Sunday, August 17, 2008

Long Way Home

Well, if I have any readers, I haven't abandoned my blog. My lack of attention to it even has a good excuse attached. Our internet at home (which is to say, the neighbor's wifi that we've been mooching off of) has been down for several weeks, and I've been doing a CDO line so there's no time for updating at layovers. My online time has been limited to an hour here and there at coffee shops.

I need to start carrying a notepad with me to write my posts. That's how I did it in the beginning, but a year or so ago I started writing all my posts from within Blogger. That coincided with a decline in the frequency of my posts, as it takes a pretty conscious effort to begin a post in Blogger whereas random scribbling in a notebook will often turn into something decent. I can actually feel my "writer's muscles" atrophying. Just as skipping the gym for a few days makes it that much harder to go back, not writing for a while really affects ability and motivation. I miss it, so I need to change my habits to write often even in the absence of regular internet service.

I left you last time with a photoblog from Paris and a hint that the return leg didn't go quite as planned. I'm only now calm enough to write about it objectively; at the time I was almost too angry to speak, much less write. It shouldn't have bothered me so much, because we've had a pretty good string on non-revving luck the last few years. It was just the manner in which we got stuck an extra day in Paris that made it seem disproportionately awful.

I had five days off of work, a long weekend of Friday through Tuesday. We flew out on Friday afternoon, on RedCo's direct MSP-CDG flight that arrived early Saturday morning. For our return, RedCo had two flights on Tuesday, CDG-MSP and CDG-DTW. Both were too uncomfortably full to depend on them for getting me back to work in time. However, WidgetCo had several quite empty flights leaving on Tuesday. We settled on a CDG-JFK flight leaving at 9am Tuesday morning, as it had over 90 seats available. Due to the impending merger, we fly for free on WidgetCo; however, we still have to get paper tickets for their flights. I did this and listed on their reservations system before we left the States.

That Tuesday, we woke up early, packed, and descended into the Bastille station of the Metro, which we used in conjunction with the RER for the hour-long commute to Charles de Gaulle Airport. We arrived at the airport before 7am, which was more than two hours early - enough time, we thought, to make the fight.

Alas, French bureaucracy colluded with universal airline worker indifference to frustrate best laid plans. There were two 767's worth of passengers queueing to check in at the WidgetCo counters, with two (later three) agents to check them all in. The queue snaked back and forth several times, then out and around the corner of the check-in desk for a total length of perhaps 200 or 300 feet. It moved at a glacial pace. There was actually a separate desk for non-revs, but we had to stand in line with the regular passengers until our passports could be checked by security personnel. That took over an hour, at which point we were put into the steadily lengthening non-rev line. By the time we got to the front, it was 35 minutes to departure. "You're too late" was the unsurprising verdict.

No worries. There was a WidgetCo flight leaving almost three hours later for Cincinnati with over 40 seats open. I asked to be transferred to that flight, but the agent brusquely noted that our paper tickets said New York, not Cincinnati. Nevermind that they're free tickets, or that every other airline accepts non-rev tickets for approximately the same stage length no matter the printed destination. He wasn't going to let us get on that airplane unless we had paper tickets that said Cincinnati on them. He pointed us in the direction of the WidgetCo ticket counter. We grimly left the line we'd spent two hours in and joined the queue at the ticket counter.

"No, we can't reissue tickets here. We're not allowed to touch them. You'll have to have the RedCo ticket counter change them." I duly trekked down to the RedCo counter, which was closed. It shared counter space with Air France, so I asked an Air France ticket agent whether they could reissue the tickets. "We can't, and we actually staff the RedCo ticket counter. They can't reissue them...but they should be able to issue new tickets if you call your company." Ah-hah, now we're getting somewhere! I ran to a nearby convenience store, purchased an international calling card, hunted down a pay phone that'd actually accept it, muddled my way through the French instructions, and called the RedCo non-rev line. Finally, a piece of the puzzle fell into place. Armed with the ticket code, I ran back to the now-open RedCo counter...where I spent another half hour in the queue. Finally, a supervisor came out from the back office to help me.

"I'm sorry, we cannot issue staff travel passes here."

"Uh, you're a RedCo station, right?"

"Yes, but we use Air France personnel and software. We're unable to issue paper tickets."

"So, um, I'm limited to the two RedCo flights, eh?"

"They're completely full. Perhaps you can come back tomorrow? Actually, tomorrow is pretty full. Thursday perhaps?"

By now we'd been at the airport for nearly four hours and I was getting a tight knot in the pit of my stomach. I returned to the pay phone to list us for the direct flight to Minneapolis, which left at 12:50pm. If we missed that one, there was a flight to Detroit at 2pm. We trudged back to the same long queue that made us miss the first flight, since the WidgetCo check-in was now also RedCo check-in. It was all handled by the same Air France agents. The security personnel insisted that we stand in line for the passport check again, then sent me back to the ticket counter for a bonus round of queue standing because they wanted to see a paper ticket. The RedCo ticket counter of course confirmed that the security agent was wrong and our paperless ticket was sufficient for travel.

