Help, I’m stuck in Houston

by Christopher Elliott on August 1, 2004

Q: I am in a sticky situation with Northwest Airlines, with which I have booked my vacation flight to India. I would appreciate your help.

I went to Houston airport to get checked in for my first flight, but while I was standing in the economy-class line, a ticketing agent (who refused to give me his name) came and asked me and few fellow passengers to stand in business-class line to expedite the check-in process.

While standing in business-class line, however, another agent removed me from that line (with very rude and loud language) and put me at the end of the economy-class line.

As a result, I missed my flight.

Northwest Airlines did not take any responsibility and did not give me any immediate alternative flight schedule. To add insult to injury, the airline ticketing agent put remark on my ticket saying that I was late in airport.

I am still stranded in Houston. Can you help me?

– Nilesh Kulkarni

A: As soon as I received your e-mail, I contacted Northwest Airlines to see if you could be helped. The last thing anyone wants is for you to get stuck at the terminal indefinitely, like Merhan Karimi Nasseri, the Iranian expatriate who has lived at Charles de Gaulle Airport’s Terminal One since 1988. (Steven Spielberg even adapted his story into a summer movie called “The Terminal.”)

Apparently, someone at Houston wasn’t following procedure. Either that, or you have a really good imagination.

According to Northwest spokeswoman Mary Stanik, the airline sometimes invites economy-class passengers into the business-class line. “But we only summon one passenger at a time, not several,” she told me.

Second, the agent shouldn’t have refused to give you his name. In fact, all Northwest Airlines workers must have their badges visible at all times. (I have heard many stories of airline employees either turning their badges upside-down or refusing to wear them, but Stanik made numerous calls to Houston and it appears no one was trying to stay anonymous.)

And finally, Northwest’s procedure isn’t to send anyone to the back of the line if there had been a misunderstanding, but to be returned to the same point in the line where they started. “At no time would we have forced a passenger to the end of a queue,” she said.

So what really happened? And how can we fix it?

Stanik speculates that you were simply late for your flight. She bases that on the fact that any time a “service irregularity” occurs, Northwest makes a note of it. And there were no notations during the time you were waiting for your flight.

After listening to both sides of the story, I think it was a little bit more complicated. There may have been some misunderstandings based on language and culture, where you may have interpreted someone’s actions in a way they weren’t intended, and vice versa.

As it turns out, Northwest found a way to get you on your flight to India.

Next time, I would recommend allowing yourself more time when you travel internationally. Northwest advises that you arrive at least two hours before departure, but during the busy summer travel period, I’d throw in an extra half hour.

And although I can write off part of your story to cultural differences, I can’t blame the whole incident on a series of misunderstandings. I believe you saw what you say you saw – which means that they’re not doing it by the book in Houston.

Come on, folks. All we’re asking is that you to follow your own rules. Nothing more.

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