Road Trip 2017 #1 – Flights and Fury

Last year’s Summer vacation comprised driving – in a big circle – from the Philly ‘burbs to Chicago and back, taking in 8 states (six of which were new to me) plus the nation’s capital.  This Summer, we decided to undertake another road trip.  Our journey would take us from LA to San Francisco via Arizona, Utah and Nevada.  Clearly, therefore, this time our road trip involved flying and then renting a car.  Normally I would not bother relating any details of the flights because those are pragmatic journeys and not really part and parcel of the vacation.  However, especially given it has been a while since I had a proper rant on my blog, I am going to share the stress that bookended our vacation.

Perhaps because our flights had been purchased with air miles, the airline felt it was acceptable to keep changing our flights right up until the week before we were due to travel.  We ended up with a very early morning flight out of Philly (one of the first flights of the day) and a very (almost too) brief stopover in Chicago before catching the next flight to Santa Ana in California.  When we arrived at the airport at stupid o’clock, we found that there were no staff on any of the check-in desks.  Or anywhere else for that matter.  It was like a ghost town except for the long, snaking queue of increasingly frustrated passengers.  When some personnel did finally clock in – very slowly and while chatting among themselves – they were among the most singularly unhelpful group of people I have yet encountered at an airport (and I have a lot of airport horror stories).  None of the electronic self-check-in machines were fully operational – either the screens were off, were glitching, or the printers kept jamming – yet every single passenger was told they would have to check-in that way and that they could not approach the desk until luggage had been tagged.  Of course, the printing of the luggage tags was the final step in the self-check-in process that was not working.  It was one of those “snake eating its own tale” circular arguments trying to get any member of staff to intervene in any way.  My children have been able to taunt me with the phrase, “But did you tag your bags?” ever since, knowing it will elicit the Pavlovian response of making my blood boil.  Meanwhile, the clock was ticking down and getting closer and closer to our departure time and we had not been able to either check in our luggage or get through security let alone make it to our gate.  When I pointed out this time pressure to one member of staff, she sneered at me.  Verbally and visually.  I had no blank poker face at that point as I mentally envisioned poking her in the eyes.  Finally, one of the bone idle staff members decided to reduce the ever-lengthening queue of disgruntled, stressed, and fizzing passengers by assisting at the few self-check-in machines that were operational.  Luggage finally tagged and dropped off, we sprinted to security.  That rigmarole took as long as it usually does and then we were sprinting again to our gate.  We just made it to our gate in time for boarding.  Stressed and puffing was not how I wanted to start my vacation.

On the return flight, it was a similar situation redux.  On attempting to check-in online the previous day, my husband discovered that only five of us were booked on the flight.  We checked our booking online and in hard copy to confirm that there should indeed have been six of us booked on the flight.  The one who had been skipped was our youngest son.  A tedious phone call later revealed the problem – some glitch nobody bothered to explain meant that our youngest child had been assigned a different record number from the rest of us but we were assured we should still be able to check him on to the flight at the airport since we had now been furnished with two booking numbers.  Lies.  All lies.  Back to dealing with those self-check-in portals again and, while San Francisco airport actually had ones that functioned, we could not check our son onto the flight.  The reason we could not check him in was because he had been designated as an unaccompanied minor.  Yup.  Having been separated from the rest of us by some sort of computer glitch, the airline had decided that an 8 year old was flying alone – despite five other people with the same unique surname travelling on the same flight, despite no record of him being booked as an unaccompanied minor.  We joined the queue for customer assistance.  It was another early morning flight and the clock was again ticking and adding pressure to the situation.  Staff managing the queue asked why our bags were not tagged yet.  I think I burned a hole in someone’s forehead with my laser stare.  Once at the head of the queue, we were directed to a particular desk.  Alas, the staff member on the desk refused to help us because she was only processing actual unaccompanied minors, not fake ones.  We were told to rejoin the queue.  Imagine that my face has turned a shade of puce, that my teeth are gritted, my jaw clenched, and my fists balled and you will be spot on for my demeanor at that point.  I somewhat loudly and angrily pointed out that this whole mess was a problem they had created and that they therefore needed to present a solution.  We were whipped across to another desk where someone checked us in, accepted our baggage (with labels she printed), and then we were on our way.  More sprinting to security.  More sprinting to the gate.

