December 12, 2007

"This isn't the worst thing that will happen to you today."

Said to me by a woman working behind the counter for a major airline as I checked my bag today and complained that the instructions on the self-check-in screen were confusing and flashed off before I could figure out what I was supposed to do next.

Think about it. As I'm checking in for a flight, someone working for the airline predicts that something bad is going to happen to me today. I assume I'd be arrested if I told her something bad was going to happen today.

In any case, checking a bag around here is a ridiculous procedure. If you decide you don't want to pay the curbside employee $2 + tip to take your bag, you have to go inside and find a computer to fiddle with, then see that you are to proceed somewhere else to get the tag. But where? Oh, the counter that you used to be able to go to when there were no computers. Then, though there is a conveyor belt of the sort that counter employees have always put bags on, you have to take your bag over to another place to hand it over to the screeners.

It's as if they are deliberately tormenting you so that next time you'll see why you ought to have forked over $3 to check a bag. What a ridiculous system! They ought to be making you feel good about the switch-over to self-service computers. Instead, I felt like they were trying to humiliate me for my unwillingness to use the old-fashioned skycap service. Actually, I'd have used it and tipped the skycap, but the $2 does-not-include-gratuity charge rubbed me the wrong way.

American Airlines, either modernize efficiently or be graciously old-fashioned. If you want to be modern and old fashioned at the same time, at least be efficient and gracious about it. But this set-up, at La Guardia Airport, is ugly and awkward.

And telling me it's not the worst thing that will happen to me today is beyond belief.

Here's what the woman working at the counter could have said: I'm sorry. We don't mean for it to be confusing. We're still working on perfecting the new system. I hope you'll give us another chance.

Or she could have told what I think is the truth: Why are you even trying to check a bag inside? You had your chance with the skycaps, but you were too cheap to pay $3. Three damned dollars, and now you think that I will lift your crap onto a conveyor belt or give you any information you could find yourself on the computer screen? And you dare to complain? I hope this is just the start of a terrible day for you, bitch.

ADDED: Some sympathy. And a film clip.

53 comments:

MadisonMan said...

Either modernize efficiently or be graciously old-fashioned.

That is exactly right. You can't be both. Example 2: Paying money for a bellhop to take my light bag to my hotel room is ridiculous. Stop asking! The days when people travelled with trunks -- when bellhops would earn their money -- are long gone.

Miss Manners said...

Gentle blogger,
The woman was saying, indirectly, "get over yourself." There is no polite way to say this directly. Unfortunately, there are people who will not understand this idea without it being spelled out. They are the kind of people who think sthat every clerk at Starbucks and at the airport owes them an apology for every little inconvenience they encounter. I have little to offer in the way of advice. There is no other way to put it: divas are not always polite.
MM

George said...

Just pray that Rod Serling was not standing anywhere near you.

Paddy O. said...

Yeah, I kind of think she was saying "It's no big deal" not "this is only the beginning of your day of terror."

It is hilarious to me, though, how many people have to still be involved with the supposedly self-service system.

I think it's a problem with architecture. Airports were built with a certain check-in system in mind and with all the security and supposed check in option airlines are making do, and making it more confusing.

Ann Althouse said...

Miss Manners: You assume I demanded an apology. You are wrong. I only evinced confusion and tried to say why I found it confusing.

Ann Althouse said...

She was imperious toward me, not me toward her.

Ann Althouse said...

Paddy O: I know she meant to say something along the lines of: it's not that bad, but she put it in a way that is disturbing to anyone who has some fear of flying, and no airline person should ever do that. I did at that point say to her: I can't believe you are saying something worse is going to happen to me. And she did not say she was sorry. I thought it was very unprofessional and really wrong for an airline, which should be inspiring trust, not creating doubts about the flight.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

Bet you're glad to be free of the NYC be-otches.

Lawgiver said...

I got a chuckle out of this post Ann. There is a subset of the American business force that spends literally days flying from city to city plying their trade whatever it may be, sales, consulting, etc. I think of them as airport drones. You can identify them by the laptop they are wheeling around, the bluetooth enabled Blackberry clipped to their belt and the vacant look on their faces. They know all the tricks and often get frustrated by people like you who haven't checked in online or know by heart the computerized bag check in procedure.

