The Brancatelli File



December 11, 2003 -- So how would you like this week's humbling dose of cosmic truth? Via a wickedly funny, but undoubtedly apocryphal, story making the rounds of the Internet? Or with a sad, but true, tale of life on the road witnessed by your frequent-flying reporter?

Ah, what the hell. 'Tis the season for giving, so let me give you both. Who knows, we may actually learn two lessons this week.

During last weekend's Nor'easter-cum-blizzard, or so the Internet tale goes, a lone United agent at Washington/Dulles struggled to rebook a long line of inconvenienced travelers.

One angry passenger pushed his way to the front of the line, slapped his ticket on the counter and said, "I have to be on this flight and it has to be first class."

"I'm sorry, sir," the agent replied, "I'll be happy to help you, but I've got to help these folks first."

"Do you have any idea who I am?" the angry man thundered.

Without hesitation, the gate agent smiled and grabbed the public-address mike. "May I have your attention, please," she began. "We have a passenger who does not know who he is. If anyone can help him, please come to the gate."

Since I get a blizzard of E-mails purporting to detail this encounter every time there's a snowstorm, this tale of karmic comeuppance is probably an urban legend. But here's something that actually happened to me a couple of years ago in Cracow, Poland.

Stranded at the Forum Hotel before the crack of a foggy dawn without a ride to the airport, I was bailed out by a Swiss gentleman who offered to share his cab with me. It turned out that we were both headed for the 6 a.m. LOT Polish flight to Warsaw.

In the cab, I learned the fellow's name (Jean-Pierre), his current assignment (director of a large Swiss management firm), his career history (important gigs that took him from Kenya to Cincinnati) and his opinion on the state of the world's airlines.

This, I thought, was a fascinating and sophisticated fellow. He spoke four languages and he wore his blue cashmere coat and silky red scarf with style. I admired his verve and panache.

Then we got to airport and, before I could set down my bag, Jean-Pierre was in a royal, raging, screaming fit.

"What is wrong with you people?" he yelled in English at the young woman behind the LOT Polish check-in counter. "You have no sense of responsibility. This is ridiculous! You've got a long way to go before you reach European standards. This is an insult!" he shouted, then stalked away, trailing his blue cashmere coat and his silky red scarf behind him.

When I got to the counter, the poor agent was still shaking. But she managed to stammer that she was sorry, that the 6 a.m. flight was delayed by about two hours because of the weather and would I please accept her most sincere apologies and a voucher from LOT for breakfast at the airport cafe.

All I could think about was how nice the agent was, how thoughtful it was that LOT Polish was buying all its passengers breakfast and what a jerk Jean-Pierre was for raging at this low-level employee whose only crime was that she was the messenger bearing a breakfast voucher and bad news about the weather.

The moral of our two tales of life on the road?

Number One: Nobody at the airport cares how important you think you are.

Number Two: Screaming and yelling never works and, besides, why are you taking your frustrations out on underpaid underlings in the first place?

I know from years of experience that the first lesson is the hardest to learn. Almost by definition, frequent flyers are important people. As the cost of travel has skyrocketed, only movers, shakers and rainmakers get to go on the road for their firms. More to the point, frequent flyers are not used to being told "no" inside their companies. They're used to getting their way. They give orders and they expect people to obey.

But, guess what, fellow flyers? That stuff don't mean diddly at the airport. Who you are and the clout you wield at the office just doesn't cut it with the $8-an-hour clerk at the airport. At the ticket counter, they have the power and you're just another traveler in a wrinkled suit.

If you're gonna survive, you have to learn that lesson. Your corporate influence and stature ends at the front door of the terminal. Rattle your ceremonial CEO saber all you want when you're in your corner office. But when you're on the road, shut up and stand in line with the rest of the huddled masses. And get used to taking "no" for an answer. You're gonna hear it a lot at the airport.

Which brings me to Lesson Two. It goes without saying that Jean-Pierre was nothing more than a multilingual bully with good taste in clothes. Anyone sharp enough to get to his position in life should have been bright enough to know that the LOT Polish counter clerk at Cracow Airport can't change the weather. He unloaded on her anyway because belittling a powerless functionary somehow made him feel important.

But Jean-Pierre should have been smarter as well as more rationale. If a two-hour delay at Cracow was so vexing, why the hell didn't he call the airport before he left the hotel to check on the status of the flight? If he'd called, he'd have known about the weather delay and been able to sleep in for two more hours.

When I tracked him down in the cafe that day, I told him as much.

"You're right," of course, he said, suavely. "I should have called. It was foolish not to do so. These things are very much more in our control than we want to acknowledge. All we have to do is take more care."

But, you know, Jean-Pierre didn't learn a damned thing. When we finally boarded the plane that day, a flight attendant came on the public address. In both Polish and English, she explained our itinerary, the in-flight service and several other matters. She also gave us a new arrival time in Warsaw.

Jean-Pierre, seated an aisle ahead of me, turned in my direction. "Nice way to apologize for the delay," he said snidely.

Unfortunately, the world is full of Jean-Pierres. I wish them a life on the road full of middle seats in coach and oversold, overpriced hotels. Then, at least, the crimes will fit their rage.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.