Widgets Failed Hero of the Week: Iberian Airlines - A Round-the-World Travel Blog: Devil May Care

Failed Hero of the Week: Iberian Airlines

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We've been fairly happy with our OneWorld Explorer ticket, especially with its flexibility on date changes. When we purchased the ticket, I'd read horror stories, mostly involving lack of availability. Yet until now, every date change that we've made has gone off without a hitch: OneWorld had flights available either on the day we wanted, or within twenty-four hours. The process is pretty seamless: make a Skype call with LAN, change the flight, and receive a confirmatory email in a few days.

Last Friday, the process broke down badly.

We arrived at the airport in Casablanca with two hours to burn before the flight, dragging our bags to the check-in counter. There were no passengers ahead of us in line, but an African family was struggling to rearrange the contents of their baggage--none of which looked too large--in order to get certain bags within weight limits. This should have been my first warning that these were not customer-focused employees, but I didn't think much about it.

After we handed over our passports, the check-in attendent clicked fretfully at her computer for five minutes or so, then asked us, "You have a ticket?" Of course, we didn't have one with us: the Explorer is an electronic ticket, and we hadn't made a printout with the latest itinerary. I offered to give her the record locator number, but she shook her head and snapped, "You don't have a ticket. Take this paper and go to the ticket office down the hall."

Figuring that we had plenty of time, we hauled our belongings over to the ticket office, where there was no one to be found, nor any sign that would indicate when he would return. Leaving Pallavi behind, I traipsed back to the check-in desk, where I waited in the now-growing line. The African family was still there. A different lady asked why we'd been sent to the ticket office in the first place, went through the same procedure as before, and then confirmed that, yes, I needed to go to the ticket counter. Neither she nor the first attendent would explain why we needed to go there, but she was insistent that there was, in fact, someone at the desk. After some back and forth, she agreed to call the desk agent's cell phone.

When I got back to the ticket desk, the fellow staffing the ticket desk had returned from his break. Wearing a shirt and some unpressed slacks, he looked far less professional than the ladies at check-in, and his English was far more limited. After some conversation that switched back and forth between French and English, he finally revealed that we had "only a reservation," and that our tickets "were not confirmed, because we had to pay the change fee."

This took me entirely by surprise, as I'd looked up our reservation on LAN and Iberian's website the night before, during my attempt to check in online. (Online check-in isn't available on Iberian in Morocco.) Both websites showed the tickets as confirmed. And of course, OneWorld Explorer tickets aren't subject to date change fees. We explained this to the ticket agent, who insisted that we needed to pay these fees, though--in a nice Kafkaesque touch--he couldn't tell us how much they were.

Cue thirty minutes of calls to his superior and my attempts reach LAN on our cell phone. The latter proved almost impossible due to the combination of a poor cell connection and the tendency of LAN's call center to drop calls. Finally, however, the ticket agent printed an itinerary, made a few hand-written notes on it, and sent us back to check-in. He never told us why he changed his mind, nor did he apologize for the delay. My guess is that we were saved by the sudden appearance of two other customers, both of whom appeared to be very impatient.

The third time through the check-in line, staff made a point of being as difficult as possible to get our tickets. To be fair, their bad attitude wasn't directed solely at us: they seemed to have a problem with anyone who didn't speak French or Arabic. The African family was still rearranging their suitcases.

The check-in agents took one look at our bags--an Osprey Daylite attached to an Osprey Sojourn, and an Eagle Creek Switchback pack-and-suitcase combo--and decided that they were too likely to separate in mid-flight and needed to be wrapped. With my bag, that's an arguably fair call, given how uneasily the Daylight fits onto the Soujourn. Of course, OneWorld has carried this combination for thousands of miles without mishap, but Iberian may have substandard baggage handlers. For Pallavi's Switchback, this is insane: the rugged zipper between the backpack and suitcase is reinforced with four heavy-duty straps, so unless Iberian has hired the gorilla from the old American Tourister commercial, they should stay together easily. Nonetheless, we marched over to the bag-wrappers, paid $10 to cocoon our luggage in plastic, and rolled back once more. After four trips to check-in, we were finally rewarded with boarding passes!

Thankfully, our early arrival meant that we made it to the plane with a little time to spare. We had one more delay going through security, but it was actually somewhat welcome: passport control questioned Pallavi quite thoroughly, as the police had marked her passport as stolen, and apparently not updated the system to note that it had been returned. It's always frightening when clearing customs isn't a simple process, but it's nice to know that the Moroccan authorities were on the lookout for stolen passports.

To reduce this lengthy bureaucratic story to South Park terms: I learned something today. Don't trust Iberian's website simply because it says your flight is confirmed. Always call to confirm your flights a day or two before you get on the plane. When it comes to the airlines, it's a mistake to rely upon twenty years of internet-based efficiency improvements meant to save you time and the airlines money.

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