Somehow we still had enough time to stand in line, check in, go through security and customs, and arrive at the RedCo gate with time to spare. When we checked in, I inquired about the loads and was told that it was marginal. "Ok, so if we miss this one, can they bump us to the Detroit flight or do we need to relist?" I was told that we could be carried over, same as at any other station.

The Minneapolis flight was full indeed. A few non-revs did get on, but we were several numbers away. There were only a few RedCo agents there (and again, they were incognito Air France agents); the lead agent was openly hostile to non-revs, at one point exclaiming "I am really getting sick of you standbys!" As soon as the flight closed, she made herself scarce. I summoned one of her underlings over and asked to be transferred to the Detroit flight leaving in an hour. "I can't do that, but you can have them do that at the Detroit gate."

We picked up our backpacks and humped it over to the Detroit gate, in another wing of the terminal some distance away. It was deserted when we got there; to our dismay, the first RedCo agent to show up was the one who was sick on standbys.

"We were listed on the Minneapolis flight and didn't make it. Can you transfer us to this flight?"

"Well, are you listed?"

"No, we were told we could be transferred."

"They were wrong. If you're not listed, you're not going."

Mind you, this is completely contrary to the way things are done at every other RedCo station I've been to, but I was quickly finding that they had their own way of doing things here. I ran to a nearby pay phone, retrieved the trusty calling card, listed us for the flight, and returned to the gate.

"Sorry, I can't check you in now. Check in closes one hour before the flight. You're not getting on."

It took every ounce of restraint in my being not to lunge across the desk and strangle the woman. By her rules, one would have to list and check in for the Detroit flight before the Minneapolis flight even left! It got even worse when the DTW flight went out with several empty seats. The agent was absolutely indifferent to our standing.

I made another international call, this time to crew scheduling to inform them that I wouldn't be at my home base for reserve the next day. They told me there was a chance I wouldn't get used, in which case everything would be fine, but for now I was still on call as of noon.

We weighed our options. The RedCo flight loads the next day looked bad, and they wouldn't get me to MSP in time anyways. There was one flight out of Amsterdam that'd get me into MSP in time for reserve; the loads were ugly for that one too, but we still considered it. I even bought train tickets to Amsterdam (210 euros) before we realized that was a lot to spend for a long shot and we'd be getting into Amsterdam late at night without a bed. I checked the WidgetCo flight to JFK for the next morning, and it was quite open. That got into JFK one hour before a RedCo flight left for MSP. If everything worked out right, I'd be home only a little into my reserve period.

At this point it was 4pm; we'd been at the airport for 9 hours, with nothing to eat or drink, standing in lines with heavy backpacks on our backs most of the time. We were too exhausted to take the train back into Paris to enjoy our extra night. I refunded the train tickets and we went to the CDG Hilton. Note: if you're ever stuck in CDG, the Hilton has an awesome airline crew rate of 79 euros (vs a rack rate of 750 euros). That was an interesting experience, seeing how far the Hilton goes to insulate their American clientele from ever realizing they're in a foreign country. The faucets were even American-style, with hot on the left.

Wednesday morning, we got to the airport three hours early, and had no problem getting on the rather empty flight. Our "luck" broke down at JFK, where we landed on time but had a nearly one hour taxi in, making us miss our connection to MSP. The next flight left at 5:50pm with an arrival time of 8pm. I was staying in close contact with crew scheduling this entire time, and they were doing everything in their power to not assign me a trip. Unfortunately, they took several sick calls in quick succession, and told me they needed me in MSP for a IAH flight with a scheduled departure time of 7:05pm. I told them the MSP flight was pretty full and wasn't scheduled to get in until 8, at which point I'd have to race home to get my uniform. They positive spaced me and told me the flight would be waiting on me. At this point I was in full-blown panic mode, with images of my impending firing playing out before my eyes. Dawn left on a flight to DTW at 4:45pm, assuming she'd get to MSP after me.

I could expend more words on that JFK-MSP flight than everything I've written so far, but it's a very long post already. Suffice it to say that severe thunderstorms compounded the usual JFK silliness, and I spent more time on the JFK-MSP flight than the CDG-JFK! I arrived in MSP at 3am. Fortunately, the guy I was to be flying with was having commuting troubles of his own, so they weren't holding the IAH flight just for me. He still hadn't arrived when they junior manned someone to take my place, so in the end I didn't delay the flight any worse than it already was. I still got a MFA ("Missed Flight Assignment") on my line. Strictly speaking, I was in compliance with our contract's commuter clause so I shouldn't have been subject to any discipline, but the company claimed it didn't apply and I wasn't going to have the first test case be an extreme example like coming back from Paris. In any event, I was pretty impressed with the way NewCo handled the discipline: they referred it to our union's Professional Standards committee, which contacted me, got my side of the story, and told me to be more careful in the future. Case closed.

