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Letter to Northwest Airlines

(Note to readers: the names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty.)

January, 1999

Northwest Customer Relations
Dept C-6590
5101 Northwest Drive
St. Paul, MN 55111-3034

Dear Sir or Madam:

I recently flew on Northwest on a vacation/business trip to Hawaii. My experience was so horrific, with each Northwest mistake causing another at the next airport in a Domino effect that found us standing at ticket and gate counters literally for a total of several hours, that I do not feel I could do justice by recounting any one part of the trip, or attempting to condense the cascade of blunders, slights, and outright abuse we endured into a brief complaint. As you will discover if you read the account below through to its conclusion, the story must tell itself.

Before I begin my tale of woe, I offer the following background information:

Original itinerary:

Phila-HNL roundtrip (with Delta connection to Maui)
confirmation # D7RQYN

Sat 12/26
PHL - DET flight 999 depart 9:25AM
DET - SEA flight 479 depart 12:05PM
SEA - HNL flight 945 depart 2:35PM

HNL Maui Delta 1579 depart 7:35PM

Monday, Jan 4
HNL - LAX flight 936 depart 6:15PM
LAX - MEM flight 552 depart 2:00AM
MEM - PHL flight 1156 depart 9AM

As it turned out, we wouldn't board a single one of these flights.

Philadelphia, December 26
We arrived at the airport with time to spare, but were told at check-in there was a problem with our flight. We were told that the plane had not arrived from Detroit due to mechanical failure, and were instructed to check in our bags nonetheless, and proceeded to the gate and got in line. When we reached the front of the line, we began to work with the agent on alternate arrangements.

After about 45 minutes of investigating other itineraries, we were told that there was no way Northwest could get us to Honolulu or to Maui until the following day. We were given $100 in travel vouchers, which was grudgingly increased to $200 after a long consultation with a supervisor who was present. We were also given a computer printout that was presented to us as our new itinerary (see below), which included a final leg to Maui on Hawaiian Airlines.

Before that time, the agent had investigated putting us on American Airlines, which has a flight from LAX directly to Maui. Additionally, the itinerary he printed out included the final leg to Maui, this time on Hawaiian Airlines. No further comment was made about the final leg of our itinerary from Honolulu to Maui.

We left the airport, went out and paid our parking fees, and drove the 55 miles to our home. I called Delta to cancel the flight to Maui for that night, and, since we were told that we had a flight to Maui on Hawaiian, did not buy another ticket to Maui. As I understood it, given the circumstances, Northwest would get us to Maui, and we were not told otherwise.

Additionally, the loss of one day of our trip would make us unable to make on of our intended visits while in Hawaii, and made it preferable to return one day early so not to incur additional hotel and other expenses. I called Northwest to inquire into returning to Philadelphia one day earlier than planned, on Sunday, Jan. 3. I explained the situation at length to the agent, who made the change, and told me that we would be upgraded on all return legs. (This never happened; see "Honolulu airport, January 3rd" below.)

Thus, our revised itinerary:
December 27, 1998
PHL - MSP flight 1271 departure 8:20AM
MSP- HNL flight 921 departure 12:30PM
And a HNL - Maui Hawaiian Air flight for which I don't have the numbers and times, because we never used it, as you'll learn.

Sunday, January 3:
flight 920 6:50 PM departure HNL - MSP
flight 680 7:20 AM departure MSP - PHL

Philadelphia, December 27
We arrived at the airport 90 minutes before our flight was to depart, and got in line at check-in. When we asked that our bags be checked all the way to Maui, the check-in agent told us that we weren't ticketed to Maui, and that he needed to see our tickets. I explained what had happened; he told us he needed to see a ticket before he would check our bags through to Maui. I showed him the slip of paper with our new itinerary on it that had been given to me by the gate agent the previous day.

"This is just a piece of paper," he said. "I need a ticket from Delta." He took the "piece of paper."

I explained again that we didn't have a ticket for the Delta flight, as Northwest had sent us home the day before, and we missed and had to cancel the Delta flight. While I waited at the Northwest desk, he sent my traveling companion over to the Delta counter, where she stood in line for several minutes before once again explaining the situation to the Delta personnel. After considerable discussion that required the intervention of a Delta supervisor, my traveling companion came back with a receipt for the cancelled ticket, and the agent proceeded to check our bags through to Maui. He also gave each of us a boarding pass for Hawaiian Airlines flight 560 from Honolulu to Maui, which I still have. At this time, as you can understand, it was still not clear to us that we had no ticket to Maui.

