Two sides of airline customer support

My trip home from SXSW Wednesday started with my first of two flights getting delayed by at least two hours, ensuring that I’d miss my connection in Houston–and I never worried about getting home that day.

That was because I had some of the best possible support in my corner: the agents at the United Club in Austin. Within minutes of the United app warning of a delay for my AUS-IAH flight–and the FlightAware site showing not just a delay, but the inbound plane for my flight returning to Houston instead of battling through a line of storms–they started lining up alternatives.

First they booked me on a 2:20 p.m. flight from Houston to Dulles, then they put me on standby on a 12:15 nonstop from Austin to Dulles. And after I asked about options in case my delayed AUS-IAH flight got off the ground even later and said I’d be fine flying into National instead of Dulles, they protected me on a late-afternoon IAH-DCA flight.

In the end, we got out of AUS a little after noon, allowing me to make that 2:20 flight to Dulles. My upgrade even cleared on both flights–something that hadn’t happened on a domestic flight since September.

That’s exactly the kind of help I’ve gotten at United Clubs the one or two times a year I have an itinerary go sideways. The agents behind the desks there are empowered to fix problems and bend rules if needed, and they seem to enjoy the challenge. As View From the Wing blogger Gary Leff regularly reminds readers, it’s that level of assistance–not the free cheese cubes and prosecco–that justifies the expense of a lounge membership.

(The cost for me is $450 a year, the annual fee for the lounge-membership-included United credit card I use for my business. I recoup most or all of that cost each year by using the extra frequent-flyer miles the card generates on free tickets for my family.)

Feb. 22, my brother had an entirely different experience on United. A late-arriving crew delayed he and his family’s flight from San Diego to Dulles, ensuring they’d miss their connection home to Boston. He has no status or club membership with UA, so he could only call the regular United line. From John’s accounts, this was pretty terrible all around; were he on Twitter, some epic Airline Twitter would have resulted.

With none of the next day’s flights from IAD to BOS offering four seats open, United’s phone rep tried to ticket them on American. But apparently that didn’t take in AA’s system, and it took much longer for the rep to rebook the four of them on Delta–from DCA to LGA to BOS. The process took long enough that John was still on the phone when I landed in Brussels on my way to Barcelona–so I texted him from the lounge there and called United’s 1K line myself to make sure they’d fixed his reservation.

John and co. did finally get home that Saturday, and at least they could stay at my house Friday night for free. But his treatment didn’t make him want to fly United again, while mine did.

Unfortunately, a lounge membership doesn’t make financial sense unless your travel patterns justify consolidating your travel on one airline and building status there. So I can’t endorse that for everyone. Instead, I will repeat an earlier endorsement: FlightAware really is great for tracking the status of an inbound aircraft, and you should never take an airline’s word for your flight’s departure time until you check it there first.

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Side effect of reviewing gadgets: a largely gadget-free Christmas

Since I see so much gadget coverage timed for the holiday season–and have contributed a fair amount of it in the past–I have to assume that normal people give and get gadgets around the holidays.

Present ornament

But I am not normal! I understand why I rarely get the output of the electronics industry as a present; if a friend worked as a chef, I’d feel intimidated trying to buy kitchen gadgets or cookbooks. And as a freelancer, anything that I could use on the job should come out of my budget so it can land as an expense on my Schedule C at tax time.

But I also rarely buy myself gadgets as presents, even when there’d be no reasonable work connection. For that I blame the advent of CES: Knowing that I’m going to get a peek at the next six months to a year of the electronic industry’s handiwork two weeks after Christmas makes me leery of any non-trivial gadget purchases in the month before.

So what do you get for friends or family in the same disreputable profession that still acknowledges their professional interest? Cheap and non-obvious accessories can work. One of the better gadget-related gifts I ever got was a tiny, silicone smartphone stand that attaches to the phone’s back with a suction cup. It’s helped me stage more than a few phone pictures–and as a bonus, our toddler enjoys sticking it on my forehead.

Of you can try to make your gadget-reviewing pal’s business travel a little more pleasant: Figure out what airline he or she flies most often and buy a day pass to its lounges.

Edited 12/14/2013 to remove a stray sentence fragment.