Bill Eccles: November 2006 Archives

I Want to Live Dangerously

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There’s a time and a place for caution.

For example, when crossing the street, look both ways. Don’t cross if there’s a speeding oncoming car (or bus or any other vehicle, for that matter, just in case you misconstrued this paragraph as complete instructions for crossing the street and, on its advice, ignored the speeding bus, stepped out in front of it, got hit, and found a bottom-feeding ambulance chaser who then decided that I am liable for publishing incomplete directions for crossing the street… but I digress).

However, when the TSA and the Department of Homeland Security have become so invasive in the process of checking passengers through security that lines are incomprehensibly long and passengers are overly inconvenienced with little to no benefit from the additional screening, the time for the overcautiousness of their screening policies has come and gone.

Consider the latest wrinkle in the TSA’s quest for security, the now-ubiquitous “zipper bag” as they call what the rest of the world calls the Ziploc bag. (Sorry, SC Johnson, you have joined the ranks of Xerox and Kleenex. But at least the TSA isn’t diluting your trademark.) In order that we not be able to concoct some strange potion capable of destroying a plane midflight (or of turning a flight attendant into a newt), passengers are limited to 3oz of any one liquid or goo and the liquids/goos must all fit into a quart-sized Ziploc bag. So there. Take that, terrorists! Certainly, your plot to turn the airline or flight attendants into newts has been foiled! Ha!

Except…

Just when has this security measure enhanced security?

“Oh, remember that bombing plot to, you know, blow up a bunch of airplanes in the sky? That’s one,” you might say. Except that it was intelligence, not additional screening measures, which foiled that plot and caused this extra screening requirement. We’ve created one more reactionary screening method which has only pushed “those who will” into a new direction, one that we haven’t developed a screening technique for yet.

Consider that airplanes used to let passengers on board with all manner of weapons, as we now define them. Hijackings occurred. So we began screening passengers for metal and X-ray-ing bags for knives. And hijackings decreased.

Things were quiet for a while. A long while.

Then some terrorists discovered that a minimalist weapon could still be brought on board an aircraft, the aircraft could be commandeered, and planes could be used as missiles. So we now have to take off our shoes, undergo random extra-special searches, and God forbid if you wanted to cut your fingernails in Cleveland—that fingernail clipper had to go. (OK, so we can bring those onboard now. Great! That’s actually a step in the right direction!)

But then the whole London thing, intelligence, yadda yadda yadda, and we now can’t bring on a bottle of Coke purchased at Sam’s Club for $0.56 but instead have to pony up for a $3 bottle of water inside the security checkpoint. And because we’ve now made it much harder to bring bad stuff on board through the security checkpoints, terrorists are going in the backdoor and trying to get things smuggled on board for them. I guess we’ll have to start strip-searching airport employees, or at least make them buy lunch on the premises. (Sorry, guys, no more PB&J. You’ll be stuck with $7 club “sandwiches” like the rest of us.)

Listen, folks, if you haven’t figured it out by now: “Those who will” will. There is nothing we can do to stop them. Sure, we can make it more challenging for them to do something nasty, but, really, terrorists have just as many brain cells as the rest of us and they have the will to use them.

So my big question is, when is enough enough? How many more things are there for us to screen against? Well, those are unknown unknowns, so to speak, and there’s no way we can predict just how invasive this could all get. At some point, we are just going to have to declare We’ve had enough! Just put us on the damned plane! (Who elected the TSA, anyway? Hey, Democrats, do something practical here!)

Alright, then. Enough about the nature of the invasive beast. Let’s assume, for a moment, that things will never change, that we’ll never be able to avoid the ever-increasing gantlet of security. Can this system be improved somehow?

Yes.

No, let me rephrase that:

Hell yes.

Right On Queue

I encountered the most egregious example of how not to do it at Washington’s Dulles Airport last February. I was returning from England with a colleague and she and I had exactly 20 minutes to make it from our transatlantic flight, which, because of customs and immigration, comes out on the non-secure side of the domestic flights security checkpoint, to our domestic flight. So we hustled past the ticket counters to the security checkpoint… and were flabbergasted to see that there were about 1,000 people squished in an area normally designed to hold 100 or so. There were about twenty screening checkpoints all running full blast.

