Executive Travel : The Uncalled-For Maze of Long-Distance Dialing

Did you ever wonder why it's so difficult to make a telephone call on the road?

The marketers at MCI and American Express want you to make long-distance calls using the MCI network, and they want you to charge those calls to your Amex card.

All things being equal, that's not a bad idea. But things are hardly equal.

MCI and Amex expect business travelers to punch in 36 digits and a personal identification number (as many as six more digits) to make an MCI call charged to an American Express card.

Thirty-six digits and a PIN code? Just to make a long-distance call?

Most business travelers hardly have time to grab a cup of coffee on the road.

Why would they station themselves in front of a telephone, dutifully punch in MCI's 11-digit phone number, wait for a tone, pound out the 10 digits of the number they are calling, wait for another tone, then enter a 15-digit Amex number and a PIN code.

Putting this process to the test at Hopkins Airport in Cleveland required one full minute to dial all those numbers and wait for all those tones.

Sadly, it is indicative of how sometimes travel marketers misunderstand business travelers.

Nothing--not airplanes or hotels or rented cars or portable computers--is more important to business travelers than the telephone. It's the lifeline to the office, the contact point with clients and the only link to home.

Yet phone companies and their marketing partners continue to complicate the life of business travelers with a never-ending series of schemes like 36-digit calling-card routines.

The real problems began three years ago.

That's when AT&T;, the nation's dominant long-distance carrier, radically changed its card, which for decades had been the coin of the realm for phone-dependent business travelers.

Remember the good old AT&T; Calling Card?

It was incredibly simple to use because the card number was nothing more complicated than your area code, telephone number and a 4-digit PIN code. Everyone knew their own phone number, so making a credit-card call was a breeze.

But AT&T; abandoned that card in 1991, primarily for marketing reasons.

In place of the good old AT&T; Calling Card with its easy-to-remember number came a new card with 14 randomly chosen digits. Suddenly, no business traveler in America knew his or her calling-card number.

What's worse, AT&T; also failed to tell all of its customers about the change.

The Federal Communications Commission estimates that about one in four AT&T; customers were never told about the change or issued new cards.

AT&T; just started to address the problem. Last month, the company began promoting the AT&T; "Personal Choice" Calling Card. It allows business travelers to choose their own calling-card number.

But the Personal Choice card doesn't allow business travelers to go back to using their own area codes and phone numbers. That's because AT&T; limits to nine the amount of numbers you can choose.

You cannot escape these problems by using MCI and Sprint, the nation's next largest long-distance companies.

When they aren't promoting 36-digit calling plans, they do issue proprietary calling cards based on a business traveler's own phone number.

But accessing the MCI or Sprint long-distance networks from public pay phones usually requires entering at least five and as many as eleven additional digits besides the calling-card number.

So what are the choices for a business traveler, short of carrying pockets full of change?

One alternative is to call your local phone company and get one of their calling cards. Their cards are still based on your own area code and phone number.

Using a local company's card isn't without its own problems--you may be charged an exorbitant fee for a call by an obscure long-distance phone company--but at least you'll be able to make a call without spending your life in front of the keypad of a pay phone.

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