Monday, December 26, 2011

Feeling like a king at 30,000 feet


The gentleman seated next to me took a sip of his drink and sighed. "Once you've had it and lost it, you definitely want it back," he said.

I quickly agreed. "It took me years to get it. Now I can't imagine living without it."

We could have been discussing love, fame, money or maybe even a decent golf swing. But in this case we were talking about something far different.

Elite airline status.

Our desire to obtain "it" resulted in our being sandwiched together on American Airlines Flight 889 between Chicago and Los Angeles. Our sole purpose was to turn around and fly back as quickly as possible. That's what "mileage chasers" do.

As the calendar year draws to a close, you see mileage chasers in most major airports. We're the ones whose luggage consists of nothing more than an iPad and a magazine. Why pack clothing? We aren't staying. We are simply doing whatever it takes to hit that magic number - usually 100,000 miles flown in a calendar year - so we can be labeled "Executive Platinum," "Premiere," "Diamond Medallion" or some other equally pretentious term coined by the airline industry. Incidentally, casual travelers have another word for us, but it's not printable in most major news publications.

Admit it, infrequent fliers: You detest us. We're the ones who board first, enter the special lines at crowded security checkpoints, and somehow manage to avoid baggage fees. If, heaven forbid, we are forced to check a bag, it appears in the claim area mere seconds after the carousel begins spinning. While other fliers wonder if they are going to get overhead bin space, we're wondering when the salted nuts will arrive. If the Occupy Wall Street movement turned its wrath on the airline industry, we would be the 1 percent.

Please don't hate us. You should feel sorry for us because we are disturbed individuals. It takes a twisted person to fly SIX legs between Chicago and Los Angeles in a 36-hour period during the Christmas season, pausing only to grab a brief nap at an airport motel before catching the first shuttle back to the terminal. Which is precisely what I did. Each segment accrued 1,745 miles in my American Airlines account. Tack on a special double mileage bonus for flying to a West Coast destination and that meant nearly 21,000 miles in my kitty, allowing me to achieve the remaining one-fifth of my goal in two days, if I added correctly. If nothing else, mileage chasers are very competent at math.

Contrary to popular belief, we are also the most nervous fliers, particularly late in the year. We will completely freak out when we hear that dreaded four-word phrase from the cockpit. No, it's not: "Please assume crash positions." Rather, it's: "Maintenance is on board." If the plane crashes, at least we would be forever free from the rigors of chasing miles. But cancel a flight? That makes us hyperventilate or reach for the air-sickness bag. We need EVERY flight to take off and land, even if one wing falls off somewhere over Denver.

Note to American Airlines executives: Your loyal customers also need you to retain the frequent-flier program, despite your recent Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. Cancel it and we will use one of several free tickets we have earned due to our EXECUTIVE PLATINUM status to hunt down whoever pulled the plug. We will also bring Alec Baldwin with us.

The only way to keep us calm is to talk to us during the flight. We're great conversationalists since we've already seen every in-flight movie and listened to every audio channel - including the Spanish stations. We even have plenty of travel tips that we are happy to share. For example:

That purple yarn you tied to your luggage will not distinguish it from other pieces. Besides, baggage handlers take bets on who can steal the most yarn in an eight-hour shift.

Putting a privacy shield over your laptop screen is pointless. What do you expect your seatmate to do? Steal your secret solitaire strategy?

If you think those body scanners really can see everything, consider taking Greyhound.

I would offer more, but I just checked my mileage status and realized I miscalculated. I'm still 150 miles short.

Grand Rapids, here I come!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Customer Service Never Tasted So Good


Every journalist charged with writing a weekly column yearns for two things:

1. Somebody will actually read the column

2. Somebody will feel strongly enough about the column to respond

Columnists particularly love it when No. 2 occurs, because we immediately think, "Wow, if I respond to the responder, I might just have ANOTHER column and won't have to beat my head against a wall three hours before deadline wondering what I am going to write about!"

This is precisely what happened after I wrote a piece detailing my desire to man the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line. I merely wanted to hear the anguished voices of those hapless people thrust into the role of chef on Thanksgiving Day. After years of botching my holiday bird, I needed proof that I wasn't alone.

One day after posting the column on Twitter, an email arrived from Allison McClamroch, senior vice president at Edelman Consumer Marketing, Butterball's PR agency. In part, it read:

"We would love to have you out at the Talk-Line for Turkey 101 - with the experts who take all the calls."

