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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Things I have learned from life on the cold front

The coldest January Washington’s seen in almost 20 years is finally coming to a close, and it may even crack 50 degrees over the weekend. That makes this a good time to go over some lessons learned over the past few weeks of polar vortex-level chill.

Cold thermometer• Pipes can and do freeze in these conditions. If you’re really lucky, the burst pipe is almost directly over the sump pump, the plumber lives in your neighborhood, the repairs only run $600 and change, and your power tools still work after being rained upon indoors.

• Even after living nine and a half years in a 94-year-old house, you can still discover new leaks that let cold air seep into the basement.

• It’s easier to spy the biggest of those gaps from inside the basement when the ground is paved with snow and the sun’s shining down on it.

• Your mother was on to something when she told you to wear a hat any time you go outside in the winter.

• Thermal underwear generate a crazy amount of static electricity that, when layered under khakis, causes them to wrinkle in weird ways. Which I am okay with, given the circumstances.

• The less-than-stylish flannel or fleece-lined pants you can get from L.L. Bean and elsewhere are a good thing to have bought before this month. 

• Capital Bikeshare still works in the cold–and since biking provides more exercise than walking, you can warm up a little in the process. But fitting a helmet over a warm hat is difficult.

X-country skis• Cross-country skis work even better–and when it’s this cold, the snow makes a delightful sort of squeak. (Pity the roughly four inches we got on the 21st only allowed me to do laps in a nearby park instead of, say, skiing across the Key Bridge like I did after the “snowpocalypse” of 2010.)

• The Potomac River frozen over is a beautiful sight. Try not to miss it.

• Working from home when it’s below 15 degrees outside constitutes an excellent excuse to make a grilled-cheese sandwich for lunch (jazz it up with a little caramelized onions or sautéed apple slices) and wash that down with hot chocolate.