Okay, so maybe it was a little complicated. I wanted to use some of my USAirways Award miles to fly my daughter and her two little ones from Baltimore to Charleston, S.C. I checked the airline’s website, and there were no longer three Award seats available on the necessary dates. But maybe there were two, or even one, and I could purchase the others on the same flight.
No way around it: I was going to have to wade into Press Three Hell. Eventually, with enough shouting Agent! Agent!” I’d lasso a human and get things squared away.
I learned on www.gethuman.com that all I needed to do was to press 4, then 1, then wait in line. And this part of the process was relatively painless. In short order a nice young woman answered the phone; she was polite, and spoke English well, with a barely discernible accent. I presume she was in India, where so much of this work is outsourced. It would have been about 9:00 P.M. her time, and I guess they stay at the phones all night. I’d read a lengthy profile of outsourced phone workers in India, and had been impressed by how grateful they are for a job like this, and how they train with a diligence rarely seen in the U.S.
Despite her best efforts, however, we ran into problems almost immediately. “I need to book three tickets on a flight from BWI to Charleston, S.C.,” I said. “I want to use Award miles for as many as I can, but I already checked online, and there aren’t three Award seats available. So I’d like to use Award miles to book as many as I can, and purchase the others on the same flight.”
“Where are you leaving from?” she asked. “BWI,” I said; Baltimore-Washington International is one of USAir’s big hubs.
“BWY?” she asked.
It was pretty much like that for the next 45 minutes. After many requests for repetitions and spellings, I saw that the only way to make progress was to move with excruciating slowness, and make every attempt not to confuse her.
It took a great deal of thrashing to discover when the flights occurred at all. At one point she had the outbound flight from Charleston to Baltimore. I spent a couple of lengthy waits on hold. Finally, we discovered that there were several likely flights to choose from, going in the direction I wanted and on the appropriate day. I’m pretty sure she’d forgotten by then about applying Award miles.
This is the point when she asked for the passengers’ names. “The surname is Parker,” I said, and breathed easy. When Megan exchanged her “Mathewes-Green” for “Parker” six years ago, she exulted that she’d never have to spell her last name again.
“How do you spell that?” the nice agent asked.
Next she wanted first names. I picked the easiest first. “Hannah,” I said.
“Is that with one ‘n’?” she asked.
“No, two ‘n’s.”
Hmmm. I thought I’d better reintroduce the unpleasant news that the reason I was talking to her, the reason I hadn’t done this through the Internet, was that I want to use Award miles to purchase some of the seats. Again I was placed on hold.
“I’m sorry, I had to check this. You are not allowed to use Award miles for anyone but yourself.”
“What? But I’ve done it before!”
“Yes. They changed the rules.”
I hung up, bewildered. Went to www.usairways.com, and searched for any sign that they’d changed the rules. Could find nothing to that effect, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t so. So I used the website’s “Contact Us” form to complain about the nerve-wracking phone call, and ask whether they had, in fact, changed the rules.
I received an e-mail from a Shaunta Irving that my message was received incomplete, and an identical message from an Ann Marie Diaz that my message was received incomplete. So I sent it again, in different ways, in hopes of reaching someone who was actually reading the mail and not just pressing the form letter button. Unfortunately, there’s no way to shout “Get human!” by e-mail.
Two days later, I received an unsigned message directing me to link on the USAir website titled “Redeeming Dividend miles for a ticket for someone else.” Seems that I can redeem Dividend miles for a ticket for someone else. So I wrote and explained the situation once more, a bit more annoyed. I said that I still wanted to book the tickets, and asked how I could get a competent human to assist me. Obviously, the 800-number route doesn’t work.
A new reply now arrived, also unsigned, conveying sorrow that I had not been able to secure an award reservation. It reminded me that these are subject to capacity control and the number of seats is limited. It suggested that I try different dates, or a higher Award level.
I wrote once again, repeating my frustration at the original agent’s incompetence–I had the strange conviction that that should interest them–and asking once more how I could get a competent agent to help with this itinerary.
This time it was a Marianne (no last name) who replied, “This format is not designed for booking reservations. If you have problems with a sales representative, please ask to speak to a supervisor.”
They’d beaten me. I sent a pouty concluding message stating that I gave up and would not longer try to book the tickets. I explained that asking for a supervisor would be futile, since that was apparently who had told the agent that I couldn’t use Award miles for another person. I mentioned that I was frustrated that no one would admit that this care I’d gotten, while unfailingly polite, was incompetent. I wrapped up: “But I know that I only hear back form letters from computers, no human being is reading this. I’m just going to go to Google and type in ‘hate USAir’ and find somebody to tell my troubles to.”
Maybe that pushed the right button, because the next response read, “Due to the nature of your request, we are forwarding your issue to US Airways Customer Relations Department.”
Ten days passed before I got a message from Theressa Parks, in the US Airways Office of Customer Relations. She offered an apology for the difficulties I’d had while speaking with an agent. Furthermore, “I regret that you were unable to redeem your miles for travel. The number of seats allocated on each flight for use by customers redeeming Dividend Miles Awards is limited, and I am sorry there were no available seats on your flights and dates of choice.
“Your comments have been documented. We are grateful to our passengers when they alert us to areas that need improvement.”
Documented! Gee! But what really sealed things was this personal touch, at the end: “Mr. Green, we appreciate your business and hope that you will continue to consider US Airways for all of your future travel needs.”
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.