Today I’m flying from St Louis to San Diego on Southwest Air and I feel a bit like a traitor. For years, I’ve flown on American Airlines pretty exclusively. One of my only speaker requirements is that my travel gets booked on American. This isn’t because they have the best planes, the most delightful staff, or the best frequent flier program; it’s because they have saved my frequently flying butt more times than I can count. This includes getting me home from Moscow when I wasn’t sure home was going to happen.
I started flying American pretty exclusively after moving to St Louis in 2006. There wasn’t any real reason for this beyond they fly international and St Louis (at the time) had a ton of flights because it was a slowly fading TWA/American hub.
The first time they saved me, it was a little thing. I had plans in 2009 to go to an event at Microsoft Research in Seattle, and after everything was all set for that trip, I had a random “Want to go to Shanghai?” opportunity open up related to that year’s solar eclipse. Because of how my initial trip to Seattle was booked, I ended up with a ticket that got me home to St Louis from Seattle after I was supposed to leave St Louis for Shanghai. When I looked at the change fees and price differences, I despaired. Rather than try and move flights bought by others, I just bought a 1-way cheap seat on another airline that would fix everything, but leave me exhausted. The thing is, American called me a few days before this crazy flight fiasco was set to begin, and basically said, “Um, you know your one set of flights forces you to miss your other set of flights? Let us fix that for you for free.” They rebooked my Seattle to St Louis flight at no cost (and I kept my 1 way cheap seat as a backup), and off I went. It turned out this was a trip saver! The plane my cheap seat was booked on never flew. I would have been rebooked, leaving Seattle after my flight to Shanghai was supposed to take off! I would have missed the cruise ship I was speaking on, and things would have just been every kind of bad.
That was the first time American saved my butt, but it wouldn’t be the last. From rescuing a forgotten laptop from a plane, and having it make a connection that got it to my final destination only a couple hours after I got to my final destination, to fixing it when I booked a 12:05am flight and showed up 24 hours late because I forgot which day 12:05am belonged to, to sorting wild options when weather delays tried to prevent meetings from happening, they have just been there to help. The staff is always overworked but kind, and exhausted but willing to try and make things work.
In 2014, shortly after Russia claimed Crimea and roughly the week after the US placed various sanctions on Russia, I went to Moscow to attend the COSPAR meeting. I was working with Rosa Doran of the Galileo Teacher Training Program on programs for those wanting to learn education, and we also did teacher training for local teachers. While I had safety concerns about this trip, Rosa convinced me I was needed: I speak Russian (very badly) and that would be useful working with the local teachers. She was right (she usually is), and the trip went well until the final day. I got to the airport something like 4 hours early because traffic wasn’t as bad as expected and I was paranoid. My visa expired that day, and given the state of the world, outstaying my visa seemed like a very bad idea.
I was not the first one in line at the check-in counter, but I was near the first. I was a Platinum level frequent flier, and in the priority line. Since American doesn’t fly to Moscow, I was booked on an Air France flight that would connect through Germany to my normal American Airlines flight. When I got to the counter, the Russian woman who helped me took one look at my American booking, my US passport, and my place in the priority line and told me I would have to buy an entirely new ticket because my passport spelled out my middle name, but my ticket did not. I asked if she could just change it in the system or something. The answer was no, and no to anything else. These were new Russian regulations. I would have to buy a ticket.
Thing was, as a paranoid American and a University Professor, I had chosen to travel with just my ATM card, a $500 limit credit card, and nothing else. The conference had paid for my hotel and food, and that should have been enough. I literally couldn’t buy a ticket if I wanted to, and as an assistant professor with an assistant professor’s salary, I certainly didn’t want to.
So, I stepped away from the ticket counter, found a plug, sat on the floor leaning against the wall, plugged in my phone and computer, took a Xanax, and called American Airlines. I explained to the person who answered that if I sounded panicked, it’s because I was, and I explained the problem I was having and how my visa ended that day.
This is where I think I need to explain why I speak Russian (very badly). In 1991, I was a foreign exchange student to the USSR. I was 17. I left the US on the first day of Desert Storm, and arrived home just weeks before the coup that displaced Gorbachev and marked the ended of the USSR. My trip was originally only supposed to be 5 months. But things. And stuff. And it became 7 months. And I saw things. And I have PTSD, and thus that prescription for Xanax.
Going back to Moscow, I’d originally thought, would be my chance to see that things were better and to close the door on old memories. But then Crimea. And the Ukraine. And my timing, which has always been bad, became awful.
The man who answered the phone at American said that what was happening didn’t sound right to him, so he’d call (the counter?) and see what he could do. He explained he’d need to put me on hold, but he’d be back as soon as he could. About every 10 minutes, for the next more than an hour, he kept coming back, making sure I was ok, and updating me on what was happening as he tried to sort how to get me home. In the end, American Airlines did have to buy me a new Air France ticket, and my original seat, a nice exit row window, sat unused. My new ticket, with a receipt I paid nothing for, appeared in my inbox. I was able to take one of the few unsold seats in the back of the plane.
Let me say that again: American had to buy me a completely new ticket to get me out of Moscow, and they did this at no cost to me.
Most importantly, that guy kept coming back on the phone line to assure me it would be ok.
That one moment, and that one man who kept coming back on the line – that is the reason I try to only fly American Airlines.
Today, I was stuck. I needed to be in San Diego early to film a tv show, but there were no direct American flights. I could have either canceled an event at the museum I did yesterday, or I could fly Southwest. … So, for the sake of the museum event, I flew Southwest. They are the friendly skies, and they’ve never done me wrong. But. … I still feel a bit like a traitor.
I will fly home, layover and all, on American.