Can I call you Alexandre? I hope you don’t mind if I call you by your first name, I understand only your close friends and family members would lovingly call you Alexandre. I’m sure by the time we’re through this entire incident; you’d feel like we’ve known each other for years. As was the flight delay time, on one of your aircrafts I had the misfortune of flying.
You know Alexandre, I seldom read and the only thing I've ever lamented online is the proliferation of religious ideologies. I don't believe in throwing brickbats on any passing subject but I do believe in the fact that writing needs a sense of purpose, which I've rarely come across until now. So you should feel special Alexandre, very special.
The thing is I’ve started dreaming about Air France, Alexandre. I can’t seem to get over. It’s like we’ve been flirting for so long, I can’t take it anymore. Everyday I wake up and I check my inbox to see if I’ve received an e-mail from one of your Customer Relations Executive, I frantically search my mailbox to see if there’s any post from Air France regarding the incident that’s probably going to have lifelong implications on the goodwill of your Company. I can’t take it anymore Alexandre, I can’t.
Please allow me to provide specific details in a timeline format, so that you can either pursue your professional dispensation and seek to resolve these difficulties — or more likely (I suspect) you’ll probably bury yourself in the buckskin leather chair you have and pass this nonchalant piece of information to your interns.
9th October 2013
5.45 pm (New York): I message my older sister good-bye and board Air France flight AF 17 from JFK Airport, New York. More often than not, my trips abroad are marred with unforeseen events so I was pleasantly surprised when I left New York to go back home, and that nothing untoward occurred over the course of 4 weeks. But then again, "impossible" isn't a French word Alexandre and I didn't realize I was still far from home, which means, I had spoken too soon.
See, you’re getting to know so much about me already. Although, a lot of this might come as a surprise to you, but life is full of surprises, no? Okay never mind.
8.15 am (Paris): Everything seemed normal and I tried to sleep my way to Paris with little luck. We landed in Paris around 7.00 am and proceeded to Terminal K Gate 51 to board my connecting Air France Flight AF 218 to Bombay, which was to depart at 10.50 am. I've had an eventful experience while passing through Paris the last time and I wasn't feeling any better this time around either.
10.15 am: The information screen finally comes to life and announces that Flight AF 218 scheduled to depart at 10.50 am for Bombay has been delayed and rescheduled for 12.20 pm. You know the funny part Alexandre? I don’t see any of your ground staff who should’ve shared this information with us. You guys have taken digitalization to a whole new level.
12.00 pm: It’s been 5 hours now since we’ve been at the Airport. Once again Alexandre, there is no word from Air France, it’s way past our Boarding time but I don’t see any of those failed medical experiments asking us to Board the Aircraft. I’m worried Alexandre, will I ever get home? I couldn’t tell.
12.45 pm: As more and more passengers panic, voices grow louder; finally two of your immaculately dressed French men come to the floor. The words they utter, go through my chest like a glass splinter, only you could’ve helped stop the pain. They say that the flight to Bombay has been cancelled indefinitely. No clear reasons are given, just a plain, meaningless statement “the aircraft has technical issues!’’ Do you feel the coldness Alexandre? It’s like your wife, sending you an SMS saying your marriage can’t work. She doesn’t say why, she doesn’t even tell you if there’s any possibility of it working out. She just bails out on you Alexandre, harsh, isn’t it? I know, I can feel you.
I’ve been away from my family for a month; do you know how eager I am to get home? You can’t! But as you will realize later in this letter, my eagerness to get back home is nothing compared to, with good reason, the emergencies faced by some of the other passengers.
1.30 pm: The French men have now completely lost it! They forget your beautifully worded guide to solving customer issues and are completely clueless about what’s going on. They stick their ears to their talking devices and arrogantly refuse divulging any information to the stranded passengers. The only thing they promise us is that we won’t be flying out of Paris until next day. How comforting, feels just like your Buckskin leather chair, NOT!
