Monday, October 28, 2013

25 Hours at the Charles de Gaulle

I wrote the attached piece titled “25 Hours at the Charles de Gaulle” some eight summers ago on 23rd Dec. 2005 while being stranded at THE Charles-de-Gaule airport & haplessly cursing my travel agent for having me booked through this scumbag of a union of the two most unprofessional airlines any customer might have seen. And I am not being remotely sarcastic while I say so, especially since so much water has flown down the river all these years. Such was the impact of this episode on my psyche that I don’t get amazed anymore whenever I see a media report on how Air France has crossed all the limits of professional decorum and how it has ill-treated its Indian patrons as if all of them are perpetually booked on free tickets and just don’t deserve any humane touch. It’s disheartening to observe that Air France still is the very same haughty carrier it has been since its inception and in all earnestness deserves a kick out of India for good.

The reason why today I got so agitated is the following link which one of my friends has shared (knowing that I had a similar story). I do not find it exaggerated even one bit as I empathize with the aggrieved Air France passenger in entirety.

Best regards
Ritesh Garg

25 Hours at the Charles de Gaulle

An Open Letter to
A)    The CEO (& President) of Delta Airlines, Inc.;
B)     The CEO (& President) of Air France;
C)    The Department of Immigration, The Republic of France;
D)    The Airport Authority of The Republic of France

Honourable Sir(s)/Madam(s),

Warm greetings!

At the onset, I wish to describe the context of this letter. The subject matter of this draws its inspiration from my harrowing experiences at the Charles-de-Gaulle airport on 23rd and 24th Dec 2005. There are several individuals & organizations who were the key actors in making it a truly (un)forgettable one for the rest of my life as it has left a permanent impression on my conscious (and to some extent subconscious) being. Please close this text if you do not have time to go thru the frame-by-frame mode of this description. I anyway can afford to write this piece as I have ample time to put my words here with nothing else to do at the airport for the whole day. Also, I strongly feel that not many people can appreciate the gravity of the trauma I’d gone thru if I don’t detail the chain of events.

For the reference following is the itinerary (PNR No. PJWRPZ/DL) that I was supposed to complete for my return visit to my country India from the USA.

1. Thursday 22nd Dec 2005: Atlanta to Paris
Carrier: Delta Air Lines; Flight No.: DL 050
Scheduled Departure from Atlanta at 18:45 Hrs EST;
Scheduled Arrival at Paris at 09:25 Hrs (Next day i.e., 23rd Dec 2005) Paris Local Time

2. Friday 23rd Dec 2005: Paris to Delhi
Carrier: Delta Air Lines; Flight No.: DL 8650 (Operated by Air France; Flight No.: AF 148)
Scheduled Departure from Paris at 10:30 Hrs Paris Local Time
Scheduled Arrival at Delhi at 23:00 Hrs IST

Actual Timings
1.      Actual Departure from Atlanta at 19:30 Hrs EST
Actual Arrival at Paris at 10:05 Hrs (Next day i.e., 23rd Dec 2005) Paris Local Time
2.      Actual Departure from Paris at 10:30 Hrs (Not too sure though) Paris Local Time

Role of Key Players
1. Delta Air Lines
My discomfort started at Atlanta itself when the flight did not take-off at the right time and got delayed by almost 45 minutes. The reasoning given by the carrier was that it required more time to clean the aircraft completely. I wonder what they were doing all thru the day if there wasn’t any other reason associated with it.

Midway on board when I noticed that the flight would not reach to its destination at the right time I had notified about my concerns to one of the flight attendants so that it remains in her mind but she had taken it very casually and hardly had given any serious thought to it.

The flight finally landed at Charles-de-Gaulle almost 40 minutes behind its schedule i.e., at 10:05 Hrs. I was amazed to hear one particular announcement about the ground crew taking the travelers flying to Mumbai by their flight at 11:00 Hrs but surprisingly there was no mention about the flight I was to board to Delhi even though it was more critical in terms of passengers missing it at that time. During debarking, I had asked a crew-member to check if there had been any special arrangements for the Delhi passengers to get them boarded in time but that was not the case and they didn’t even bother to notice my anxiety. I was told that I need to take the airport shuttle bus to go to the terminal where my flight was ready to take-off. I rushed up to catch it but could hardly afford to reach terminal 2F at 10:50 Hrs when I noticed that my flight had already took off. During all this mad rush, I was helplessly searching for a Delta crew-member but unfortunately could not notice one.

2. Air France
Desperately I hurried to the counter of Air France and immediately started asking for help showing my sense of discomfort quite clearly to everybody present there but its staff was indifferent to my problem and asked me to wait in the queue. I do not blame on their procedures but I did expect that they would pay heed to the sense of emergency that I was showing. After 15 minutes I finally got the chance to speak to one of them and I immediately suggested him a practical solution recalling that, perhaps a couple of other flights to India could still be there on the terminal but they rejected it. They also were not concerned about the issue as it involved the other carrier and they did not deem it their fault (so what if they’ve a Sky team partnership among them with others). Of course, it was not but keeping in mind their interdependent business association, it was not unfair to expect a few minutes of wait they could have afforded in delaying the flight to Delhi. In fact, Delta did exactly the opposite during my journey from India to Atlanta via the same route and had waited for more than an hour to accommodate those passengers whose flight(s) got delayed. Perhaps they have different work practices (or better still relative power in their businesses).

