Sunday, December 18, 2011

Everyone Wants To Go Home

“Our flight leaves at nine. My son was vomiting all afternoon, but he’s sleeping now. Is it OK to go?”

The son was 18 months old. Doctors don’t prescribe antivomiting drugs to young children, so there was nothing I could do over the phone except give advice. Most vomiting in children isn’t serious and doesn’t last long, but……

“There’s six of us going to Australia. We can’t miss the flight.”

Long ago if you faced this problem, you went to the local airline office and exchanged your ticket. Local airline offices are a distant memory, and ticket exchange with its restrictions and expensive penalties strikes fear into the heart of any traveler. No one wants to miss a flight.

If I came to the hotel, examined the child, and found nothing wrong, I couldn’t promise he wouldn’t resume vomiting in a few hours. I’d be more confident after a day, but the family didn’t want to hear that.

I hung up, knowing I’d sentenced them to a bureaucratic nightmare and also knowing I’d probably hear from them again. Some travelers head for the airport and hope for the best; others phone the airline for advice, emphasizing that the child was sick earlier but is perfectly fine now. No airline wants a sick person on board, and every customer service agent knows what to say.

“They want a doctor’s note,” explained the same caller an hour later. “Can you come?”

Most visits to deliver a doctor’s note are a snap because guests have already been sick, missed their flight, and recovered, so I’m simply handing over official permission to board the plane. This is never true while the illness is running its course. Guests yearn for me to clear them for the flight, but I almost never do. Failing that, they hope my note will persuade the airline to reschedule everyone gratis. This sometimes works, but the era when a doctor’s note served as a get-out-of-jail-free card is long past. In this case, they were lucky. The airline insisted that four proceed on to Australia, reticketed the mother and child for the next flight in four days with no penalty but also no reimbursement for the extra days in the hotel.

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