Kindly note, we’re in Paris! It’s the hub of Air France. An alternate flight could’ve been arranged?!
1.45 pm: After some verbal altercations with the passengers, your staff finally decided it’s time for us to have lunch. They handed out meal vouchers which could be redeemed at one of the two restaurants in the Terminal but directed us towards Exki in particular since it was closer to the Gate and we had to assemble at the Air France Office at the lower terminal for further “instructions”.
2.15 pm: Passengers assemble at the office. After waiting for 45 minutes, we’re told that we’ll be given accommodation and Meal Vouchers for the stay. Passengers already holding a Schengen Visa are directed towards the Hotel whereas the rest of us are asked to submit our passports to apply for a Transit Visa. As of now about 5-6 people have a Schengen Visa out of nearly 40 passengers in total.
Are you with me so far Alexandre? Don’t lose me now.
This is where things turn for the worse. This is where it get’s really serious! Godforsaken company.
3.30 pm: Passengers with emergencies try to get themselves placed on an alternate flight to India. Some are senior citizens, some are patients and some have personal issues to tend to.
27-year-old Mr S. Mishra, who is consumed with emotions, tries to negotiate a seat on any other flight to India but is flatly refused. I later realize that his father passed away in a car accident two days ago and his family was waiting for him to perform the last rites for his father in Bhubaneshwar. If that wasn’t enough, Bhubaneshwar was bracing itself for the worst Cyclone to ever hit the country, Phailin, two days later. I can’t imagine what’s going on in his mind. It’s just really sad!
Suddenly none of my problems hold any value compared to his, I’m taken aback with his helplessness and we try to persuade the Air France Officials to give him a seat on an alternate flight or airline. At this point, I realize the lack of courtesy, even on humanitarian grounds extended to him by the officials as they arrogantly refuse him a seat, saying many people have emergencies and they cannot afford to accommodate all of them. They immediately deny and say there are no flights going to India without making any calls or checking any monitors for alternate flights to India. Seems like this is the only information they’re sure of even though they have no clue when our flight would be departing the next day.
We are later told by one of the informed passengers that a woman flying Business Class on our flight was accommodated on an Air India flight to India.
6.00 pm: The Staff finally arrives with our Passports after 3 hours. To my utter disbelief, only 6-7 people are given the Transit Visa whereas the rest of us are denied. There is no proof of rejection on the passport, nor does it carry any form, that holds any evidence of rejection too. Most of us have traveled to Europe before and considering we were flying originally from New York, we also had US Visas apart from a number of other visas from countries world over. On what grounds were our Visas rejected? We’d never know.
Ironically the 6-7 passengers who received the Visa are only Senior Citizens as well as women with children. No one else and I mean NO ONE ELSE got the visa.
We’ve now been at the airport for nearly 12 hours and have just been informed that we can’t even travel outside the airport to rest at one of the Hotels. Everyone is furious and we try to reason the refusal of our Transit Visa. It made no sense logically or practically for a stranded passenger to have been refused a Transit Visa. Although, it made a lot of logical sense for the airline to have not applied for our visa at all considering it would help save Visa Fees and money spent for our Accommodation. How can you refuse a Transit Visa to a stranded Passenger? On what ground? This question is directed both, towards the French Embassy as well as Air France, whoever finally decided to refuse the Visa.
By now you’d feel that this is the worst your airline could’ve done in terms of Customer Care but did I say I’m in Bombay yet, No! It get’s even worse Alexandre. I’d be very worried if I were in your place, you see it’s not that complicated, it’s rather quite simple. These things happen world over and I’m sure you’ve faced them too someday. But think about it Alexandre, what would you do if you were Mr S. Mishra, can’t imagine, can you? He’s a 27 year old boy who hasn’t seen his father in months, the only reason he’s going to India is because his father suddenly passed away and all he wants, rather all he can do, is see his father, one last time! But by the grace of your ground staff and officials, he probably won’t even get to do that! Do you feel his pain, Alexandre? I don’t think so! I cannot curse your airline enough or the imbeciles running it. What’s your raison d’être? Please tell us, so we can all hear it.