An invitation? A chance to see the inner workings of the Butterball operation? I felt like Santa himself had summoned me to the North Pole on Dec. 23 and said, "Bring a video camera. And your kids!" I immediately accepted and, a few days later, found myself standing in the lobby of a nondescript office building in (dare I divulge the location?) Naperville, Ill.

Allison met me at the fifth-floor reception area and soon I was inside the Turkey Talk-Line nerve center, which consisted of 10 tables , each containing three to four festively dressed women. Yes, all the participants are female, something the Talk-Line's supervisors are aware of but don't seem too concerned about. Then again, would you rather have a male or female voice answering the phone when you're calling about the finer points of stuffing?

Within two hours, I had learned how much time I had wasted over the years worrying about . . . nothing. Registered dietitian and 12-year Talk-Line veteran Sue Smith told me it was perfectly OK to put a slightly frozen turkey in the oven and not necessary to spends hours with my hand inside various body cavities cleaning out turkey innards. Talk-Line supervisor Marty Van Ness suggested various ways of preparing the bird but cringed when I mentioned how my mother used to roast our holiday turkey in a brown paper grocery sack.

"Combustible item in a hot oven with grease. Never a good combination," she said.

Mom had no idea she was putting the entire family at risk every November.

Watching these ladies in action, I wondered, "Why can't all customer support lines work this way?" At Butterball, callers ask a question and receive not only an answer, but assurance that everything will be fine. The Talk-Line definitely does not operate like the cable company for not once did I hear, "Your turkey looks pink? OK, we'll send a technician out sometime between Thursday and Saturday."

It also does not function like a computer support department. If it did, every Talk-Line rep would have been ordered to begin the conversation with, "May I please have the turkey's serial number? (PAUSE) I'm sorry but that is not a Butterball turkey and therefore does not qualify for support. Goodbye."

Or, "Our records show you called last year. Unfortunately, you are only allowed one free Talk-Line call. If you want any more advice, you must upgrade to the Butterball Silver Talk-Line Plan. Do you have your credit card ready?"

Finally, the calls to Naperville stayed in Naperville. Nobody was placed on hold while satellites bounced the caller through space until, 15 minutes later, a monotone voice from a call center in Bangalore, India, droned, "If I'm hearing you right, you're wondering why there are flames shooting from your turkey fryer? Please hold while I transfer you to a higher level of support."

So thanks, Butterball, for assuring me that, should I choose to host Thanksgiving next year, my cooking duties will be infinitely easier. I just have one more question:

Does anybody there know anything about cable TV?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Nothing says 'I'm too lazy" like a gift card


For the umpteenth straight year, I missed "Black Friday," the one-day shopping frenzy featuring mature, intelligent adults who set their alarms for 1 a.m., venture to assorted retail outlets and return hours later with bruises, lacerations, eyes stinging from pepper spray and business cards from personal injury attorneys.

Three days later, I neglected to take part in "Cyber Monday," the virtual event featuring mature, intelligent adults who log onto PCs, click on heavily discounted items, and leave the gift-giving season in the hands of the ALWAYS RELIABLE U.S. Postal Service while praying the website they just visited was legitimate as opposed to an exact replica created by high-tech criminals.

By some estimates, this year these two events added $12.4 billion to our struggling economy. As much as I would have liked to contribute, the fact remains that I am simply too lazy to Christmas shop via the normal methods. Instead, I have created another day in which to start and finish my holiday buying.

Gift Card Tuesday.

I'm choosing Tuesday because, let's face it, it's the most boring day of the week. You don't head back to work Tuesday, it's not "Hump Day," and it's never part of an extended weekend. Tuesdays are quiet and Gift Card Tuesday will allow me to check off everybody on my Christmas list -- in about 15 minutes.

I've already got everything planned out. The local drugstore will be the site of my purchases since I have a prescription waiting to be picked up. Afterward, I will saunter over to the gift card rack, which seems to double in size each year. Even the most specialized stores like Bass Pro Shops have jumped on the lazy-shopper bandwagon by churning out those 3 1/4-by-2-inch pieces of plastic, adorned with the establishment's logo and a holiday symbol. All seem to say, "I'D MAKE A GREAT GIFT. SEE? I HAVE A WREATH ON MY CARD!"

This year, I will began with my wife, who pays the bills, car pools the kids and cooks delicious meals every night. She could use a little pampering, right?

Bath & Body Works. Done.

Next is my brother-in-law. Didn't he once say it was his dream to someday finish his basement, complete with a home theater and wet bar? Fifty dollars from The Home Depot should get him started. Next year at this time, I'll be sitting in his sparkling new rec room, drinking his beer and eating his snacks, all the while knowing that I helped make it possible.