While he was checking our bags, I noted that the flight time was approaching, and asked him to contact the gate to tell them we were coming. He called the gate while I was there, checked in our bags, and we ran to the gate.

Upon our arrival at the gate, the agents were offering incentives to travelers to get off the plane, as there was a problem with the cargo weight, and they needed to lighten the load. I interrupted to say that we needed to get on the plane, and was told "you're not getting on this plane; it's full." I said that the check-in agent had called to warn them of our arrival. Some discussion ensued, and one agent shouted "I told him to check them in!" He hadn't done so.

Once again I explained what had happened, that we had been bumped off our plane the previous day. The agent began offering incentives for each person who got off the plane voluntarily, while we stood on the boarding ramp. As I recall it, they were offered $1000 in vouchers and a free flight. Made our $200 vouchers seem like a pittance, and we'd lost an entire day!

Eventually, the agents got us on the plane, but without boarding passes or any record that we had actually boarded. They mentioned that there might be complications with connections and luggage in Minneapolis, and that we should check with an agent as soon as we arrived.

Minneapolis, December 27
We arrived in Minneapolis, and stopped immediately at the nearest Northwest counter. The agent was handling boarding for a flight to Newark, but graciously confirmed our reservation on the next leg to Honolulu, although she couldn't tell us if our bags were checked through to Maui.

Additionally, the seats she gave us were in different rows, far apart. I asked that we be seated together, since it was an eight-hour flight; she said that she couldn't do that, she had to finish boarding the Newark flight, and that we should go to the gate for our flight to have the change made.

We proceeded to the gate, and after about 15 minutes, a Northwest agent appeared, although she did not raise her eyes, and had a "Gate Closed" sign in front of her. We waited quietly at considerable distance from the counter. After about five minutes, several travelers gathered around the gate, and a family of eight walked up to the counter. After about 30 seconds, the agent took down the sign, and checked in the family.

I mention this in detail because, even after all we had already been through, we kept our distance, didn't interrupt the agent's work, and respected this agent's need to work in peace. The ensuing events were all the more frustrating.

When we got to the front of the line, we asked that we be seated together. The agent said she could not do this, and that we would have to ask other passengers if they would give up their seats when we got onboard. I told the agent a short version of the preceding events, and asked that, given our trials thus far and the length of the flight, that she try to seat us together. She said that she had to check in a full flight of passengers, and that she would not do so.

At this time, my traveling companion asked to speak to customer service.

"I AM customer service," was the reply as she put our tickets back on the counter in front of us.

My traveling companion again: "Northwestern messed this up, and somebody needs to take care of this."

Agent: "Northwestern is a bank. Northwest is an airline."

It was a savage, slicing remark, clearly meant to stun. It worked. A few seconds later, I replied.

Me: "Is that supposed to be funny?"

No response. Not even a look.

Me: "Excuse me. Is that supposed to be funny?"

Agent: "I was correcting her."

Me: "Okay, I know this is your hub. Is there a customer service office here?"

Agent: "This is an airport, not an office building."

It was starting to sound like a comedy routine, but I was far from entertained.

Me: "Many airlines maintain offices in their hubs. May I have your name?

I had had enough, I wanted her name for the formal complaint that was already inevitable. She replied only "Priscilla." I asked for her last name, which Priscilla said was confidential. I asked for an agent number, and was told she does not give it out. I said fine, thanks, I'll just write down the gate and flight number and your name, Priscilla, and I'll be filing a report.

At this point, Priscilla yanked back our tickets from in front of us, virtually yelled out my last name, and told me she'd file her own report as well.

As it turned out, Priscilla's report would haunt us for the rest of our trip, as you will learn.

Still in Minneapolis, December 27
We went out to the Northwest ticketing area, found a roaming Northwest agent, and asked to see a customer service representative. The agent asked us what we needed, and we told our story once again, with the addition of Priscilla's stellar performance. The agent went behind the ticket counters, and after several minutes, we were greeted by a senior customer service representative named Mary.

