More Airline Fun: the Impressive Price for Checking In Just a Bit Too Slowly

As part of my summer travels, I moved from my sister's place in Washington State to my folks' place in Ohio this week. As the last time I traveled to The States, the flight schedule involved some unpleasant experiences, but unlike last time where the memorable highlight was an anonymous hero, this time the memorable highlight is a check-in agent with a black heart.

(This is one of those “too long for anyone to read” story that I'm writing mostly for my own memory, and as a bit of a cathartic measure, because it was a quite frustrating experience, to say the least.)

The schedule was for Anthony and me to travel out of the tiny regional airport in Bellingham, Washington on a puddle-jumper to Seattle (25 minutes), then to Atlanta and finally to Akron Ohio. Door to door would be 12 hours.

The puddle-jumper out of Bellingham was scheduled for 7am, so we arrived at the airport at about 6:20 for what I expected to be a leisurely few steps to the gate (the airport has only four “gates”, doors that open up to the tarmac for the walk to the plane, each accompanied by a barrel of umbrellas for use in inclement weather).

My whole itinerary was ticketed as being on Delta Airlines, but it took a bit to figure out that this puddle-jumper flight was run by Horizon Air (which actually appears in this airport as Alaska Airlines), so it took a few minutes for me to find the correct check-in counter. When I did, I met “Tanya”.

Tanya quickly made three facts clear:

  1. The official cut-off time for baggage check was 6:20 (it was now 6:25), so she didn't have to check us in if we had bags (which we did; Anthony and I each had one).

  2. She could check us in if she felt like it.

  3. She was not going to check us in on this flight.

It was surreal because the area was almost empty, with two TSA agents just hanging around waiting to inspect luggage before what must be the shortest conveyor-belt ride in America. Tanya didn't give any reason for her denial other than that the cut-off time allowed her to deny us. If they were short-handed in back, or if they were running late for some other unknown task, or if there was some other kind of practical reason, she never mentioned it.

Of course I apologized for not having paid attention to the Alaska-Airlines Bellingham checked-bag cut-off policy, and begged her to reconsider, since I had multiple connections to meet and a 10-year-old child in tow, but she quickly went from “let me see the bags and decide” to a “nah, not gunna do it” attitude (seemingly making the decision without regard to the bags, so I don't know why she asked to see them).

A minute or two after we arrived at Tanya's station, a mother and child also showed up and was told the same thing. The mother mentioned that they had gotten caught in an hour-long wait at the border (apparently having come from Canada), to which Tanya made an animated and incredibly smug “that's not an excuse” involving a sweeping “talk to the hand” motion with both hands.

They were trying to get to Disney World, so they presumably had other connections and hotels and such also on the line. Not only did Tanya not seem to care, she actually seemed to enjoy the situation. Maybe she enjoyed the rush of power in deciding others' fate, or maybe it was simple Shadenfreude. I suspect the former.

The father eventually joined the mother and child and learned of the situation, and made some attempts to plead, but it was clear Tanya was not in a charitable mood. To the credit of all us customers, no one but Tanya ever raised their voice or said anything in anger, despite what was clearly a highly unreasonable situation.

As Tanya made preparations to leave the check-in counter to head to the gate, the words “I'm sorry” somehow came from her mouth, but it seemed clear to me that she wasn't the least bit sorry or sympathetic so I took the opportunity to say (calmly, softly):

It sure doesn't feel like you're sorry. In fact, you seem to be delighted to do this to us.

That was the key word for Tanya... “delighted”.

She stormed off leaving us and the other family wondering what to do, and moments later the only other two customers in the area (talking to a different Alaska Airlines check-in agent) came over to me and said “I'm so glad you said that. We were two minutes late. I wanted to say something, but couldn't.

They were two minutes past the allowed-to-deny-you time, and Tanya wouldn't check them in. Wow. Just wow.

Again, to everyone's credit, no one said the choice emotional words of anger toward Tanya that I'm sure we were all feeling... at this point, it was still more jaw-dropping disbelief and wonder than anger.

