Planes, trains and first impressions


Now that the Thanksgiving holiday has passed, I have to mention another bunch of turkeys that irritate the stuffing out of me – namely, many of the employees at our city’s primary transportation hubs like Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and Union Station.

I fondly remember my dad’s stories of a time when flying was considered so special people would actually dress in suits and dresses to get on a plane. According to him, just going to the airport was an exciting event. Can you imagine? Today, a trip that begins or ends at LAX is too often an exercise in frustration – embarrassing if you live here, exasperating if you’re a visitor.

As far as I’m concerned, the problem isn’t with the facility. Airport officials could spend as much as they want to refurbish, redesign, or even rebuild the badly aging facility. Sadly, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference until someone makes it a priority to hire employees who actually give a rat’s rump about customer service. Sometimes I wonder if the only qualification for an airport job is the ability to fog a mirror.

Now, I’ve never been incarcerated, so I can’t say for sure, but I seriously doubt that prison guards could be any more surly, unhelpful or downright belligerent than some of the employees you come across at LAX.

And then there’s Amtrak.

My son has taken the train many times this year to visit a friend in San Diego. I’ve driven him to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles each time. Why not Glendale? For reasons beyond my comprehension, Amtrak won’t allow online ticketing for the Glendale depot. Actually, you can book passage to and from Glendale on their website, you just can’t print a ticket. You must print a voucher and take that to one of Amtrak’s self-service ticketing kiosks to get your actual ticket. So far, so good – except there are no self-ticketing kiosks at the Glendale depot. You have to go to Union Station in downtown L.A. – which pretty much derails the whole idea of convenience. And who was the genius at Union Station who decided to put the very few self-ticketing kiosks they have in the most out-of-the-way, hard-to-find location?

On the plus side, if you haven’t seen the interior of the station, you’re missing one of the architectural gems of our city. The grand structure is another reminder of an elegant era when traveling was a glamorous and enriching experience. In other words, nothing like today.

I pity the out-of-town visitor to L.A. and shudder to think of what their first impressions might be. Just trying to get information at Union Station is more difficult than navigating our freeways. I mean, would it be too much for Amtrak to train (pun intended) employees in the concept of customer service – you know, like how to answer questions without muttering incoherently or simply walking away? These aren’t difficult questions, either; like explaining chaos theory or the idea behind installing those inane traffic lights at the bottom of freeway on ramps.

No, the questions I’m talking about are more like, “Excuse me, what track will the 595 from San Diego arrive on?” Or, “Hello kind Amtrak person. Would you know if the southbound Surfliner leaves from track 9, 10, 11 or 12?” Seriously, this ain’t Jeopardy, folks.

The brightly lit electronic arrival/departure board is of no help either. Not once in the many times I’ve been inside the station has the huge sign displayed useful information like, oh say, which track a train will arrive on or depart from.

Speaking of signs, there are plenty of nice, friendly placards at LAX, Union Station and other transportation centers that cheerfully welcome visitors to our city. Unfortunately, the message given off by too many of the employees at these facilities is, “Welcome to Los Angeles … now go away.”

I’ll see you ‘round town.

Jim Chase is a lifelong CV resident and freelance writer.

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