Mary heard our story with patience and understanding, and when we were finished, asked us to wait and disappeared into an office behind the ticket counter. As an aside, I specifically remember mentioning to Mary that I had explained our situation to Priscilla in precisely the same tone I was speaking to her, and that Priscilla's response was not precipitated by our conduct whatsoever, at least not until she had insulted my traveling companion.

After about 15 minutes, Mary returned with the news that she had obtained for us two adjacent seats on the flight, but that there was still no record of our connection from Honolulu to Maui, and that our bags probably wouldn't get there without it. In fact, Mary had discovered that we HAD NO TICKETS TO MAUI, on any airline.

Mary suggested we go to the Delta ticket counter to buy the tickets, but after seeing the long lines at the Delta counter, and realizing that we had about 20 minutes before our plane left, Mary herself called Delta on the phone, walked us over to the Delta counter, and even handed over my credit card herself to the Delta supervisor to whom she had spoken.

With less than 15 minutes before our flight was to leave (this entire process took nearly two hours), she promised that she would reroute our bags to Maui, either on our Delta flight or on the Hawaiian flight that we originally thought Northwest had booked us on. Mary advised us that it was possible that our bags might not get checked all the way through to Maui, and that we might need to pick them up in Honolulu and recheck them on our Delta flight, or that they might actually go all the way through on Hawaiian. We thanked her profusely, and I told her that, if we filed a written complaint, I would be sure to note that she was extremely helpful, an excellent representative of any company.

I was (more or less) satisfied, and we went back to the gate, and without a bad word to anyone, got on the plane to Honolulu.

I assumed that our discussion with Mary would result in the filing of a complaint, that in fact we had filed a complaint about our shoddy treatment at the hands of Priscilla, but apparently this wasn't the case. Meanwhile, while we were flying to Honolulu (albeit in a seat in which the headphones did not work), Priscilla was filing the report that would become a permanent part of our record throughout our trip.

So here's the info I have to identify Priscilla:
Name: Priscilla
stationed at Minneapolis Gate 2 for flight 921, Minneapolis- Honolulu, departing 12:50PM, December 27, 1998

Honolulu, December 27
We arrived in Honolulu, got something to eat, and settled in for the layover before we could get out to Maui. We checked the baggage claim area for the Minneapolis-Honolulu flight for our bags, which did not materialize. As instructed by Mary, we next consulted a Northwest agent concerning the whereabouts of our bags. The agent typed in a few commands on the computer, shrugged her shoulders, and said we should just get on our Delta flight, that the bags would either be on that flight or the next Hawaiian flight, which was to depart Honolulu 45 minutes after our Delta flight. Despite the fact that she was asking us to sit around in an airport for another 45 minutes, after two days of hanging around in airports, I was too tired to object, said thanks, and left to get on the Delta flight.

Kahului, Maui airport, December 27
Upon arrival, we waited for our bags to come off the Delta flight, then to come off the Hawaiian flight. Still no bags. As I was looking for a place to register a claim, I saw a clump of bags at the far end of the terminal, completely unattended. Those bags were ours, and we picked them up and went to our hotel.

We had a great time for seven days, returning to Honolulu without incident on Hawaiian Air on Jan. 30, our intended four days on Maui cut to an all-too-brief three days. Worse, the Maui leg of our itinerary was our vacation proper; I had business to attend to on Oahu for the next four days.

At our hotel, Honolulu, January 3rd
I had seen newspaper and television news reports that a winter storm was afflicting the Midwest, and called Northwest early on the morning of the 3rd to inquire of our flights. I was told that our flights were still on time, and to call back later in the day.

I did, and learned that our outbound flight from Honolulu was to be delayed by nearly 90 minutes, and that we wouldn't make our connection in Minneapolis. The agent then proceeded to rebook us on United out of Minneapolis, first from Minneapolis to Chicago, then from Chicago to Philadelphia. I asked if there were other options that would avoid the northern Midwest altogether, and mentioned LAX, Dallas/Fort Worth, and Houston, but she could not book us on anything other than the United flight.

At this time, I inquired about our seats on the Honolulu-Minneapolis flight, and added that we had been promised an upgrade on all legs of our return trip. The telephone agent said something akin to "yes, I see that, for ticket mishandling. You should mention it at the airport."

We went to the beach for the afternoon, and headed out to the airport with plenty of time to spare, since we knew we'd need some time to make sure our bags were checked through on the two United flights.

