Saturday, November 12, 2011

Food on planes

This morning I checked in online for my flights to Seattle. This was not a fun way to spend my Saturday. Perhaps I was suffering from all the beer (three bottles of Heineken) and all the karaoke (House Of The Rising Sun, Ace Of Spades and the Bee Gees) last night, but I think the complex horror of the websites contributed to my pain too.

First things first, United told me that I couldn't check in for a flight leaving at 9:55am tomorrow more than 24 hours in advance. Which sounds helpful, until you realise I was being told that at 10:05am. Had they invented a new concept of timekeeping (possibly to reduce how many planes arrive late)?
Then the small print showed that although it was a flight on a United plane, it was ticketed through Continental, so I tried checking the booking there. It told me that I had no special meal on the flight from Tokyo to Seattle.

It always stretches credulity when people describe airline food as 'special'. In the sense that it's not normal to eat a TV dinner out of a plastic tray at 30,000 feet, I suppose it's correct, but 'special' connotes something good, not just something out of the normal. Tell your darling she's special and she'll take it as a compliment. Tell her she's abnormal and ... look, don't tell her she's abnormal. Trust me. I've tested that in laboratory conditions and it does not end well.

However, I do have a special meal request. Not for it to be sprinkled with fairy dust and shaped like Hello Kitty's face. I just want a vegetarian meal, so I can eat something somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. No special meal means no meal for me.

This wasn't as bad as the way back, where apparently a flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong has no meal service, and I have to sit next to the toilet.

I searched around Continental's website. I could sign up for their frequent flier facility and specify that in the future I'd like a kosher meal, or one prepared for Jains, but there was no clue that I could specify a meal for tomorrow's flight. It did say if I asked, I could get a special meal, but it didn't tell me who I could ask, and it did say special meals require at least 24 hours' notice. Which is jolly unhelpful if you can't even find out that your travel agent hasn't specified vegetarian meals like you asked, until 24 hours before the flight.

I looked for a phone number. There was one number I found eventually, for domestic flight reservations in the US, and an endless loop of searches that led me back to the page that told me I could have a special meal if I asked, but wouldn't tell me who to ask.

Grinding my teeth, I searched the rest of the internet and soon found that I should have just gone to Hong Kong International Airport's site, which handily lists a number for Continental.

The Chinese for "Please press 1 for calls in your preferred language" is about five times as long as the English equivalent, or so I learned. I got through to a human being pretty quick, who could look up my booking and tell me I had a meal, but couldn't fix it for me. I had to call United, because it was their plane. (If you've got this far you'll remember United might be operating their planes in a different kind of time and space, and seem to refuse communications unless they're through an intermediary. Like, say, a different airline. Hence all this horsing around. Having this is a bit like the Catholic Church, insofar as you have a chat with a priest/a saint/whatever instead of just bothering God with everything, although it's also not like the Catholic Church, because I doubt if you are troubled by transubstantiation and ask your priest that he'll just refer you to your nearest Methodist. )

So then I rang United, and after stumbling through a set of phone menus that were confusing, contradictory, and apparently recorded from within an operating jet engine, I got to speak to a lady who didn't know the phonetic alphabet (which should be de rigeur for call centre agents working for airlines). No, that's not M for Mother, that's P for Perambulator in my booking reference.

I really, really wished I'd been sensible and booked a flight with Cathay Pacific instead. Although I can travel tomorrow happy in the knowledge that the American airlines have the kindest, friendliest, most approachable staff.


Maybe I'll take my own sandwiches.


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