Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
September 21, 2010
A few years ago, after my mother died, I spent some long hard days cleaning out the house where my family had lived for more than 50 years.One afternoon, I spent hours clearing a shelf of files left by my father, who had died nearly 20 years before. My parents had traveled widely in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, and on that shelf were dozens of folders filled with hundreds of letters making travel arrangements.My father was an attorney, a meticulous man, and for each letter there was his carefully hand-written original, clipped to a carbon copy of the final letter his secretary had typed. Then there were the responses, from hotels, car rental agencies, even restaurants. And then, of course, his replies in turn, nailing down the final details of every transaction.There were letters that had been sent all over the United States and Europe, letters to Nepal and Thailand.It was, in its way, an impressive body of work.I thought about those letters, all that painstaking effort, earlier this month when I was making the final arrangements for the trip my wife and I are on right now. Logged on to both seatguru.com and united.com, I tracked down the planes we would be flying on, researched the best seats for those planes and changed our seat assignments for several of our flights. (On the Boeing 777 that United flies internationally, the center three seats in Row 9 have three inches less legroom than the other seats in the cabin. Can’t have that, can we?)I e-mailed our Rome hotel – a small bed & breakfast – to reconfirm our reservations and got an almost immediate response from the owner, saying he was expecting us. And, yes, we were assured of the exact room we had requested, based on photos of the hotel we had inspected online.I thought admiringly of the painstaking efforts my father had made by mail, over weeks and months, to achieve less exacting results. Sometimes the modern world is, indeed, wondrous.And, then, just yesterday (I think it was yesterday. Keeping track of days gets a little tricky when you’re in the middle of a trans-Atlantic trip), my slick modern world crashed. Not disastrously, but annoyingly.I was checking in – online, of course – on Sunday morning for our Monday morning flight, getting ready to print our boarding passes and then finish packing, knowing everything was under control.And suddenly I got a message on my screen saying, sorry, my transaction could not be completed. I was instructed to call United’s web support number for more information.I called and – sometimes the modern world really sucks – I found myself talking to someone in India who claimed his name was “Sean.” And Sean was no help at all. He told me I would have to check in at the airport.I asked him why and he could only repeat that I would have to check in at the airport. I considered asking again, but I knew Sean would give me the same non-answer.Sean also told me that, after he hung up, I would be connected to a United “quality assurance survey” – and he asked me to please rate his service highly. He suggested I give him a rating of “5.” That’s the highest score.That was not the rating I gave him.And then, deeply disgruntled, my cheerful, efficient Sunday morning shot to hell, I got in my car and drove the half-hour upvalley to the airport to get everything straightened out then and there, in person.I wasn’t about to leave our precious plane reservations to chance and the Internet and Sean.And that’s when something amazing happened: The drive to Aspen was magnificent. Spectacular. Damn near miraculous.As you know if you live here, the fall colors were just beginning to hit their peak. Perhaps they are even more gorgeous today, but on Sunday morning they were already brilliant, with some late green still mixed into the fierce gold of the aspens, set against the red and maroon of the scrub oak and the clear, blue, high-mountain sky.It was an offseason Sunday morning, so there wasn’t even any traffic on the highway to annoy me. And since all I had to do at home was pack for our trip, I wasn’t really in any hurry.At the airport, the woman behind the United counter straightened everything out in a hurry. With a smile. If there had been a quality assurance survey, I would have given her a “5” for sure.Then, because the day was so nice, I drove on into town, to check my mailbox and just look around.And Aspen was just about perfect. The views out to Independence Pass and up Aspen Mountain, framed in the grand old downtown buildings, were glorious. What an amazing place.And then I thought, perhaps for the first time ever, Thank you, United Airlines. Thank you for screwing up. Thank you for the website that didn’t work. Thank you for Sean in Mumbai who wasn’t any help at all.Thank you for forcing me out of my office, out of my marvelous modern world, and out onto the highway where I could see the glory of the mountains.I’m tempted, I admit, to start looking for some kind of conclusion here, some kind of link back to my father, carefully writing his meticulous letters, giving them to his secretary to type, sending them out in the mail and then waiting weeks for an answer.I want to wonder if he appreciated things more for all the trouble he had to take. But I don’t think he did.That was his world and this, perhaps half a century later, is mine. So I’ll just leave it at that and repeat, one more time for the sheer improbability of it: Thank you, United.It was a beautiful drive.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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