Honolulu airport, January 3rd
I give the check-in agent, Peggy Brengle, my name, she types it in, and then leans hard into the computer screen to look more closely. "I know," I say, "there were some changes."

"What happened here?" she asked. "I have you on two different flights out of Minneapolis, one on Northwest, and one on United." She looked more closely, and it turns out that the telephone agent who had booked us on United had obtained a confirmation for the Chicago-Philadelphia leg, but that we were not confirmed on the Minneapolis-Chicago leg. Additionally, since we wouldn't make our Northwest connection in Minneapolis, she couldn't be sure what our options would be once we landed in Minneapolis, and suggested that we go stand-by in Minneapolis on the next Northwest flight to Philadelphia.

Knowing what I did about the situation in the Midwest, a stand-by plan was doomed to failure, and hardly acceptable. The agent then asked us to wait while she went to call United to see if she could confirm us on the Minneapolis- Chicago leg. She was unable to do so, and returned to the check-in counter with a printed record of our reservation, which she placed on the counter in front of her as she continued to investigate our options.

We could see the printed reservation record, which included about ten lines of codes and abbreviations intelligible only to a reservations agent, and then a long passage of prose. It was Priscilla's report.

"Look, it's Priscilla's report," my traveling companion exclaimed as the agent was on the phone. We were reading it upside down, and couldn't see it all, but we did catch a few key phrases.

Priscilla had described one or both of us as having a "smart mouth."

The precise terms of the rest of this encounter are somewhat cloudy, as by this time I was utterly flabbergasted at the inability of Northwest to take care of these problems despite my cooperation at every junction, my two calls to the airline, and my patient explanations of the extremely confusing nature of our itinerary. All of this required about 40 minutes of discussion, during which we requested accommodations on another airline, on different routes, and more, all of which were met with the reply that this couldn't be done from that computer. We could see the departure board, including the non-stop on Continental to Newark, and even offered to go to Newark if Northwest would pay our train to Philadelphia.

All of this was to no avail, and we were confirmed on the Minneapolis flight. Then, another bombshell. Well, don't worry, you're confirmed on this flight. But we don't have any seats that are together.

If you've read this far, you can imagine how that felt. It was like a kick in the gut.

The agent offered that she would put us in some seats near other passengers who wanted to switch seats to sit together, and that we could simply talk to them once we boarded the plane. Deja vu all over again.

At this time, I mentioned that we had been promised an upgrade on all legs of our return flight. The agent checked this, and saw it to be true. Was it too much to ask for seats together? Even if it was in business or first class, as we were promised a week ago while sitting in our home the day after Christmas, a day when we expected to be en route to a romantic vacation in Maui; and one day after we ditched parents and friends in haste on Christmas night to rush to the airport to catch a plane that was broken down in Detroit?

The agent made a phone call to the gate, and told us that she had called her friend Ray, who would see that we got an upgrade if possible. With about ten minutes to go before the flight was scheduled to leave, we thanked her, used the five or six minutes left before our flight to gulp down some food, as it was nearing 8PM, and went to the gate. Our plans to have a leisurely meal, write and post some letters and postcards, and relax before our long haul were shot.

When we got to the gate, two gate agents were typing furiously at their terminals, and another gate agent was calling stand-by and upgrade passengers. Since our last check-in to gate handoff in Philadelphia on December 27 had almost resulted in our missing yet another plane, I thought I should check in with the gate personnel. I stood in line for a few minutes waiting for one of them to acknowledge my presence, about four feet away.

Nothing. Not so much as a word. Finally, I blurted out "Am I on your upgrade list? The agent at check-in said they would tell you about it, and I wanted to check in with you as well."

"How are you going to pay for this upgrade?" I was asked. I replied that the telephone agent, and then the check-in agent, had both said I would be eligible for an upgrade, and that I should be on the list. The gate agent pointed dramatically toward the front of the airport. "Someone out there told you you'd be upgraded? An agent?" I answered yes, the check-in agent, and the telephone agent earlier today, and another agent eight days prior. I added that the agent told us she had called the gate to alert them of the situation. I was told that no one had called him, that he was in charge of all upgrades, and that I wasn't on the list.

