Imagine the following situation:
- You’re vacationing in Denver and must return to San Francisco for an urgent-care medical appointment
- You’re disabled but nevertheless arrive at the airport on time.
- The airport–in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act–doesn’t have anyone assigned to help disabled passengers get onto departing planes.
- As a result, you arrive at the gate–just as the plane takes off.
- The airline informs you that if you want to board a plane, you’ll have to pay for another ticket.
- You can’t afford to buy another ticke–and your urgent-care appointment is tomorrow.
What do you do?
In this case, the stranded passenger called me: Bureaucracybuster.
First, I instinctively called the airline company. And that meant starting at the top–the president’s office.
I punched the name of the airline–and the words, “Board of Directors”–into google. This gave me several websites to click on to obtain the information I needed.
I started dialing–and quickly hung up: I had just remembered the day was a Sunday. Nobody but cleaning crews would be occupying the airline’s executive offices that day.
I had to start all over.
Next, I decided to call Denver Airport and find an official who would help Rachel onto another flight–without charging her for it.
I didn’t know where to start, so I decided that starting anywhere was just fine. As I was routed from one person to another, I would develop a sense of who I needed to reach.
Some of those I reached seemed genuinely concerned with Rachel’s plight. Others gave me the “that’s-life-in-the-big-city” attitude.
One of the latter felt I wasn’t deferential enough in my tone. He threatened to notify the chief of airport security.
“Go ahead,” I said. “I once worked for the United States Attorney’s Office. I’ll be glad to talk with him.”
He backed off–just as I had assumed he would. Usually the best way to deal with threats is to directly confront the person making them.
(A friend of mine, Richard St. Germain, spent part of his 11 years with the U.S. Marshals Service protecting Mafia witnesses. Many of them didn’t like the places where they were to be relocated under new identities.
“I’m going to complain to the Attorney General,” some of them would threaten.
St. Germain would reach for his office phone, plant it before the witness, and say, “Call him. I’ll give you his number.” The witness always backed off.)
Eventually I reached the Chief of Airport Operations. I outlined what had happened.
He didn’t seem very sympathetic. So I decided to transfer the problem from Rachel to the airport.
Without raising my voice, I said: “It isn’t her fault that your airport was in non-compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act and she missed her flight because there wasn’t anyone to assist her.”
Suddenly his tone changed–and I could tell I had definitely reached him. No doubt visions of federal investigations, private lawsuits and truly bad publicity for his airport flashed across his mind.
And all this had been achieved without my making an overt threat of any kind.
He said he would see to it that she got onto another flight without having to buy another ticket.
I called Rachel to give her the good news. But a few minutes later she called me back, almost in tears.
The airline official at the departure gate was giving her a bad time: “If we have to choose between you and another passenger who has a ticket for this flight, he’ll go, not you.”
She laid out a series of other scenarios under which Rachel would remain stranded in Denver.
So once again I called the Chief of Airport Operations: “She’s being hassled by an official at the gate. Can you please send someone over there and put a stop to this nonsense?”
A few minutes later, I got another call from Rachel–this one totally upbeat.
She said that a man who identified himself only as an airport official–but wearing an expensive suit–had visited her at the gate. When the ticket-taking airline official had protested, he had cut her off.
The official had then walked Rachel and her baggage onto an otherwise fully-loaded 777 jet bound for San Francisco.
Soon she was en route to San Francisco for her urgent-care medical appointment the next day.
So if you’re having troubles with an airline:
- Start by calling the highest-ranking airline official you can reach.
- If s/he isn’t available or sympathetic, call the airport.
- Be persistent–but businesslike.
- Don’t let yourself be bullied.
- If you can cite a legal violation by the airline and/or airport, don’t hesitate to do so. But don’t make overt threats.
- Don’t hesitate to play for sympathy: “This is a woman has an urgent-care doctor’s appointment….”
Then cross your fingers and hope for the best.