Now, firstly I am aware that this rant is very much about “first world problems”.  Secondly, neither of these challenges with flights curtailed the enjoyment of our vacation.  In all instances, we made our flights on time and our luggage arrived at the same time as we did (its loss was a risk given the tight turnaround time in Chicago).  However, all of the stress and friction was completely unavoidable had some people just done their jobs with greater diligence, had the front line members of staff presented themselves as helpful and flexible.  We happened to be funding the tickets with air miles but, regardless, flying for most of us is still a luxury and seats on an aeroplane are big ticket items.  We expect some degree of service in return for that financial investment.  Instead we are crammed onto flights like battery chickens and treated like a nuisance when something goes awry.

Deep breath.  Rant over and out.  Moving on.

*PS  My husband thinks my moaning about this is disproportionate and that I should choose to focus on the positives of having made all of our flights on time and them all taking off and landing on schedule.  This is because he travels frequently for work and a flight actually being on schedule is a very rare occurrence.  He, therefore, suffers from low expectations and gets to experience the thrill of things actually going right.  I, on the other hand, as someone who is not a frequent flyer, expect the service I have paid for.  Nothing more and nothing less.  I, therefore, stand by my rant as justified.*

Cyclical Ranting

Depending on how much of my blog you have read, you may or may not know that I repetitively encounter a problem with getting various organisations and departments to recognise me as a valid person.  I refer to it as my non-person status because somehow, despite legally, fiscally and financially sharing everything equally, my husband’s status as a US citizen makes him more of a person than I am.  This is another rant on this theme.  I somehow doubt it will be the last.

When we opened our US bank account, I could not activate my card because I did not have an Social Security number.  Then, when the SSN arrived and I phoned up to activate my card, I was interrogated because they insisted on further proof of my identity.  So my husband got to just push some buttons to confirm his debit card number and SSN without even speaking to an actual human whereas I had to answer questions about what was the dollar amount of my husband’s salary, when exactly was our bank account opened and so on and so forth.  And then we got into the whole “driving licence” hoo-ha where they just don’t comprehend that I cannot use a US driving licence to verify my identity because I am an immigrant who has only just arrived on American shores.  It must have taken over a dozen questions and answers for them to activate my card in the end.  That’s a big difference from punching some numbers in on a phone, the privilege of the USC.

I reported recently that the same debit cards had been revoked by our bank because we had happened to shop at Target during the period of their security breech.  After a week of whittling down my cash reserves, the debit cards finally arrived this morning.  With the reluctance that comes from that familiar sense of foreboding, I picked up the phone to activate the card.  I punched in my card number and was asked to punch in the last four digits of my SSN.  I did so.  I was asked to re-enter the SSN numbers.  Repeatedly.  By the fourth attempt, even the stupid robot system had decided enough was enough and put me through to a human – but not before making me listen to the most noisy hold music ever because it sounded like the feedback from an amp at a rock concert.

De.  Ja.  Vu.

Could I confirm my full name was the easy kick off point.  Then we were onto the usual bumf about passport numbers (not good enough evidence of my identity since it’s a UK passport number), my husband’s payroll details and the exact salary amount (which I have still failed to commit to memory because, you know, I have better things for my brain to focus on right now than the exact amount, to the cent, that his employer deposits in our account each month), various other questions about the joint account holder and – yes, siree, that favourite query of mine – the number on my US driver’s licence.  Groundhog Day conversation.

Seriously.  They have previously verified my identity to their satisfaction in order to activate the previous debit card but they want me to go through the same stuff all over again.  Trying to withhold sarcasm and annoyance from my voice, with moderate success, through gritted teeth I explained that, as my accent indicated, I was not American, had already indicated I was not American given our discussion about my passport, had in fact only been in America since October, and strangely enough did not yet had a chance to obtain a full US driver’s licence.

On hold again.  With the eardrum shredding feedback noise.