Customer service sucks at a lot of airports because they often work their people to death. That's just the way it is. I'm always happy if I can get an aisle seat and my bag arrives the same time I do.

Sheepman said...

I fly a lot in Northern Europe and have always found the airline staff here to be friendly in assisting with the automated check-in machines. I experienced the opposite when I was back in the States last March. At the United counter at Dulles, two uniformed staff, behind the counter and engaged in a personal conversation, were very annoyed annoyed when I approached them to check-in the old fashioned way. Without responding verbally to me, they just pointed dismissively to the machine and carried on with their gossip.

About bellhops, this seems to be a uniquely American thing, I can't recall seeing them at airports out of the US.

Verso said...

"This isn't the worst thing that will happen to you today."

Maybe she was trying to warn you that if you didn't stop complaining, she'd call the cops and have you tazed, bro.

Not that that would have been appropriate, but the police certainly do seem to enjoy their new toys, and watching how they make their targets hop around and scream.

But most likely, the other commenters are correct: She was trying to put your "problem" into some kind of perspective. It was another way of saying, "relax, take three deep breaths, you're going to be OK."

David said...

Too often, front-line personnel are completely disempowered when it comes to making suggestions, especially suggestions about systems improvement. Ideally, she would have noted your comment about the confusing instructions (and similar comments from other people) and eventually they would have come to the attention of someone who got the system improved. But it's unlikely that the airline has a aystematic method of collecting such suggestions from its employees, and it's almost equally unlikely that the IT people care all that much about the opinions of the people from the business side.

None of which offers an excuse for her rudeness.

Ann Althouse said...

Lawgiver: I did check in on line. I had my boarding pass, but I'm on a long trip and needed a bag I couldn't carry on.

JohnAnnArbor said...

With Northwest, acting frustrated at the computer helps. Then they come to tell you what to do next. Mostly. Some even act like they care.

But once, a year or so ago, at Detroit's baggage claim, I waited with my fellow passengers for over an hour at the designated place. Wandered away for a moment--and saw a deserted carousel, piled with bags.

Our bags. They'd been there forever, with no change on the boards telling us where to go and no announcement. Northwest wasted the time of a hundred people for no reason.

I was SPECTACULARLY not happy, in the sense that the police would have been called had I stuck around much longer. (Screaming "They're lying to you!" to the line of over 100 people in line at "lost luggage" might have been enough on its own.) My favorite part of that was the unionized guys clearing the luggage clogs. I told him the problem, and he said it wasn't his problem. I said, maybe tell your supervisor? His response was that he didn't care (he claimed he didn't work for Northwest), and he and his buddy made it clear that they might beat on me if I kept pointing out the problem.

JohnAnnArbor said...

They know all the tricks and often get frustrated by people like you who haven't checked in online or know by heart the computerized bag check in procedure.

I've often wondered what would happen if my parents, who have not flown since the late 1990s, tried again today. There are so many unexplained pitfalls that would beset them along their way that it would be a nightmare without an experienced traveler as a guide! It's bizarre.

Ann Althouse said...

Sheepman: That has been my experience in the US too. They want to help people accept the computers. I have never seen such and ugly and awkward system -- one designed to make you feel stupid and humiliated -- as I saw at American Airlines at La Guardia today.

And let me add that my boarding pass lacked a gate number, and after I got rid of my bag and wanted to go to the gate, I needed to go back to the front door to see monitors showing the gate, and I ended up going to the counter and asking someone. Why didn't the woman who took my bag tell me the gate number?

Also, and I'm just thinking of this, after I checked my bag on the computer, the woman at the counter called out my name. I don't want my name called out. I don't want strangers to know my name.

Ann Althouse said...

"It was another way of saying, "relax, take three deep breaths, you're going to be OK."

Well, that would have pissed me off more. If the service is bad, the employees should smooth it over, not put the blame on you for being discomfited. I hate when someone tells me to "relax." The right thing to say is to express understanding calmly and try to move things in a good direction. Isn't that what you'd do if you owned a business and a customer was confused and embarrassed by the way you had things set up?

Ann Althouse said...

If you say "relax," you're making the person feel worse. Not only couldn't she understand the procedure, she didn't know how to behave properly. That's really dehumanizing.

nick danger said...

You could always take the train.

