Take a Number... But Don't Expect Too Much

I once wrote of David Burkett, (Very Good Management: A Guide to Managing by Communicating, Prentice Hall, 1983) and his explanations for the disintegrating quality of service and productivity in America. I noted that Mr. Burkett divided the population roughly into two groups, Print People and TV People:

Mr. Burkett asked if we were noticing more strife between people — in schools, jobs, businesses, stores, and social interactions. Most of us nodded in agreement. He explained that we were moving into a time frame where Print People (who do what they are told to do almost all the time) were supervising TV People (who only do as they are told less than half of the time). I gave an audible gasp — as the picture of an increasingly chaotic, unruly, undisciplined, egotistical, hedonistic, future flashed through my mind.

I will never forget that day, for additionally a mental picture of another rapidly approaching era — one in which TV People would be supervising TV People…therefore a time with those “who only do as they are told less than half the time, supervising more of those who also only do as they are told less than half the time.”

I have come to the conclusion that not only is the ‘rapidly approaching’ time now upon us, but that many Print People are deserting our ranks to join forces with TV People and only “do as they are told to do less than half the time.” In just the last few days, both Print and TV people have worked to worsen, rather than to resolve, problems I was facing.

My week began so well as I presented a two-day reading inservice in Connecticut. Late Tuesday afternoon I left for Westchester County Airport in White Plains, NY, to catch a flight, which I thought left at 6:30 PM. After an interesting and extended length of time ‘driving’ in a multi-lane portable ‘parking lot’ during which I observed at close hand, the clash of Connecticut traffic coming face-to-face, and side-by-side with New York and NYC traffic, I arrived at the small airport.

My itinerary was in a suitcase, among stacks of teaching materials so I asked the Delta ticket agent to look up my outgoing flight number. The young woman was thrown completely for a loop when confronted with the problem and said there was nothing she could do to find the flight number. I explained that at the kiosks I had only to let the computer ‘read’ my credit card number and my itinerary was instantly available. She thought that information would be of no help and asked if I could remember the number of my arrival flight. I pulled a sticker off a bag and gave it to her. She pondered and pondered, typed a couple items, then stated that once a flight is completed all records vanish from the system. She handed me a Delta folder with a customer service number circled and pointed to the pay phones.

Security forced me to collect my bags, which I had left them, as I hadn’t been permitted to take them with me to the ticket counter and I hauled everything over to the phones. The Arrival and Departure screens were at the end of the ticketing area with print too small to read at a distance but by now three security men were ‘helping’ me. Which DC airport was on my itinerary? (I didn’t know.) What time was my flight due to leave? (I thought 6:30.) The Delta agent continued to sit, chin-on-palms, observing my efforts to find my flight number. I was ‘on hold’ at Delta Customer Service. I asked the security men if I could leave my bags at the phone — in my sight/in their sight — to go look at the departing flights, and ask the other airlines if I was on one of their passenger lists. I was told, “NO! You can’t leave your bags.” I called out to the Delta clerk (small airport — she sat elbow-to-elbow with the clerk for one airline, and across the baggage scale from another airline) and asked her to inquire on my behalf. She whined, “Ask all eight airlines?” She slowly moved to ask one but when my name was not found on the roster for their 6:45 PM flight, she gave up and returned to her stool. All were sure that since I didn’t know the exact time of my flight and didn’t know which DC airport was the destination, my problem was unsolvable.

The Delta phone rep was by then searching for my flights, with little luck so I dialed Expedia on the other phone, and stood with different ‘dentist office’ music playing in each ear as I tried to dig through my suitcases, impeded by the short tethers of the phone cords. I again asked the Delta ticket agent to please ask other airlines. She whined, “All eight?” but never budged. Finally the Delta phone person decided that…my credit card number would access the records. (Only my tightly clenched jaws kept the sharp side of me Irish tongue from reacting.) With the card number came my itinerary — United to Dulles at 7:30. If the ‘helpful’ ticket agent had only said, “There is a plane leaving at 7:30,” I would have realized that I had been thinking in Central Time.

Several people working in the ticketing area found my predicament thoroughly funny, but I lost the remaining shreds of my sense of humor when I could at last read the departure list and noted: there were ONLY two (2) flights leaving that evening for DC — and BOTH went to Dulles. Grrrrr.

