Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ponzu can fly

It didn't start off well.

The night before the flight, I called United to make sure they knew the cat was coming. She would have to travel in the cargo bay since her carrying case was too big for the cabin. No problem. Actually, it looks like pets are not allowed in the cabin on flights to Japan. Oh? It's gonna cost you $210. Right.

At the check-in counter on the day of the flight, we ended up with a staffer who acted like she had never dealth with boarding a pet before. No problem; we had three hours before takeoff. She slooowly checked the reservation, caaaaarefully looked up the price and...what's this? "It's $85 for the cat in the cargo bay."

Of course it is. I paid and then the supervisor came over, took one look at Ponzu's carrying case, and says the cat can't go into cargo. You see, the case used clasps as fasteners, not screws. It's not secure enough for the cargo bay. Of course nobody I had talked to (not the woman on the phone the night before, not the staffer checking us in) knew about screws vs. clasps.

OK. Time for Plan B.

"We'll have to sell you a soft-shell carrying case and you can take your cat on board with you." Hey, Plan B sounded even better. Wait, I thought cats weren't allowed in the cabin on flights to Japan. So, three people got on the computer to find the purchase price for the new case. I looked down at Ponzu, who was not amused being stuck in a rectangular prison. You've got a whole 24 hours of that coming, I thought to myself.

Finally, they found it: $64.95. I paid and the staffer disappeared to retrieve Ponzu's new case. She returned 25 minutes later with the case (a clock on the internet explained that in 25 minutes, in a country with good food and bad infrastructure, a group of hard-working schoolchildren with nimble fingers would have been able to make five of those cases) and my nickel in change. More fussing with the reservation: tags were removed, replaced with new tags. How about the old case? I wanted to take it with me so I asked for it to be checked as luggage. They didn't charge me but made me sign a waiver because it wasn't properly packed (?).

Finally, after about 90 minutes, I was ready to go to security. At security, they asked me to take the cat out and hold it while I walked through the metal detector. The women awwwwed at Ponzu while the cat struggled to get free. The idiots in charge of the conveyor belt flipped her case over, spilling cat food and ice (the vet's suggestion for a long flight) all over the place. So, picture me: shoeless, holding the squirming cat, trying to get the cat food separated from the ice, listening to a lame apology from one security guard, answering another security guard's question about the cat's nail clippers...

With about 20 minutes to go, I got to the gate and thought maybe they would let me board early on account of Ponzu. Instead, they pulled me aside because I didn't have a receipt for the cat (remember, $85). At first, I thought they were trying to tell me the cat needed a boarding pass. But no, it was a receipt they wanted to see. Receipt? No, the lady never gave it to me. Really? Yes, she had to switch the cat from checked luggage to cabin and when she did that, she never gave me the receipt. We'll have to track it down for you sir. Blah. Blah. Blah. She left already? Blah. Blah. Blah. No, the gentleman said he never received it from you. Blah. Blah. Blah. You need to speak to her, sir.

Listen, remember you told me you had to cancel her check-in status? Then, you ripped up this card and made a new one but you never gave me a copy.
I did, sir.
No, you didn't.
Please check, because I did.
I have checked. You didn't give me a copy.
I don't know what to say to you, sir.
OK. I just want to get the cat on the plane. Do I have to pay again? Do I have to come back out to you? Whatever it is, just tell me what I need to do.
You don't have to pay, sir. It is recorded in the computer. You just don't have a receipt.
So I can get on the plane?
Yes, you can get on the plane. I just want you to understand that I gave you the --

At the end of the day, I didn't really care if it had been her mistake or mine (but, you know, it was her mistake, Your Honor), I just wanted to get on the plane with the cat. A basis tenet of customer service is be aware of what concerns your customer the most. At almost every point of the check-in process, United had failed miserably. They spent 20 times more time looking at their computer screens and walking around looking for supervisors than they did assuring me that they would get my cat on the plane. They never said to me, "We'll get this straightened out. We'll get your cat on the plane."

Instead, I heard:
How much is a case? $45? I thought it was $65.
ten minutes of click click click

Why doesn't anybody know about the carrying case regulations?

I just want you to understand that I gave you the --

So, the moral of the story is that nobody at United knows what's going on with pets on flights.

Travel wasn't agreeable with Ponzu but she didn't make a big fuss. I checked on her every hour or so, stratching her head and making sure she knew I was there.

At Narita, the Animal Quarantine people did everything the United people didn't. All those forms I filled out and faxed greased the wheels perfectly. We were in and out of the office in 20 minutes, just enough time for the lady to gasp at how...chubby...Ponzu was when I took her out of her prison.

On the bullet train, it cost 270¥ (about $3) for the cat to ride two hours to Niigata. Once she arrived, she could eat and drink for the first time in about 24 hours. She seems to like the apartment (it has pet doors and a better view) but the cold weather doesn't seem to agree with her. With me either, but it's hard to argue with nature.


  1. Dude there are airlines in third world countries that operate better and provide better service than the major US carriers. It always startles me when I go back to the US how ineptly the whole thing is run. And how no one cares.

  2. Plus the flight attendants are not as...fetching.