ummm .. I don't think so, it's printed on the ticket."
"Anyone can put numbers on a ticket!"
"It's your ticket! Printed from your machine!"
"I need the card ..."
"You know, this is seriously the weirdest airline I've ever experienced."
So I'm fumbling around for a card while this woman insists I can't get in to have the American Lounge Pudding before I find my Alaska Gold Card.
So she finally ejects me from the lounge.
I walk to the BA lounge and say, "Look, I've been flying BA planes for nearly a month non-stop. I'm technically on an American flight, but it's BA codeshared. Can I just sort of come in ... those people are crazy."
The BA woman looks at the American tickets and says, "Your frequent flier numbers aren't even on these tickets."
The American tickets are covered in so much information they are unreadable.
I pull out a handful of older BA boarding passes from the last month. She looks at them and looks up at me like, "You poor dear."
And here I sit typing this in the BA lounge.
There was so much Milgram and so much Orwell in that experience. There were so many known elements of torture and brainwashing. There was so much intentionally violent customer service, that is just seems deliberate.
Like American Airlines specifically designed the most uncomfortable, disconcerting, and dehumanizing process possible.
I'm certainly putting them on my own personal do-not-book list for clients in the future.