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Off to Eat the World
Nothing spoils a day much more than Sam Daniel calling to say that you have too many legs.
"Mr. Jamison?" he asks cheerfully when Bill picks up the phone, signaling in one short breath that he's a stranger we probably don't want to hear from.
"Yes," Bill answers warily, holding the phone askance.
In a soothing, sonorous voice—imagine Bill Clinton on Valium—Sam introduces himself and says, "I'm with American Airlines, assigned to the office that coordinates AAdvantage award travel involving our partner carriers in the ONEworld alliance. Our committee of all the airline representatives met yesterday and reviewed the around-the-world Business Class itinerary you booked recently. We found that it contains more than sixteen legs, or flight segments, the maximum permitted."
Bill is fully alert now and determined to remain tactful, contrary to his natural instincts. "Sam, I've read all the published rules for this kind of award travel many times, and they don't include any limitation on the number of legs."
"Yes, sir. It's a new policy."
"Do you have it in writing somewhere so I can review it?"
"No, not yet, but the committee feels strongly about it."
Bill thinks back quickly to the long conversation he had two days earlier with Rebecca, the perky international agent who obligingly booked our three-month trip without a single protesting peep about the number of flights. "Why didn't Rebecca catch this? She's clearly sharp and professional."
"She doesn't know about it yet. We haven't had anopportunity to inform the reservation agents."
"Sam," Bill says in a slight slippage from the most diplomatic approach, "you sound like a decent and intelligent guy. You don't by any chance think I'm a total fool, do you, the kind of guy who might, for instance, pay the delivery charge on a truckload of bullshit?"
It's either that or else a crackpot committee has put him in an untenable jam, changing the award rules after a booking, which of course he would not admit. Sam assures Bill that he doesn't consider him a fool and promises, "I'll help you make adjustments as painlessly as possible." Needing time to consider the agony of amputating legs, Bill lies about an imminent appointment in town and schedules another call with Sam later in the day.
For us, this is the adventure of a lifetime, not the kind of thing you want to see hacked to pieces in advance. For decades now, ever since each of us spent a year studying and traveling in Europe during college, we've dreamed—separately at first and then together—of circling the globe with enough time to genuinely enjoy places that intrigue us. To make the spree affordable, it's essential for us to usefrequent-flier miles to cover most of the air expenses, but Sam threatens to clip our wings for taking undue advantage of American's AAdvantage program.
Bill immediately confers with Cheryl about response tactics. The most obvious option is combative confrontation, refusing to yield ground to a fickle bully, whoever the culprit is. Bill in particular likes this approach viscerally but doubts it will work. Drawing from his many years of poker experience, he says, "Aggression succeeds when you've got the best hand or can effectively bluff an opponent. We have decent cards in this case, because of the late, clumsy shift in policy, but they control the awards. They're holding pocket aces, known ironically in poker slang as 'American Airlines' because of the A.A. initials. About all we can hope for is a split pot."
Cheryl asks if he could get help from friends in London at British Airways, one of the major ONEworld alliance partners. Two decades ago, when the airline was in transition from public to private ownership, Bill served as a management consultant at the highest levels of the corporation's marketing, information management, and strategic planning departments. "Everyone I could call for advice has left now, but I know something about the power politics of the business. If we overreach, they'll squash us like pesky bugs."
After talking through the situation for more than an hour, we decide to try accommodation, at least at first, to give Sam a chance to fulfill his promise of painless surgery. When Sam calls back shortly, Bill affects a nonchalant air, asking him for suggestions on salvaging our travel plans. "We can cut three legs in the United States if you simply pay for direct, nonstop flights—much better, don't you agree, Mr. Jamison?—between your home airport in Albuquerque and your overseas departure city of Los Angeles."
"That's reasonable, Sam," Bill says, not mentioning that we've been considering the idea anyway.
"Then for some of the additional frequent-flier miles still in your accounts, we can switch your three flights inside Australia on Qantas to a separate reward package, removing them from this itinerary." Bill balks briefly at this, mostly as a bluff, until Sam offers to rebate some of the miles later.
These changes bring us down to seventeen legs, one of which is the gap, or "open jaw" in airline lingo, between our arrival and departure cities in Australia, covered now by the separate set of tickets. In other conversations over the next two business days, Sam encourages Bill to propose another cut. Bill has one in mind as a last resort—paying for our relatively inexpensive flights between London andNice—but he politely protests that a simple break in the itinerary between destinations should not be counted as a flight segment. Sam asks, almost in exasperation, "Why aren't you getting angry with me? Everyone does."
Bill changes the subject to avoid the question but thinks to himself, "Aha, now he's beginning to feel defensive." Apparently Sam convinces the committee to allow Bill's point about the open jaw because he graciously stows the scalpel without mentioning the matter again.
By this time we regard Sam as a genuine ally, a savvy manager trying to balance assistance to customers of his airline against demands . . .Around the World in 80 Dinners. Copyright © by Bill Jamison. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Posted April 21, 2014
Posted April 21, 2014