Uncomfortable, inefficient airport, but I finally escaped — on a plane so small my feet were in danger when the steps were retracted or lowered. We made it safely to DC but my next flight was delayed due to a morning storm in Atlanta that had air traffic controllers dealing with a mess. My Atlanta fight was expected to leave: at 10 PM/changed to 10:15/to 10:30/to 10:45 PM. Finally Atlanta sent permission for our departure and we were led to a tiny plane — about one step bigger than a butterfly. All of our carry-on bags were taken and placed in the hold since there was only room for passengers OR their bags. After everyone and everything were loaded, the pilot found that the engine would not start. Finally the engine turned over, causing me to fervently hope it would remain functioning for the entire trip. Next we were informed that the motor for cabin AC was not working — as those in the back of the stuffy plane could have explained. Mechanics eventually arrived to work on the equipment. After some time, we were told that all was fixed. (Right! They thought we hadn’t noticed that not one cubic millimeter of air had yet moved through the AC vents.) The plane headed for the runway after being broken down at the gate for over an hour. Before we could take off, we were informed that the flight had been cancelled and we returned to Terminal G, which is to hell and gone from the main terminal. The pilot explained that we would be put up in hotel rooms and given seats for flights leaving in the morning. Then my problems began in earnest.

Over the next three days I faced difficulties, dishonesty and poor service too complex and too infuriating to fully detail, so as briefly as possible:

Ground staff maintained that the flight was cancelled due to weather, not mechanical problems, and so…no hotel rooms. We knew they were lying, and many of us confronted them, but to no avail.

I was assigned to a flight leaving the next day at 12:25 in the afternoon, and was assured that was the first available seat. I asked if they had checked all airlines and was told, “The computer automatically checks for all available seats.” Another lie to mislead me — their computers only check for available seats on United flights.

United agents forced us to take a shuttle to the main terminal, assuring us that we could get to our luggage; have comfortable places to wait; and be able to eat in a restaurant. Additionally, I was told that my 12:25 flight left from the main terminal. More lies…from employees of all ages.

At the main terminal, after walking a great distance, we were informed that there was no way that we would be allowed to get to our luggage.

There was no comfortable seating, and only minimal offerings at the only open eating place. My new flight was to leave — back at Terminal G. In the following hours, I made numerous trips back and forth across a terminal the length of three football fields trying to resolve issues.

I found a Delta agent who reserved a seat for me on their 6:10 AM flight to Atlanta, but the United computers would not let her print a boarding pass without permission from a United ticket agent to transfer the funds.

After several long phone calls to United in hopes of getting ‘permission’ to fly on Delta, I gave up and sat on the floor at the United ticket counter to wait for 4:45 AM, when the agents would return to work.

As soon as the ticket area opened, I was waited on by an intelligent and principled Print Person named ‘Tommi.’ She competently and pleasantly made all of the arrangements to get the funding switched to Delta and I made the 6:10 flight.

My luggage did not arrive in Atlanta with me, which I hadn’t really expected, so I let Delta know and drove on home. I was told that the bags would be delivered to my home later in the day — Wednesday afternoon.

No luggage Wednesday. I made several calls to Delta to have them check on the status. I begged them to just put the bags on the I-85 shuttle that would deliver them right to my home. No way. One intelligent employee assured me that corporate policy isn’t interested in the fastest, easiest, and probably cheapest solution to problems. They would rather fly my bags to an airport far past my home, and then pay a courier service to deliver them to me.

Thursday morning we left a note on the door telling the courier to leave the bags on the porch, and we drove to the courthouse in the next town to get license plates and drivers’ licenses. There began another round of problems created by inefficient systems run by inefficient persons, many of them surely born prior to the Print People cut-off year of 1957, but apparently following the lead of TV People.

We arrived early at the door marked “Drivers Licenses” and waited in line for the office to open — only to be told that we were in the wrong place.

We couldn’t get vehicle plates because we needed the titles — we had been told to take registrations and proof of insurance.

We went to the other place for drivers’ licenses but were told that we needed birth certificates and social security cards. (Yes! Must get those SS #’s for our new de facto National ID cards.)

