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The Amazing Race 4, Episode 11 (7 August 2003)

Seoul (Republic of Korea) - Brisbane (Australia) - Mooloolaba (Australia)

“We need to get on a different flight!”

It seems to have become a pattern on “The Amazing Race” that the most popular team is the last team to be eliminated before the finale. Drew and Kevin, Danny and Oswald, and now this week in the fourth season circus clowns Al and Jon were each leading the audience popularity poll on the CBS Web site for “The Amazing Race”, but didn’t quite make the cut for the three teams that will race to the finish back in the USA.

It’s not my job to pick favorites, but I had picked Jon and Al as the team most likely to win this race around the world. Clowns are laughable — that’s their job — but they are also (A) professional athletes, (B) professionals at non-verbal communication, and (C) constant travellers (D) whose job, and whose safety on the job, depends on the ability to get critical things done, quickly, in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, work environment.

So how did Al and Jon lose out? Bad luck, apparently. That’s a lesson in itself: lot’s of things that go wrong when we are travelling are just bad luck, not anyone’s “fault”. The best we can do is to make them into a joke, or at least a good story to tell later.

One reader wrote me this week about a hard class train ride in Vietnam. (Instead of “1st class” and “2nd class”, or “coach” and “business class”, Vietnamese and Chinese trains have “hard class” and “soft class”, which mean pretty much what you might expect.) Here’s how theY described their journey:

“I spent 2 hours with travellers tummy crouched over the latrine hole in the freezing cold, virtually dark, constantly-in-violent- motion train bathroom. I was grateful for [two] things: the light prevented me looking around and the roll of stateside TP I had brought along. About 1 AM my son disappeared from his bunk and returned 3 hours later, having spent the time in the baggage car, looking out the open doors and learning rudimentary Vietnamese from some soldiers travelling home. It was a horror show at the time, but makes great, funny stories in retrospect.”

Anyway, the clowns first thought they had gotten ahead when they phoned a 24-hour travel agency assistance line to find a set of connecting flights that would get them from Seoul, South Korea, to Brisbane, Australia, arriving earlier than the other teams. It’s one of those things that’s so obvious I can scarcely believe we haven’t seen it before in the race — the thing the racers have consistently handled worst has been choosing and arranging flights. Meanwhile, all the other teams got tickets for a different flight recommended by the airline ticket counter staff.

Why did a travel agent suggest flights arriving sooner than the flights any airline offered? Airlines will recommend their own flights first, and other “partner” airlines with which they have marketing agreements (“alliances”) second. The meaning of a marketing alliance between airlines is that they will promote and recommend each others’ flights, even if they are less appropriate for the customer. Only if the customer specifically asks will they mention flights on other airlines. Even if you ask, as some of the racers did, “Are there other flights on another airline that would get us there sooner?”, do you really expect airline salespeople at the counter to tell them, “Yes, of course, you’ll get a better deal from our competitors over there than you would from us and our partners?”

In this case, as often happens, the best connections involved flights on non-aligned airlines, which only a travel agent independent of the airlines would be likely to recommend. Each airline suggested slower connections using its partners.

But the clowns lost out when fog delayed all takeoffs from Incheon Airport. (A common event we all face: I spent four hours at Philadelphia International Airport last weekend, two hours of them in the plane on the runway, waiting out thunderstorms.) While their flights were scheduled to arrive sooner, that was because they involved a shorter connection. With their departure delayed two hours, they realized they wouldn’t make their connection, and they tried to switch to the flights the other teams were on, which had a longer connection.

By the time they realized they would have to switch flights, it was too late: while they were waiting for their tickets to be “endorsed” to the other airline, the airline had stopped accepting passengers and closed the doors to the plane. We weren’t shown what delayed the change to their tickets, but in general the key to getting tickets endorsed to another airline — whether because of weather delays, schedule changes, flight cancellations, or airline bankruptcy — is having paper tickets rather than e-tickets. Avoid e-tickets whenever possible, especially for long-haul international flights or any flights outside the First World. (For more, see my FAQ About Changes to Flights and Tickets and the discussion of e-tickets in my “Practical Nomad” books.)

Al and Jon weren’t allowed on, even though the plane was actually still at the gate. (That’s happened to me: I once wasn’t allowed on a flight from London to San Francisco when, delayed on the Underground en route from central London to Heathrow Airport, I got to the check- in counter slightly less than the required two hours before departure.) They had to take yet another, later, flight, and got to Australia too far behind the rest of the teams to catch up.

I’ve had to run through Incheon Airport myself, when my incoming flight was delayed and a scheduled two-connection turned into a twenty-minute sprint from gate to gate. It wasn’t fun, especially since my travelling companion wasn’t quite fully recovered from a broken ankle on another trip. It’s a common lesson: for any air traveller, but especially on long-haul international flights, insisting on shorter connections can save you a little time in the best case, but can cost you much more time in the worst case. The odds are that you’ll get there most quickly by allowing more time than the recommended minimum for all connections. This was the second time in this season of the race — remember air traffic controllers Dave and Steve failing to make it between airports in Paris in time in episode five — that a team was eliminated after planning too short a connection between flights.

I’m sorry to see the clowns go, but I hope we can all learn from the manner of their elimination: when you really need to get someplace in a hurry, allow yourself extra time. Get to the airport early (at least two hours, preferably three, for any flight) and avoid short connections. Airlines have no liability if you miss a connection, even if you miss it because their incoming flight was late, and even if they told you it was a legal connection. A “legal” connection is one for which the airline is willing to issue tickets, not one that is guaranteed. If it seems too short, it probably is. If you aren’t sure, ask for flights with more time to change planes. (For more, see my FAQ: Advice to Air Travellers.) P.S. I’ll have more details in a future issue of my newsletter, but the revised — and even worse — regulations for the “CAPPS-II” airline passenger profiling and surveillance system are now open for public comments. For suggestions on what to say in your comments, see here.

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