Has the impersonal Internet replaced the human touch?

Travel planning via the Internet has become, for me, de rigueur, mostly replacing the once-common practice of making 800 calls to my favorite airline, hotel, and rental car partners to book. Lately I’ve been wondering if the transition to cold technology over the warmth of interacting with a real person would ever be complete.  I hope not, and based on a recent trip last week, I don’t think so.  That is, not unless travel providers close off every means to access their services via a real live human being.

Back in the early 1980s I was already recognized by some airlines as a valuable customer.  Eastern Airlines, for instance, hooked me up with their hush-hush “Commuter Desk” phone numbers that reached special agents in Chicago, Boston, and a few other locations.  Usually, each of EA’s Commuter Desks were staffed by just two dedicated agents who seemed to work 24/7.  They dispensed god-like powers to rebook me out of jams, even the worst snarls and cancellations due to weather or ATC delays at ORD, LGA, or anywhere.  Commuter Desk agents would even rebook me on OA (Other Airlines) as a last resort—anything necessary to get me to my destination or to get me home.  That highly personalized service, combined with my invitation-only (at first) membership in the Eastern “Executive Traveler” program that provided free space-available upgrades to First Class, guaranteed my loyalty and kept me flying on EA until their collapse in 1991.

Ditto with Delta.  DL made me a member of the invitation-only (at first) Crown Rooms and bestowed upon me the accolade of “Flying Colonel,” an honorary program long since lost to history. While access to a Delta analog to the EA Commuter Desk was elusive, somebody at Delta nonetheless always had my back, as evidenced by calls I’d routinely get from Delta reps on weekends assuring me that a looming cancellation or significant delay had been “fixed” for my ticket.  I was rarely grounded or delayed when flying Delta in the 1980s. That personalized service sealed my loyalty to Delta, leading me to earn 5.3 million miles and still counting.

In the late 1970s British Airways had me permanently coded in their system as a frequent flyer via the cryptic message “passenger previously mishandled” to signal any gate agent that I was to be upgraded and coddled at every opportunity, including BA lounge privileges at JFK and LHR even when flying in economy.

My favored hotels (mostly Hilton and Hyatt) also rewarded me with personal touches, including overbooking properties for me when necessary and routine upgrades to suites and lounge floor rooms even before frequent stay programs were launched.  Avis made me “Presidents Club” and would pick me up at airport terminals and drop me off when I returned their cars, calling first to make sure I knew where to meet the car.

Those glory days are mostly gone, of course, crowded out by cost-cutting and the sterile Internet of travel.  But a recent family wedding trip from Raleigh to northern Minnesota reminded me that the human touch isn’t dead yet.

Using the Internet (AA.com) months in advance, I booked my family of four on American Airlines AAdvantage award tickets RDU/MSP.  We could not get on the same flights, however, due to limited award seat availability, necessitating three different itineraries, with two of us connecting through LGA, one through DCA, and one through PHL.  A pain, but we all were scheduled to arrive in the Twin Cities within the same hour.

However, the day before departure, terrible storms were forecast throughout the Northeast, and AA sent me a text with a warning that our flights might be impacted.  After reading the message, I immediately phoned one of the Elite desks—I am a Lifetime Gold at American; I admit that having even lowly Gold status helps when talking to a real person at an airline—and I asked if we could all be rebooked together on the same alternate flights to avoid the predictable delays and cancellations that would hit the Northeast airports the next day.

I struck up a cordial conversation with the reservation agent just to be friendly, and I humbly acknowledged that these were mere 25,000 mile award travel tickets, and thus I didn’t expect success to my request.  The agent and I clicked, and she generously rebooked us RDU/MSP through DFW to avoid the bad weather.  Furthermore, she found seats in the same row near the front of the plane just behind Main Cabin Extra, which was already full.

RDU/DFW on AA was full, but somehow a reservation agent managed to get us on and all seated together, thanks to the human touch.

I could never have done that via the Internet.  Naturally, I thanked her profusely, and the next morning our flights to DFW and then to MSP were comfortable and went off without a hitch.