JohnAnnArbor said...

one designed to make you feel stupid and humiliated

I think it's not designed for that purpose; it's just designed thoughtlessly. More accurately, it's designed to minimize the number of employees needed. Asking for help under those conditions is considered an affront to the system.

paul a'barge said...

This thread sets the record for number of times Althouse has responded to comments.

What's up with that?

AllenS said...

"This isn't the worst thing that will happen to you today."

Translation: Your bags are going somewhere else.

paul a'barge said...
This thread sets the record for number of times Althouse has responded to comments.

What's up with that?

That means she hasn't left yet. Unfortunately her bags have.

jen said...

"But it's unlikely that the airline has a aystematic method of collecting such suggestions from its employees, and it's almost equally unlikely that the IT people care all that much about the opinions of the people from the business side."

But this is the problem. When I encounter a fixable problem, I want to tell an employee about it with the expectation that the employee will kick it upstairs. Too often, the response I get is either a blank stare or an attitude of "why are you complaining about this"? Well, I'm wasn't complaining so much as making a suggestion that I thought was helpful.

However, thanks to your response, I am now complaining about the fact that you clearly don't care about customers or customer service. Have a nice day!

Positroll said...

I've often wondered what would happen if my parents, who have not flown since the late 1990s, tried again today. There are so many unexplained pitfalls that would beset them along their way that it would be a nightmare without an experienced traveler as a guide!
They should consider to book VIP service in advance. It's available at most airports, saves a lot of time, helps you to avoid all the pitfalls and isn't that expensive anymore from what I have read and seen on TV (no personal experience, though) ...

Richard Dolan said...

What a hoot. But, after getting the venting out of the way, there is a deeper message from On High here. Airports and airlines don't want to be so offputting that they make people prefer to stay home rather than shlep off to Bali or some such place. But even as they have perfected that to an art, it's not their fault. God wants us all to reduce our carbon footprint, and so he has cursed them all so that they can't help themselves. It's for the greater good. Saint Al approves.

Take a hint. Next time stay home and visit wherever AmAir is taking you virtually (and virtuously). And, like Saint Al, I count on others becoming more virtuous, so that the seat next to me on my next flight may even be empty.

PatCA said...

Years ago, when United experimented with self-check in by computer, it was also totally confusing. A bunch of us were standing around trying to figure it out and then an older gentleman yelled, I WANT A DAMN HUMAN!

It worked. Some ombudsperson-aide-candystriper came along and got us checked in on time.

Lawgiver said...

I've often wondered what would happen if my parents, who have not flown since the late 1990s, tried again today. There are so many unexplained pitfalls that would beset them along their way that it would be a nightmare without an experienced traveler as a guide!

My parents are 84 and Dad uses a walker. He waves a $20 in front of the skycaps and they take care of everything including a wheelchair to take him to the gate. Generally they take good care of the elderly and disabled.

Gary said...

Professor,

You'll Feel Fine

I said so.

joe said...

If airline people are bad, TSA people are worse. Incredibly rude, stupid, nasty and arrogant. Flying sucks.

Jim C. said...

I think the comment sounds like a form of NYC-style humor and honesty. She was letting you know you're on your own when you fly--something that's true on AA or any other airline. You are on your own. That's the price we pay for cheaper fares.

Indeed, I'll bet that it won't be the worst thing that happens by the time you arrive at your destination. You may have to sit next to an overweight person, or the plane might smell like poop, or you may catch some bacteria.

That's the universal cost of flight in the early 21st century, and she was, in her own New York way, commiserating!

Verso said...

Isn't that what you'd do if you owned a business and a customer was confused and embarrassed by the way you had things set up?

Absolutely. Telling someone to "relax" is condescending, and insulting, because it implies there is no problem, which means that if you think there is a problem, you must be some kind of idiot.

Furthermore, "this isn't the worst thing that will happen to you today" is even more patronizing and insulting than the usual dismissive treatment. It's the kind of thing you would say to a child.

I wonder how much those employees make. $10/hour? $12/hour if they are lucky? Probably not much, whatever it is.

And they act like it.

The bottom line is that in a customer service role, you are going to encounter LOTS of people who have questions or need help. It is a professional obligation to treat those people kindly, with patience, and respect.

Beth said...

I've often wondered what would happen if my parents, who have not flown since the late 1990s, tried again today.