Here’s the big problem: Each pair or so of those twenty screening checkpoints had its own line, and there was absolutely no way to evaluate which line was longer or shorter. We couldn’t even see that there were lines, yet there were, and we had no idea which ones went which way. They were all snaked around each other, intertwined as kite string in the hands of a three-year old.

Noting that there were multiple lines to choose from, we asked the friendly TSA person which line we should get in and whether or not we’d make our plane at 4:05. He pointed us to a line and said, yes, but didn’t consult his watch. (To be fair, we did make it, but not without significant increases in heart rates and stress levels. And that stupid bus didn’t help, either. But that’s another story.)

Little did we know that we were in the center group of lines at that point, the ones which were the longest, and the ones which allowed least opportunity to escape to a shorter line if/when one opened up, which one did. Guess where they opened it up? Yes, at the edge, thereby dividing the population of the outermost lines, now considerably shorter than our line. And guess where newly-arriving folks were being directed? To the shorter lines, where they got through faster than we did.

TSA, not only is that not fair, it’s just plain stupid. If you don’t want to deal with hostile customers, don’t make them hostile.

So… how do we solve this first problem?

First, some agencies of government, from our local DMV to the Defense Commissary Agency, understand a queue. Heck, even the deli counter has it figured out. In other words, if they can do it better, than so can the TSA. It’s not uncharted territory; it’s been done before.

Second, TSA, you’re not alone. Sam’s Club, our local grocery stores, and a zillion other places, don’t understand queueing at all, so don’t look so down. Cheer up! They suck too. You’re in good company.

Here’s the problem: multiple lines bypass the concept of first in, first out. That is, the first person to the security checkpoint should be the first one the be through the checkpoint, right? I mean, that’s the way we’re taught from Day 1 on this Earth. Let’s say there are ten people in line, nobody at the ten checkpoints, and you’re the 11th person in line. They all open up at once and all ten people go, one per checkpoint, to the checkpoints. Which checkpoint do you choose? If you’re like me in the line in Dulles, you choose wrong and get in line behind someone who did not understand the blaring instructions and has trouble remembering how much metal is on her person and is rejected no fewer than six times. Meanwhile, persons 12, 13, and 14 chose the lines behind frequent travelers who excel at the TSA Two Step and got through long before you did.

I call this “First in, maybe out.”

(Yes, the instructions were blaring. They were loud. They repeated. And they got old after the first five minutes. Thank God for the TSA! But some people still don’t listen.)

How’s this problem get solved, exactly? Remember the deli counter ticket machine? You got there first, got your number, and waited for a friendly butcher to call your number. Easy enough, right? First in, first out (or at least first served), every time. If your order consisted of thirty different items (or you can’t remember the cell phone in your pocket, the quarters in the other pocket, the necklace that Uncle Louie gave you, the heavy wristwatch, belt buckle, and that giant metal hairclip thing), you wouldn’t hold up Mrs. Robinson who got there just after you because another butcher has taken care of her and several other customers while you’ve rattled off enough items to make a deli tray or two.

The commissary has a similar scheme at their checkout lanes. There’s one gigantic line and the first person in the line is picked off by a director of some sort (at times, a person helps out here, but usually an electronic signboard shows which line is available next) and that person goes to the next available cashier. Simple. Efficient.

And scary as hell. I mean, have you ever looked at a line that size before and thought to yourself, I’m never going to get out of here?! Sure! But, surprisingly enough, it works remarkably well, is pretty darned efficient, and, most importantly, is fair. Nobody gets hostile because of unfair treatment.

TSA, here’s my suggestion: Do not divide your lines anywhere before the security checkpoint. As you do it now, first, it pisses off the people who are in the slower line. Certainly you’ve noticed that the other lines move faster, right? Yours is always the slowest. It doesn’t matter if the other line is, in actuality, slower, perception is the problem.

Everybody gets pissed off. Hmmm. I guess that’s fair after all.

Second, it really, really ticks people off when a new line/queue is opened up and only a portion of the population hanging out at the airport gets to take advantage of it. Net result? Pissed passengers. Pissengers, so to speak.

Third? I’m sure there is a third, but I haven’t thought of it yet.

And then… the No Fly List! (or something)

So you’d like to make use of the latest in Internet technology that allows airlines to reduce customer service to an optional service and get your boarding pass and seat assignment within the 24-hour window before your flight that United has so thoughtfully created. You happen to be named Michelle Murphy, and you live in Stafford Springs, Connecticut. Online you go!

