Dec 20th 2014

Bad news: Air France debacle at the ‘hairport’

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

The day went something like a Keystone Kops comedy from the silent movie era. Chaos reigned while 300 Air France passengers at Charles de Gaulle Airport were yanked around for five hours and finally – after the fight was cancelled -- bussed an hour away to Disneyland to pass the night in a cheap hotel. A key difference from the Kops: there was no laughter.

It was indeed a sad performance for this once-classy airline that is beginning to show signs of terminal decline. It was my second overnight cancellation on the Paris-Boston line of Air Chance, both due to aircraft deemed by the captain to be unflyable. 

Air France is not responding yet to complaints of this Oct. 7 incident due to the “exceptionally large number” of passenger réclamations that are backed up. Six weeks after incurring over 500 euros in expenses, no reimbursement has been forthcoming.

In this latest incident, passengers wandered around for four hours in the waiting pen as contradictory announcements crackled over the inaudible PA system. One American woman passenger shouted to the skies, “I have been traveling all my life. I have never seen anything like this.”

Others whipped out their cellphones to tell their Boston greeters they would be arriving a day late.  Voices were raised. Children wept. One elderly and very ill lady in a wheelchair was pushed around frantically by her male nurse who was unprepared for an overnight stay in bunk beds.

My flight had originated in Bordeaux, leaving a half hour late while some leak in the “hydraulic system” was plugged. But my wife and I have been traveling for 50 years and thought we could handle just about anything. We had even logged many agonizing hours on Aeroflot. We let this delay pass.

Arriving at Paris to connect to the Boston leg, we got those familiar butterflies when our boarding was delayed. And then again delayed, always at half-hour intervals. Finally about an hour and a half late, we were herded onto the plane. Scrunched into our economy seats, we dared to relax.

But when nothing had moved an hour later, a second surge of butterflies hit us. 

The captain announced in his best franglais that the forklift driver loading our lunch had ripped a hole in the deck, rendering the plane un-airworthy. “But no problem, laddies and zhentlemen,” he said. “We have identical Boeing standing by. Keep your boarding pass and go to the zame zeats.”

Once again we dared to relax. This sounded like an airline doing its best in difficult circumstances. Bravo, Air France. We love ya regardless. 

Once again in the holding pen, however, we waited for this identical aircraft to turn up. Thirty minutes passed, then an hour, then two hours. Ground staff assured us all was well.

As 300 passengers began to shuffle around nervously, however, some of the ground crew confided that there was yet another problem. There was no identical plane. There was not even a different plane. We were grounded. 

We never saw the pilot or anyone else in charge. They must have had a backdoor escape hatch. Cleaning up the mess was left to half a dozen young women in uniform, most of whom spoke no English, and none of whom seemed to know what they were doing. I did a lot of translating for the mostly-American travelers.

Finally about three hours after scheduled takeoff we heard bits of an incomprehensible announcement saying what we already sensed -– we were going nowhere tonight. A couple of the young French ground staff mingled with the passengers and said we would have to run to another place in the “hairport”, as they called it.

Directions were garbled so badly that one finally threw up her hands and said, “Follow my colleague.” Three hundred exhausted, angry passengers ran down the corridors to see what would awaited them.

When we caught up with the crowd (we are in our 70s) we found three long lines of about 100 passengers each waiting for Air France personnel to open the counters. Nothing was announced. Anxiety ran high.

The most disturbing impression of this debacle so far was that there seemed to be no plan. No one was taking responsibility and no one had anything to announce. Was this the first time Air Chance had left its paying customers high and dry? It seemed so.

I finally jumped the queue and shouted at a group of staff chatting among themselves, “What’s going on?” One of them told me confidentially we were waiting for busses to take us on a one-hour ride to a hotel near Disneyland.

My wife an I, mindful of our previous experience with Air Chance, decided to take matters into our own hands. We opted to walk halfway across Charles de Gaulle, through security, to the Hotel Sheraton. As luck would have it, the Sheraton was fully booked. But the very effective concierge took us in hand and promised to find us another inn. We felt like Joseph and the Virgin Mary although my wife was not pregnant.

Finally, after trying 16 hotels, he found us a room at a place in nearby Roissy at the princely rate of 480 euros (589 dollars). Bleary-eyed and mentally depleted, we agreed. The concierge – the first sympathetic player encountered in this saga – organized a free chauffeur from his car pool and shuttled us to the hotel. 

The next day more jerking about was in store. We were instructed to be at the “hairport” by 9 a.m. for our new flight. In fact it was a 2 p.m. flight, although posted for departure in 1600. Again in the holding pen, a group of us approached the desk and demanded to know what was happening. His response: “It helps nothing to shout.” Finally he declared that posting of departure times was not the responsibility of Air France, but of the hairport. And reassured us departure would happen at 2 p.m.

When departure time rolled around, again nothing happened. Someone had forgotten to order the busses that would take us to the “identical” aircraft parked five miles across the vast Charles de Gaulle tarmac.

When we finally got aboard the bus and climbed to the aircraft, the stewardesses were the first to agree that this debacle was shameful to Air France, shameful to France itself.

We hoped that the pilotage would be better than our experience of the previous day. It was. The pilot said he was "very, very sorry for the delay". We passengers were so zonked we all applauded weakly and went to sleep.




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