Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Husbands Who Travel Too Much

["Let Inga Tell You", La Jolla Light, published December 15, 2011] © 2011

A close friend recently reported that her husband, a 59-year-old senior executive, has concluded that the nearly ten million miles of business travel he has logged in his career have taken too much of a toll on his health and he is taking early retirement.  It could be more of an adjustment than he thinks, she adds. She’s not sure he realizes his only friends are airline personnel.

I couldn’t agree more that years of business travel would take its toll on anyone but in the last two years, the process has accelerated at warp speed. 

My husband, Olof, an engineer, has always spent a fair amount of time traveling to far away places to assist (cajole?) customers in nailing down their functional requirements.  (Describing the dilemma of his profession, he notes: “The delivery date is firm.  But the requirements date slides.”) 

But at this point in his life, there is no phrase that puts more fear into the short-notice flier like Olof than “Your requested seats [aisles] are not available.”  (A close second is, “It’s a legal connection.”)  With leg room having done a veritable vanishing act, the coach middle seat ought to be actionable.  His company flies people business class to the Middle East but anywhere else, it’s steerage. For the 6’3” Olof, it was always a tight fit but now his knees are painfully wedged against the seat in front of him. When that person reclines, discomfort becomes agony. 

I first realized how profoundly the rules had changed when Olof handed me an itinerary for a cross-country trip he was leaving on the next morning and said, “See if you can do anything about these middle seats.”  As soon as I brought up the reservation, a message popped up asking “Do you want to upgrade to an aisle seat for $28?”  I couldn’t hit “Yes” fast enough.  But it occurred to me that this same message had popped up when the company’s contracted travel service, Troglodyte Travel, made the reservation and they had obviously clicked “No”.   It was to be the first of several unhappy interactions with them. 

Keep in mind that in all the years that Olof has worked for his otherwise-lovely family-oriented company, I’d never had cause to be involved in Olof’s business travel.  But that was before the triple threats of customer-squeezing airlines, a bad economy, and indifferent travel agencies.

Now you might ask why Olof doesn’t take this up with the folks at Troglodyte himself.  That would be because Olof has worked seventy-five hour weeks for more months than anyone should be allowed to.  Besides, that’s what you have an obnoxious wife for.   The irony, of course, is that with years of business travel, Olof is a Grand Poobah member on two major airlines which automatically entitles him to aisle seats, extra leg room, and upgrades to First Class on domestic flights.  But somehow the folks at Trog seem to book him on middle seats on Brand X Airline (their motto: “We Hate You”) where everything but the seatbelt costs extra. (I’m sure that’s coming.) 

We’ve had some issues with the folks at Trog about the aforementioned legal connections as well.  I chatted up their agent, Evil Spawn (not his real name), on the subject of a forty minute connection in a major airport on a holiday weekend that required going through customs and changing terminals.   “It’s legal,” he shrugged.  “So is adultery,” I said, “but it’s not advisable.” 

Un-makeable legal connections, of course, impact another new phenomenon in the airline world: flights all run full.  Miss your connection and you can spend days hovering at an airport gate with your roller bag and ninety pound-briefcase vying in vain for a standby seat.  Olof made Marriott Gold status on Houston alone.

The contracted travel agency isn’t in business to make Olof happy, so it’s no scales off their backs if Olof has to fly to the UK in a middle coach seat or is booked on what should be all by logic an illegal connection.  Finally I said to them, “We’re willing to pay the difference between Brand X and Grand Poobah.  So book Poobah, or if Brand X asks if you want to upgrade to more leg room, say yes!”  Nobody is going to put my husband through eighteen hours of absolute torture when there’s an alternative of simple misery.

But back to our retiring friends.  She went on to say that she hadn’t really realized just how much her husband’s years of travel had impacted him until they started looking for homes back in their native Dallas.  Their historic DC house could fund at least two Dallas-area McMansions but my friend couldn’t help but notice that the ones that appealed to her husband had a common quality:  they all looked like Marriotts. 

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