Problem is, you can’t take advantage of this online stuff. Every time you try it, or your husband, John, tries it, you’re told that you have to check in at the airport, effectively denying you the knowledge of your seating assignment. Ah, well, perhaps it’s a computer glitch. Rotten computers!

Off to the airport you go then, with heart hoping that you will be able to get through the boarding pass process without too much problem. Like everybody else, you look at the lines at the fun check-in videogames, er, kiosks and compare it to the giant line for the one or two counter agents and decide to try the kiosk. (Ironically, the airlines generally get queueing theory implemented correctly at their ticket counters, but not at the kiosks where it’s first come, randomly served.)

You wait your turn, swipe your credit card (Platinum!) and… denied! See a ticket agent. Your heart sinks a notch and your stomach gets a bit queasy because you thought you could just show up at the airport like a normal person and zip right on through this, the easy part of the journey, but now you’re faced with a long wait in line that you didn’t count on. Will you make your flight? Your stomach seems to think not.

Finally, you’re greeted by the not-so-friendly—well, maybe friendly—ticket agent who says that because your name is Michelle Murphy, she’s required to check your ID before giving you a boarding pass. Wha….?! You get your seat assignment (middle of a row, of course, as all of the Premium Plus seats are gone, as are all aisle seats, window seats, and, quite frankly, the ticket agent tells you you’re lucky to have a seat at all) and then rush to security where…

…you wait for them to check your ID!

Fortunately, you tell your co-worker, who lets you cut in line with him or you stand no chance of making your flight—although you could have joined the just-opened line and even beat him through security!—that you asked why you’re not allowed to use United’s online checkin or kiosks. “Oh, your name is on The List.

The List. You can almost hear the capital letters as the ticket agent said them. “Perhaps adding your middle name or initial would make the distinction between you and someone on The List.

Perhaps.

Or perhaps not. Worse yet, you don’t know what List you are on yet. Turns out that there are two lists, both maintained by the TSA, but there seems to be an airline-specific list of some sort which you may have found yourself on. The history of the lists, the method for inclusion and exclusion, and most details associated with said lists are contorted and secret. Good luck.

But the best part about being on this list is that the grand total of the extra security measures required of you consisted of exactly one additional pair of eyes being laid upon your photo ID! Granted, that’s something to be thankful for because there is a special category of person, “Selectees,” who are given extra special treatment at the security checkpoint. That, thankfully, is not you.

Still, to summarize: You are sitting between two people whose definition of sharing the armrest is to make sure you can’t see it and whose definition of deodorant is non-existent because a counter agent had to apply his or her years of experience in the counter-terror field (ha! what a pun!) to determine that you don’t pose a security risk to your flight. By examining your driver’s license.

Um, got it.

Did anybody, at least at United, ever stop to think that perhaps—just perhaps—this isn’t doing anything other than creating pissengers?

So let’s solve this problem.

Obviously, United thinks that they have a list of people that they’re responsible for ensuring get some sort of special security screening. Instead, however, of inconveniencing their passengers by preventing them from using the online checkin system (the only way to ensure that you can pick a reasonable seat—thanks, United!), let the passenger get the boarding pass, but print “2E” or “XTRA” on it to denote that a second set of eyes should be laid on passenger and passenger’s ID. And then let the expert at TSA perform that second look.

Granted, the TSA person may not be the most qualified person to do this second look, but it is within the realm of possibility that a person hired by a security agency might be better qualified to do the second look than the airline’s counter representative.

Poor Michelle. Hope you at least get some peanuts.

And about those screenings…

First, I’ve already ranted a bit about the liquids thing. But I truly can’t understand some of the arbitrary other rules.

I was in Chicago behind a lady whose bag was triangular in cross-section. Literally, it was a triangular prism with the opening and handles attached to one of the long sides. She put her bag through on its bottom and was told at the other end that she had to put it back through on its side.

Huh?

Notwithstanding the fact that the bag is likely to dump its contents if she forgot to close it in the process of removing God-only-knows-what from it to pass the other criteria, does it really matter? Are our screening processes so unsophisticated that they can’t see through a bottom-resting bag vs. a side-resting bag, especially in the cases of completely symmetric bags?

