RICHMOND — Camels are tall and gangly. Rather ugly from a distance and up close, too. Maybe that's why they have a reputation for spitting and being unpleasant. They are beasts of burden and thus entered the lexicon in a common saying: "It is the last straw that breaks the camel's back."

One would think no enterprise could bring on more than one last straw. But a major airline put that notion to rest when we tried to fly from the East Coast to the West Coast a week or so ago. And again, when we wanted to return.

It was hard enough to solve the conundrum of printing boarding passes, usually done with a few clicks. You must, the computer said, choose your seats first, and up came the screen showing no available seats except four or five that would cost an extra $68. Back to the old-fashioned telephone with an apologetic and efficient agent.

But he was one of the few. We would sit three hours on the tarmac in Washington, D.C., supposedly because of weather in Chicago, then de-plane and re-plane and arrive in Oregon at 12:30 a.m., 3:30 a.m. in brain time. Was our delay, scantily explained, the last straw?

Well, no. We recovered in Portland with nice weather, a memorable memorial service, time with seldom-seen relatives, a visit to the world's most gorgeous rose garden, a hike up to the bridge to feel the cool air emanating from Multnomah Falls. Then came another round of not being able to get seats or print boarding passes.


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We were grasping at those elusive straws again, so my traveling companion went to the airport the night before our return flight and asked for our passes. An hour later she read them and learned the first leg of our trip was already delayed, and we'd miss our connection to Connecticut. But the agent at the counter failed to tell her that — just printed useless boarding passes. Ah, a new last straw.

Using phone, tweets to the airline, whatever, we rebooked everything and were headed for Chicago once more. But there, we found out that the camel could manage an even bigger load. We had missed our connection to Bradley by a minute or so. And an employee of this service industry told us we hadn't landed yet (we were in the terminal), that our connection had left — on time. We then met a desk agent who didn't know if there were any more flights to Bradley.

We were drowning in airline excuses and plagued by desk agents who actually had the nerve to say, "I don't know," with the all-knowing computer in front of them. It seemed as if the camel was down for the count. So we found a plane by reading the departure board ourselves and running to a gate where we met an efficient man who quickly did whatever he had to do, and we were on, finally having killed the camel.

All companies strive for solid slogans that will catch on, and the latest at American Airlines is "Going for Great." It's good to have high hopes.

Ruth Bass prefers to drive if it's possible. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.