The Joys of Traveling Overseas

The most valuable skill I’ve gained in college is my ability to function off almost no sleep. It’s unhealthy, but extremely useful. It was helpful this past Monday when Continental Airlines delayed my flight for more than 24 hours and basically forced all passengers to spend the night at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.

Continental Airlines flight #11 to Houston was scheduled to take off at 12:40 p.m. on Monday January 5, but we didn’t even board until 1:30 p.m., so the flight was going to be late redgardless. There was a light snowfall outside, but nothing that would close down an East Coast or Midwestern airport. The pilot said he couldn’t take off, so everyone sat on the jetway for about seven hours. The jetway workers outside were throwing snowballs at each other while passengers inside the plane complained that they hadn’t been fed.

After seven hours on an idle plane, the pilot decided to delay the flight until 11 a.m. the following morning, frustrating the 300 people with destinations and lives to get back to. Over the intercom, the flight attendant immediately said, “We will not be giving you vouchers for food or hotels. All the hotels in the surrounding area are booked up.” We later found out the Air France passengers got hotel vouchers, so the airport’s priorties became clearer.

Exhausted and insulted, my mom thought about  ditching the flight all together and going to London Heathrow  to fly back to San Francisco. It would have cost us, but my mom had a job to get back to after a 9-day vacation, and when there’s a will, there’s a way. We were trapped by Charles de Gaulle, however. The airport workers said a “technical problem”  prevented them from releasing our bags onto baggage claim, when in reality the staff went home after having snowball fights. We were stuck in Charles de Gaulle airport without bags, food vouchers, hotels, or the option of buying food at the airport (everything was closed). Everyone decided to sleep in the airport, which was unheated.  The airport put everyone in a dangerous position. It’s unsafe to sleep in an airport, not to mention uncomfortable.

The flight was delayed for more than two hours the following day. We sat on the jetway again and the pilot said we were experiencing “deja vu,” so I asked the flight attendant if we were going to get stuck at the airport for another night.

“Are we going to Houston or not?”

“That is the intention, yes.”

I told him that the airline was disrespectful and inflicting harm upon passengers, and he responded, “Customer service is not a part of this culture. This isn’t America. Sometimes planes go, sometimes they don’t. They go when they go in this country.”

After the flight took off, the attendant walked up to my mom, pointed to me and asked, “Is this your daughter?” When she said yes, he turned to me with his arms crossed and asked, “So, are you still mad at me or what?” It’s one thing to provide marginal service, but another to be rude and harass customers.

It would have been nice to know that service is unimportant in Europe, where passengers don’t have Passenger Bill of Rights like they do in the States. It kind of made sense while I stayed in the city, where a 10% tip is more than generous. I would still take efficiency over disaster any day.

The French passengers were pleasant and didn’t appear as angry as the Americans. One French man said to me, “I hope they don’t delay it another day. It wouldn’t be a good thing to miss another day of work.” The Americans said something along the lines of, “How can they do this to us? We’re missing work during an economic crisis.” It’s probably better to remain calm, but theres something to be said about being assertive and demanding respect.

Such airline disasters are rare, but they exemplify incompetence. Continental Airlines should have had a spare crew to fly us out to Houston. Instead, the crew sat on the plane until they reached a point in which they’d be working overtime if the flight actually took place. The airport can blame the weather, but other flights took off that night, and why were they willing to give Air France customers vouchers, but not customers using U.S. based airlines?

Flights get canceled all the time, and this isn’t the first time someone had to spend the night in an airport, but this wouldn’t have happened in the United States. Any U.S. airline would have at least provided vouchers of some sort, and the workers wouldn’t have packed up and gone to bed at 8:00 p.m.

This is an example of how a ridiculously slow pace can do more harm than good. Continental lost customers that night, and many people swore they would never return to France again. Everyone with jobs lost a day of work, and worst of all, their health was disrupted. Many complain about the workhorse ways of the United States and praise European idealism, but at least Americans don’t use slow pace as an excuse to mistreat people.

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