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by John Backus
New Atlantic Ventures Blog


Call me a dinousaur. I use a travel agent to book all of my flights, my hotels, and my car rentals. Not a travel agency. A real person. I have her email, her mobile number, and her work number. And she takes her job seriously. Let’s just call her Janice for now.

As I write this I am flying back from Phoenix to Washington Dulles airport via Seattle. Why, you might ask?

Well, my United flight encountered what we frequent flyers call a “creeping delay.” 15 minutes after scheduled departure time, the gate agent announced to a full flight, “We have a small maintenance issue and will update you in 15 minutes.”

Instantly I emailed my travel agent and asked her to back me up on my connection out of Chicago. “Can’t do it,” she said. “That is the last flight out. But I can book you on the 6 a.m. or 8:41 a.m. and get you a hotel. Which would you prefer?”

“The 8:41 a.m.,” I answered, knowing I was well ahead of my fellow, mostly oblivious passengers.

I knew it was going to be real bad, though, when the pilot announced, 15 minutes after our scheduled departure time, “The engine is missing a 1-foot piece of fire seal. We are on the phone with maintenance in San Francisco, which is talking to the manufacturer in Europe about a possible fix. We will have an update in another 15 minutes.”

Now, I know enough about airplanes to know that this is not good. At all.

I emailed my travel agent again. “This plane isn’t leaving Phoenix. What are my options?”

In under a minute I was backed up on a 6 a.m. flight the next day back to Dulles via Denver. I also had a connection PHX-SEA-IAD, leaving in an hour, on both USAir and United. I had options. I wasn’t going to be left at the mercy of the airline. It was only Spring Break six weeks ago when a snowstorm in Denver resulted in me and my family of five missing our connection. United graciously and automatically rebooked us — on a flight 30 hours later. My travel agent got us on a flight two hours later. Technology failed. People ruled.

Fifteen minutes later the gate agent returned, and told us to ‘de-plane’ (I love that word) and said they were hoping to have a spare aircraft to fly to Chicago in 4 hours. If it all worked out it would arrive in Chicago around 1 a.m.

I tell all of my portfolio company CEOs that ‘Hope is not a Strategy,’ so I sure wasn’t going to wait around. I was the third person off the plane, lined up at the desk for the gate agent, and told him, “I have a few backups in my reservation record. Please book me on the PHX-SEA-IAD backup.”

He looked over my record, puzzled, smiled and said, “Who did this?”

“My travel agent,” I replied.

“Wow. She is good,” he continued.

I had to board a bus to change terminals, have my ticket issued at the USAir ticket counter, and clear security, again. I made the flight with 15 minutes to spare.

As I left the gate, there was a line of 100-plus people waiting to be taken care of by 3 gate agents. I figure it was going to be 2 hours for the last person in line to be accommodated. Most were on the phone and none were happy. They were going to be spending the night in Phoenix, or MAYBE arriving in Chicago sometime in the wee hours of the morning.

Airline delays happen. And when they do, technology won’t solve your problem. But, a human being can.

I happily pay a small booking fee to my agent for each flight she books. I call it peace-of-mind insurance.

Having a travel agent when things go wrong? Priceless!