We stand, slack-jawed, as a real-life Carol Beer performs Little Britain’s the “Computer says no” scene. For those unfamiliar with the television series, Carol is a travel agent who, when asked by a client for a boat ride for two people, replies: “There’s only one place left. Would one of you be OK swimming alongside?”
At 6.30pm in Changi Airport, my son is bumped from our flight. Apparently he needs to stay in a hotel in Singapore, while my daughter and I fly to Thailand.
“But he’s 10 years old,” I stutter. “There must be some mistake.”
“The computer doesn’t say he’s a child,” a Singapore Airlines staff member says, straight-faced.
What follows is familiar to any fan of British comedy. I half expect a dead parrot or the Minister of Silly Walks to enter the scene.
“Um, I don’t have international roaming on my phone. Can I use yours to call Virgin in Australia?” I plead.
“No, but you can use one of the public computers to email them,” she says, in the final stages of boarding.
I try, frantically, to log on, but it needs to send a code to my phone. “Er, it won’t let me in. Can I send the code to your mobile, or use your computer?” I beg.
“Sorry, that’s not company policy,” the robot – I mean – staffer says.
This is the result of a string of computer catastrophes, which begin upon booking.
- The Virgin call-centre operator books Taj on the wrong flight from Singapore to Phuket.
- His status as a child isn’t transferred to the Singapore Airlines system.
- Check-in at Sydney picks up the problem, doing a “forced transfer”.
- This procedure carries a risk of automatically cancelling the flight.
- I try to confirm that his ticket is OK at Silk Air upon arrival in Singapore, only to be met by an eye roll.
The good news is that our experience uncovers a “system limitation”, according to the public-relations folk at Singapore Airlines. The IT team is “looking into it”.
But we’re not alone. Inveterate traveller Deborah Dickson-Smith, of where-to-next.com, always has problems with her name because her passport still has her married name, O’Sullivan, even though she’s divorced.
“I couldn’t check in to an Air Asia flight this week because the computer said my surname was invalid,” she says.
“When I was finally issued a boarding card, I discovered it had used my middle name, then presumably run out of space: it knows me as `Deborah ZoeO’.”
Maidinaustralia.com blogger Bronwyn Marquardt was seated away from her husband on a Qantas flight for their honeymoon, “presumably because we have different last names”.
Vanessa Liell, managing director of n2n communications, suspects this is the reason she is separated from her husband and three children on international flights.
“This leaves him with them for long periods of time,” she says. “We swap. We really do!”
We encounter this on an overnight Hawaiian Airlines flight, with hubby seated in the back row with the kids and me near the front of economy. (Fortunately – perhaps not – they shuffle the seating, so I, too, can sit at the back, next to the toilets.)
Back in Singapore, eventually, Taj is allowed to join us on the flight, but I wonder how many other modern families are split up when the computer says no.