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Don't fly Air France if you can help it

On December 8, 2003, I set out for Bellinzona, Switzerland, by way of Paris and I didn't like the idea of using Air France, given the problems I had had before, but there was no other airline whose flights could enable me to reach Bellinzona in time for my speech at 1:30pm on December 9.

My flight from Boston to Paris was delayed about an hour. The captain announced he had been waiting for passengers to arrive from Salt Lake City but that he was giving up.

Shortly before arrival in Paris, the crew announced that passengers ought to be able to make it to the flight to Milan despite the delay. I asked a crew member if I should try to position myself closer to the front of the plane in order to make it. He said there was no need, since it would take only a couple of minutes for everyone to get off.

I ran half the time on the way, but the flight to Milan was already gone. It had not waited even a few minutes for connecting passengers to arrive. After a further wait at the transfer desk, I was told that there was no room on any flight until 1:15pm. I would miss my speech.

They insisted to me that the flight from Boston was delayed due to weather. I can't reconcile that with the announcement made on board. After some pleading, they gave me a card for 10 minutes of phone calls so that I could notify the people in Bellinzona that I would not be in Milan when expected.

But here's the really outrageous part. There was a flight scheduled for 10:50. I decided to go to the gate, so that if it had an empty seat, I could arrive 2.5 hours earlier. That way my speech would be delayed only an hour or so.

At the gate, they told me that they had no provisions for this. "There might be some empty seats, but we have no way to let you use one. We cannot change your flight at the gate." The only place to change it was at the transfer desk, located outside security. Since there had been a 20-minute wait to get through security, that couldn't possibly work.

The system was set up to be totally nonfunctional.

The supposed 1:15 flight was delayed an hour, and then another hour, so that I finally arrived in Milan around 5 and in Bellinzona at 7pm.

While waiting for that flight, I found the only power socket in the entire terminal that was near a chair. Someone else using it. He turned out to be heading for Geneva for WSIS (where I was originally supposed to go), and I told him my experiences. He later sent me this:

You were right about Air France being such a cluster of ineptitude. As K..... and I were about to board the aircraft, they decided tickets weren't in order (we had been rerouted through Paris due to delayed flights) and in typical French bureaucratic form, they wanted something on Air France plate authorizing the transfer. Thai had given us an electronic ticket; the guy was hilarious. He kept asking us "are you sure they didn't give you a coupon" "yes" "Are you certain?" "yes" "Let me look through your wallet" "no, really, they didn't give coupon." "Maybe in your bag", "no, honest" "are you sure?".... as the clock is ticking towards departure of a flight our bags were already on.

Would you believe that his co-worker made three phone calls and actually relented and let us board?