Notes From Hairenik
On my way to California last week on a business trip, with a short stop-over in Boston for a few days, I had probably the worst international flying experience to date. I was booked to fly with Air France, which now offers direct flights between Paris and Yerevan, beginning last April. There was an unusually long check-in line at Yerevan’s Zvartnots Airport for my flight on July 13, and it was extremely slow moving. It turned out that the Air France computer system was down, and all check-ins, including baggage and passenger validation, had to be done by hand—everything was written out. As a result, the flight was delayed over one hour, which meant that my two-hour layover in Paris, usually long enough to at least browse in a duty-free shop while waiting to board, was reduced to less than 45 minutes.

Paris’s Charles de Gaulle International Airport is a partial disaster zone. Not too long ago the newly built Terminal 2E’s ceiling collapsed, killing four travelers in-transit and injuring a few more in the process. As a result, it appeared to me as the plane was taxiing that none of the airplanes were docking at Terminal 2, where were had arrived, but simply a few feet from it at designated areas. None of the planes allowed boarding or deboarding by means of those connector bridges that lead to the terminal. The passengers deboarded the plane by means of a portable metal staircase, then we were immediately directed to board low-set to the ground transportation buses offering standing room only. Special shuttles were offered to people rushing to make their connecting flight to Boston—there were quite a few of us flying from Yerevan that day. We were required to depart from 2E, which judging from the small, vague airport map provided with the boarding pass, was where we supposedly arrived. The 10-minute long ride, during which the bus crossed nearly every square inch of asphalt surrounding the runways and seemed to loop around certain sections of the terminal five times or more, was a clear sign that we indeed were in the midst of a chaotic situation that would only bring unwanted surprises. I remember having to walk up a few flights of stairs turning corners in between each one, almost getting lost in the process due to lack of signage. I passed through a security check two times: once with the metal detectors and X-Ray machines, and the other at the gate, where a security guard decided to take apart all my carry-on bag’s contents, laptop and all, then he carefully inspected my clogs and belt. I was directed to board yet another bus, then waited at least 15 minutes before we were set to embark on another 10-minute ride to the airplane.

I climbed another flight of metal stairs to board, only to find that I was assigned a window seat. I used to relish these seats since I could observe the sky and earth miles below to my heart’s content, so long as there was daylight of course. But the Airbus model we boarded, the A330, did not give me much head or elbow room, since the plane is designed in such a way where you virtually have no possibility of comfortably resting your shoulder near the window unless you are under 5 ft. 8 inches in height. To top it off, there was a strange, fixed metal box underneath the seat in front of me, which prevented me from soundly placing my European-size 45 feet on the floor without them cramping up two hours into the flight. The A330 is big enough to allow ample opportunities to walk around and stretch. I was frantically looking for free aisle seats during those strolls through the cabin but to no avail. But at least the French films they offered were entertaining, and they distracted me from my sardine can-like discomfort. The 350 ml bottle of Bordeaux wine served with dinner helped me calm my nerves as well.

The early arrival at Boston’s Logan International Airport—another disaster zone the likes of which that I cannot possibly describe here—after only 5 hours or so was most welcomed. Thankfully, I did not have any problems whatsoever going through passport control, other than the usual “How long have you been outside the US?” and “What were you doing in Armenia?” questions. But my wander round and round the baggage carousel for 45 minutes confirmed my suspicion that my suitcase did not travel with me from Paris due to the short layover, thus I had no change of underwear or toiletries. Luckily enough, very close to the “Logan Express” bus station where my parents promptly picked me up, there was a Target store carrying anything you could possibly want to consume and a TJ Maxx, from where along with its sister company store, Marshalls, has been purchased the majority of my clothing items during the last 30 years at bargain prices either by myself or my mother. She taught me well….

The following day, July 14, after making the first of 20 calls to the Air France lost luggage hotline, which operates from Florida for some reason, we learned that my suitcase had arrived at approximately 2:30 pm in Washington, D.C. and was then promptly flown to Boston by United Airlines. Another call confirmed that it had arrived in Boston on Saturday, July 15 as of late morning, stored in some unknown location. But for some reason, Air France could not expedite its delivery, even though our home is located only about 15 miles from the airport. The hotline operator said that she would put in a “request” that it be delivered that day, which from what I would later understand was simply an SMS message, the same you send from one mobile phone to another, and which can easily be missed. It was the only request made during that day our investigation would reveal—no one at Air France bothered to follow-up as to whether it was in transit.

