I became aware recently of the story of an Intel employee (a fellow Washington State resident, at that) who was expecting to take a flight from Hong Kong to Taiwan, but because of what the AP story reporting this snafu calls “an apparent booking mistake,” was routed instead to Taiyuan, an “industrial base” city in northern China.

You can read the entire story on the Web sites of USA Today, the Seattle PI, or Examiner.com (or just Google “Flight Across China Leaves Man Stranded“), but here are some main points:

  • Eugene Nelson was visiting several Intel sites in Asia on a business trip
  • He was expecting to fly to Taiwan, but was on a flight instead to Taiyuan
  • When he got to Taiyuan, it took him five grueling days to make an escape (read the story via one of the links posted above for those “harrowing details”)
  • His itinerary apparently included no flights out of Taiyuan
  • He didn’t have enough cash on hand to buy a ticket and ATM machines wouldn’t honor his American Express card
  • He doesn’t speak Chinese and had a difficult time getting assistance
  • He had a valid entry visa to mainland China (if he didn’t, but was still allowed to board a flight to the PRC, then we’ve got an even bigger story on our hands here)

I became aware of this story via a posting at the blog site Shanghaiist.com, where Mr. Nelson and the AP writer behind the story have have been getting skewered by a blogger and a number people leaving comments on the blog. I’m not coming to Mr. Nelson’s defense here per se, and I’ll even say that it’s probably a good idea to double-check the details of one’s itinerary even when on a whirlwind business tour in a foreign land when the places and names risk blurring together after awhile.

I am going to make some speculations about “the story behind the story,” however….

The news story reports that Mr. Nelson’s wife, Michelle Chewerda, “was dumping money into her husband’s debit account and working with the travel company [emphasis mine], which she said was less than helpful at times.”

The story continues:

“When I was talking to the guy from American Express, (he said) ‘It says right here on my paper that they take American Express right out there at the airport,'” Chewerda said. But if that were the case, she noted, her husband “wouldn’t have been there for four days.”

“It seems odd, but they’d end every conversation with ‘Have a nice day,'” Nelson said.

American Express officials contacted Wednesday by The Associated Press either declined immediate comment or did not return calls seeking comment on Nelson’s journey.

What the story doesn’t make clear is that we’re apparently talking about two American Express companies or divisions here, the AMEX card company and the AMEX travel company.

Intel is a big corporation, and I’m sure that they provide a professionaly managed corporate travel program for its employees, and all this suggests that Intel is using the American Express Travel program for its employees’ business travel needs. (Why else would Mr. Nelson’s wife be on the phone with American Express Travel instead of, say, Travelocity or Orbitz or Expedia or an airline?)

It’s possible that Mr. Nelson himself made his travel arrangements online and made the booking error himself. Or perhaps an assistant or Intel’s internal corporate travel manager sent him to the wrong city. Or it may have been an American Express Travel agent who made the erroneous booking.

And that’s the “story behind the story” question for me, which the AP article doesn’t address:

Whose blunder sent Mr. Nelson to the wrong city?