Worst Airline Experience Ever, Part 1

2 Sep

A lot of people would claim this superlative without a legitimate claim on it, but I think I have one. This experience occurred to me earlier this summer as I was taking a group of 10 young students to Italy for a five-week cultural exchange with the Experiment in International Living.

I’ve spent a lot of time during the last month thinking about whether this travel nightmare actually happened. It almost seems funny in hindsight, but it wasn’t while everything was happening. My story comes in two parts.

So, this was not supposed to be a complicated trip. On 11:40 a.m. on June 27, I was scheduled to meet my 10 students and we were supposed to grab a 5 p.m. international flight that would get us into Paris. From there, we would hop on a short flight to our final destination, Rome.

Now, we were not the only group scheduled to leave that day. Actually, there were about 30-35 other groups from the Experiment also flying to Europe (and all through Paris). Each of those groups had around 10 kids in them, meaning around 300 kids (and their parents) would be arriving at Terminal 1 of JFK Airport in New York to meet their group leaders that same morning.

All of the groups were spread out through four different Air France flights that would fly to Paris. From there, we would make various connections that would take us to our final destinations. As it happened, myself and one other Italian group leader would meet our groups first. Some of our kids were arriving in New York the night before, so we headed down to airport hotel to meet them beforehand.

Then, the first bit of bad news. I got a call from someone in the Experiment, advising me that our flight the following day (along with two other Air France flights involving Experiment groups) had been cancelled. The Experiment staff member asked one of us to go to the airport early the next morning to see what the deal was. I volunteered.

Around 1 a.m. that night, we got word that one of the students from another group had flown into New York and planned to spend the night in the airport. This was a huge no-no and so we had to wait until he arrived at the airport hotel, which was around 3 a.m.

So, the next morning I headed over to the airport around 8 a.m. to see if I could find out any new information. Keep in mind that each of these cancelled flights held between 400-500 people (I’m not sure exactly), so that is a lot of people to reschedule. Well, Air France didn’t open their check-in gates until 1 p.m. (even with this going on). So, I trolled the abandoned airport for information and finally found an Air France person who collected my information and said she would look into the situation.

My kids start arriving and I try to answer their questions as best as possible. I had a whole list of introductory activities, but quickly found myself thrown off course. The other leader still hadn’t arrived so I began collecting his students. The other groups were scheduled to meet after we were but parents with students began to arrive.

The parents were understandably frustrated, angry and curious about what the situation was. I had to answer their questions as best as possible, while not ignoring my group and trying to put pressure on Air France for answers. Then, the situation got even worse. The other leaders had left Vermont, where we had orientation, for the airport that morning but had been stuck in horrible traffic and were going to be late for their meeting times. They wound up being around an hour late because of the traffic. So, if you can imagine this, I was juggling my group and at least 100 other students (and parents) who were waiting to meet with their leaders.

Eventually, the others arrived and we learned that we would not be getting out that day. So, Air France organized buses, guaranteed us boarding passes for the following day, and marched us off to the Brooklyn Marriott. That place is gorgeous and was quite pleasant, but not at all close to JFK Airport. They also had not anticipated the wave of us coming in, so randomly started assigning rooms. They gave every student their own room, but we had to condense them so that every group would have enough rooms.

The following day we woke up and got ready to head back to the airport. Remember, there were at least 1000 people looking to get rescheduled flights. Air France sent two buses. We waited patiently in front of the line that was forming, but a small group of French people insisted on trying to butt in front of us for the bus. After a pretty serious argument, we got them off the bus but all of the luggage didn’t fit. Rather than separate kids from their bags, we placed a couple on the bus with us and headed off to the airport.

So, we get back to the airport and our “guaranteed” tickets did not actually exist. You have to imagine what the kids are going through at this point. Sure, we don’t tell them everything but they’re smart and realize another complication has arisen. I have to say that they were real troopers during the whole process.

I feel like this clip sums up the whole thing.

So, Air France had basically guaranteed spots to everyone who was not going to Italy. Now, there are four groups of us, and about 40 kids total. All the kids have to travel with a group leader. Now, unfortunately open spots on planes don’t break down evenly. What ended up happening was that the four groups headed over on three separate flights. Groups were split up. It was a big mess. I blame Air France.