The day before our return I phoned AA again.  Though we had no weather delay notifications, I wanted to try to get us together on the same flights, as we had been able to do going out.  The itinerary for my daughter and me was on the following day, requiring an overnight stay at an MSP hotel, while my wife was traveling the same day.

Once again I chatted with the AA agent and acknowledged that these were the smallest travel awards on the AAdvantage chart, but, I said, nothing ventured, nothing gained.  The agent and I hit a chord, and soon he had us all booked on the same-day flights, avoiding the cost of a hotel.  He even seated us together in the same row of Main Cabin Extra because of my Gold elite status.

The generous space between seats in Main Cabin Extra, thanks to a kind AA rez agent.

His kindness left me speechless, but I soon found my voice and thanked him enthusiastically before hanging up.  Once again, the human touch of speaking person-to-person had succeeded in a travel outcome not possible via a computer.

On the same trip I suddenly needed a room for several nights in Fargo, North Dakota.  Our extended family was hosting too many people in their homes to comfortably accommodate everyone.  I was surprised to find hotel prices in the Fargo (ND)-Moorhead (MN) area at every Internet portal to be a minimum of $100-120 plus tax per night.  This included the Microtel (by Wyndham) in Moorhead which was ideally situated for our needs.  Someone had mentioned the Microtel had $75 rooms, so I phoned the hotel direct.

After a few minutes of polite conversation, I was able to snag a $80 room rate at the Microtel that included two queens, free wifi, and the hotel’s hot breakfast for everyone.  I was dubious that we’d get much for $80, but the rooms and the property were spotless, friendly, plenty spacious, and comfortable, and the breakfasts above average.  It was a great bargain, again because I had interacted with a real person.  No Internet rates at the Microtel for that period were below $100 per night.

The friendly, clean, comfortable, and inexpensive Microtel (by Wyndham) in Moorhead, Minnesota.  Free wifi and hot breakfast, too, for just $80  night.

Not to say that I could live without Internet in my travel planning and execution these days.  For example, we picked up a Hertz van at MSP that I’d reserved, and Hertz sent me a text with the location for pickup that enabled me to bypass even the Gold screen.  I walked directly to the car, which was exactly what I wanted, and I drove out.  Simple, fast, easy, all because we avoided human contact and relied entirely on the machine.

Leaving the MSP airport and the Twin Cities area at 1:00 PM on a Friday afternoon, we encountered bumper-to-bumper backups on I-94 North.  It’s a 3-4 hour drive from the Cities to Fargo-Moorhead, and a family dinner awaited.  The Google map directions on my Samsung S7 Edge soon had us on alternate routes to bypass the worst of the traffic jams, and we made it to the old homestead in time.  Again, this was thanks to the GPS and mapping technology built into my smartphone combined with the Internet: very useful indeed.

Returning to Minneapolis four days later, we ran into another traffic delay on I-94 South and neatly avoided it via a Google Map detour route without even asking for it.  No personal touch could have helped with that like the machine software did, for which I was extra grateful. I don’t suffer being stuck in traffic well these days; perhaps I never did.  The route detour saved my sanity as well as time.

As long as travel providers continue to allow us ways and means to reach real people to solve travel conundrums not conducive to automation, I will be at ease with the transition to technology-based travel planning.

Though perhaps it’s not a transition so much as it is an integration of the personal touch with machine-based solutions.  That’s my wish, anyway.

Sophistication of travel-related online portals and via our many smartphone travel services apps continues to evolve and improve—all well and good—but, personally, I would hate to see real people in the travel planning process eliminated entirely.

Heck, I’ve got thirty-four 500-mile upgrades banked in my AAdvantage account that American’s automated upgrade system never lets me use because there are so many Executive Platinums ahead of me on every flight.  Once in a while, though, a real person working for AA ponders their system’s Catch-22 and overrides it to put me in First Class. A computer lacks the empathetic discretion of a personal touch like that.

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