Travel: Apologise for an earthquake?

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The Independent Travel
I UNDERSTAND that travel companies sometimes make mistakes or suffer from events beyond their control. What I do not understand is why they find it so hard to say sorry.

In British Rail's case - in spite of all the 'Putting People First' customer care courses it sends its staff on - it often finds it impossible just to be nice. When I travelled to Penzance before Christmas, the person who sold me my ticket at Bath Station remarked (in the style of Harry Enfield's Old Gits): 'You know you're going to be late, doncha?' Not: 'I'm awfully sorry, I suppose you've noticed that the flooding on the line between Taunton and Exeter means that there will be a delay.'

On the train, I asked the guard how long the delay might be. 'Ho, ho, ho. I can't tell you that. How do I know that?' he replied as if I had asked him when we might expect the next total eclipse of the sun. We were on a train that was supposed to be going to Penzance, so it would not have been unreasonable to have assumed some appropriate knowledge on his part. He could at least have tried to be sympathetic. He could have said, 'I'll find out and make an announcement as soon as I know anything. I'm sorry - it's all rather a nuisance isn't it?'

On the way back from Penzance to Bath, we were kept waiting with no explanation about why the train was not moving. I can understand landslips, flooding and signal boxes struck by lightning (this is what happened, apparently). What I do not understand is why BR cannot be bothered to inform its passengers promptly and to apologise.

The car hire firm Avis (motto: 'We Try Harder') seems to have been attending the same BR customer-care seminars. When I arrived at Milan's Malpensa airport the day after Christmas, I went to the Avis desk to pick up my hired car. The Avis desk was closed. The Hertz man said the Avis man had gone home: he suggested that we ring Avis at Milan's other airport, Linate. Avis at Linate said that, if we wanted a car, we had to come to them. How? Take a taxi.

In case you ever need to know, I can tell you that a taxi from Malpensa to Linate on the day after Christmas costs pounds 85. The only plus factor is that, as it is a public holiday, the driver is able to make the journey at 110mph.

Could Avis at Linate refund the taxi fare? It's not our fault, they said, it's Malpensa's fault. Besides, according to the booking on the computer, you should have picked the car up at 11am. How we were supposed to do this when our (on time) plane was 30,000ft over Geneva at the time is hard to fathom.

Never did the Avis people at Linate say 'I'm sorry you've had this problem. We'll check why it's happened. Let me take a note of the taxi fare and let's see if we can get you your money back.' Travel companies should realise that saying sorry is not some awful admission of guilt or display of incompetence - just a way of showing that they care about their customers.

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