Now that NBA players and owners have stopped bickering and agreed to an actual season, I have a reason to purchase an NBA store gift card for my nephew. I think players will get 51.15 percent of my purchase and owners the remaining 48.85. Or is it the other way around?

My cellphone-toting daughter will love the Verizon gift card that gives her extra minutes. When I was her age, I wanted a new bike; today's kids desire the ability to talk longer.

All of my relatives over 16 have driver's licenses. Therefore, any of them could use a Jiffy Lube card, courtesy of yours truly. When my sister pulls her vehicle into stall No. 1 and hears a voice from the ground below scream, "OIL AND LUBE!," she will think of me.

That leaves only my parents. What to get two people in their late 70s? Since they live nearby, the Southwest Airlines gift card is out, as it will make them think I'm trying to get rid of them. The International House of Pancakes is more their speed. Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad. Have a Rooty Tooty Fresh 'N Fruity on your son!

Afterward, I will return home with all my purchases in a single bag. If I'm still feeling festive, I will design a Christmas card on my PC and blast it to everybody in my address book via one mouse click.

That should leave more than enough time for a nap.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

It's time to delete the pause button

A time-honored tradition in the Schwem household involves gathering around the television during the closing minutes of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade and waving to Santa as he enters Herald Square. Normally this joyous event occurs at approximately noon Chicago time.

This year Santa arrived at 12:38 p.m.

No, this was not due to an oversight by parade organizers. After 85 years of lining up participants, a task that, judging by the parade's length, begins somewhere in Ohio, I'm certain nobody has ever said, "Where's the red-suited guy with the beard?" Mark my words, Santa's whereabouts are ALWAYS known. The folks at Macy's would rather lose an entire high school marching band than have to explain how Santa missed his cue.

Kriss Kringle's delay was entirely the fault of my TV remote, specifically the "pause" feature. As a man living in a house with three women, I have a small request for television manufacturers, cable companies, set top box makers and whomever else is responsible for temporarily suspending the present with the click of a button:


Don't you see what you are doing? The pause button simply gives women a tool to keep men waiting. This is precisely what happened on Thanksgiving Day. Our plan, agreed to by all four family members the night before, was to wave to Santa at noon, load up the car and be on the road shortly thereafter.

"Let's shoot for 12:30," my wife said.

At 11:54 a.m. I was fully dressed and perched in front of the TV, watching the last of the inflatable balloons hover over 34th Street. Also at 11:54 a.m., a half-baked pie was in the oven, one daughter was frantically looking for a shoe, the other's whereabouts were unknown and I heard a shower running in the distance.

"Santa's just about here," I called upstairs.

"PAUSE IT!" yelled three voices in unison.

Outnumbered as always, I gave in to technology and bought my wife and daughters as much time as they darn well pleased. Much like a turkey, I was left to stew, alone, in my own juices. Eventually all three sauntered downstairs in Thanksgiving attire, oblivious to the fact that our departure time had come and gone.

"Ready," one daughter said.

"Santa's probably back at the North Pole by now," I replied testily.

My younger daughter, 9 years old and still a "believer," picked up the remote and hit the hated pause button.

"He's right there, Dad," she gestured at the TV. "Hi, Santa!"

"Hope he brings you everything you want this year," my wife chimed in.

"How about a clock for starters," I mumbled.

"Hush, Scrooge," came the reply.

My greatest fear is that pausing live television is only the beginning. In a few years, it's entirely possible that a cinema full of men will be staring at frozen images of actors on screen while a lone woman remains at home, changing outfits. What about theater? Ladies, just contact a female usher during that Broadway production and ask her to aim her remote at Nathan Lane and hit "pause." That will give you time to adjust your makeup.

Girls, when you attend a live sporting event, ever notice that men only visit restrooms during halftime and timeouts? That's because we know there is no pause button. We have been trained to live in the present, as opposed to altering the present to suit our needs. Please, please, can't you see our ways and at least TRY to be ready on time?

Alas, I'm afraid my request will fall on deaf ears. The pause feature is as commonplace on televisions these days as the on/off button. Television manufacturers have moved on to even cooler features including surround sound and 3-D capability. I'll take odds that, in a few years, one press of a button will cause the entire cast of "Modern Family" to leap from the TV and finish the episode live in my living room.

Of course, I will be the only family member watching. The rest will be upstairs, looking for shoes and yelling, "Pause it, pause it!"