Say the words slowly. Carefully. Hear the difference? Good. You learned the easy way.
Michael Lewis found out the hard way.
The 21-year-old Sacramento community college student returned to Los Angeles on Tuesday from a traveler's nightmare--the in-flight realization that he was on the wrong plane--bound for Auckland, New Zealand, about 6,600 miles farther than where he thought he was going--Oakland, Calif.
Blame it on the language; vowels in particular.
On three occasions, according to a spokesman for Air New Zealand, Lewis misunderstood airline staff members who asked him if he was going to Auckland.
Lewis insisted Tuesday evening after returning from New Zealand, courtesy of the airline, that, "They didn't say \o7 Auckland\f7 . They said \o7 Oakland\f7 . They talk different."
3-Month European Vacation
The trouble began Sunday when Lewis, returning from a three-month vacation in West Germany, arrived at Los Angeles International Airport aboard Air New Zealand's London-to-Auckland flight.
The brief stopover was scheduled so the plane could be cleaned, so all of the approximately 400 passengers left the craft. The majority headed for a lounge reserved for those continuing on to Auckland.
Lewis' ticket called for him to go through customs and then board another airline's flight to Oakland.
But according to Tom Hempel, Air New Zealand's terminal services manager, Lewis followed the group into the lounge, where he was given a transit card for reboarding.
"There were two agents next to the stairways as the passengers disembarked advising 'transit passengers to Auckland' to go to the lounge," Hempel said.
He Heard 'Oakland'
"They announced over the speakers that all passengers to Oakland should wait in the waiting lounge," Lewis insisted Tuesday.
When the plane was ready to continue on, Lewis reboarded with the Auckland-bound passengers. There, Hempel said, Lewis took the seat he had previously used--only to find it occupied by another passenger. An airline staff member intervened and asked Lewis if he was going to Auckland, and Lewis said yes, Hempel said.
Then the staff member asked to see Lewis' ticket receipt, but it was crumpled and unreadable. So he again asked Lewis if he was going to Auckland--and once again, Lewis said yes, Hempel said. As a result, Lewis was allowed to remain on board.
Then, shortly after takeoff, Lewis heard a word that did not sound anything like Oakland: Tahiti.
"I was scared," he recalled.
Killed Time on Tour
Lewis explained his dilemma to a flight attendant and, after telephone negotiations with Auckland, was told that the airline would fly him back to Los Angeles free of charge. But he had to kill a day in Auckland, so he took a tour of the city.
"It's really nice," Lewis said. "Maybe I'll be able to go back for a little longer."
Estimating that he had slept no more than a couple of hours since he began his return from Europe, Lewis blamed the verbal mix-up on fatigue and the fact that he had spoken mostly German while abroad.
"I'm really tired," he said. "But they really do sound similar."
Waiting in Los Angeles for his Tuesday evening flight home, Lewis said he was beginning to see the humor of it all:
"I'm just going to hang out here 'till 9:30 and hope I don't get on the wrong plane."