C.W. Gusewell


Winging it with courtesy

It really is my wife’s story, not mine – one she’s often shared with friends. But with her permission I tell it here.

Two conclusions can be drawn from the narrative. The first is the regrettable way in which air travel has changed. The other is the uncommon kindness a traveler sometimes encounters abroad.

During the 1960s, after college, she and another young teacher she’d met in graduate school set off together for a summer holiday in Europe.

Their ambitious itinerary took them to England, Germany, France and Italy. After some time in Rome, they boarded an Alitalia plane for the short hop to Florence.

The flight itself was uneventful, and they joined the other passengers at the baggage claim.

They waited.

They waited some more.

Then the other passengers left, and a representative of the airline approached.

“Are you very tired?” he asked.

No, they replied. They were fine.

“Good,” he said. “Because we’ve lost your bags.”

In such an emergency, even today, one can expect to receive a toothbrush, maybe a meal voucher, possibly even a room for the night. But Alitalia did a good deal more. The airline provided them with two young men to serve as hosts and guides.

The first evening the girls were taken to dinner. The next day to a soccer match. And that evening to a party. The third day their luggage came.

And instead of a trip-spoiling disaster, the episode would be remembered across the years as a gift – a fine bit of luck, and a story worth telling.

Of course that’s not how it always goes.

Once in Moscow, as I waited to board a flight to Samarkand, it was announced that an engine on the plane needed to be replaced. Forty or so of us – all the others Russians – spent the night stretched out on the cold terminal floor.

Another time, trying to get home from Lexington, Ky., I found the airport shut down and all flights canceled because of an unusually heavy snow. At least that night there was a chair to sleep in.

And sometimes there are happy surprises.

Coming home from France one year with our two daughters, we learned at the Paris airport that our flight on a U.S. carrier was 35 seatsoverbooked.

If we were willing to take a following flight, there would be cash compensation. And in the event that next flight also was oversold, if we would consent in advance to give up our places onthatflight too, there would be further compensation.

We agreed. They issued us a certificate, which we carried a few steps around a partition to a different counter and were handed the promised sum.

And unaccountably, just 30 minutes later, we were ushered on board an Air France plane with wine and fine cuisine.

What’s to be made of these different experiences?

Only that air travel need not be a cattle call. Even under trying circumstances an airline can make the journey bearable. But only if they care enough to try.