One conversation between a passenger and a colleague of mine went, “How long does it take to fly to Los Angeles?”
“About 12 hours.”
“OK, and how long does it take in economy?”
“About 12 hours; it’s the same airplane.”
“I’ll need to think it over, I’ll call back another time.”
“Yes, sir, economy and business travel take place in the same dimension.”
A couple years ago, I worked at the reservations call center of a major airline. Though every aviation-related profession comes with its share of strange, funny, and horrifying stories, I believe that call center agents get very close to knowing how passengers are thinking and feeling (good and bad). Maybe due to the the personal disconnect of talking on the phone, people often said things they might not be willing to say “in real life.” I wanted to share some of the more memorable (i.e. funny/horrid) stories that happened in my call center. Since these stories are true, the carrier that I worked at will remain anonymous.
I’ve been told I have “the intelligence of a small child” and called names behind my back—the callers forgot to hang up their phones before letting loose. One of the rudest calls I ever took was phrased in the form of a technical question about an invoice.
The hardest things to hear from passengers were their comments on recent crashes throughout the airline industry. A few hours after the news of the MH17 reached us, I received a call from a man with a strong Russian accent. He told me to call the CEO of the airline (I obviously didn’t have his personal phone number at the ready) and tell him that there was a no-fly zone in the area where the plane was shot down (there wasn’t). “It’s not our fault,” he said. “It was those f#@ing Ukrainians…”
One passenger brought up the similarly-tragic MH370 with a colleague of mine, claiming, “Everybody gets what they deserve.” On still another call, the crash of Germanwings flight 9525 was used as a point of comparison by a passenger from a renowned news organization; he had booked a restrictive fare and needed to pay a hefty fee to change his ticket. For him, the two events were equivalent, showing the incompetence of airlines in general. Talk about a healthy perspective of the world.
Only a very small proportion of calls were quite this mean-spirited, though. More common was what I’ll delicately call… a lack of understanding.
Another passenger wanted to book a ticket in business class with miles, but the only award seats available for his dates and destination were in economy. “Is it safe?” he asked. Cue mental images of an airliner jettisoning the entire economy compartment at the first sign of turbulence. Yes, economy is just as safe.
Flying can certainly be stressful. But on at least two occasions, I experienced people who had built their lives around staying calm… and ending up having a melt down.
One day, I spoke with a passenger for an hour trying to convince her to pay the standard rebooking fee to change her flight, about $100. She was almost hysterical. She was also a yoga teacher, traveling to a meditation retreat. In the quest for enlightenment, it seemed, an important element had escaped her: that of letting go of material concerns. I hope that she regained some of the karma she lost while she was arguing with me.
On a Christmas Eve, a passenger’s flight was canceled, with no alternatives for that date—he would have to stay in a hotel and fly the following morning. He screamed and insulted the agent, a colleague of mine. When my colleague rebooked him, he sent out a confirmation email with the new flight information, and he noticed the pax’s email address—it was very close to “[email protected]”. He needs to take some of his own advice.
One evening, I got a call from a frantic mother. Her teenage daughter had a flight booked that night from Delhi back to home in Europe. Her daughter had been denied boarding and was now outside the airport, alone.
As it turned out, the girl had adopted a pet rat and tried to bring it on the airplane… undeclared. The mother told me that her daughter had developed a strong bond with the animal and was unwilling to leave the country without it. Right…
I explained that rodents aren’t allowed on airplanes, due to their tendency to escape and nibble. She wasn’t satisfied. Finally, we came to the conclusion that her daughter would have to fly without the rat, but that she might need more time to say goodbye to it. We rebooked her flight to the following day.
In another situation, a female colleague of mine picked up the phone and was asked by the customer if she could talk to the her “woman to woman.” It turned out that the passenger had traveled to Barcelona for the last 10 years with her husband, and was planning to do the same this year. However, this time her husband had stolen her passport and was preparing to take his mistress along instead.
My colleague gave her some honest advice; “Go to the police and press charges. That’ll help with your case when you get a divorce.” It’s unclear whether the passenger was quite ready for that level of bluntness—she had a young son with her husband and wasn’t ready to leave him. In any case, my co-worker didn’t cancel the booking; the passenger might have needed it as evidence.
For every bizarre call, like the ones I’ve described and many more, I spoke with dozens or even hundreds of normal people. It’s always the exceptions that stand out in memory. But what makes the job bearable is the normal people who treat you like a human being. It’s worth remembering the next time you have to call reservations–if you’re nice, you probably won’t make it into an immortal anecdote, but you’ll make someone’s day a little easier.
This story was written by By Jeffrey Arlo Brown for AirlineReporter