True Road Warrior: Business Travel in a Non-Profit World

Flying down to South Carolina on a plane with broken seats

In the words of Sir Adam Thomson, founder of British Caledonian Airlines, “A recession is when you have to tighten your belt; depression is when you have no belt to tighten. When you’ve lost your trousers—you’re in the airline business”. Anybody who travels for work can vouch for the veracity of this statement. Picture if you will – we had been delayed two hours, twiddling our already exhausted thumbs at the airport in Charlotte, North Carolina when the gate agent began asking for volunteers to abandon the idea of air travel, travel back in time, and take a two hour bus ride to Columbia South Carolina, rather than the 17 minute plane flight we had all been waiting for. If they offered this two hours ago, we would have been there already, rather than suffering from airport food induced indigestion and praying that someday, somehow a plane would take us somewhere. It was an average exhausting work day for me, having already taken a 6 AM Amtrak train from New York to Washington D.C. for a congressional briefing, then hopping a flight from Washington to Charlotte, North Carolina with the expectation of a short flight to South Carolina for a site visit. Mustering what little will to live I still had, I went to the gate agent, managed not to say, “Are you out of your freaking mind,” and told her I absolutely had to be on that plane, as I’d already had an insanely long day with an early morning presentation to look forward to tomorrow. The agent dutifully looked up my name, and then cryptically observed, “Oh, you’re fine. Your seat isn’t broken.” Fairly certain that I was now suffering from auditory hallucinations (due to lack of sleep from having been in meetings in four different cities that day starting in NYC, and then to DC for a congressional briefing and so on) since I couldn’t derive meaning from that sentence; I smiled and went back to my seat in the lounge, hoping that this wasn’t the onset of more serious mental illness.

After ten brave individuals sacrificed themselves to the cruel gods of Greyhound for the good of their fellow travelers, we were at long last boarded. One by one, passengers filed past the first half of the seats in the incredibly tiny plane, which like some sort of crime scene were roped off with yellow tape, and I swear there wasn’t a single one of us who didn’t wonder if the plane was airworthy. The flight attendant noticed the almost universal consternation and assured us that the plane was still safe to fly, besides it was only a seventeen minute flight. I refrained from observing that it doesn’t take but a few minutes to get into the air and then crash. I’ve seen people kicked off of planes for less. Somewhat less than comforted by the reassurances of the crew, I sat in my “unbroken” seat, and started writing my last will and testament out on the back of a barf bag.

Once airborne, our seventeen minute flight became a forty minute flight (which of course increased the likelihood of crashing by a factor of three), and because of the little known fact that flight times are checked using sextant measurements of the positions of stars and consultations with Ouija boards, rather than say something more reasonably technological like, well, a clock. I kept waiting for Stephen King’s Langoliers to arrive and throw the airplane into a never-ending jaunt through the Bermuda triangle. Luckily the gods of flight were with us and landed us safely in South Carolina, but my near death experiences were not to end there for the day. I finally limped to a taxi. Not just any taxi. A randomly selected taxi driven by a female kamikaze whose last driving job clearly involved high speed transport in a Humvee through central Beirut under fire, and obligingly ran red lights all the way to my hotel.

At long last, the cab arrived at my destination. I went to open the door of the cab, incredibly relieved, thinking all I had to do now was check in and go to sleep and instead the cab door fell off. Literally. Came off its hinges in my hand. I just left and tipped her well and went to check in. Since I was staying at a doubletree, at least they gave me a warm cookie at the desk, sadly the best part of my day.

That was a typical travel day and I travel a lot for work. I am basically one of those “road warriors” that is constantly in cross-country motion, forced to maintain a happy face regardless of the hellishness of the situation, whether it’s my hotel on fire, landing in the wrong state, being shouted down by fellow activists during my presentation or being told I was culturally incompetent because we served sandwiches for lunch.

When you work in a non-profit that receives government funding, which the majority in the United States do, you don’t fly the way corporate types from Goldman Sachs, AIG, JP Morgan, employees do while they’re busy destroying the economy for the rest of us. They get to fly first class and have a glass or three of Chardonnay. They screw up the country and we bail them out, so they can continue to travel with all their perks. In a non-profit you don’t get the nice seats, you don’t get alcoholic drinks because the “man” has decided to interfere in your beverage selection. Tea Party activists shout, “Keep government’s hands off my Medicare.” How about campaigning to keep government’s hands off of my basil-lime daiquiri after a briefing, meetings and training followed by 8 hours on the road? Can I get an Amen?

An employee once asked if she could expense her airport book purchase. She argued she wouldn’t have bought it if it were not for travel. The answer was no. Some non-profits actually have modern accounting and expense reporting systems that allow coverage of your toothpaste, tampon and Excedrin purchases. For others those are considered luxury items. I was once told if you don’t ingest it, then it’s not covered. I think the humorless accountant that said this meant to say if it’s not food (and only then if it fits within the $40 a day allotment) you can’t expense it. Modern chemistry has given us many things one can ingest to make life on the road more tolerable; assuming said ingestible items were allowable expenses. What I’ve come to realize is that the people who write the regulations regarding allowable expenses for business/non-profit travelers rarely travel for work themselves, therefore have little concept of what it is like out in the wild. Maybe if they did, we could restore some sanity to expense accounting and the allowance of much-needed road medicine (ahem….).

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