I’m going to go get a bag that’s a cylinder with a Velcro closure. That’ll throw ’em for a loop! (“Um, sir, which way is up?!”)

Second, she was carrying some small tube of some kind of facial care product, like an anti-acne medication. Meanwhile, I showed up with my grey tub (Rubbermaid must be loving it!) with laptop and my small container of contact solution (it’s a 1oz container or less). It was just sitting on top of my laptop. TSA lady was giving pissenger whatfor about the tube, how it wasn’t in a plastic baggie, and how she’d have to throw it away. Of course, pissenger wasn’t really happy about that because it cost something like a zillion dollars a tube. So she pointed angrily at my little bottle of eye goo and said, “Well, his isn’t in a baggie!”

Apparently, mine was OK, explained TSA lady, because it was medicine. “This is medicine, too. It’s for my face.” Or something like that. (Truth be told, it didn’t look like her face needed anything, or maybe because that’s what the medicine did. Anyway…)

Uh oh. I packed my stuff up and got out of there as quickly as I could, but I knew it wasn’t going to be pretty.

You know, the funny thing is that she could have put that tube of stuff in her pocket and walked it through.

The problem here is that the TSA is attempting to have its screeners delineate between medically necessary and not medically necessary. That could be a real problem, but I’m sure the government can cover any loss associated by misidentifying one as the other. Of course, poor Ms. X’s face is certainly suffering now, and she looked like the type who could raise a bit of Cain if she had to.

Lastly, let’s be a little sensitive to the privacy of the individual’s bags. It’s one thing to look into your bag with an X-ray or other imaging technique and look at the contents on a relatively private monitor. It’s a completely different thing to empty the contents of your bag onto the end of the screening line in front of God and everybody (including your co-worker) and expose your feminine protection preferences or contraceptive preference or whatever. Sure, you have to examine the bag (if that’s really necessary) in front of the passenger to prove that you didn’t swipe their wad of cash, but do the examination somewhere else, out of the eye of the rest of the public. It’s not really in the TSA’s best interest to embarrass passengers.

The Bottom Line

Air travel is, I’m certain, just as safe as it always has been, if not more so, as a result of the increased security screenings. In fact, I’d have to venture a guess that even if we let people bring anything onboard an airplane, air travel would still be safer than the drive from home to the airport. 43,443 people were killed in 2005 while driving their cars. That’s over 200 Boeing 737’s full of people.

That’s one person every 12 minutes who dies on our nation’s roads. Since there are an average of 120.4 seats per domestic aircraft, we’d have to have one airplane crashing every day to equal that death toll.

But why stop there?

In 2003, there were 1.2 deaths per 100 million (passenger vehicle) miles. I added parenthesis because I want to emphasize that the unit is not passenger*vehicle*mile, but rather is specific to passenger vehicles, which does not include light trucks—SUVs, vans, etc. That adds another 1.2 deaths per 100 million miles. The airline industry put in 336 billion passenger miles in 2005. If there were an equivalent number of deaths in the airline industry, that would result in just under 5,000 deaths per year. If we do the math, then OK, so these aren’t directly comparable numbers because there’s no way to tell how many

If we turn it around differently, it’s interesting to note that in 2005, there were 593 fatalities. But that includes general aviation, which we’ll equate to motorcycle traffic on the interstate. (38.4 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles in 2003, by the way.) Take out general aviation—which leaves commuter and commercial airlines, and you have a grand total of 36 deaths. Thirty-six. For 573 billion miles traveled.

So flying is definitely safe.

My question to you is: If flying is so safe, why are we so scared of it?

Two 8-Year-Old Jokes

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The 8-year-old in my family created the following jokes:

What do dinosaurs use for electricity?

Extinction cords!

What do shoes like to eat?

Feetza!

I still chuckle…

United Airlines has done it!

They have surgically extricated customer service, as we used to know it anyway, from their part of the airline industry. The operation was successful, and the patient is doing well.

I recently took a UAL flight from Bradley (Hartford, CT/Springfield, MA area) to Chicago and then from Chicago to Seattle. Along the way, I realized that I expect some things out of flying the skies, friendly or not.

