And you think I'm having fun?

2 November 2000

There are many pleasant ways to spend half a day in Paris: the Louvre, the Left Bank, strolling along the Seine...

Not recommended is the experience of being corralled in passenger holding pen F52 at Charles de Gaulle airport.

In fact, in my Ten All Time Airport Horror stories, October 30 at CDG and subsequently Heathrow will be a contender for top spot.

The day started badly and went downhill in a manner not dissimilar to Eddie the Eagle at the Winter Olympics.

Reasonably fresh after the uneventful 13-hour Air France flight from Singapore, it was a simple transfer into Hall F and the connecting flight to London Heathrow at 9am.

"Sorry, we cannot put you on the 8am flight because we need two hours to transfer your luggage," I was told, politely.

Two hours? It subsequently turned out that Air France couldn't deliver my luggage in TWO DAYS. And, as I write this, the clock is still ticking.

Paris CDG is vying with London and Amsterdam for status as the leading airport hub for traffic into and through Europe.

But the pressure on tight airline schedules and overloaded air traffic control in Europe is making a mockery of airline alliance claims of seamless travel.

The previous day, Paris CDG was forced to shut down because of severe storms... and I was just about to get hit by the after-shock.

The first sign of the trouble-to-come was at the security check between halls D and F. At the head of a longish queue of transit passengers a small group of travellers was having an argument, the reason for which was not immediately clear.

A lot of shouting, some arm-waving but no resolution seemed possible.

The arrival of one security gendarme was followed by another. Then another. Soon there so many guns-in-holsters around us it looked like a convention for Smith and Wesson.

More discussion, more arm-waving, more shoulder-shrugging and then - for no obvious reason - the problem seemed to evaporate.

Waiting around in airports is not without its compensations. You can eavesdrop on conversations while appearing to read your book.

Sitting next to me, the tall and beautiful girl and her pony-tailed Anglo-Indian partner were talking about a recent modelling assignment in Cannes. They reminded me of characters in Salman Rushdie's novel, Ground Beneath Her Feet.

When Air France finally announced what everyone had feared, that there would be a delay to flight AF1270, it was suggested by AF staff that this should not be long.

About 30 minutes we were promised.

No one around me seemed convinced.

In my experience, airlines only give good news to delayed passengers. So 9.30 came and went with no further news, except the word Retarde - Delayed - on the departure information screen.

At 10.30, I was eavesdropping on another conversation. A father was proudly telling other passengers that his two daughters were extras in the first Harry Potter film.

"We hope they'll get parts in Harry Potter 2 and Harry Potter 3," he told the pony-tailed Anglo-Indian and his companion.

By 11.30, I was halfway through my book, Fever Pitch, which seemed to match the mood of some of the delayed passengers.

As usual, the Brits - most of whom appeared to have been on weekend breaks in Paris - were taking the delay stoically.

The French, most of whom seemed to be businessmen with meetings scheduled in London that morning - were laying siege to the Air France desk, wanting to know why the 10am and 11am AF flights to Heathrow had left on time yet there was no news of the 9am service.

At 12.30 - six hours after I had arrived at Paris CDG - a rush of passengers towards the gate signalled that boarding had started. Almost.

On the tarmac, there was no bus to take us to the aircraft. Accompanying AF staff made light of the problem by attempting to thumb lifts from other vehicles.

And when the bus did arrive, it didn't take us to an Air France Airbus A320, as scheduled, but to a Euralair Boeing 737-800.

"Air France didn't have a crew to fly this service, so they called us...maybe a bit too late," explained the pilot, by way of apology.

Still, at least I was in my window seat, 21A, and ready to go. Almost.

"Excuse me, but are you in the right seat?" the lady asked. "We've got 21A."

I offered to move to allow the lady and her husband to sit together, so I clambered out and they squeezed in. The Frenchman in the aisle seat scowled but said nothing.

At Heathrow, Terminal 2 is looking well past its use-by date. The baggage reclaim area is shabby and over-crowded.

You can of course, forgive all this when your bags actually arrive. But for at least a dozen passengers on AF1270, this wasn't going to happen today.

An hour of waiting by the luggage carousel, 30 minutes of queuing and form-filling and finally a question to the AF representative on the lost luggage counter.

"Will I be compensated if I need to buy clothes and toiletries while I wait for my bags," I asked.

"Don't worry," she said. "Air France has a reputation for finding and delivering lost bags within 24 hours."

As I write, it's almost 48 hours since my bags should have been at Heathrow. And I'm still waiting for a call from Air France.

To be continued.

Email Ian

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