I felt particularly bad for the Disney World family, because they left plenty early enough that they should have had no problem — no one expects an hour delay at the Canadian border at 5am — and now they were stuck in limbo. My situation was much more my own fault, and much easier to handle at the moment since I could just call up my sister to return to pick us up. I had Anthony wait at curb for her as I tried to figure out what to do.

It was as that point that one of the TSA agents came over and said “I want to compliment you for how you handled that, keeping your cool in front of your boy”. I thanked her for her kind words, but since I certainly didn't feel cool on the inside, I didn't know that I deserved them. She said that I showed great restraint.

Does Tanya often elicit the need to show this kind of restraint?

Not usually.

The other check-in agent, Thomas, was left to handle Tanya's discards. He was soft-spoken and kind. He rebooked us on the exact same itinerary for the next day, took the $200 ticket-change fee, and said “see you tomorrow”.

What upset me the most in all this was not the fee nor the disruption in schedule, but the way that Tanya handled the situation. Even if the end result would have been exactly the same, a little bit of compassion and empathy in her words and tone would have made a world of difference, but Tanya displayed not the slightest hint of either. I'm deeply upset by what she did, yet at the same time I have pity for her and what kind of life she must have had to have brought her to this.

Anyway, on a whim, later that afternoon at my sister's house, I called Delta Airlines to confirm the schedule for the next day, only to find that they had no record of any of this; they said that the ticket hadn't been changed since May. An hour and $625 more in fees later, Anthony and I had a confirmed schedule.

Neither Delta nor I have any idea what the $200 I'd paid was for, nor what happened to the itinerary that had been created.

The TSA agent who had so kindly complimented me had suggested that you can avoid the check-in line by doing the check-in online, then bringing the printed barcode and luggage directly to a window set aside just for that, so I went to the Delta site to check in, but they handed me off to the Alaska Airlines site because the day's travel was to being with them. There I found out that I couldn't check in online because, for whatever reason, my name was marked with a special request as “deaf / hard of hearing”. This was a surprise.

There's likely a completely innocent reason for this... even perhaps my own mistake when I created the reservation... but part of me wonders whether it's Tanya's idea of a “joke”.

I called Alaska Airlines to tell them that I didn't need the special request, and to ask about the $200 and the disappearing reschedule, but the lady I talked to had no idea, and in what seems to be a recurring theme for the day, I missed their Customer Service hours by 10 minutes.

We arrived to the airport much earlier the next morning and saw that Tanya was there, so I was thrilled when lucky timing placed us in front of Thomas. We did have to hand Tanya our tickets when walking out to the plane, but I had Anthony do it so that I didn't have to even look at her. We passed with the same cheery “Have a nice day” that everyone got.

The Delta flight from Seattle to Atlanta had some stress because our short connection time in Atlanta was made shorter by the flight running increasingly late, and we were in the 2nd-to-the-last row (which meant that it would take forever to exit the plane). The flight crew was kind and sympathetic, but there was nothing they could do. At least I could use the on-board Wi-Fi (a first for me) to keep up to date with the flight status, but things didn't bode well when an hour out, our projected delay grew so big that the Delta iPhone app said that we wouldn't make our 5:15pm connection and started offering alternatives (all of which left the next morning). Yikes.

A kind lady closer to the front of the plane was traveling with daughters seated right behind us in the last row, and since they had no connection, I gently asked whether she'd swap positions with me and Anthony so we'd have a better chance to get out early. I felt horrible putting her on the spot, but she immediately said “oh, of course”, and so joined her daughters in the back of the plane. The kindness of strangers can do wonders. Thank you kind lady.

Atlanta is a big hub for Delta, so many people had connections, and most seemed tight. We were to park at gate A1, and leave from F4. They're not the two most-separated gates in the airport, but very close; to walk between them is over two kilometers(!), but there's also a train for most of it.

We landed 14 minutes late, and on the way to the gate we promptly stopped and sat on the tarmac for a while before the pilot announced that someone was in our parking spot (another Delta flight with mechanical trouble), so it would be a few minutes while they looked for a spot.

I had the tightest connection of anyone I talked to, but the family across the aisle had a 5:30 flight to Zurich (it was now 5:00) leaving from the same far-flung terminal I had to go to. I didn't think any of us would make it.

