Check in and check out

Monsieur and I booked our flights to Nice many weeks in advance of departure, yet, when we went to the check-in machine at Heathrow, our seats were separated. We had booked a PAIR of tickets at the same time, so why were we seated apart?

We found a uniformed helper and explained our plight. “No problem,” she smiled, “just join the check-in queue over there and a clerk will re-seat you.”

The queue moved slowly. It was even slower than necessary because one of the three clerks on duty was busy, not ticketing, not tagging, but chatting to the group currently at her desk. It wasn’t work-related conversation; it was idle, annoying chatter about holidays, and it went on forever.

Everyone in the queue exhaled with relief as that group moved on and a French woman, elegantly attired, moved forward to take their place. She was shooed back into the queue by Chatterbox Clerk as a rope was raised to admit a group from outside. They had not queued; they’d queue-jumped, with the smiling aid of Chatterbox. French Femme stepped forward to complain, the people behind her nodding and muttering in support, but Chatterbox waved her away and continued to chat chat chat to the interlopers.

When our turn finally came, we had the great misfortune of being summoned by the Chattering Wonder to her desk. “How may I help,” she began with a Cheshire smile, smug in her popularity with her two previous groups. “We went to check in at a machine but the seating plan wouldn’t let us sit together,” we explained, “so, please would you re-seat us?” She took our passports and booking reference, tapping busily on her computer keyboard. “I’m afraid the flight is full,” she said. “I can’t re-seat you. Sorry!”

Monsieur started up. “I don’t understand. I am a frequent traveller and I’ve never had this problem before. We booked the tickets at the same time and together. Why should we have to sit apart?” he asked, flummoxed.

“If you hadn’t aborted the check-in at the machine, you could have changed your seats then. At that time, there were pairs of seats available, but now there aren’t. Perhaps you can ask at the gate to see if anyone wants to swap.” Chatterbox’s job was done, according to her, as she turned away to tag our bags.

I had to retort. Her information was inaccurate. “Actually, when we went to the machine, there were no pairs of seats showing on the system.” I corrected her. “Only separate seats. We’d really appreciate it if you would re-seat us.”

“That’s impossible. The only thing you can do now is ask for a swap at the gate.”

“This is bollocks,” mumbled Monsieur.

“What did you say?” Smiley Chatterbox was gone. Indignant Cow was in her place. “Tell me again, WHAT did you say to me?” Monsieur hadn’t said anything to her at all, just muttered under his breath, but he was about to be roasted by the clerk. “I am offended by your language. You are French, no?” Whatever relevance that had was lost on us, although I remembered how the clerk had so breezily dismissed the earlier complaint of French Femme. Right now, she was treading on dangerous turf. Monsieur hates criticism of his French-ness. “It’s none of your business where I come from. I wasn’t talking to you at all. Anyway, what I said is not offensive” he fumed. “Besides, you’re not English, yourself, so why are you commenting on my nationality? Where are YOU from?” “I don’t have to tell you that,” she hissed, “I’m calling my manager.” Chatterbox duly picked up the phone, requesting back-up, and we were only too happy to wait for a manager to come and quiet the insolent clerk. Meanwhile, the queue was growing behind us. Chatterbox rapped her fingers on the desk and looked around, but not at, us as we waited. And waited. And waited.

Monsieur broke the silence. “Is the manager coming? Because we have a flight to catch and you’re holding up a lot of people here.” Chatterbox picked up the phone to The Invisible Manager as we waited. Again.

Eventually, Monsieur caved in. “Okay, okay,” he sighed, “Just check in our bags and we’ll take our passports.” But no. That would be too easy. Chatterbox was on a roll. “I am not giving you back your passports because you have offended me. Besides, the plane will wait for you.” Oh, Heaven forbid! This little show by the timewasting clerk was now a real annoyance. If her employers only knew that because of her dramatics a plane might be delayed, incurring late fines and losing its take-off slot, she’d be history right now. “Don’t you think you could be helping other passengers instead of being like this?” I asked. “I know my job.” she replied, “and I know how long I can spend with a passenger.” Try telling that to the people tapping their feet in the line as they visualised missing their flights because of this clerk’s inefficiency.

A few minutes later, when we pointed out that her manager obviously had better things to do than help her, Chatterbox finally tagged our bags and handed over our boarding passes and passports.

“I will complain,” stated Monsieur “as this is how you treat your frequent travellers. I will never book tickets on this airline again!” Chatterbox had to have the last word, of course. As I watched our bags disappear down the conveyor belt, saying a silent goodbye to them in the certainty that Chatterbox Clerk had sent them to Timbuktu in revenge, she spat her last words at us: “As far as I’m concerned, fly whoever you want. Perhaps Air France would have you.” she quipped with a smirk. Very likely you just lost two customers, we thought. I only hope that the next people in the queue made Chatterbox wish she’d stayed in bed.

Chatterbox may have checked us in, but concerning her job, she deserves to be checked out.

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