They told me that I could get only the next day’s same flight i.e., after 24 hours. I suggested them to route me from anywhere in the world to India but they rejected this idea as well. They were kind enough to book a room for me in a hotel in the city subject to the issuance of the Transit Visa by the Immigration Officials at the airport.

After one hour, I got this news that my Visa application was rejected and I would have to spend the whole day at the airport itself. This did not make my misery any less.

3. Immigration (or Police) department of the Paris airport
I asked the Air France officials if I could myself request the police to reconsider their decision and issue me a Transit Visa. They got scared and advised me not to approach them. I anyway went to their office but its scene was as anticipated by the airline employees. The officers were not in fact interested in listening to me and worse, they did not even disclose the reason for their unfair decision. I do not challenge their authority and rightfulness in refusing me a Visa but at the same time, I cannot find any rationale for them not explaining their stance and being very rude to me as if I have a criminal record. I had valid documents and logic to support my application. It simply was a very inhuman behaviour. I sense some racial discrimination here which my friends also had told me about.

2 (a). Air France
I asked the airline if they could allow me the access to their lounge but the lounge supervisor simply refused it sighting the reason that this facility is only for the business class travelers even though I was ready to pay the necessary charges to use it. Here they tried to soothe my pain by giving me three snacks coupons, which I had hard time to accept with all that agony going around in my mind and body.

When I told them my concerns for a bad health after all this and asked them if they could upgrade my ticket to an upper class with the option of my paying difference. The duty supervisor took a note of this and told that it could only be done if there are seats available and I can get it checked with the crew members at the time of boarding.

4. The Charles-de-Gaulle Airport
I had heard very highly about this airport from my friends and colleagues but quite candidly, it turned out to be a place better only then hell for a stranger i.e., a non-French. I ran around the airport to find a suitable place to sit and get relaxed but after almost 6 hours of search, finally gave up and have to make myself contend with sitting in this unruly corner which only the most underprivileged citizens of any country would find comfortable to spend a whole night (after a frustrating day).

I am even more surprised to notice that this huge and fabulous (?) airport does not even have a commercial lounge for emergency use by a hapless passenger. To make the matters worse there is no cloakroom where I could have put my luggage and get relieved of the tension of its security. It’s quite unbelievable that if you run out of your water bottle you’d have a hard time in finding potable water as all the shops are closed by 21:00 Hrs and I cant notice any tap. Of course there are vending machines but if you don’t have Euro coins with you it won’t help. I tried locating some water resource and finally could notice it only in the police office. When I requested for a glass of water they denied it very inhumanly. On my asking for an alternate they suggested me to get it from the toilettes. Can anyone claim it to be a civilized behaviour from responsible people? I doubt if they could’ve dared to give the same advice to any of their fellow French.

It’s all the more laughable as I notice one big placard at the CDG airport terminal B on “Passenger Rights” issued by the European Commission. It details about different unforeseen circumstances and the enforcing passenger rights on them. I doubt if here “Passenger” include non-Europeans.

Next day
2 (b). Air France
At the time of boarding I inquired about the availability of an upper class seat from the crew but was told by the flight Marshall that they are full. After half an hour of the departure I could very easily see that almost 15 to 20 seats are unoccupied in the Business Class. I couldn’t believe this and very clearly told the flight attendant that there was no need of the Marshall telling me a lie and he could’ve expressed his inability to upgrade my ticket without doing so. After some time the Marshall himself came to me. He gave me the reasoning that at that time they didn’t anticipate that so many seats would go empty. I find this explanation quite laughable.

During all this frustration (it no more is as I’ve come to terms with it), I found one common theme in that almost every process is so rigid that even if somebody wants to help you, s/he won’t be allowed to do so. I simply cannot appreciate it even though I am myself a big advocate of procedures in both my personal and professional life.

Today for the first time in my life so far, I am feeling what the plight of a stray dog is as my position is no better than him and quite surprisingly, I am not feeling bad about accepting it.

Quite ironically though, this day will always be one of the most significant days of my life as I am feeling more proud to be an Indian. So what if, India is still considered to be a third world country by many so-called civilized nations and it still is ranked very lowly in the Human Development Index by the UN, it still is the most humane place to live in for all practical purposes. I can claim (with no fear of rebuttal by anybody in this world) that we Indians relate to every bit of pain felt by anybody even if s/he is not one of our fellow citizens. I salute my country and its entire people for their empathic, sympathetic and more importantly helping nature.

Ritesh Garg

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