My traveling companion had joined me at my beckoning. "We were told we were on the upgrade list, and we'd like to sit together as well," I said. I was then told that many other people had paid "three and four hundred dollars" for their upgrades, and was asked again if I was going to pay for the upgrade. If I wasn't going to pay, there would be no upgrade; they didn't have the seats.

Now, to tell the truth, I could care less about an upgrade. I've never begged for an upgrade in my life. But I do care that we were once again shunted into non-adjacent seats on an eight-hour flight for which we had paid in advance some 10 weeks prior, and which was coming on the tail end of what was and I hope will forever be the most horrific, patience-testing, demeaning, unpleasant itinerary of my traveling experience, which is not inconsequential in scope.

I was furious, and made a mistake; I swore for the first time in our travails.

In a quiet, measured tone, I said, "So you don't give a ****?" (a four-letter word starting with "s") The agent shrugged.

I said it again "So you're saying you don't give a ****?"

"I didn't say that," was the reply.

My traveling companion was now at my side, and piped up. "The woman out front told us that she had called and talked to..." and, searching the name tags of the agents, "Ray!"

She pointed to an agent who was not a full arm's length from the man I had been talking to, and who had been listening to the entire exchange! Throughout, he had stood there quietly, not saying a word in support or otherwise.

Ray looked visibly shaken, in my perception, and stammered something about having told the check-in agent that it was not his jurisdiction, and that she would have to call back and talk to theagent who handled upgrades. In fact, we were present at the check-in counter when she called Ray, and it appeared to be a cheerful conversation. She hung up, and told us after her conversation with Ray that he would take care of us. So it doesn't quite follow that he had told her she had to call back. In any case, the buck was being passed around like a hot potato once again.

Next, my traveling companion started to shake, and said that the airline had put us through tremendous hardship, and that all we really wanted was to sit together. You don't know what we've been through, she said, and the airline needed to do something to set things right. "I'll never fly on Northwest again," she said, to underscore the severity of the abuse.

"Okay, you'll never fly with us again," the first (upgrade) agent said, dropping our tickets on the counter, implying wordlessly that, if we weren't loyal customers, we had no chance of an upgrade.

Then he let the cat out of the bag: "All I see here is that you've been belligerent to agents all through your trip."

Priscilla had her revenge.

We asked to see a supervisor. Jim, who was also nearby, joined us, and we went to the side of the counter to speak to him. He said that he hadn't been paying close attention, and so was an "unbiased opinion;" as if he were standing in judgement of us!

Without another word from us, he continued the abuse loaded upon us by Northwest.

"I just want to tell you I hear people with all kinds of reasons they want an upgrade. What happened?"

We stood accused of trying to scam an upgrade.

I told Jim that it would take about 20 minutes to hear the whole story, and I began to tell it. He said that he didn't have that kind of time, the plane was about to leave, but asked me to start anyway. I got as far as our second day in Philadelphia, and the agent in charge of upgrades said he had one seat in first class and asked if we wanted it. Again, we said we just wanted to sit together, forget the upgrade. Jim said again that they had to board the plane, and we hustled onboard, talked to the woman who wanted to sit with her kids, exchanged seats successfully and sat down in two adjacent seats in the penultimate row of the plane.

Then the airplane sat at the gate for over two and a half hours, with all the passengers, a full load, onboard.

A panel had fallen off the plane on the way to Honolulu, and the ground crew had to contact Minneapolis to learn what to do about it whether or not the plane could fly without the panel, and if it could, to get written approvals from the airline mechanics and the FAA. (That's three planes, two mechanical problems. Is your fleet safe?)

Since the plane was not in motion, the cabin became extremely warm, especially, as the pilot explained over the PA, in the back of the plane. Where we were sitting.

Minneapolis, January 4
We arrived in Minneapolis several hours late, having been assured by the flight attendants on the Honolulu-Minneapolis flight that there would be agents to assist us with our missed connections at the gate. Of course, we had just flown into Northwest's nightmarish situation at Minneapolis, and no agents were at the gate to greet us. I got on the phone to Northwest's 800 number, and was told to go out front to the ticket counters. I said I expected there would be hundreds of people there, and was trying to avoid that, couldn't she book us on the next flight, or another airline, anything? Nope, couldn't do it.

We joined the throngs at the ticket counters in Minneapolis, many of whom, we learned, had been schlepping back and forth between the airport ticket counters and hotels for three days. We maneuvered, dodged, tried different lines and checked departure screens, talked to agents of different airlines, and finally lit on a plan. We needed to get on a US Airways flight to Philadelphia.

