My wife and I wanted to try the digital nomadic life.
One or two people might suggest that with the current pandemic this idea was just foolishness. However, we wanted to see what it really means to travel overseas and work overseas right now.
The first step was to book flights. We chose Lisbon simply because we love Lisbon. (It is this rare example of peaceful and decent civilization in a world that has become twisted.)
Not so long ago, the Portuguese national airline, TAP, instituted direct flights from San Francisco to Lisbon. It was an opportunity for us to avoid crossing another European capital.
We were already completely boosted by the vaccines. We had scheduled a PCR test the day before the flight. There was one small problem though: the TAP site didn’t like my credit card.
Three times I tried to fill in the details. On three occasions, the site rejected them, insisting that I had to do the one thing no one wants to do these days: contact customer service at an airline.
Wait times can be longer than many flights. This can escalate frustration beyond safe flight levels. Still, I frowned and dialed TAP’s US customer service number. Then I waited, getting ready to watch a movie or two while I did.
Maybe a few minutes went by, with no movement on the other side, when another call arrived on my phone. I looked at my screen; it was a Portuguese number.
It was strange. So strange that my first instinct was to believe it was particularly sophisticated spam. Yet, putting a tint of faith in humanity, I answered the call.
“Hi, is that Krzzzzzztof?” The male voice said. (My official first name has a lot of z’s and throaty challenges.)
When I admitted that this was the case, the man continued: “It is [I was so taken aback I’ve forgotten his name, so let’s call him Andres] by TAP Air Portugal. “
My skepticism hadn’t quite gone away, but I was happy to listen a little more. “Hi,” I replied, as if that was perfectly normal behavior.
“I see you are having issues with your reservation,” Andres continued. “Your credit card, yes? “
It was all a little too surprising, as well as a little too real. It was a customer service person calling me, instead of the other way around. And he was calling me to help him.
How was that possible? How had Andres snooped on my attempt to book a flight? How could I even ask him, when I was just so thrilled that this airline was somehow proactively preparing to solve my problem – using human means?
As it turned out, for some strange technological reason, the TAP site believed I was my wife. The credit card number I was trying to enter was incorrectly linked to his name. Therefore, he was rejected.
Andres quickly corrected this. While we were talking he emailed me our flight confirmation and it was all done in five minutes. He was quite charming, and I was totally helpless.
I have no special privileges with TAP. At the time of Andres’ intervention, I was not even a member of the airline’s frequent flyer program.
While many airlines are using AI to answer calls from countless angry customers, here is an example of human e-commerce that was bizarre because exemplary.
I don’t know if TAP does this all the time. I have no idea how many human customer service agents the airline employs in Portugal or elsewhere. But it was a decency beyond measure, which, frankly, I also associate with the country.
A moment of fleeting fantasy made me wonder what it would be like if all airlines behaved this way, especially in the United States. Then I slapped my face and regained consciousness.
One day, maybe the AI will perform the precise function that Andres displayed so well. One day, one of the benefits of computerized anticipation will be solving problems before customers get angry.
This day seems far away. This is why TAP’s approach here was so remarkable.
And here’s another weird thing: the flight was perfectly on time and no one got mad at having to wear a mask.