And then, just like that, I was told the cards were now activated and have a nice day.  No explanation for the sudden change of heart, no logic to my authorisation suddenly being approved, just that they were now activated.  Bureaucracy here is frustrating and fickle.

More ranting and raving

Yesterday I ranted about the challenge posed to me attempting to do something as simple as having my name added to our household electricity bill since I desperately need some proofs of address.  I won’t rehash the details because it’s all here in this blog entry:

Having explicitly asked yesterday’s call centre person what I had to do in order to have my identity verified by the electricity company, I verily sent my husband off into the city this morning with my SSN, my passport and my UK driving licence.  The electricity company’s office is on the same street my husband works on so we deemed this to be the most efficient approach.  Mr Pict arrived there bright and early and explained the scenario.  The member of staff there looked up our account information and found there was no record of yesterday’s phone conversation or request so Mr Pict was informed that they could not comply with the request to verify my ID since there was no record of the first stage of verification, namely his authorisation of me to be added to the account and my providing permission to be added to the account plus all of my basic details.  Great.  So he was told to get me to phone the customer services line again and ask for the note to be placed on the account.

So I phoned up and explained the situation and was immediately put on hold.  And I was on hold for a while.  Long enough to multi-task getting my youngest ready for nursery, emptying and loading the dishwasher, clearing the breakfast table and putting our outdoor coats and shoes on all while having the phone gripped between my neck and shoulder so I could hear when the call centre person came back on the line.  Also long enough to hear everything I ever wanted to know about the electricity company several times over.  Finally she came back on the line.  This is how the conversation proceeded:

Her: There is now a note on your account stating that your husband made a request to amend the billing details this morning.

Me: OK but is there also a note stating that you have spoken to me and have gained my permission to be added to the bill?

Her: I will do that for you now, ma’am.  However, I cannot include a note making reference to verification of your identity at this time.

Me: Even though I went through all of that with the man I spoke to yesterday and it appears he just failed to enter a note about it on the system?

Her: Did you provide your social security number when you spoke to my colleague yesterday?

Me: Yes.

Her: And your driver’s licence was verified also?

Me: No.  I don’t yet have a US driver’s licence.  I arrived in the country in October.  I was told yesterday that I could submit my passport and UK driving licence, which is also a photo ID, in order to have my identity confirmed.  So can you make a note of this conversation now in the account records?

Her:  Let me just go speak to my colleague, ma’am.

And then I was back on hold for a while longer.  Meanwhile, of course, Mr Pict is still in the company’s branch in Philly as they await the note from customer services appearing on the account details.  Also meanwhile ensuring that my youngest child is definitely going to be late for preschool.

Her: It seems you were given some incorrect advice yesterday.  Both your husband and yourself would have to be there in person to have your identification verified.  Is it possible for you to do that?

Me: Only with great difficulty and inconvenience.  The staff in the branch in Philadelphia that my husband just spoke to seem to think they can verify my ID as soon as the note appears on the system so can you just ensure that note is present, please?

Her: I have entered a note as requested.  Is there anything else I can do for you today, ma’am?

Me: Nope.  Thank you.  (Through gritted teeth.)

So I then quickly phoned Mr Pict and explained the whole mess to him while dragging our youngest son along the street at full tilt to ensure he actually made it to preschool before the session ended.  He then had some to and fro and a lot more queuing to do while the people in the city branch waited for the note to appear.  And waited.  It never did appear.  Again.  Mercifully, however, because my husband is super-likeable, someone there took pity on him and decided to override their pitifully stupid system and verify my identification documents.  Job done – in as half-arsed manner as possible.

That was this morning’s stress.  This afternoon’s stress was communication from my husband regarding our bank card.  Our bank had been in touch with him to inform him that our card was one of those caught up in Target’s security breach so they were having to void our debit cards and issue new ones.  Thankfully there had been no fraudulent spending on our card so we don’t have to deal with any of that but it still means up to five days without any means of paying for anything or withdrawing cash.  Great.

And now I get to fill out an insurance claim for all the broken and missing items from our shipping consignment.

What a great day this is turning out to be.  I need a do-over.