I called the Northwest 800 number again, asked specifically for a US Airways flight, and we were tentatively booked on a US Airways flight that would leave about four hours later. She said that this was the first flight to Philadelphia that had any space on it (which we would later discover to be false). We had to do only one thing; go to a US Airways counter to get our tickets.

At the US Airways counter, which by the way had about four people in line with a two minute wait, the US Airways agent checked our tickets, and saw that they reflected our original itinerary; Honolulu - LAX - Memphis - Philadelphia. We'd need to get Northwest to reissue the tickets for the Minneapolis- Philadelphia leg, and we'd be in business. Back into the mega-lines at Northwest.

We waited our turn (at least a 30-minute wait), got the tickets changed, asked the Northwest agent (an extremely helpful agent with her last name on her name tag: Ms. Hard) if she could put a trace on our bags to get them to Philadelphia as soon as possible, went back to the US Airways counter, and soon had our tickets home. We went to get something to eat, then sauntered over to the US Airways gate about two hours before our plane was to leave. There we saw a flight to Philadelphia that was leaving in six minutes. We asked about stand-by availability.

"There are plenty of seats. If you want to come, get on the plane," came the reply. We boarded, sat down in two adjacent exit row seats, one window and one aisle, and fell asleep for the remainder of our ride home.

Why the 800 agent couldn't book us on that flight, which was about two-thirds full, I'm not sure. But once we extracted ourselves from the Northwest system, everything seemed to fall into place.

When we arrived in Philadelphia, we decided to go to the Northwest baggage claim, as there was little chance that our bags made that early US Airways flight. Amidst piles and rows and carousels of unclaimed luggage, we eventually found our bags, went out to our car, and drove home.

Some things aren't reflected in the report above. Each time we encountered another problem, the agent or representative in question blamed it on the previous person in the sequence, or told us to see the next person in the sequence.. The buck stopped nowhere, except to note that we were belligerent, which then seemed to excuse the agent in question from all slights toward us.

Don't get me wrong, not everyone was trouble. In Minneapolis, Mary was not merely helpful, but an excellent and understanding person as well, someone Northwest should be proud to have represent them. And Jim, despite his insinuation that we were trying to scam an upgrade (Hey, you promised it to us! I wouldn't even have asked for it if it had not been offered) was pleasant enough, as was Peggy Brengle, the check-in agent in Honolulu, despite their utter inability to make anything substantive happen.

And I actually enjoy working with hard-nosed, no -nonsense folks who get things done; we met a couple of these folks along the way as well, can-do folks, hard workers all. After 11 years living in Manhattan, 4 in Philadelphia, and countless miles on the road, I'm hardly thin-skinned when it comes to dealing with people. That is, I don't need or want anyone to kiss my butt.

But what about that complaint that shadowed us throughout our travels? We were under the impression that our own complaint had been lodged when we sought out and fully recounted the encounter to a Northwest supervisor. Instead, we found out later that Priscilla's complaint became part of our travel record, and showed up every time an agent of Northwest called up our reservation. The fact that we sought out Northwest management and filed a verbal complaint immediately after the incident did not appear anywhere, to our knowledge.

Despite the fact I believe that a neutral observer would believe that it was Priscilla, and not either of us, that had the "smart mouth," I'm curious about something else: is this the language that gets into Northwest official documents, the way your agents render descriptions of customers? Days later, this would later be translated to "belligerent" by the gate agent in Honolulu who refused to hear our "request" for an upgrade, which was actually the mere mention of a promise made by two Northwest representatives.

(Personally, I suspect that Priscilla thought I am very young - I have a full head of hair, and only stopped being asked for identification when served liquor a year or so ago, and my usually sunny demeanor when I am traveling causes many people to assume I'm younger than I am. However, I'm in my upper 30's, have visited 45 of the 50 states, been to Europe on approximately 20 occasion, none of them with my Mom, and have visited over 30 countries on four continents. I run my own business, am an assistant coach to a United States Olympic team, and write a column about consumer travel issues with a potential audience of over 14 million people. I should say that I'm not completely certain this is what Priscilla was thinking - in truth; it would be impossible to figure out why she would act that way toward anyone.)

