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An example of excellent customer service from…*gasp*…a US airline!

I know, that title is shocking.

If, like me, you’ve travelled around the world then there’s a good chance that you find flying in the USA a shockingly bad experience. You have to pay for every extra little thing. Check-in is a semi-automated nightmare. We still have to take off our shoes because of one failed shoe-bomb attempt over 12 years ago. Seats are cramped. Airport terminals are well-worn. It’s just not pleasant, especially compared to flying elsewhere in the world.

But on a recent trip through the US I experienced an event that blew me away with its customer focus and totally changed my feeling about the trip in a positive way.

I was flying from LaGuardia, New York to Dallas, Texas. My flight was with United Airlines, and I had to go via – and change planes – in Chicago.


The day before I flew I noticed that I only had 37 minutes to make my connection in Chicago. Gulp. That’s what I get for trusting my corporate travel booking system too much. Oh well, I thought, I’m flying with carry-on only. If things are on time I can make it. Although it’s been over a decade since I’ve been through Chicago’s O’Hare airport I verified that my arrival and departure gates there were in the same terminal. And I am a runner. I decided to remain positive.

I also decided to pay the extra $49 for legroom on my LaGuardia-O’Hare flight and get the front row of economy so that I’d be first off the plane, increasing my chances of making the connection.

The first snag happened before we left LaGuardia. At the gate, preparing for boarding, United staff announced that the overhead bins were going to be very full and that by the time they seated group 4 there would be no overhead bin room left; anyone who wanted to have their bag checked through to their destination could do so now for no charge.

I looked at my boarding pass: seating group 5.

I went up to the check-in desk and asked if I really had to check my roller carry-on, because it would not fit under the seat in front of me (which is where I planned to put my laptop bag). She said yes. I said, “But I only have a 37 minute connection in Chicago”.

“Your bag will make it,” she said.

I did not believe this. But it was clear that I was going to have to check my bag. My meetings weren’t until the following morning so I figured I could deal with a late-arriving bag. I checked it.

The second snag was that it took the plane a long time to board. People were attempting to squeeze bags into the overhead compartment despite being told they wouldn’t fit. By the time the plane was underway we were 20 minutes late. And then – third snag – there was congestion leaving LaGuardia. I resigned myself to missing my connection.

By the time we arrived at our gate at O’Hare there were only 2 minutes left before my connecting flight was scheduled to leave for Dallas.

Nevertheless I had nothing to lose by sprinting. Maybe my connecting flight was delayed, I thought. I ran into the terminal and had to make a choice: left or right. I chose right. Right was wrong, and I ended up at security. Luckily there was also a big board of gate numbers.

There was my Dallas flight. Gate number: the opposite way I’d chosen to run. Gate status: closed. Damn.

Once again I figured there was no downside to running, so I did. As I puffed up to my gate I was delighted to see that they were boarding the last (but me) person. They were about 5 minutes late. In total perhaps 4 minutes had passed since I left my plane. I had made it.

“Thank you for running,” the gate staff lady said.

“I’m glad I made it,” I gasped, “but it’s too bad my checked bag won’t.”

“Yes it will,” said a man standing behind the woman. He appeared to be some sort of baggage or ground crew supervisor. My stunned look prompted him to go on.

“I saw that your flight had just arrived and I figured you might make a run for it. The system shows you had a checked bag, so I dispatched one of my guys over to your plane to retrieve it and bring it straight here in case you did. It’ll be on the plane.”

“Mate,” I said, “that’s incredible. Thank you!”

The supervisor followed me down to the end of the airbridge. As I boarded his man popped up from outside and gave a thumbs-up that he’d loaded my bag.

“Thanks very much,” I said to both of them.

“Not everyone would catch that,” the supervisor said. “Fifteen years on the job, so I know how to spot these things.”

I’m glad he did.


Edit: Actually, come to think of it, luggage and ground crew staff might not be part of United Airlines at all, they might work for O’Hare airport. It’s hard to give credit where it’s due when, as consumers, we’re sort of forced into compressing all our feelings about the travel experience into the airline we choose to fly with. 


Being back in Halifax


Photo from Dennis Jarvis on flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

Family circumstances mean that for the last week and a half I’ve been living and working from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and will be here for a few more weeks. It’s been a changing experience to be here, and a very different one from when I’ve returned here for holidays.

