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How Not to Travel to Philmont

Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico is to Boy Scouts as Disney World is to everyone else - it is the place that Boy Scouts all want to visit. At over 200 square miles in size, it is the world's largest youth camp, and federal lands that surround it actually double the size of the area that is available for hiking and exploration. My son qualified for the National Advanced Youth Leadership Experience (NAYLE) and signed up for the week long course at Philmont. 

We shopped for flights online and stupidly forgot that Southwest Airlines is a) not on most travel sites, and b) really good at the southwest (doh!). So the best flight that I could locate was from American Airlines, but they don't really operate the flight. US Airways actually operates the flights. Despite their merger and the smiling photos on their press release, they still act like two companies that don't know anything about each other. 

When it came time to check my son in for the flight, I went to the American Airlines Web site since, you know, I purchase the ticket from American. How silly of me. I received an error indicating that this was a US Airways flight (wait, didn't you merge with them?) and I needed to go to the US Airways site to check-in. OK then. I went to the US Airways site where I received an error message saying that the reservation has a problem, and that I needed to call their call center. Fine. I called the number displayed in the error message. I got put on hold by an operator for an extremely long time, and then disconnected. I called back, waited loooonger, and eventually reached a human who was quite snooty with me and told me that I needed to call American Airlines. I said OK, please give me that number. The operator scolded me some more and I restated my request for the number. We did this three times and he finally said that he would see if he had the number. When he found it he asked if I was ready to write it down. I replied yes, that I had asked for the number three times and was quite ready to write it down. I did that, hung up, and called American and was told that the flight numbers of the US Airways flights had changed and that I needed to call US Airways and have them fix my reservation. I explained my long and sad story of bouncing back and forth and the American Airlines operator put me on hold for an extremely long time and fixed the reservation. I was then able to go back to the US Airways Web site and check my son in for his flight. That only took most of an afternoon. 

Flying to Philmont was uneventful, but the return trip was another fiasco. The Philmont shuttle dropped all of the Scouts off at the Albuquerque airport at the same time, so my son was there four hours early. He was supposed to be back in Seattle by 7:30 PM so he could do laundry, re-pack, sleep, and leave bright and early the next day for Arrow Corps - a week of Service projects at Mt Rainier National Park. When it came time to leave, US Airways announced that they had experienced mechanical difficulties with the aircraft, and the flight was cancelled. My son, along with all of the other Scouts and passengers, had to wait in a huge line to get new tickets. My son waited in line for an hour and was then told to go to the American Airlines counter (there is that merger questions, again). He went to the American Airlines counter and waited another half an hour for a clerk to arrive and tell him that the new flight was also delayed, and would arrive too late for him to make a connection, so he had to go back to the US Airways counter and try again. After more changes and delays, my son did make it back to Seattle - at 1:30 AM Sunday, not 7:30 PM Saturday - six hours late. His bags were nearly the last to show up at baggage claim, so we left the airport after 2:00 AM. We rushed home, he went to bed, and I started his laundry so he could finish it in the morning and we could get him to Arrow Corps by noon the same day.

I think that there are two customer service lessons here. First, although the executives have issued a press release and declared that American Airlines and US Airways are merged, it is obvious that, from the customer perspective, they are not even remotely functioning like a single airline. Second - when there are flight issues, US Airways procedures for handling and caring for unaccompanied minors are dreadful. Not to brag (well, maybe a little), but my son, and the other Scouts that attend NAYLE, are really very capable. They can survive in the wilderness, navigate through mountains and forests, and they can take the initiative to solve problems - and thank goodness they can. Running a minor back and forth to different airline counters, and then having them sit and wait for 6 hours is ridiculous. I am also very thankful that my son has his own debit card and cell phone so he could get food and keep us updated.  Since this started, friends have pointed out that they have no problems when traveling with Southwest Airlines, so we will remember that for any future trips to Philmont. The NAYLE program was a great experience, and I hope that other Scouts will take advantage of it, but that they will avoid US Airways and American Airlines.

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