When an airplane is about to leave, and there’s still room on it (taking into consideration pre-planned, unchangeable limits, like “we only put in enough fuel for 170 people”) there are sometimes seats the airline would still like to fill, if they could get some money for them. They know about these seats so late, they cannot offer any kind of reservation system for them. They let third-parties sell vouchers to get people onto the planes, but the airlines don’t want the third parties competeing with them, so the third parties are prohibited from advertising. So there’s this little micro-industry of people who sell these vouchers, and you basically have to hear about it from someone who has done it to know about it. It’s called air-hitching, or standby travel. I heard about it from Erika of Pangaea.
As an adventure, I’ve decided to fly back to Guatemala by air hitching. I will spend about 50% of the best possible price of a commercial flight for the vouchers, and then I’ll spend some more money for ground transport. I’ll be going from Oakland to Cancun, which is the only route that is “air hitchable” and gets me close to where I want to be. I’ll travel from Cancun to Lake Atitlan for about 20% of the price of the commercial flight. That leaves me with a 30% margin to come out ahead. I suspect I’ll end up eating all that margin up with some sort of snafu. Should be interesting.
The first step of my air-hitching experience was getting to the bottom of the feuds happening in the industry so as to pick a company with the least bad reputation. It is a tiny industry which seems to be populated by blowhards, shady characters, and overzealous, immature, rude students. You really can’t make this stuff up… for a bit of background about the players, read this. I decided to go with AirTech, which seems to have the least public dirt on it on the net. (Until now… read on.)
I got ready to buy my voucher, but the only delivery option was $14 for 1-day delivery in the United States. I didn’t need it this fast, so I sent this email to find out if there was an alternative:
To: firstname.lastname@example.org Date: Jun 18, 2005 2:05 AM The only shipping option I see is 1-day, at $14. First, that's $6 more than 1 day shipping from USPS costs. Second, I don't need the vouchers until 7/14. You are already $30 more expensive than air-hitch.org. The $14 extra is too much. Can you ship them with only certified mail ($3) or will I need to buy from air-hitch.org? -jeff
I will fully, gleefully admit that I was playing the finicky customer. I fully expected I was going to get stuck with the $14, but I figured it didn’t hurt to ask. I also wanted to try out their e-mail responsiveness before I gave them my money, and this was as good a question as any. They advertise low prices for the vouchers, so it is natural that they would try to rip you off by quoting unreasonably high prices for the shipping. That said, the vouchers are like cash, so they need to be shipped with at least certified mail. So $5 might have been fair. $14 has clearly got a little profit in it.
Promptly, I got the following note back:
From: mike Date: Jun 18, 2005 2:12 AM Hi Jeff, It is a bit expensive but I guarantee you that if you deal with us you will have first rate service and a much better experience in general.. for the additonal 30 dollars (and btw I don't think you have added up all of airhitches charges) you will at least be able to deal with a professional and courteous organisation that takes fone calls and returns calls, air hitch does not have fone service nor do they return calls, I also advise you to search the internet and see the huge amount of negative opinions that people have about air-hitch, but don't see you haven't been warned, also..what was your itinerary where are you trying to get to? Good luck! Michael Esterson President, Airtech www.airtech.com PS you can save the shipping charge by picking up your flight passes in NYC..
A couple things to notice about this message:
- The president of the company is doing customer service. Have I mentioned this is a tiny little fragment of the travel industry?
- The attention to detail in the response is somewhat below that you might expect for a professional customer service agent.
- My question was not answered, but he offered a way to avoid the charge entirely. OK, not perfect, but it’s a start.
- The response consists of about 2 lines promoting his company, and 7 lines tearing down the competitor.
Irritated that my experience air hitching was going down the exact same path that so many have suffered before, I replied:
To: mike Date: Jun 18, 2005 2:52 AM Thank you for the warning, but I am fully aware of the history of the three feuding companies. Instead of insulting your competitor, could you please answer my question: Is there a cheaper shipping option than $14? The answer to your question is that I would like to fly from Oakland CA to Cancun Mexico around 7/15/05 and return roughly 2 months later. It is this unprofessional behavior that makes all three of you bozos (AirTech, Air-Hitch, and AirHitch) hardly worth dealing with. -jeff
Note that I managed to write three professional sentences and then let loose with the last one. This was a combination old-style flaming (pissed off writers write rude things), but also a test to see if I could get the info I needed and get back to doing business with AirTech without resorting to calling each other names. Yes, I called them bozos. Yes, that’s not a very nice thing to do. But I’m the customer and if he wants my money, it is really a small price to pay to suck it up, ignore the insult, and get back to business.
The reply followed the pattern of AirHitch so closely, I’m wondering if the two companies really did go their separate ways! Here it is:
From: mike Date: Jun 18, 2005 3:02 AM I was trying to answer you in a thoughtful way, you answered in a mean and aggressive way, mean spirited customers like you are hardly worth dealing with, take your business where you please, I am sure in this case either company will work fine for you, may your journey be a safe one. And the answer is no, there is no other option than the $14 dollar shipping fee that we charge. Peace mike
Wow, OK, so now who’s flaming? I think this is the first time I’ve ever been explicitly fired as a customer by a company (let alone, by their president). The really sick thing is, though, that I still want to do business with them. Because here’s the really ugly truth about air hitching: this kind of service is about the best you can hope for. If you think air hitching is for you (financially, or for the simple adventure of it), you simply have to tolerate this type of behavior from the companies. Strange, huh?
I just replied to him as follows:
To: mike Date: Jun 18, 2005 4:21 AM > answer is no, there is no other option than the $14 dollar > shipping fee that Thank you, that's the piece of info I needed, which I could not find for myself on your website. If you will take my business I'd like to give it to you. I would like to try standby travel for the first time, and my research leads me to believe you guys will give me the best service in the industry. So, should I click buy, or would prefer I didn't? -jeff
It will be interesting to see if his greed overcomes his desire to inflict the maximum damage upon me possible, which I assume would be him blacklisting me from ever travelling with them or something. I’m kind of hoping he does, so I can just give up on this air hitching thing before it gets any uglier than it already is!
But for now, I will persevere, so that I have something to write about here.