The fact is, there were three flights with open seats that we couldn't get on for various reasons. If I have to be more careful than having three open flights, I'll never be able to go anywhere. However, I have learned one crucial lesson: when France is involved, be ridiculously early and carry a plethora of backup passes for every conceivable situation.


Peter said...

Glad to see you're back. That was one crappy agent you had to deal with. A wanna-be career bureaucrat, to be sure!

Michael said...

Well, back in June I finally got the post up about our "shared" experience from Vancouver to MSP via Duluth.

Just think of all that waiting in different lines crap as some new age meditative exercise plan :)

Anonymous said...

hopefully this is a lesson to buy as many ZEDs as you can! going to san diego from yyz with a partner = my own airline e ticket + 12 paper tickets with OAL. thanks for the post!

Anonymous said...

Welcome to the world of what us outsiders (rev-paying customers) have to deal with when dealing with airlines.

The airlines that focus on efficient customer service, that try to establish a culture of doing right, are doing well (Southwest, Westjet, Virgin, Singapore). The ones that are a pain in the butt to deal with are suffering. No surprise.

Anonymous said...

I´ve been reading the post regularly and, if I may, I was a little worried about it after this last couple of weeks. Good having you back. The french agents (and french airports, and french cab drivers, and so on...) are really a pain in the ass (as a Spaniard I know it for sure). Keep bloging.

Javier Cuesta from Mexico City

Anonymous said...

I have learned one crucial lesson: when France is involved, don't go.

At least that's the lesson I learned.

Chen said...

A very "entertaining" story to read, but trust me, this is more or less daily business for us paying customers as well. Service quality has been reduced world wide to a level that is very uncomfortable, even if you're a premium passenger flying C or even First class. On Singapore it happened 5 times last year (out of around 40 flights) that i was downgraded from Business to economy class - not very good if you have meetings the next day. Compensation for it? I was refunded the difference between what I paid and the most expensive economy tariff, which was not very much.

But even if it's a big PITA,i cant do without air travel, and its not better on other carriers...

amulbunny said...

We have 6 AF flights out a day and they are the most obnoxious crews I have ever seen. Like they walk on water. I am glad you made it home in one piece. I love France but it's the French that cause the problems. Maybe the agent had PMS.


Anonymous said...

Man, and I thought I've had it bad....your story actually made me groan out loud when that french gate agent finally told you you weren't going anywhere

Tom said...

I recently flew DTW-CDG-DTW on RedCo's A330 and the equipment was fantastic (particularly the video on demand) but the service was also horrible. The RedCo flight attendants were rude, but what was worse was the conceit and bad attitude of the airport workers at CDG. They went out of their way to be unhelpful. I avoid CDG at all costs now because the last 4 times I've connected through that airport it has been a bad experience.

Sam said...

Tom-- Agreed, the RedCo A330 is the best coach class product out there. Unfortunately, the senior FAs that get most of the A330 trips are some of RedCo's worst. My last few trips to Asia made them look even worse, because we had also flown on Asian carriers that had superior (and friendly) service even though the planes weren't quite as nice as RedCo's. I've written about this before - with open skies on the way, US airlines have to improve their service to compete. Hopefully WidgetCo will whip things into shape...although I know many have their own WidgetCo horror stories, I've found their international flight attendants to be quite friendly & professional.

As for using Air France personnel at CDG...yeah, they're bad, but I think the US airlines will avoid hiring their own personnel at all costs. Not only would it cost more, but French labor laws make it practically impossible to fire someone once they have the job.

Sam said...

For what it's worth... while there's a subtext of France-bashing in the post & comments, and while that's always a popular activity in the states (as popular as US-bashing is in France, I think)... I had nothing but good experiences with the French outside of CDG. Everyone I met was patient and gracious with my poor-to-nonexistent French & didn't seem any less friendly than people in any large city. It was only at CDG that the French acted, well, French.

Jean-Michel said...

I read you on a regular basis and I generally appreciate your insight in all aspects of your job described in your blog. But I was quite disappointed by the tone of this post relating your misadventures at CDG.

Fortunately, your latest comment gives a more balanced picture of your stay in France than the one reflected in your post, which inevitably generated reactions full of prejudice against the French.

The lesson I would learn from your story (resembling some annoying situations I have experienced with airline and airport security staff in Europe and Northern America) is that an airport is definitely not the right place to get a proper perception of a foreign country.

Sam said...

Heh, agreed Jean-Michel. If one were looking to confirm stereotypes of the French, CDG would be the place to do it - but that's very likely true of airports the world over. It's funny (and sad) how air travel truly seems to bring out the worst in people (passengers AND workers....)

amulbunny said...

I have to say I love France. I went to school there many years ago and I loved the people I met, but even way back then, flying non rev on TWA out of CDG was a pain in the butt. It's like a whole different world inside that airport. ORY was a much friendlier place.
And RedCo's senior crews don't have a lock on age, I saw a KLM FA the other day who could have been flying with Orville and Wilbur. She must love her job. I think they are so jaded about their seniority that no one can change their attitudes.

Fly safe.