  1. I expect to pay my money and get, in return, transported from point A to point B.
  2. I expect to do that predictably.
  3. I expect to be able to choose my accommodations. That is, if I wish to fly first class, then I should be able to choose to do so. Same goes for economy. As I am 6’6” tall, I would also like to be able to reliably choose which seat I sit in as some seating options are just not physically comfortable.
  4. I expect my luggage to get from point A to point B right along with me.

Now, having reviewed my list of requirements, you might notice that I have not indicated anywhere that air travel requires such extra amenities as “nice, smiling faces” or “on-board food” or “live customer service agents” or anything of the sort. No, instead, I have merely listed the absolute bare essentials for air travel. Anything above and beyond is, well, above and beyond.

So how has United failed me? I mean, if these are the bare essentials, then why am I unhappy with United Airlines?

Because they have forgotten that customer service used to be included with each and every ticket. They sell nothing but the bare essentials, and the attitude I see from them is “Get used to it.”

[13 December 2006, Update: After reading this intro several times, I’m not so sure that my logic makes a whole lotta’ sense. Nevertheless, my conclusion remains the same: their customer service is marginal, and we, the consumer, had better get used to it. /WNE]

Seat Assignment

My experience begins 24 hours before departure and I still don’t have a seat assignment. As I mentioned before, seat assignment is a nice-to-have, but relatively important to me. So, not having a seat assignment, I decided to check with my travel agency. Nope, they can’t do anything. United assigns seats exclusively. I decided to check online.

Curses! Foiled again. I can’t select my seat because I’m not within 24 hours of departure yet. In fact, United won’t even tell me what seat I have on the flight. And why not? Because I’m not within 24 hours of departure yet.

What’s so special about 24 hours before departure?

Well, 24 hours before departure begins the period before a flight when I can do what’s known as “EasyCheck-in.” (My, but that is a contorted set of CamelCase and punctuation! What marketing guru came up with that? “It has to have a hyphen; I don’t care that it looks like crap! And forget about capitalizing ‘in.’ That would just be wrong!”) You see, in the 24 hours prior to the flight, you, too, if you have Internet access, can log in and select your seat online! Cool!

Except…

Your seat, and everybody else’s seat on the flight, has already been assigned based on the phase of the moon and something akin to a Magic Eight-Ball. It seems to be pretty random. So you are left to choose to change seats with seats that are still available. On a sold-out flight, there are none. Bottom line? Hope you like your seat assignment.

If you don’t have internet access, you’re screwed. They don’t—and won’t—do anything on the phone. I tried. But you can try the gate or ticket agent on the date of departure. Bottom line? Hope you like your seat assignment.

If, for some reason, you are denied the online ability to choose your seat, as a friend of mine has been denied repeatedly, then you are stuck with your seat assignment until you hit the airport and schmooze the gate agent. Bottom line? Hope you like your seat assignment, whatever it might be.

(Interestingly, both she and her husband have been denied the ability to use the online checkin process for United every stinkin’ time. And they’re not allowed to use the United kiosks at the airport, either. She thinks they’ve been identified as potential terrorists, but only on United flights.)

And what if you want some extra leg room? Oh, United, you have outdone yourselves this time! You have added a class-within-a-class called “Economy Plus.” Now, I must admit, you really do have an excellent idea. Figuring that you aren’t going to sell out most of your airplanes, you remove a row or two of seats and spread out an area of seats so that they have something like 5” of extra legroom! Excellent! (And I am not being facetious about that, either. More seats with more legroom? I’m all in favor of that!)

Best of all, you choose not to call this “extra” anything more than an “extra.” It’s not a different class, so business travelers are still in economy and their expense reports get paid. It’s relatively inexpensive to buy your way into this area of seating—$70 for my return from Seattle to Bradley, for example—and I’m pretty sure that most corporations won’t think twice about that small cost. And it’s paid for as a separate extra, not included in your ticket price, so, again, the beancounters won’t be alarmed by a plane fare that’s higher than the usual economy price. Excellent.

But you screw up your seat assignments something awful and turn what could have been a very pleasant customer experience into a crapshoot akin to buying a laptop computer on eBay.

First, you assign your best customers to those seats—your BillionMilerPlatinumClubMembers. Yeah, I’m OK with that, too, I guess, even though it disturbs me to see a 5’2” person in a seat that I could have used. My point, though, is that you then fill up a lot of those extra-legroom seats before any of us regular, cash-in-hand customers have a shot at those seats.