Then there's that $200 in travel vouchers. At this writing, it strikes me how ludicrous the offer is. That would be like being offered a free future meal at a restaurant that had given us food poisoning, or a free night's stay at a hotel we found to be cockroach-infested. That is to say, do you really expect us to fly Northwest again? At the very least, do you expect me to give you any money? Because $200 sure isn't going to get me very far, so I'd have to pay the balance of any ticket I purchased.

Finally, since the check-in agent didn't check us in as we left Philadelphia, we never got a boarding pass for the Philadelphia-Minneapolis leg. We're hoping to get our frequent flyer miles for the entire trip on Continental, although I believe that the alliance isn't in place yet. I hope someone can help us with this.

So there you have it. The source of our troubles was not merely bad luck with the weather and mechanical difficulties; these issues could have been easily overcome, and would not even be memorable. No, the true source of our woes and tribulations, humiliations, lost and wasted time, compromised and shortened vacation, considerable emotional distress, and resultant absolute and utter contempt for your company, appears to be a widespread, systemic customer service problem.

No paying customer should ever be treated as we were, subject to so many half-truths and (for all I know) outright lies, lack of follow-through, so much buck-passing, humiliating and damaging vendettas that show up every single time our reservation is called up on a screen. When we are traveling, we are subject to the whims and moods of your employees; they have almost complete power over us. I sensed that quite possibly some of these employees were dissatisfied and disgruntled, and had no other outlet for their frustrations but the customers on the other side of the counter. The fact that Northwest currently has labor disputes with four unions is not lost on me, and was even mentioned by one of the Northwest agents to whom we told our story as a possible explanation for poor treatment. I just wish I didn't pay the price so dearly.

As travelers, we quite literally put our lives in your hands. To state it less dramatically, you have nearly complete power to determine whether a vacation is relaxing, whether a traveler returns from a vacation refreshed or under even more stress than they would have been sitting home and watching television. If you can't get us to the great vacation spots of the world without putting us through the logistical grinder, we just might stop flying your planes, and opt to stay home instead. Good luck posting record profits then. Business travelers, who put up with this stuff on a daily or weekly basis, have it even worse.

In my case, my seven (should have been eight, but you know that) days in Hawaii were nearly sublime. Still, by the time I got home, I was more frustrated and angry than before I left. You took a day of my vacation away from me to start, then beat me up emotionally, mentally and physically on the first and last day of the trip. I had planned to write postcards at the Honolulu airport; never happened. Instead, the postcards of waves and palm trees I sent have a Minneapolis postmark.

Now, I am a reasonably calm, some people would even say quiet, person, and I hardly expect perfection in my travels. Contrary to Priscilla's experience, I would expect that Mary, Kathy Grindle, your telephone agents, and even the only guy to whom I directed a four-letter word would say that, once he heard my story, I had a legit reason to be a little upset. I try to be upbeat toward all airline employees: I've even published comments explicitly pleading for the same. I'd like to think that my walk is as good as my talk in this regard. I sent out a universal call for tolerance in my column. Now I'm not so sure. I'm inclined to encourage people to make their gripes known, to let loose their ire a little (not too much) next time they're treated poorly by an airline.

I'm very interested in Northwest's response to this novella of pain, neglect, denial and betrayal. I'd expect that, if any company treated a repeat customer (we are both members of your frequent flyer program) this way, they'd offer a full refund. If a waiter dumps a dessert tray in your lap, despite the fact that you've already eaten your dinner, you'll probably receive a free dinner, right?

As many times as I told my story, and I told it at least once at almost every airport I passed through, as well as on the phone several times, no one ever attempted to make amends for the way Northwest treated us, save for the $200 travel vouchers for the cancellation of our outbound flight, which, all told, is the least of our complaints.

When the agent in Honolulu mimicked our words with a shrug, "You'll never fly Northwest again," as he tossed our tickets back on the counter between us, he very likely could not have been more accurate. You've probably lost two customers forever. This entire cascade of events could have been averted had one person, any one of the dozen or so Northwest employees with whom we came in close personal contact, simply followed through on their promises.

Priscilla's comment that "Northwest is an airline" will live on in my descriptions of Northwest, with an important addition. I would say that "Northwest is a (insert derogatory adjective of your choice here) airline."

Sincerely yours,

Ed Hewitt


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