On Sunday, July 16, most of the day was spent repeatedly calling the hotline, twice by myself and about 15 times by my mother, who has more patience than I do when agitatedly speaking on the phone. At one point my father took the receiver and started speaking in French with “Regie,” the Air France service representative answering most of our calls and who couldn’t seem to understand what we wanted of him. It took him a few hours to realize that we really wanted my suitcase delivered, immediately, seeing as I was due to fly to California the following day and was wearing old clothes I happened to find around the house in the meantime. During the day my grandmother and uncle came over for shish kebab, and by the time they left around 8:00 pm the bag still did not arrive. Then a close friend of mine, who had just moved back to the Boston area the day before came by with his wife and doggie, staying until 11:30 pm, with still no sign of the suitcase, in which were small gifts for them. Finally around midnight, nine hours before I had to be at the airport, an old lime-green Ford pick-up truck, at least 20 years old and falling apart, rusty, dents on the front and rear fenders, with “Tom and Jerry’s Delivery Service” or something like that stenciled on the doors, pulled up in front of the house. When he pulled the suitcase off the truck bed I immediately noticed despite the darkness that it had been mangled. A huge gaping hole was found in one corner, which actually went through to the other side. It was also badly scraped on the rear side and the nylon was frayed on the edges, exposing the wire support frame. There were even burn marks in one place, near the side handle. Some photos appear below.

The day after I arrived at the work office in California, using my mother’s suitcase to haul my stuff, I wrote and faxed a letter to Air France as part of a claim process customers are required to follow who have had lost or damaged baggage. The following are excerpts from that letter:

In reference to claim number BOSAF12874, my luggage was lost, then recovered but stored in an undisclosed storage facility at Logan International Airport for over two days, although my home, the delivery address for the found item, is located only 15 miles away. When it was finally delivered at approximately 12:00 am on July 17, I immediately noticed that the suitcase had been damaged well beyond repair, with a large gaping hole in the lower right corner, and another hole on the reverse side, indicating that some sort of device had possibly punctured straight through the suitcase. …

Please let me know how Air France expects to address this issue regarding my initially lost, then severely damaged returned baggage. The entire post-flight service provided to me was inadequate and unacceptable, particularly the lackadaisical response to my claim and the clear absence of urgency regarding my situation. To make matters worse, the person who finally delivered my baggage from Logan Airport at an inconvenient, late hour seemed to have been intoxicated.”

I have yet to hear a response from Air France regarding my claim, even though the five business-day wait period for a response has passed. Surprisingly enough, I am not expecting one.

Rick from TACentral.com has posted his own horror story about another Air France lost luggage fiasco. Here’s an excerpt I rather liked:

“So who delivered my bags?” I said.

Silence.

“You know what? There are people on these flights whose bags you lost for whom this is the first time they have come to Armenia, and this is their first experience in the country. This is terrible.”

“Well you are entitled to your opinion.”

“Opinion?? This is a fact! Your company failed to put the bags on board.”

I got nowhere, I was getting nowhere else even faster. Finally I told her who I was, and that I wrote TourArmenia, and had one of the largest readerships online about Armenia, 124,000 people each month. And I had to write about my experience and warn people off AF until they got their act together. To which she replied, “Well you can write this if you want but I don’t think it will have much influence.”

She had never seen the web site, so I gave her the URL. Maybe she took the time to see it. I doubt it. And she may be very right in her opinion, as the airlines squeeze more and more people on fewer flights, but if ever a person is serving to harm the reputation of AF, it is this one.

Great stuff. You can read the full article here.


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2 Comments:
Blogger nazarian said...
It looks like it went from bad to worse when United got hold of your luggage.

My experience is that United is the worst airline when it comes to luggages. In any airport where they have designated luggage carousels, there are always misplaced bags piled up, or turning around on the belt.

My luggage story was not as bad. Once when flying to Yerevan, I checked in two bags. Then my flight to Washington DC was delayed, so I was going to miss my connecting flight, so they postponed my trip for 2 days. Unfortunately, they removed 1 luggage from the airplane. The other one started a mysterious journey. Nobody at United could tell me where my bag was. It had vanished. In Vienna, I checked with the Austrian Airlines customer service. They couldn't find it, either.

But when I arrived in Yerevan, there it was. How had it arrived there without being detected by any computer system, is still a mystery to me. The United customer service had taken the check-in stub in order to file my complaint. Fortunately, being in a banking industry has taught me one important lesson - have copies of any receipts - and I had asked for a photocopy. It came in handy in Yerevan where an airport security person was verifying the luggage ownership upon exiting the airport.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Air France has a well deserved reputation for losing and destroying baggage. Here's a post from our blog a couple of years ago:

http://www.bookcase.com/~claudia/mt/archives/000099.html

-- At that point, we were so used to damaged luggage that a wheel torn off a stroller was fine! No big deal! We were just happy that the stewardesses were nice to the baby.

Charles de Gaulle is, hands down, the nastiest large airport in a developed country anywhere. It's badly designed, badly built and badly run. It was hateful before it began to fall apart, and it's worse now.

You can post a comment on it here:

http://www.airlinequality.com/Airports/Airport_forum/cdg.htm

I think you don't have kids? Because if you do, be aware that CdG is the most child-hostile large airport in the world. You can't get strollers around it safely; you can't buy diapers or other child supplies anywhere in the airport (if, say, you have a delayed flight and no luggage); and there is no play area nor anyplace to change a baby.

Here's one traveller's search for the legendary Lost Diaper Changing Area of Charles de Gaulle:

http://www.epinions.com/content_39774228100

-- scroll down.

Does the rest of it sound familiar? Note the date. That was five years ago.

"In a month" indeed.


Doug M.

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