Airline and Cultural Issues

When the phone rings at 3:45am, it’s never a good thing.  This time, thank goodness, it wasn’t life or death, but merely an airline emergency.

It all started after the earthquake when I realized that our nanny, Minnie, was having quake-related issues.  If you don’t know, Minnie has been working for us since 2003 and Bailey and Sydney are partially her babies.  When we returned to Tokyo in 2007, she was able to come work for us again even though we had a two-year hiatus.  The kids view her as their other mother.  Now, truth be told, we don’t really need a nanny anymore since the kids are so much older, but I could no more tear her from the kids, or the kids from her than I could tear off my right arm.  She just comes to us a few hours a day, but it’s enough to make all of us, especially me, feel calm and in control.  Minnie is magic.  She’s the type of helper who says, “Don’t forget that Sydney has a birthday party to attend this weekend, so you have to buy a gift, and by the way, we’re out of wrapping paper.”  None of the four of us exist very well without her.  Minnie is a Filipina, and her entire family, including her 10-year-old daughter, live in the Philippines. She works very hard to send money back to them and in that way, she has put her two older children through university and is now working to save for her young daughter’s education.  Her children will have a very different life than she has had because of her extreme sacrifice.

Minnie was the hardest hit economically after the quake.  Since she only works for me a few hours a day, she has to make up the time and money in other ways with part-time employers, which, in the past, has never been a problem.  However, post-quake, the expat community is down nearly 20% according to some figures I’ve heard.  She is out of a lot of work and it’s simply unfair.  When I realized that she had very little work and we were going to be away for the summer, I decided to use my own frequent flier miles on Delta to send her back to her home in the Philippines for at least a month.

Delta gave me a hard time about buying the ticket.   It cost 40,000 frequent flier miles to go from Tokyo to Manila and then about $50 in fees.  I thought that was pretty reasonable, but then Delta had trouble using my credit card.  Even though the fee was really tiny, they had security issues with someone buying a ticket with a small fee, and a good amount of mileage, for someone who isn’t the buyer and for someone headed to the Philippines.  In short, they had a security issue.

They told me that the ONLY way to circumvent the security issue was to take my credit card and Minnie’s itinerary to any airport to show the card and my ID.  This would give actual permission.  I tried every which way to get out of it – from using a different credit card, to speaking to supervisors, to begging.  But they would have none of it.  The people on the phone assured me that any airport would handle it, so I had no choice if I wanted that ticket.

So, on June 20th, when I left Tokyo out of Haneda airport, I built in a little bit of extra time to speak to a customer service rep in the airport about Minnie’s ticket.  After about 10 minutes of hemming and hawing on their part – the two Japanese women helping me had never seen anything like this, of course – they assured me that Minnie would be all right at Narita and told me I was done. (Can you imagine them saying  “HMMMM, very difficult….” In that stereotypical way???) I went on my merry way.

Then we got a call at about 3:45am today from a panicked Minnie.

The people at Narita airport didn’t believe Minnie that I had lifted the security ban.  They had the woman behind the Delta counter talk to me. I had not gotten the name of the person at Haneda who handled the transaction (let that be a lesson to me – always get a name) and I was scolded for it.  I begged the woman on the phone to let Minnie get on that plane.  I told her that good people are being punished because there are bad people in the world.  This Miss Kim at Narita stopped listening to me  – mostly because I was being too loud for a Japanese person to handle – and handed the phone back to Minnie.

Minnie hung up with me, promising to call me back after Miss Kim at Narita called her supervisor and then called Haneda airport to verify if I had really been there.  At that point, I got out of bed and called Delta in the US, explaining to the customer service rep that my dear nanny was stuck at Narita because of their issues. I did not lose my cool. The woman at the other end of the phone spent a great deal of time understanding the story and getting ready to call her supervisor and then Narita airport. I was as patient as I knew how to be.

And then, after another fifteen minutes had elapsed already, Minnie called back to say that they were finally letting her on the plane.

I thanked the Delta representative (named Melinda, by the way) for her help, and hung up.  I tried to get back to sleep but at nearly 5am, that was not happening.  The only thing I could do at that point was cry with the release of frustration.

When we go through security at airports, I always thank the TSA people for helping to keep me and my family safe.  But this is beyond extreme.  This feels more like intolerance – American and Japanese intolerance.  Manila is not a vacation destination for most Americans, but it is home for a woman who is part of our family, and all I wanted to do was help her get home to her actual family for a few weeks.  And Delta and Narita customer service reps made it difficult.

The end result is a happy one – Minnie is home with her family by now.  But it has left a very bitter taste in my mouth about cultural bias and airline methodology.

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