Going Places Educational Travel Blog - Trial by Fire
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March 15, 2022

Trial by Fire

Managing an International Student Travel Company is No Walk in the Park

By 1967, not all transatlantic flights were flown by jets. Dr. Gil Markle, who had started ALSG one year earlier, brought several student groups to Europe that summer, one of them on an American Flyers Airline Lockheed Electra turbo-prop aircraft, not a pure jet by any stretch. But nearly every flight to Europe was overbooked that summer and Gil had little choice. The Electra had to make two refueling stops in each direction, one in Gander, Newfoundland and one in Shannon, Ireland. Originally contracted to fly the group NYC-London (Gatwick) and home from Paris (Le Bourget) (this was called an “open jaw” contract which was a bit out-of-the-ordinary), the airline dispatcher in Tulsa (soon after that fired) scheduled the return flight from Gatwick and not Paris! Despite having the flight arrangements confirmed to him the night before, Dr. Markle shows up at Le Bourget in the morning with 80 students and teachers in tow to an empty terminal with no airline staff around. And as he soon found out, the Electra was sitting on the tarmac at Gatwick Airport across the Channel, over two hundred miles away. Gulp! Heart stopping action. No staff person from American Flyers was there nor was the plane. Perhaps most importantly, the airline was without  “une Autorisation d’atterrissage”--landing rights for the plane.

Frantic phone calls go back and forth to Oklahoma. (Making international calls back then was itself a challenge.There were  no smartphones or WhatsApp.) There were lots of sympathetic shrugs on the part of the French officials in the back, but without the landing rights, the situation looked hopeless. And getting the notorious French bureaucracy to issue landing rights on such short notice (and to ”les Americains,” to boot?), good luck.  Things often, indeed almost always, go wrong when a company is operating hundreds of student groups traveling all around Europe in different directions and many at the same time. What went wrong here was, short of a serious illness or accident, a foul-up of nightmarish proportions, an almost unthinkable one. A group arriving at the airport for its return flight home and the aircraft scheduled to take them is in another country and without the legal authorization to come to this country to fetch them.  The worst thing that could happen. There are no words…

Well, here's where Gil Markle had his baptism by fire into the rigors of the international travel industry. He truly earned his medal under these dire circumstances and demonstrated not for the last time that he was one formidable problem solver.  Gil, with his fluent French and the confidence of having a PhD from La Sorbonne (in addition to one from Yale), managed to get Madame la Ministre de l’Aviation Civile (the Head of the French FAA!) on the phone. But Gil must have been unimaginably persuasive and charming as all get out (plus the two Bloody Marys he gulped down to settle his nerves had to have helped) because he got this wonderful woman, on paper, a consummate French beaurocrat, to issue an emergency authorization that would allow the plane to come right across the channel from England and straight into Le Bourget. Unheard of flexibility on the part of the French, (the French!) government.

This was Gil’s first significant trial by fire. Still, when you are running an international travel company that brings many thousands of travelers all around the world every year, there are bound to be problems, many of them as potentially unsolvable as this one.  Gil saw more than his share of problems like these over the years and almost always saw them to as satisfactory a solution as this one. 

But what about the students?  This part may surprise you. They arrive “on time” to the airport  for their return flight, all excited to be on their way home, only to encounter an almost 8-hour creeping delay and one with few explanations. How do you tell a group the airplane they were supposed to fly home on is stuck in another country? I get goosebumps even thinking about this. But remember, most of these kids had never been far away from home before, and almost none had been to another country. And they had just had a trip beyond their wildest dreams and were still on an emotional high from the experience.  Plus, this was all new to them–even the idea of traveling to another country. What's 8 hours in the face of all of these wonderful experiences? 

I can say sadly but with some confidence that if this were to happen today, the reaction on the part of today's teenagers would likely have been altogether different and not a very pleasant one.  

And a Lockheed Electra or a Boeing 707? Never being on either one or in many cases on any big plane, what’s the difference? We'll be home in a few hours, either way, they felt.  And, after all, what a great trip it was!

StuTrav U.S.A.




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