I was born and raised in Nova Scotia, and spent 6 years in Halifax going to university. I’ve visited here many times in the years I’ve been away, since we still have family here and nearby. But this is the first time where the initial weirdness of visiting has worn off. Being here for this long, and doing ordinary things like working and buying groceries, has made me feel a little more local once again.

These things, which initially felt strange, have started to feel normal:

  • Everyone’s so freakishly polite, especially in the service and retail industry.
  • Food portions are massive.
  • Relaxed drivers: three times I’ve had cars that were already waiting at a four-way stop reverse to let me cross the street without having to walk around them.
  • Everyone has a funny Canadian accent.
  • The price you see on the tag is not the price you’ll have to pay at the counter.
  • It’s cold: it’s well into spring but some days temperatures max out in the low teens. Nevertheless there are a lot of people in shorts and T-shirts.
  • Lots of hockey. And I don’t feel the need to specify that it’s ice hockey.

I’m looking forward to seeing how things feel when we head out to the country.


New Coursera course: International Human Rights Law

I’ve registered to take another free Coursera online course, but decided against something technical or mathematical this time (mainly because I won’t have as much time to do weekly assignments). So this week I begin International Human Rights Law: Prospects and Challenges from Duke University.

This course introduces the international and domestic laws, institutions, and legal and political theories that protect basic liberties of all human beings.  The course provides an overview of the internal law of human rights and the principal mechanisms and strategies for holding governments accountable for violating those rights.



The Northern Beaches, where pervs are fair

Last weekend, on my run to Manly, I turned to jog along the beachfront and ended up behind a group of very fit young ladies. This was pure chance, I swear.

After only a few steps the group of women was hailed by a hairy, middle-aged man, as wide as he was tall, obviously just in from a swim. “Looking good, ladies, looking good,” he oozed, his beach towel stretched to its limits around his wet, wooly belly. The women ran on, ignoring him.

“Hey, what about me?” I shouted with a smile.

As I moved right to overtake the pack I heard from behind me, “Hey, I didn’t say you didn’t look good.”


Happy Australia Day 2014

Happy Australia Day, Aussies. I’ve been amongst you for more than four years now. I am eligible to become one of you and will do so soon. And I became a dad this week to a new Aussie.

My reflection this year is that Australia is a teenager. It is, in its modern incarnation, very young. It doesn’t know how good it has it. It is not aware of its own prejudices. It complains a lot. It cares very much what others think.

But it also has a great sense of adventure. It has energy. It has strengths it doesn’t even realise. It is learning – slowly – how to be comfortable in its own skin. It wants to find the right balance between dealing with the past and preparing for the future.

I’m really happy to be here, and am proud to be part of Australia.



Life happens

I haven’t blogged in the last couple of months because I’ve been busy. There have been tweets and Facebook updates and Google+ posts in the interim but there’s been precious little time to sit down and write things like this. But I have a (probably short) window now.

I’ve been busy because of these things:

  • New house. We moved to Seaforth, on Sydney’s northern beaches, at the end of November. This has been an immense time sink. Fixing all the little surprises the previous owners left behind, setting up our things the way we want, buying new furniture, figuring out new routines and new commutes, utilities, and so on. My handyman skills have gone up significantly as a result, and the tool chest I got for my birthday is very welcome. But we’re now happy with the house. Mostly.
  • Christmas and New Year’s. Although this was one of the quietest holiday periods we’ve had in a while there’s always stuff to do: gifts, calls with family, visiting friends, having friends at ours.
  • Visitors. The Brisbanians came to see us for several days, which was a lot of fun. I also had an aunt from Canada visiting for just a day as she stopped in Sydney at the end of a cruise.
  • Baby preparation. Our first baby’s due date is February 1. That’s not far. There have been a lot of things to do, but we’re now as ready as we feel we can be. So my blogging spurt may be short-lived.

Take care, everyone.

Relaxing while I can.


Sydney Festival 2014: go see this

Sydney Festival is coming around again. I will be quite busy in January with new house setup and baby prep, so probably won’t attend many of the scheduled arts events. Or any of them, really.



But here’s my opinion of what you should go see, Sydney people. In no particular order: