Jul 25, 2012

Awful Air France Ordeal

When we travel these days, we all expect long lines, underpaid airport staff who don't care about helping travelers, delayed flights, and hassles.  That has become normal (and I found a good article about why that is).  However, my experience over the past 30 hours goes way beyond normal.  I arrived at my destination a full day later than scheduled.  I've had to go through airport security three times during this journey.   I've had to pick up my baggage and re-check it twice.   The Air France staff lied and never provided any truthful explanations for their behavior.  Everyone on my flight was subjected to the same ill treatment.  The passengers were international, and include children traveling alone, an old woman in a wheelchair, and families with babies.

Air France flight 688 was scheduled to depart Paris CDG at 1:30pm, and arrive in Atlanta around 5:30pm.  What happened?  We departed Paris at 2:45pm, diverted to Washington D.C. for no apparent reason, and arrived in Atlanta at 3:30am the next day.

Here's how my particular adventure began.

If I had known what a mob scene awaited me at Charles DeGaulle airport, I would have given myself 5 hours to get to my gate instead of just 3 hours.  July is peak tourist season in Paris, yet the airport seemed ridiculously understaffed and overcrowded; much worse than anything I've seen at LAX

When I exited the RER train, there was a mad rush to the single escalator leading to Terminal 2.  It got mobbed.  I squeezed into the herd of travelers with luggage, and followed the herd until we arrived in an atrium with passages to 2A, 2B, 2C, 2D, 2E, 2F, and 2G.  I had no idea where to go.  A huge monitor listed flights, but mine wasn't on there.  The single information booth with its one employee had a huge line.  I was on the verge of choosing a terminal at random when I lucked out.  An airport employee hurried past me, and I asked her where to go.  She directed me to 2E and hurried onward.  I dragged my luggage to what seemed like the world's busiest, most crowded terminal.

I squeezed into the enormous mob crowding the Air France area.  There were no ropes or anything to corral the mob into orderly lines.  I figured I'd save time by checking myself in using a passport scanning machine.  However, the machine was French only, and when it got to the passport part, it wouldn't work.  I'd wasted time by waiting on line for this machine.  The people around me were unhelpful.

So I dragged my luggage around until I finally spotted an Air France employee.  I asked her how I might check in.  She flippantly told me to speak to another employee, pointing.  I asked her where he was, since all I saw was a mob.  She said, "he is there."  I asked if there is a line to speak to him.  She said, "no line."

Bit by bit, I inched my way into the mob.  I realized they were all waiting to speak to him, and plenty of anxious travelers were trying to cut into the disorganized mob.  Sure enough, one short man was scanning passports, slowly, one by one.  This one Air France employee was in charge of scanning passports for hundreds of travelers trying to get to their flights on time.  Other Air France employees frequently came by to speak to him, and he always gave his coworkers priority attention, ignoring the mob of anxious travelers.

I waited for at least an hour, and finally got the guy to scan my passport.  He printed out my boarding passes and told me to go to point 8 and 9.  I was at point 1 and 2.

I dragged my luggage through a ridiculously overcrowded terminal, only to find that point 8 and 9 was even more overcrowded.  I had to wait over an hour just to check my luggage.  The Air France employee who checked it barely spoke English, and she waved vaguely for me to go somewhere else.  I followed other travelers through a maze until we arrived at a passport checking station.  Another huge line awaited us.

By this time, it was past noon, and I worried that I wouldn't make my flight, which was scheduled to depart at 1:30pm.  Boarding would begin soon and I hadn't even seen the security line.  Other travelers in line were also anxious about their flights, many of which were scheduled to depart soon.  No one came by to reassure us about our flights.  The passport station employees were few and far between, and they all seemed bored stiff.  They moved slowly and paused to chat with each other.

After my passport was checked, I had to hurry through a corridor and more escalators.  When I spotted a few Air France employees hanging out and chatting, I asked them where gate L45 was.  They pointed to a subway train, which was about to leave.  I leaped on board just in time.

After exiting the subway, I finally encountered the security line.  It wasn't as bad as the rest; they had a lot more employees working there.  No body scanners.  I got a brief pat down.  My carry-on bag was searched.  Then I was through, and emerged into what looked like an expensive shopping mall.  Sephora and other perfume shops were everywhere.

I figured I was just in time to board my flight.  Relieved, I rushed to the women's restroom, which featured only four stalls and a huge line.  I emerged to learn that my flight was delayed.  Delta Airlines called me twice to let me know this.  It would have been nice if they only called once, and nicer if they'd called earlier, while I was stressing out about making my flight. 

The flight didn't board until 2:30pm.  The hour-long flight delay caused me to worry that I'd miss the tight connection I needed to make in Atlanta.  Maybe the delay was due to mechanical problems or bad weather, but I suspect it was actually due to the poor handing of passengers at CDG airport.  If the plane had left on time, there would only be about 50 passengers on it.  The rest would be stuck in various lines.