Second trip to the county seat, with titles, certificates and numbers.

We still couldn’t get plates because we needed a letter from our bank stating that the loan on my car had been paid and the lien should be removed.

At the other drivers license place we could not get waited on because the employees had pulled the numbers out of the dispenser because they had too many people who needed the require-by-law licenses, and the staff wanted to take a long lunch time as they were shorthanded. (Nothing like refusing to wait on people and taking a long lunch in order to get even further behind…)

Third trip to the county seat, with titles, certificates and numbers, but that time I stayed home to phone Delta about the luggage. I figured that I wasn’t needed since all documents had been gathered. Wrong! They demanded that I be there, also.

Fourth trip to the county seat with titles, certificates, numbers, and moi! Finally we were able to buy plates for the two vehicles.

We proceeded to the other drivers’ license place only to find that the employees had “pulled the numbers” out of the dispenser, again! There were still too many citizens waiting to follow procedures to obey the licensure laws. We were assured that no numbers would be put out for the remainder of the day.

Back home — I began telephoning the governor’s office, filing verbal complaints with any likely person who would come on the line. I expressed that having to give up an entire day of one’s life for such nonsense is inexcusable. I was transferred to the drivers licensing place in the state capital, and I explained my dilemma. I offered to drive the 60 miles to be waited on in their office. I was advised not to bother, for they had “pulled their numbers at 10:30 AM” and would not be serving any more people, either.

I must have called the governor’s office at least ten times in my attempts to not only find a place where I could get a license, but to inform public officials that they are failing to efficiently meet the needs of citizens. I pointed out that in the more populated state that I just left, it takes minutes to get plates and minutes to get a license. I explained that the secretary of state offices in Michigan are open on Wednesday evenings to provide better service to working people since the state considers it anti-business to force employees to miss work in order to tend to routine matters.

I expressed concern that I might have to sue the state to force its employees to assist me in obeying the laws. I was advised to arrive at that other office by 7:30 AM if I expected to get a license yet that day. They open at 8:00.

Thursday eve — I at least had plates, but still have no driving license and no luggage. I called Delta, by then on a first name basis with Walter, who was becoming as frustrated as I was. He said that no one was answering the Delta phones in Montgomery — not at the ticket counter and not in the baggage room. That had been the situation for HOURS, so Delta could not even tell me where the bags were since they had no way to confirm their arrival. If the bags had made it to Montgomery, no Delta employee had scanned the tags into the computer tracking system.

My Irish was at full flare by the time we left to drive the 60 miles to the airport. My temper burst forth when I saw three agents working the Delta area — any one of whom could have answered a phone and saved us a trip. I was livid when one man of Print Person age, wearing a self-satisfied grin, led me right to my luggage. He acted as though he, by his own great efforts, had delivered the luggage right into my hands. He then grabbed my paperwork out of my hands, ripped the tags off the luggage and went to report that the bags had been delivered to the rightful owners. The next half hour was not pleasant, but I did leave with my bags; with my stolen paperwork; and determined to file complaints against the two Delta workers whose absence of effort had caused me lost time and money. I requested to be reimbursed whatever it would have cost Delta to pay a courier to deliver the bags, but my request was refused. I called Delta to praise Walter, who tried so hard to help me.

Friday morning found me back at the county seat, in the right line, with all of the right documents, at 7:27 AM. I actually was able to take a number! I noticed that an officer was going from person to person, making sure they were in the right place, with the right papers, without waiting hours to have their numbers called and then hear the bad news. I felt very certain that calls had been made from the governor’s office to the local branch, since numbers were being called out, rather than being ‘pulled.’ By 9:30 AM my paperwork work was completed, but…the person who ran the machine to take the ID photos was absent, so…. I was sent back to where I had started 24 hours before — at the door in the courthouse with the sign “Drivers Licenses.” There I had my photo taken and the process was completed.

At least there I didn’t have to take a number…and I actually left with a driver’s license, although it does state that I was born in 1967 — the year after I graduated from high school…but hey, who’s complaining?

I’m sure I would have been better off, and been far more relaxed, without this Spring Vacation! Yes, without all of these problems, I surely would have felt 37 again!