JAA: your worry reminds me of a conversation with a friend who'd recently flown to Boston and back. Ahead of her in the screening line were two little ancient maw-maws, probably sisters, who were baffled by the screening process and to whom the TSA personnel were very rude. They first tried to walk through the metal detector together-- because they're tiny, and old, and that's how they walk, arm in arm, leaning on each other. They couldn't hear well, and didn't understand all the fuss and that they had to remove their shoes, and all the TSA agents did was yell instructions at them over and over. My friend found it humiliating and unnecessary. A little patience and even an assist with an arm would have helped them along with some dignity and respect.

Nasty, Brutish & Short said...

Maybe she's a blog reader, and knew strange women punch you for no apparent reason!

Original Mike said...

Jim C said: I think the comment sounds like a form of NYC-style humor and honesty.

Yeah, that's what I thought. It sounds like something I'd say, and that would be my meaning.

Richard Dolan said: Airports and airlines don't want to be so offputting that they make people prefer to stay home

Too late.

Oclarki said...

Why do some airports reqiure you to carry your bag from the check-in counter to the TSA screening machines? In Denver, the person behind the counter takes your bag and places it on the conveyor belt, and you don't have to mess with it. While at airports like Midway you have to carry it back through the maze and hand it to the TSA representative.
If they can do it that way in Denver, they should be able to do it that way everywhere else.

Skyler said...

Hmm. Skycap is "old fashioned?" I thought it was a new thing kind of associated with ADA. That is, if you're too frail to carry your bags to the proper place then you can pay someone a fee to do it for you with a greater chance of something getting lost.

Never used one. I'd be too embarrassed to let anyone think I was so lazy.

John Burgess said...

When I get to the airport, I'm able to look in and see how long the line for check-in is. If it's long, then I'll shed a few bucks for the skycap. If it's short, I'll go stand in line and use the computer like a good little boy.

I primarily fly US Air and Air Tran and haven't had much of a problem with either's computers.

The bag screening machine is right next to the check-in counter, so taking a bag to it takes me all of 10 steps out of my way to the gate.

I must be blessed or something (I was born on a Sunday), but I just haven't had any of the nightmares that others describe in their flying adventures. Even TSA isn't much of a sweat when you figure out what they're trying to do and how they're trying to do it.

Trooper York said...

Oh my God! The worst thing that could happen. The professor has the middle seat between Christopher
and hdhouse!

former law student said...

I remember when American used to provide good service. Now I'd rather take Southwest. Here are some worse things that have happened to me on American, earlier this summer: Getting to the airport early for our confirmed flight(and processing the boarding pass/luggage check on a machine) to have our flight cancelled (and having to fly standby from then on). Standing in a long line to rebook to be told when we got to the front that we were in the wrong line and had to start all over again in the other line (two flights scheduled to depart from the same gate, one hour apart, were both cancelled). Going to baggage claim to pick up bags that haven't gone anywhere. Taking a hundred dollar cab ride to an airport with a larger selection of flights. Spending an unreimbursed night in a motel. Finally getting to Dallas and waiting standby to watch our names climb up the list -- but not quite enough to get on a plane. Trying to sleep on a pillowless cot under enough fluorescent lights to illuminate a casino, worrying that we'd be relieved of our personal belongings in our sleep. Finally getting home the third day after our travel began -- about as fast as rail.

former law student said...

skyler: "skycap" is the airline equivalent of the old "redcap".

save_the_rustbelt said...

Interact with the human and give up $3 toward the blue collar economy.

Gee, is law professor pay that bad?

My ancestors traveled on canal barges and in wagons pulled by mules. I think a few moments of confusion at an airport is a very minor price to pay for climbing in a big aluminum tube and traveling at 400 mph.

Perhaps living in the big apple has dulled your humanity a bit and raised your stress levels. Chill

Dewb said...

Were you flying US Airways? If so, then the clerk was right. Because once captive on the plane, you were going to be subject to loud and intrusive credit card sales pitches over the PA system. That's definitely worse.

That ridiculous procedure -- checking your bag, then carrying it yourself over to a scanner -- is very common at smaller airports. I think it's because they had no place to put the fancy new post-9/11 screening machines besides out in the terminal, and this is the TSA-mandated solution.

jen said...