Anyway, I digress.
We ask them for directions to their lounge. At first, they seem perplexed and then comes another one of those cold, illogical and insensitive replies, we’re told the Air France Lounge is only for Business Class passengers and they can’t allow us to stay there. We are asked to take an airport shuttle to the other terminal and fend for ourselves at the upper deck resting area.
Out of the 35 odd passengers, most of them are senior citizens and a lot of them can barely speak English. They are scared and eager to get back home. They cannot speak out for themselves. At 6.30pm we call for four wheel chairs for senior citizens who can hardly walk let alone go to the other terminal, which needs a train to reach. After waiting for over an hour and half, the ground staff arrives with one wheel chair saying they couldn’t find more wheel chairs, so we point out the 20 odd wheel chairs lying right across the hall in a section which was closed and we hear something that baffles all of us, “those wheel chairs are from another company and we cannot use them!” I recorded this on my Camera.
The thing that lingers at the back of my mind more than anything else right now is the gut wrenching fact that everyone you know who had traveled to France earlier warned you about this, you knew you were being targeted because of your race but you’re in denial thinking you’re being irrational. You wonder at this point how could it all go, so wrong, but you’re left with insidious and plausible deniability’s of the fact that you’re attacked for being from a particular ethnicity. You’ve traveled across the world, it’s never happened to you before, but you were warned and, it did.
A French gentleman probably my father’s age, flying Business Class apologetically said, “I’ve been flying since the past 35 years and I’m sorry but I’ve only seen this happen to certain people, I’m really sorry.” I made a few friends there since we all were stranded together, one of my friend Jo who is a Dutch National just e-mailed me saying she was offered a compensation package from KLM. Meanwhile, we are yet to hear from either KLM or Air France. Surprising, don’t you think? Considering we were the ones who were left to fend for ourselves at the airport without an iota of assistance from Air France?
It’s an incoherent mess. There was absolutely no assistance, ever. Every time we needed something, we would have to travel across Terminals, meet new Air France Officials each time and have to request them for all of our basic needs. There were really old, senior citizens, an old patient suffering from Asthma and perhaps, just out of customer care, couldn’t there have been an Official assigned to tend to our grievances personally?
7.45 pm: We get a Sandwich and a Soft drink from the Air France Office, thank god! The first proper morsel of food. Although we could probably have been sharing an Indian feast with our families back home, by now. Something is better than nothing.
10.00 pm: Mr S. Mishra, Ms Shruti Kore and I proceed towards the resting area on the upper deck of the Terminal where we are asked to retire for the night. We head to the Air France counter there and request for a Blanket and a Bed Sheet, once again we’re asked to wait incessantly as they've run out of bed sheets and blankets. After 45 minutes we get our “resting kit”. They also issue us a new Boarding Pass for the Flight tomorrow and inform us that they've arranged a completely new flight for us, which would be flying out at 10.50 am just like our original departure time. We complete the formalities and go back to the floor. We reunite with the rest of the Passengers. A few passengers manage to occupy the sleeping chairs whereas everyone else has to sleep on the floor. It is not surprising to notice that out of all the passengers in the entire upper deck resting area, we barely spot anyone from a nationality other than India.
12.00 am: Mr Mishra picks a corner to charge his laptop so that he could write to his family and is still overwhelmed with emotions because he isn't sure if he’ll get to see his father one last time. By now, we’re all tired and exhausted but still in shock about the treatment meted out to all of us. By 1.30 am, I call it a night and put on my headphones to try and catch some sleep in bits and pieces.
10th October 2013
7.00 am: We head to Terminal K Gate 49 once again and go to Exki to redeem our Breakfast Vouchers.
