Brian Ricca: The perils of travel — wind, delays, a price ‘you don’t want to know’

This commentary is by Brian Ricca, the school superintendent at St Johnsbury.

On Wednesday, Feb. 16, I was scheduled to fly from Burlington to Nashville, Tennessee, via Washington, DC, to attend the National Conference on Education, sponsored by AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

We would leave BTV at 12:30, have about an hour or so at Reagan National, and reach Nashville by 5:30 that evening.

It wasn’t to be.

For the first time in all the years I’ve been flying (almost 43), the plane that was en route to BTV, the one I would eventually fly on, could not land. The winds were so substantial that day at the Burlington airport that the plane could not safely land despite three attempts. It was diverted to Albany, and we were given a later departure time that afternoon.

Hustling to the ticket agent near the boarding gate, I quickly made arrangements to leave on a later flight from Burlington and then also pushed back my connection in DC I figured we may not see the plane from Albany anytime soon, so I chose a different flight altogether. With this new itinerary, we would be in Nashville after 9 pm but still have the entire conference.

As we prepared to board the later flight, there was a commotion at the door to the jetway. When things settled down, one of the airline employees announced that the incoming plane was also unable to land, despite three attempts. The plane was being diverted to Bradley Airport in Connecticut, and they would rebook us.

This time, I went downstairs to the original location where you check your bags in Burlington. It was clear that I would not get to Nashville that day, and if things didn’t change quickly enough, I might even not make it the following day. There was already someone ahead of me downstairs, so I needed a plan B.

Fortunately, my mother-in-law had one. She suggested that we fly out of Albany and get away from Burlington altogether. My wife got on the phone with American Airlines and made the change in our itinerary. We were now leaving from Albany!

I went over to the rental counters to see if I could get a one-way rental car to the Albany airport. I met with a very kind employee, who listened carefully to my situation, and then began working away at the computer on her desk. A couple of times she grimaced at what she saw on the screen, but continued typing. Finally she looked up at me and said, “I’ve got plenty of cars, but you don’t want to rent from me.”

I must have had a confused look on my face, because she continued, “I know you need to get to Albany but you don’t want to do it in one of my cars. It will be way too expensive.” I was so exhausted from the saga of our day that I only shook my head to express my misunderstanding.

“Listen,” she said. “Use your phone, get on Orbitz, Travelocity, or Expedia, and get a one-way rental through one of them. … It will be way cheaper.”

When I asked what the computer in front of her was suggesting I pay for a one-way rental for less than 12 hours, she responded, “You don’t want to know.” So I stepped away from the counter, pulled out my phone, and was able to rent a car from a competitor. I thought the price was pretty reasonable, given all the circumstances of the day, and it would ultimately get us to Albany. I booked the car online and started to walk away from the woman I had been interacting with.

But I couldn’t just walk away. I needed to know. I needed to know how much the company was going to charge me. I went back, waited in line, and finally got to the front. With a surprised look on her face, she said, “You couldn’t get another car anywhere else tonight?” When I told her I did, with one of her competitors, she sighed in relief.

“I just couldn’t bring myself to charge you what the computer was telling me.”

“How much was it if I had stayed with your company?” I asked.

“You don’t want to know,” she said.

“Please,” I responded.

This kind woman took a deep breath, “More than $500. I just couldn’t do that to you after the day you’ve had. And knowing that you have to drive three hours to another airport tomorrow, just to get to your conference. I just couldn’t do it.”

I ended up renting a car for a little over $100, thanks to a woman who listened to my story, heard what was happening, and found a little kindness at 9:45 pm on a Wednesday.

She lost my business that night. But I will be back at her counter again sometime soon!

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