That ridiculous procedure -- checking your bag, then carrying it yourself over to a scanner -- is very common at smaller airports.

At some times, in some ways, it can be helpful/reassuring to see for yourself that your luggage went through the machine with no reaction and then went on to . . . well, who knows where it went next, but you knew the TSA hadn't ripped it apart before it had moved 20 feet.

Smilin' Jack said...

"This isn't the worst thing that will happen to you today."

Suggested comeback:

"[Sigh] Yes, I know. I've flown your airline before."

I haven't had much trouble with the computer systems myself. Plus they are more intelligent and have much better personalities than the average airline employee.

Eva said...

Humiliated and dehumanized. Yep, that pretty much sums up flying. The fact that you weren't patted down, actively insulted or horribly inconvenienced means your trip probably scored in the top 10% of the day for customer satisfaction.

I'm AA Platinum and I always say that the airlines are the only companies whose best customers hate them the most.

Trooper York said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Trooper York said...

I guess I am very lucky, but I never had a problem at the airport. But then I am a working class guy and thus a pretty heavy tipper. You do tip the TAS guys a fin to look after your bags don't you?

dick said...

What gets me about so many of the computerized check-ins is that whoever designed the system evidently never bothered running it past the people behind the desk to see if to worked the right way. The people behind the counter probably don't understand it any better than most of the travelers do.

I have decided that if I have to travel less than 500 miles, I would rather do it by train than airplane. By the time you go to the airport, check in, get patted down, and then wait an hour or so to get on the flight, then wait for the bags to show up (if they do), and take a cab or travel to your destination, you could travel by train and not have to suffer through the hassle.

Bruce Hayden said...

The reason that you don't have to carry your bags to TSA at big airports is that they have found the room to hide the machines. Denver is very big and very modern, and so the TSA machines disappeared very early on.

I definitely have run into this problem in Missoula in the last two months. But that airport was weird anyway due to security. You went down to the right a ways, climbed a stairs, walked back overhead for a bit, and went back down stairs, ending up just to the left of where you started, but separated by a new glass wall, just to find room for the normal TSA screening. Something like that.

My experiences with American have been pretty much negative for years. For me, they are an airline of last resort. Back when I was living in Austin, I would on occasion get stuck on them, and they seemed totally oriented towards those airport drones mentioned above - their frequent fliers. If you don't fly them a lot, you are treated like dirt.

United was a bit better, but by then, I was one of their frequent fliers. Back flying again, and no longer Premier Exec with them, I am seeing the other side, like not being able to get a seat assignment when buying a ticket almost three weeks in advance (ok, it was over Christmas/ New Years, but still). Oh, and on Ted, they refuse to give you a can of soft drinks (cups only, and nothing to eat), even after paying over $300 for a round trip ticket. Round trip, that means maybe $.50.

Out of Denver, I prefer Frontier and Southwest, probably in that order. Both still try to please their customers, something that United and American forgot at least a decade ago. And I can always get a whole can of pop from either.

Cardinals Nation said...

Cheap. Fast. Good. You can have two of them, but not all three. Take your pick and your chances.

tony said...

ann.

ever been to japan?

one of my strongest impressions of my stay there is that every person i came into contact with, at an airport, at a train station, at a bank, at the post office, at restaurants, AT CONVENIENCE STORES even...EVERY PERSON...seemed to take great pride in their job. every person was willing to stop what they were doing and help me. every person was polite, and courteous.

think about that the next time you go into a seven eleven. or get attitude at the airport.

Pogo said...

The current US airport experience serves to increase the percentage of curmudgeons and misanthropists daily.

I now fly only under duress, preferring the car or train for trips less than 500 miles, and avoiding longer flights for that reason. If a company ever wanted the ideal business plan designed to weed out both new and return customers and eventually go bankrupt, this is surely it.

robertl said...

Think that's bad?

When my son flew home for Thanksgiving out of Midway (Chicago) he tried to get on standby on an earlier flight than his reservation - the agent at the gate told him "We don't do standby." Now, this is Delta Airlines in the middle of a holiday weekend.....

By the time my son vented himself, the agent changed his tune to "The flight is full." It wasn't.

My son missed that flight, obviously, and has yet to hear back from Delta on his filed complaint. Any wonder they're going broke?