We’re allowed 1 Danish pastry and 1 hot/soft drink. I grab a bowl of soup only, which is half the price of the voucher, since the pastry has eggs and I don’t drink tea/coffee or aerated drinks. I head to the Cashier, explaining and requesting her to let me take the bowl of soup instead of the two. She calls the Chef who is a young man not older than 30-34 years and perhaps, with a missing cerebrum. He is infuriated and with an overcompensating display of anger points out the only two things I am supposed to have as per the voucher. He doesn't ask me to buy the soup, he doesn't refuse politely but he raises his voice and tries to insult me in front of every one else. I raise my voice louder than his and tell him why I got the soup in the first place. The pastry has eggs, which I don’t eat, and they've run out of vegetarian food. I also point out lividly that anyone who has this voucher is someone who is stranded at the airport without a choice and showing some courtesy to anyone holding the voucher wouldn't harm him in any way. I push aside the tray and move on. He’s completely startled; everyone around is also surprised with his behavior and they put in a word.
8.30 am: We meet the rest of the passengers who had gone to the hotels for the stay and wait for our flight.
That’s where I meet one elderly gentleman who is going to Baroda. I’m amazed at what he has to say. His flight from Newark to Paris on the 7th was delayed and therefore he missed his connecting flight to Bombay from Paris, so they put him on our flight only for that flight to have been cancelled too. I can’t believe it! He looks like he’s preparing himself for the role of Mr Viktor Navrovski from the movie Terminal. Imagine spending two whole nights at an airport you didn't prepare yourself for!
9.45 am: Once again, as if this is an endless joke, our flight is delayed. We've lost all hope and I feel like I’m part of a stupid prank let alone a very expensive one. They say the flight will leave at 1.50 pm. Sick of their nonsensical replies and unrealistic reasons, I just want to get home but I’m having trust issues with this company on monolithic proportions.
1.30 pm: We realize we’re being accommodated in an existing, scheduled flight as against what was told to us, that a special flight was arranged only for us.
All the pieces of the ever so confusing puzzle finally fell into place. Air France never organized a special aircraft for us, why would they when they cancelled our flight due to under utilized capacity anyway? We were just being accommodated on a scheduled flight. Two flights in one? You do the math!
2.25 pm: We’re finally heading to Bombay.
Now let me throw some facts and figures.
Air France Flight AF 218 is an Airbus A330-200 Aircraft. The average seating capacity of this Aircraft is 209 passengers. The number of stranded passengers in all was not more than 45. The final aircraft we boarded on the 10th of October was on full capacity. Perhaps our original flight was cancelled due to the high number of empty seats? Was it easier to cancel an empty aircraft rather than fly one, resulting in huge savings? Also, it makes even more sense to accommodate two flights in one. Maximum returns? We were not even given accommodation or proper food. Could this be the reason?
My guess is as good as yours!
Getting back to you, Alexandre, I don’t think there’s much left to say.
I’m over and done with this debacle but not without spreading the word about your service amongst my friends and family. There’s no doubt that your company is not competent or professional enough to take passengers world over. You may get defensive and say that this is a one-off incident but unfortunately, it isn’t. Number of people have voiced a similar opinion about the treatment meted out to them by your company. It is rather unsettling. Don’t know the effect this letter might have on your customer service but rest assured, you can thoroughly deduct an average of 5000$ from your annual profits if not more. Although that might be just a whisker in your overall mess, it’ll be one which was done with due diligence. We’ve had enough of your staff’s condescending bullshit. We have encountered inadequacy of service, which I never knew was possible for such a big company along with ignorance and stupidity of humungous proportions.
Let me make it very clear, we don’t fly your airlines for free and more often than not are the only people flying on this particular sector. You might try and make some damage control but be completely sure, that we will never forget the way we've been treated at the hands of your staff. You have failed miserably in meeting the expectations of your customers based on the promises you've made to them.
I will be circulating this letter amongst popular press and media along with a court summons we’re in the process of filing. This is a true account of what happened in Paris, Charles De Gaulle Airport.
Your new best pal,