Why I'm Not Under The Tuscan Sun

The United ticket counter at Dulles International Airport in August.
The United ticket counter at Dulles International Airport in August. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, October 18, 2006

I am not supposed to be writing this column. I am supposed to be in Italy, in a Tuscan hill town called San Gimignano. I am supposed to be sitting with my husband at a cafe, sipping a double espresso in the shadow of one of San Gimignano's medieval towers.

But I am not in Italy, and I want to share the story of how I almost made it and then didn't. Not for the unattractive pleasure of complaining in print: As calamities go, even vacation calamities, this one doesn't amount to a hill of fava beans. But my tale of travel woe does say something about the unexpected capacity of government, so maligned for bureaucratic inertia, to perform with astonishing competence, and the inability or unwillingness of the private sector, so glorified for its supposed efficiency, to do the same.

The real reason I shouldn't have made it to Italy involves my own negligence. The night before I was supposed to leave -- my husband had gone ahead, to a conference in Florence -- I looked at my passport. It had expired in March.

In my defense, I have to say that going on a trip without your children involves massive amounts of planning. I didn't check my passport, but I did rearrange the school carpool, the soccer carpool, the religious school carpool. I did write a memo, one-page, single-spaced, detailing who needed to be where and when for the five days I'd be gone.

So as I stared in disbelief at the expiration date, I figured that I was not going to Italy, at least not the next day. But when I went to the passport office downtown at 8 the next morning, they assured me that my passport would be ready at noon, 12:30 at the latest. My stupidity would cost just an extra $60. The nice man at the window confided that he saw similarly disorganized boneheads daily. He was with the government and, it turns out, was there to help me.

The airport was another matter.

I arrived 2 hours and 15 minutes before my flight was to leave -- which is, I'd point out, 15 minutes longer than the fine print on my ticket instructed. It took more than an hour at the United counter to get my boarding pass, time that stretched out while passengers on even earlier flights were plucked from the back of the line for processing. Once I made it to the front, the agent offered to upgrade me to business class -- for $550.

If I'd known what was going to happen next, I might have anted up. The security line for economy class stretched nearly the full length of the terminal. As the minutes sped by, I asked one agent, and then another, in increasingly beseeching tones, whether they could help. Nothing doing. In the meantime, I watched the "premium passengers" -- brandishing their first-class and business-class tickets -- whiz right by the rest of us in steerage.

By the time the shuttle to the gate made it through the Dulles version of rush hour and I sprinted to the gate, the flight had gone. At the "customer service" counter at the opposite end of the terminal, about 50 angry passengers were ahead of me in a line whose glacial pace made the boarding-pass wait look supersonic. The "courtesy phones" were anything but; I spent 10 minutes on hold. Finally, I used my cellphone to call United, where an agent said he could get me on the next flight to Frankfurt, later that night -- but not to Florence until 10:20 the next night, and then only through Vienna.

This wasn't a matter of overbooked flights but of unavailable frequent-flier seats -- and since my Frankfurt-to-Florence leg was on Lufthansa, not United, there was nothing, I was told, that United could do. But I was free to buy the Lufthansa ticket for $770.

"It's not our responsibility if you don't leave enough time for security," the supervisor told me. Yes, but I had -- under United's own policies. It wasn't the security line alone that did me in; it was that combined with United's own long line. And United's attitude that it has no control over long security lines isn't exactly accurate. The Transportation Security Administration screens passengers but, infuriatingly, leaves it to airlines to administer the lines. Hence the business and first-class travelers sped through, while the rest of us waited.

The supervisor wasn't moved by any of these points. I'd been beaten. I wanted to go home. There was, though, the small matter of my luggage, which took another hour and a half to retrieve. I left the airport 5 1/2 hours after I arrived.

For a mere $100, United says it will be happy to restore my miles and let me do it all over again.


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