When the Simple Act of Buying an Airplane Ticket Becomes Complicated A Letter of Damascus

September 18, 1994|By DOUG STRUCK

Damascus, Syria. -- We join your Faithful Correspondent about to buy a plane ticket to leave Damascus. Having gone through the experience once before [resulting in a feature on how it took a tantrum to get a ticket validated], he is smug in the belief that nothing so bad could happen again. This time, he figures, he will go through an agent.

Faithful Correspondent: Where is there a travel agent?

Hotel clerk: There is one in the hotel basement. But it is 2 p.m., and they are only open in the evening.

(Later, 8 p.m.)

FC: Why is the travel office closed?

Clerk: I'm sorry, it closed at 7 p.m. It will open tomorrow at 9 a.m.

(Next day, 9:30 a.m.)

FC: Hello. Anybody here in the travel office?

Young boy: The girl who works here isn't here. Maybe she will come in a half-hour. Maybe.

FC goes to concierge, asks concierge to find out when there are flights.

Concierge: I called. Only Syria Air flies Wednesdays and they are full. They also fly Thursdays.

L FC: Please make me a reservation on Thursday's flight, then.

Concierge: Well, they don't like to make reservations on the phone. Maybe the travel agent downstairs will do it. But she charges a high fee to make the reservation. And it won't do any good anyhow, because if someone comes and wants to buy a ticket, they sell him a ticket whether you have a reservation or not.

FC goes downtown to Syrian Airlines office, trepidation mounting.

Syrian Air: We don't fly on Wednesdays. Try Egypt Air.

FC goes Egypt Air office.

Egypt Air: Yes, we fly Wednesday. But there are no seats available on the flight.

FC: How about on First Class?

Egypt Air: Yes, of course there are seats on First Class.

FC: So sell me a ticket.

Egypt Air: If you buy a First Class ticket instead of economy, you have to pay a $28 luxury tax.

FC: OK. So here's my credit card.

Egypt Air: We can put the ticket on the credit card. But we cannot put the luxury tax on the credit card. And the bank is closed.

FC: What's the bank have to do with this?

Egypt Air: You have to change the money at the bank.

FC: But I don't need to change it. I have $28 here.

Egypt Air: No, it has to be in Syrian pounds.

FC: OK, I have Syrian pounds.

Egypt Air: No, we can't take it without the bank receipt showing you changed the money.

FC: Let me get this straight: I am at the airline ticket office, and I want to buy a ticket. I have money. But you won't sell me the ticket, because I have to go to a bank first to prove I have the money, and the bank is closed?

Egypt Air: I'm sorry sir. Those are the rules.

FC: And I wouldn't have to do this if you had an economy seat? But because I'm paying you more for a First Class ticket, you won't sell it to me because the bank is closed?

Egypt Air: Those are the rules sir.

FC: Argghh. When does the bank open?

Egypt Air: Tomorrow. There is a bank in your hotel. You need to show them a form that you have a confirmed flight.

FC: [Sighing] OK. Give me the form.

Egypt Air: Well. We don't usually give out the forms unless we are sure you are going to go. Are you absolutely sure you're going to fly?

FC: [unprintable])

(Next day at bank)

FC: Here is the form from the airline office. I need to pay the luxury tax.

Bank clerk: Of course, sir. Give me $28.

FC: Here's a $50.

Bank: Sorry, we don't have change.

FC: But you're a bank!

Bank: There is nothing in the drawer. Look.

FC: I don't care if you give me Syrian pounds or dollars. Just give me $20 -- anything close.

Bank: Try the hotel cashier.

(To hotel cashier)

FC: I need change for this $50.

Cashier: We don't have change. Try the bank.

FC ponders prospects of death from high blood pressure.

(Much later, same day, back at airline counter.)

FC: It's me. Here's the form. Here's the 1,176 Syrian pounds for the tax. Here's my credit card for the fare. Now would you please give me a ticket?

Egypt Air: Of course, sir. Will that be First Class or economy?

Doug Struck is The Baltimore Sun's Middle East correspondent.

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