Anthony and I ran like the wind.

Finally reaching the train out of breath and covered in sweat, we waited for the train next to a pilot of some sort. I jokingly asked whether he was flying on Delta to Akron (he wasn't), but he advised me that the train was the best way to get to the gate, and wished me luck.

The train had to make six excruciatingly-slow stops before getting to Terminal F, but along the way the pilot comes up to me and, looking at his iPhone, tells me my flight is delayed to 7pm. That eased the pressure a bit, but just in case we still sprinted to the gate. We arrived almost exactly at 5:15, so if it had not been delayed, we would have missed it.

It ended up being delayed until 7:30 because the flight crew was late arriving from some other flight. It took a while before the Delta Airlines iPhone app was updated to show the delay, so I bet the pilot was running a private corporate app. He said that they don't announce a delay until they're really really really sure it's going to be delayed, because once passengers see the delay they scatter throughout the airport and can't be recalled if needed. Still, Delta knew the crew wouldn't even arrive to the airport (on a flight from Mexico) until almost 7pm, so they certainly could have let us know many hours earlier. That would have saved a lot of stress. Maybe they were holding out hope that another crew could be found. I dunno.

My folks picked us up after arriving 2½ hours late, and we finally reached home at about 10:30. Thrillingly, it was actually with our luggage (it's been long delayed on a few recent trips).

I slept well the first night, but thoughts of Tanya and her “delightful” lack of empathy kept me awake last night. I just tried to call Alaska Airlines customer service, but they're not open on the weekend, so I'll give them a try on Monday to let them know about my experience, and to figure out the deal with the $200 I paid.

I've flown at least 250,000 miles over the years (including almost a hundred transpacific round trips) and have on occasion called the airline to offer words of praise for specific employees, but this will be the first time in all these years to complain about a specific employee. It doesn't feel good.

(UPDATE: I've posed a followup comment below).

All 12 comments so far, oldest first...

Wow, that upset me to simply read it over! I hope you feel better after having written it. I’m also quite amazed that nobody lost their temper with her. I’ve certainly seen people lose it over much less, and this was truly a bizarre scenario.

I get that customer service jobs can be unpleasant and that people can become jaded after doing their job for a while, but that sort of behavior costs people a lot of money and wreaks havoc on their plans. It’s too bad we’ll never get Tanya’s side of the story. Was she just transferring anger against one rude customer onto everyone else for the day? Was she originally very kind and considerate to customers, only to be reprimanded by management or other co-workers and told to be more strict with cutoff times? Or is it really the case that she was simply enjoying having power over people?

As to that $200 fee, I wonder if there’s not some sort of scam going on at that little airport… and perhaps Tanya’s “bag inspection” has less to do with inspecting the bags and more to do with trying to figure out if you’ll pay up. (Paranoid thinking at play here.)

— comment by David K. on August 11th, 2013 at 10:51am JST (10 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

I’ve found that using the mobile phone to discretely make a portrait of perpetrators can sometimes come in handy too. Just thought I’d mention.

— comment by Steven B. on August 11th, 2013 at 1:03pm JST (10 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

It is awful that you had to deal with Tanya, but her punishment is that she has to BE Tanya.

Well put! —Jeffrey

— comment by Zachary on August 11th, 2013 at 1:18pm JST (10 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

Having worked in customer service jobs for the majority of my working life, it drives me nuts when I hear stories like yours about people like Tanya. As I read I cringed thinking of all the things that could have ben done, should have been done and could have ben done by Tanya so that you and the others were delighted. I know it sounds corny, but alas, a reason I’ve worked in customer service jobs for the majority of my working life is because helping people out is rewarding.

— comment by kp on August 11th, 2013 at 2:10pm JST (10 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

What a shocking story! I told you about when we missed the flight at Hong Kong back to Japan but that was entirely my fault and the airline/airport staff were totally excellent about it.

Hearing what happened to you, as well as last year, makes me just want to stay put in Japan and just travel around here. There are so many wonderful places to see. But, I also have family in the US, so I guess travel is just the price we have to pay to see them from time to time. It is too bad, though, that the air travel industry in the US has become so mediocre.

