I’ve lived in a lot of countries, most less developed than the US. I’ve worked for the US government, I’ve always assumed that US corporations had better technology and smarter processes than either the USG or developing countries. I was wrong. There’s a set of commercial, for-profit companies that are still functioning (and I use that term loosely) like it’s 1992.
My husband, who lives in Venezuela, decided to ship our cat to me. He used a pet expediter there, called VENEPET, to handle all the paperwork and get her on the plane. She went Caracas -> Houston -> Dulles. When we took her with us to Venezuela, she missed the connection in Miami (which is a whole other story) so I used the http://www.unitedcargo.com website to make sure she was on the flight before my son and I headed out to Dulles.
While the tracking part is good, there are about 15 places you can pick up cargo at Dulles, and without already knowing which one, or speaking the lingo enough to navigate the website, it’s hard to figure out where to go. I thought that would be the worst part. I was wrong.
With the help of Google Maps on my phone, we found the right building (even though I had the address, it’s not like they mark the buildings…and when they do it’s a transposition code: “Building 5” on the address is labelled “Building E.” But I’d allowed plenty of time, so we got there 10 minutes before the cat did.
And then we stayed there for hours.
The cat was in good shape, but they couldn’t release her to me because the paperwork that was attached to her cage was the wrong paperwork. I had the airbill number so I could prove it was wrong, but the fact that it was for a dog going to Edinburgh, Scotland, was the first clue.
It seems that the United Cargo folks in Houston had tried to clear her through customs there, but hadn’t been able to, resulting in a hold being put on her because her claimer (me) wasn’t there. When that happened, they gave up and put the paperwork back on and put her on the plane. Except they put the wrong paperwork on.
I hope they just switched it with the Scottish dog, because that will limit the pain to two animals…otherwise United is having major problems.
The folks at the United Cargo office in Dulles were incredibly apologetic, embarrassed, and as helpful as possible. They contacted Houston and tried to get them to fax the paperwork. FAX.
I asked why United wasn’t putting barcodes on the cages and scanning those, or better, QR codes. I pointed out that the cat has a microchip in her (required by Schengen) that could also hold all this info, so you could scan the animal also. In response, the counter guy pointed at their DOT MATRIX printer, the same model I bought back in 1992.
- Houston employees did not understand how customs works.
- Houston and Dulles had no way to communicate, let alone communicate in advance, within their cargo systems.
- When the system has a problem, there is no remedy plan.
- The system is based on paper.
Eventually, taking pity on me and my young son, the team lead said that we should go home. We wouldn’t be able to clear her through customs that night anyway (I’m not sure about this, I think they work 24/7), and they would put her up in the Pet Resort overnight and work all night to get the right paperwork from Houston. I got phone numbers and left.
The next morning, I called United Cargo. The team lead on duty had no idea what I was talking about. I summarized, he had the same OMGWTF reaction (but professionally moderated) as last night’s guy, so I let him get to it and called the Pet Resort to check on the cat.
She wasn’t there.
They told me that they hadn’t been able to accept her since she didn’t have medical records, which of course made perfect sense now that I wasn’t exhausted. I thanked her and called United Cargo back, and got an answering machine.
My son and I, instead of doing any of the things we’d planned to do with our July 4th, got dressed and headed for Dulles, prepared to camp out all day and do whatever it took to find our cat.
When we got there, everyone was aware of the situation. They had moved her to a big kennel in the manager’s office, where she’d spent the night. She had food and water and a litterbox, and was doing fine, although glad to see me again.
But they still didn’t have the right paperwork.
At this point, my husband called to tell me he was in Miami. I filled him in, and when he stopped swearing, he forwarded me all the info from VENEPET. Within 30 minutes I had all of the cat’s documentation, including the export control approval from Caracas when they loaded her.
But it was on my phone, and I had no way to give it to United. I could show them on my phone, but I couldn’t email them or get them into the system…for all that they rely on paper, they don’t scan the documents into the computer, which seems like obvious old tech to me. Instead it’s some sort of 1980s proprietary system where people have to manually enter data into fields. I couldn’t even send the docs from the phone to their printer, even the laser one they also had.
Let’s recap again. In 30 minutes, I’d been able to get the needed information ON MY PHONE from ANOTHER COUNTRY, but United couldn’t get it from within their own business within 18 hours. (Or ever, as far as I know).
My son hung out with the various dogs that were arriving and waiting for their people, which they were glad for. I wrote and drew. Time passed. Eventually documents arrived (yes, via fax…I mean, seriously?)…but the cargo crew was unsure that they were for my cat, and couldn’t tell because they were in Spanish. So they asked me to translate them, which I did. I’m kind of surprised that the crew in Houston doesn’t include Spanish speakers, but I guess it doesn’t – they documents they sent were for some other cat belonging to some other person that had been shipped out of Caracas and to Houston (but not to Dulles) back in mid-June.
I headed back outside to talk to my husband again, and the team lead, who swore that this had gone all the way up to United HQS. My son was getting very nervous. I pointed out that the cat was fine, and reassured him. After all, I’ve dealt with crazy bureaucracy all over the world, in the most Type S of situations. Once people realize that they’ve hit the end of what their three-ring-binder system can do, they will start thinking creatively. It just takes a lot of time. They will realize that they can’t keep the cat forever, and they can’t destroy it. They will realize they are going to release it to me, they just have to figure out how. And then, like everyone else trapped in a really stupid, overly prescriptive hierarchical structure that’s poorly resourced in terms of both diverse personality types and technology, they will learn that the only way is to work around the system.
Thus, they eventually sent me to Customs with my airbill (which they could print out), all the faxed documentation for the wrong cat, and my phone.
The Customs agent was able to explain to me why Houston had tried to clear the cat, and why they’d failed, and he was able to remove the hold. The cargo folks had sent me with the paperwork for the wrong cat because it was somehow important that Customs physically rubber-stamp them. Because this is the Soviet Union circa 1985. Of course the Customs agent refused to do this, but he did check my real docs on my phone. (I should have brought my iPad, clearly).
I paid for parking and returned to Cargo (why aren’t Cargo and Customs co-located?) with my non-stamped yet cleared and approved papers. They took them, and then everyone sort of stalled out.
“So that’s it,” I said. “You can release the cat to me now.”
They brightened, visibly relieved. I got the cat and my son into the car and got out of there.
And that, dear readers, is why the airlines are failing. The only difference between this experience and doing anything in Communist Russia was that I couldn’t bribe anyone to get to success faster.