(I’m therefore unsure who is the better customer: those of us who give you more cash or those of us who use your airline more frequently. You’d still get the repeat customers because nobody else is competing with you in this arena. You coulda’ gotten money from them, too!)

Second, you make it impossible to assess whether or not there are Economy Plus seats available on a flight before purchasing a ticket. There’s no way in hell I’d book a five hour flight (as the flight from Seattle to Dulles is) without a guarantee of a seat with more legroom. And since neither my travel agent nor your representatives can do that (remember, online or at the airport only!), you essentially take what could have been a pleasant trip for me and turn it into a cattle car experience.

(Interesting side note: my company will happily pay $7,000 for a non-stop flight in business class for its travelers who are crossing an ocean. But they won’t pony up an additional $1,000 for first class for a traveler who has an equally-long flight which never leaves the continental US. Go figure.)

Third, you have made the minute following the 24-hours-prior-to-departure time a mad rush by us peons to get ourselves into the Economy Plus seats. It’s like bid sniping on eBay. And don’t get me started on the fact that you reserve the best legroom seats (for example, exit row seats and aisle seats) for your BillionMilerPlatinumClubMembers who didn’t automatically get assigned those primo seats. If I miss that window of opportunity—and it is about two minutes long—I am hosed. Hope I like cattle car.

Traveling in a party of four? Then God help you. Because United won’t.

On the phone…

The guy on the phone sounded Indian. That’s OK. Heck, I don’t have anything against outsourcing your call center to anywhere in the world as long as we can communicate. We did, so we’re good.

He was polite, too. That’s good.

But the guy on the phone was powerless to help me. That’s not OK.

The mantra seems to be “online or at the airport.” God help those agents.

About those agents

Remember from above that you’ll have to deal with a gate agent or ticket agent if you haven’t managed to get a seating assignment or your husband and you are identified as potential United-only terrorists? Whereas those agents used to deal with both normal, happy customers and the unhappy, I’ve-got-a-problem customers, those people now have to deal only with the unhappy, I’ve-got-a-problem customers.

The kiosks and the internet have taken all the happy people who, begrudgingly or willingly alike, use the kiosk or website and have provided them a means to completely bypass the ticket agent. Which leaves the folks behind the podium or counter with handling all the unhappy, I’m-your-problem-today customers.

That has to suck.

First, it’s not what you signed up for. Most likely, after all of the layoffs of recent times, you’re someone who is somewhat senior, or probably have worked at United for a few years, anyway. And when you signed up for this job, you got to deal with the shiny, happy people as well as the not-so-happy people. And those were the days.

Then they took the shiny, happy people away, leaving you with the crappy job of helping the disgruntled, the tired, the hungry, the poor slobs yearning to fly free. So your job satisfaction? Maybe it’s tanked, maybe it hasn’t. But if I had to deal with them for eight hours a day…? I feel for you. I really do.

Second, you have been set up to fail. After all, if the computer/kiosk/internet couldn’t handle it, then it’s already outside the normal process, so you have to know everything there is to know in order to be able to fix it all. Hope you got all the latest updates, changes, etc., and have a good idea of what the normal process is like (but you don’t get to do those anymore) for reference.

I imagine that only the lost-luggage desk is worse.

Now, on my trip, I met two United agents, one a ticket agent and the other a gate agent. The former was quite nice and managed to get my luggage checked to Seattle in spite of the computer’s protestations. The latter was… well, OK. Doing his job. But clearly being the only gate agent for a full 757 flight to Seattle with at least a dozen standby passengers while having to run over, check the printer, run down the jetway and steer it into place or check things or whatever was clearly more than he was happy doing. Tired? Perhaps. Unkind? No. Rude? No. Curt? Overworked? Understaffed? Yes.

Go, United!

Onboard

Look, folks, if you’re going to sell me a meal (or a box full of food, anyway), then you damned well had better start taking credit cards and stop demanding correct change. If you’re going to do business, then do business. How many restaurants do you know of that don’t take credit cards? (The last one in my area that I’m aware of caved and prefer cards to checks, incidentally.) How many restaurants demand, or at any rate “greatly appreciate,” correct change, or “accidentally” forget to return your change until you ask for it? Think that would fly with the NYT food critic?

Bottom line

At least they gave me the whole can.