The fiight was full when it departed.  We were perhaps 45 minutes away from landing in Atlanta when our flight got diverted to Washington D.C.  The stewardesses claimed the change was due to a severe thunderstorm, and everyone believed them ... but hours later, we learned this was a lie.  Atlanta had clear weather that evening, on July 23, 2012.  No one ever explained why we were diverted.  I would still like to know.

And then we sat in the stuffy airplane at the Dulles airport gate for hours, stretching a 7 hour flight into a 10.5 hour ordeal.  Babies were crying, children were yelling.  We watched the sunset.  People fretted about missed connections.  I knew I'd missed mine.

Then the Air France crew announced, in their poor English, that the pilot was tired and legally couldn't fly any longer, so everyone would have to disembark and go through U.S. customs in Dulles.

We went through customs.  It took less than an hour.  After that, we went to baggage claim to retrieve our luggage, which took a long time to arrive.  Then we were rushed through a line to re-check our luggage to Atlanta, and we had to suffer through airport security again.  Then we were directed to an Air France ticket counter to receive fresh instructions.

We waited at that ticket counter for hours.  While we waited in this interminable line, one of the stressed-out employees announced that our rerouted flight to Atlanta would depart at midnight.  She claimed we would receive a meal voucher and a hotel voucher for our trouble.  In reality, all we received was an $8 meal voucher for the only airport restaurant still open at Dulles: Fuddruckers.  The Air France voucher didn't fully cover my overpriced airport hamburger meal.

By this time, the passengers were exhausted and furious.  Several passengers left, booking last-minute flights on different airlines.  Others had final destinations near the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, and they caught late night cabs or rented cars.  Still, hundreds of passengers remained corralled in the Dulles airport, which was shut down for the night.  We ate Fuddruckers and waited.  It was past midnight.

The airplane gained a fresh crew around 12:45am, and we began to board for our new flight from Dulles to Atlanta.  We sat in the same stuffy airplane for another hour before it finally took off, around 2:00am.  No one explained why we had to wait so long.
We arrived in Atlanta around 3:30am, and we got nothing for our trouble.  No vouchers.  No help.  The Atlanta airport was shut down for the night, and all we saw were cleaning crew, who stared at the hundreds of angry travelers from Air France 688.

The four Air France employees on duty in Atlanta looked stunned by the hundreds of passengers who suddenly showed up at 3:30am.  It seemed no one had told them what to expect.  They phoned in a manager to help out.  Still, the line moved slower than any before it.  I was in the first third of the line, and it took me over an hour to reach the counter.

There, I rechecked my luggage, and got re-booked on another flight to my final destination in Texas, leaving at 8:50am.  I had to go through airport security yet again.  My passport was examined for the tenth time. 

The remaining travelers from Air France 688 entered the Atlanta gate area.  Atlanta is the world's busiest airport, but at this early hour, it was utterly empty, except for the late night cleaning crew.  We had the whole automated subway train to ourselves.  Here it is, the Atlanta subway at 4:30am:

I settled in at my new gate and watched the sunrise.  I should have been home yesterday.  My Delta flight left on time, and I arrived home on July 24, 2012.  I was so tired, I slept for an hour on that flight, despite the shrieking, kicking baby sitting on her mother's lap next to me. 

As frustrated as I was, there were people from that Air France flight 688 who had it worse.  There were families with babies, an old woman in a wheelchair, and people with flights connecting to Alaska, California, and Guatemala.  I think one person was bound for Australia.  None of them will arrive on the day they wanted to arrive.  There were several children traveling alone.  I noticed that Air France took special care with them, since a lost child would turn our general ordeal into a P.R. nightmare. 

Air France should have been up front with their customers.  Tell us the truth.   They made a tough situation much worse by keeping all the passengers trapped on the grounded plane, uninformed, and lied to.  Quite a few people could have caught connecting flights if we'd been let into the Dulles airport at 6:00pm, when we landed there.

If Air France existed in a competitive market for airlines, they would be offering free flights in compensation.  Instead, they treated the passengers with lies ("go into the airport, there will be people lined up to help you") and no truthful explanations.  They offered a brief apology and an $8 voucher for Fuddruckers, and that was it.

1 comment:

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

The stewardesses claimed the change was due to a severe thunderstorm, and everyone believed them ... but hours later, we learned this was a lie. Atlanta had clear weather that evening, on July 23, 2012. No one ever explained why we were diverted. I would still like to know.

Capt. Ezekial Harkness and his crack team of specialists from Area 51 were repelling an Kri'toth invasion over the Atlantic around that time. You have to divert your flights around that stuff.