I just hope that the rest of your trip goes well!

— comment by Arthur Brigham on August 11th, 2013 at 4:08pm JST (10 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

Contact Alaska / Horizon Air about Tanya and your experiences:

Even if it doesn’t do you any good, do it for the sake of the people that may have to encounter her in the future. From the TSA agent’s words, it looks like she is not someone who should be in customer-facing roles. I’m generally someone who likes to do things by the book, but this a bit unreasonable.

Also mention Thomas and his more helpful demeanor.

— comment by David Magda on August 12th, 2013 at 1:04am JST (10 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

Tania behaved like that because she could. People like her crave the power and get some kind of high by abusing it..
This behavior will continue because her immediate superior won’t be bothered dealing with the problem. One will need to appeal to much=higher-ups in the company to get any results. This will require more effort than most people will take, and Tania and her ilk will continue undermining the company that pays her.
If a union will prevent her outright firing, she might be a better fit in the Collection 0f Delinquent Accounts Department.

— comment by Grandma Friedl, Ohio, USA on August 12th, 2013 at 3:03am JST (10 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

Sorry to hear you had another bad experience traveling within the US. May I suggest you go the social media route (twitter – or Facebook – and you will get a quicker response. Hope you and Anthony enjoy the remaining of your time with your family.

I’ll give them a call first on Monday when they open, and see how that goes, but will keep the others routes in mind…. —Jeffrey

— comment by Yen on August 12th, 2013 at 6:13am JST (10 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

Alaska has been good with me, so I’m somewhat disappointed to hear this. I’ve called their customer service several times to positive results. The $200 lost in ether sounds bizarre!

Jeffrey, please do write back on what happens from here, I’m curious.

— comment by Madhu on August 12th, 2013 at 1:06pm JST (10 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink



— comment by Thomas from Germany on August 14th, 2013 at 6:43pm JST (10 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

Here’s a followup on this fun experience.

The other day I received a form email from the Seattle Reservations Department of Alaska Airlines, offering an apology for “your recent travel experience”, along with a $50 discount code off a future flight. I have no idea whether it was related to this experience or to my blog, or what; there were no other details. I don’t imagine I’ll ever use it.

Today I finally called Alaska Air to talk to someone in person, and chatted with “Lisa”. She listened in absolute silence as I went over the story for five minutes, then offered (what felt to me like) an insincere scripted apology for how Tanya had handled the situation, citing that their agents are often put into a tough position because the airline tries to enforce the 40-minute-cutoff policy to “ensure an on-time departure”. I would have then mentioned that Bellingham is a tiny airport where accepting a bag 35 minutes before departure isn’t going to hurt anything, but Lisa’s tone had immediately told me that I shouldn’t waste further energy.

Lisa then said that as a “one-time exception” she would refund the $200 ticket-change that they had charged. This surprised me, because I believe it was charged in error and should have been refunded as a matter of course… it hadn’t actually changed my reservation with Delta, and Delta later charged me the full ticket-change fee that covered both Delta’s legs and the Alaska leg. I tried to explain this to Lisa, but she didn’t get it (and didn’t seem to really care), so I cut my mental losses and said “thanks” and accepted the “exception” to get my money back.

It’s plausible that the Delta ticket-change fee did not cover the one Alaska leg, and that had I not paid the $200 on the Tanya day, I would have been hit with a surprise $200 Alaska Airlines fee the next day. This is sort of the feeling that I got from Lisa, but it runs counter to experience (general past experience, the Delta representative, the Alaska representative, and Thomas, the Alaska Airlines check-in representative who charged the fee in the first place and later apologized and told me to call to get my money back). But as I said, Lisa’s tone made me feel like getting to the bottom of it would be wasting my time, so I took the refund and called it a day.

I’ll put this behind me (until I get my credit-card statement) and look forward to a better experience when I fly back to Japan in a couple of days. Hopefully that’s not just wishful thinking….

— comment by Jeffrey Friedl on August 15th, 2013 at 2:30am JST (10 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

It’s obvious that you experienced this because of your failure to be a Kindly Brontosaurus:

— comment by Zak on August 16th, 2013 at 8:34am JST (10 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink
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