If you are ever in a position where you are flying internationally non-revenue standby e-ticket, heed this advice: do not switch your listing to first class less than twenty-four hours before your flight.
The night before our flight back home, my mom talked to my dad on the phone and as he looked at the flight information that Airlines employees have access to, he said that it looked really good for us to get into first class. My mom had listed us in coach, so she told him to go ahead and cancel the coach listing and re-list us in first class. We didn't know it at the time, but the American and European computer systems are different and although the cancellation showed up right away in the European system, our new flight information wasn't there.
We didn't know that, of course, when we went to check-in. The Air France check-in agent looked on the flight list and said that we were not listed on the flight. My mom showed her the now cancelled listing, and all the agent said was, "I believe you used to be on the flight, but you are not now on the flight. We have no record of you." They wouldn't give mom access to a computer to list us on the flight, and I'm not sure that it would have worked anyways since the systems were different. The agent's supervisor gave us a calling card with ten minutes on it to make arrangements. John started getting anxious, afraid that we'd never get back home. I tried to reassure him as mom left to find a phone and get us on the flight to Minneapolis.
After much longer than ten minutes, mom came rushing to where we were waiting. "I got access to a computer and I have a paper ticket for me, but I couldn't get one for you and John. They told us to bring it back to the check-in agent and see if they can get you and John on the flight." So we went back to the check-in area. This new Air France agent was very encouraging. "The flight to Minneapolis is closed now, but there's a flight to Detroit that we will try to get you on."
After several phone calls in French and what seemed like forever, she said that we could get on a different flight to the USA. She checked our bags, confirmed our seat assignments, gave us the names of the best French wines and cheeses, wrote a note to the gate agents about our situation and sent us on our way. The flight was already boarding.
We got to the gate and showed her the note from the helpful check-in lady. The gate lady immediately got her manager. He knew our situation because apparently the helpful lady had called him. "This coupon is not valid," he said roughly, holding the coupon mom had printed while she'd managed to list herself. "And where are the other two coupons?" he asked, pointing his head at John and me. "They are e-tickets," mom said. "You are not listed on this flight. None of you. I cannot let you on."
Mom pleaded our case. She tried to explain to him what had happened. "I know," he said. "I appreciate your situation. But I cannot let you on the plane. You are not listed on the flight." Again we pleaded. "I know. I appreciate your situation," he said unconvincingly, "but that is your problem, not mine. My problem is that you are not listed and I cannot let you on the flight." Exasperated, with visions of the movie where that guy is stuck in the airport, I said "how can we get on the flight, then." "You need to be listed." "But we do not have access to a computer to list ourselves," I said. "I understand, but I cannot let you on the flight." "Well then, who can? If you can't let us on the flight, who can?!"
He was so sure that his supervisor would not let us on the plane that he practically threw his phone at Mom, challenging her to see for herself after he dialed his boss' number. While mom talked to the stubborn French guy's boss, John started crying and I felt like crying. I just held him and tried to convince him that we would get back to the USA somehow. Worst case scenario: we'd have to call Dad, have him list us on a flight and wait twenty-four hours until the European computer system recognized the change. The only little problem with that was that we'd locked the apartment keys inside the apartment. I didn't tell John that part. Just a minor detail though in the whole context of things.
I heard mom spelling her name out for the hard-hearted French guy's boss, first name, last name, then her employee number, then repeating her employee number, then assurances that she would send in the boarding passes to be taken out of her paycheck, then name dropping of a few managers she happens to work with. My heart soared. She handed the phone back to the angry French guy. He started talking in English so that we could understand. Then he switched to French and walked away from us. We could tell he was arguing his case.
Finally he got off the phone and came over to us. "I'm going to let you on the flight. But you tell the people at the Airline that I am just trying to follow the rules that they set up. They make rules and then they don't even follow them. Not just you, and I understand your situation is different. But we get thousands of non-revenue employees and managers who don't bother to list themselves then think they can get on for free. The managers make the rules for the employees, but the managers don't follow the rules themselves. If I make an exception for you, I have to make an exception for them. And then I get in trouble for not following the rules." Suddenly I felt bad for this frustrated French guy just trying to do his job and follow the rules.
We were the last ones on the plane. We would have been happy to be in coach, but so glad we were in first class. "Would you like some water, orange juice or champagne?" the flight attendant asked me after we found our seats. I had the champagne.