First, one of the other leaders, Emily was told that she would be traveling over with 7 students from another leader’s group. None of her own kids. There was no time to argue, and despite our protests, she was sent through security right away. Then, out of nowhere, and about 1 hour before the flight took off, my group got sent through security. Or, I should say, nine of ten of my kids went with me through security. It was actually quite tight. We got boarding passes and got stuck behind a long line at dropping off the bags (that’s important for later).

Finally, someone from the airline escorted us through security. Air France had given us food vouchers to use (the kids hadn’t had lunch by this point, around 5). Each was worth $7, but the airline would not honor them unless you spent more than that (even though we insisted we didn’t need any change). This made everything even more complicated and annoying.

I arrive at the gate with my group (minus one), meet up with Emily and learn that some more kids are being sent through security. We end up with a group of about 20 kids that we’re responsible for. We have to assemble a list of names (and try to remember faces) to give to the Experiment. Here’s our final breakdown:

9 kids from my group.

5 kids from Emily’s group.

7 kids from Group X.

1 kid from Group Y.

We finally board the plane and I turn my attention to the next situation. I’ve been told that I can take the kids out into Paris because we have around a 12 hour layover! Yes, that’s correct. Emily and the other half of our new super-group would be leaving in a couple of hours for Italy on an earlier flight.

Thankfully, the Experiment was able to cobble together a quick tour for us of Paris. We did a lot of cool things (especially since I had never been there). We took the group to a bakery, then went to the Louvre, did Notre Dame and stopped for lunch in the Latin Quarter. The group fell asleep at the tables, they were so tired. We made a quick trip to the Eiffel Tower, before heading back to the airport. Kyle and Jay offered their analysis of the situation from there:

Look, I made it (semi-photo bombed):

So we headed back to the airport. Surprisingly enough, we didn’t have to pick up our bags after the first flight (and actually had boarding passes in hand) so we were set. I saw the horrendous security line (learning that some of the Spain groups had connecting flights cancelled) and got us through as quickly as possible.

We were now flying Alitalia and would be the last group to land in Italy. As we boarded the plane, heartbreak. The boarding passes were not valid, I was told. Five minutes of wrangling later, the situation was resolved. Apparently, Air France had not told Alitalia about the changes in boarding passes. They got it all sorted out and we finally boarded our plane to Italy.

The trip wouldn’t be done without some final hiccup. We landed around midnight and waited to collect the bags. Everyone grabbed their bags except for me and one student. So we had to file a claim report at midnight in Italian (made sure I remembered everything). The student got his bag dropped off at the hotel the following day.

I saw mine two weeks later. This is why you should always bring a spare changes of clothes in your carry-on bag. Something apparently went wrong in New York. I guess my bag never made it on the plane. Unfortunately, I can guess how this occurred. When the line was so long, one of the people the Experiment hired to get everyone checked-in and boarded offered to see my bag through security. I suspect she didn’t see it all the way through and it never made it on the plane. So, Alitalia took over for the bag and had to get it to Rome. This happened, but only four days later. It arrived the day we left Rome.

So, Alitalia had to move it up the country to Treviso (right outside of Venice), where our homestay was. This took hours of argument on the phone (all in Italian by the way) and waiting. Lots of waiting. When I had finally given up hope (and bought a new wardrobe), I got a call one morning saying my bag was in Venice. They asked if I wanted a courier to bring my bag. I told them, no, I would come get it myself. When I found the bag, it was in a huge room completely packed with lost baggage.

If you can believe it, this actually seems like the easier end of the trip. Part 2 will discuss our nightmare getting home. Never fly Air France. Ever.

If you made it to the end, congratulations. This is the longest blog post I will ever write. Check out this amazing picture from Italy.

One Response to “Worst Airline Experience Ever, Part 1”

  1. Benjie September 4, 2011 at 8:39 am #

    I read the whole thing, Anthony, because the story is still funny to me because of how horrible it is. And now I can legitimately blame everything on the French.

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