Tag Archives: cultural difference

Hell at St. Exupery, or why France and customer service just don’t mix

reposted from my old blog

Take one trouble-prone traveler, mix with an inch of snow and an itinerary calling for 3 connecting flights, add another couple of thousand of travellers eager to beat the pre-Christmas rush, and you have a European-wide state of crisis.

Of course, it would be presumptuous of me to claim that it is my fault that snow shut down half of Europe’s airports in the busy days leading up to Christmas. However, as someone who has well-earned the nickname of ‘Air traffic control hazard’, I cannot help but think the travel gods who have no other hobby than to persecute me were not happy to see me go, and so took revenge on other, innocent travelers.

As stated, I was to fly out of Lyon St. Exupery airport (named after a famous aviator, one would hope this is a good sign) on Friday morning, change flights in Milan and New York in quick succession and arrive in Buffalo after a 17 hours’ long journey.

After 17 hours, I was back at my friend’s apartment in Lyon, thankful for my foresight which had urged me to pack 3 days’ change of clothing in my carry-on luggage, and bemoaning the fact that it was not quite appropriate to ask my boss to drive me to the airport, yet again.

He had very generously offered to see me off, and punctually at 6 AM stopped in front of my house, loaded the 50-kilo worth of treasures into his car, and drove me to the airport in a trip that seemed to take forever and threatened to make him late to his 7.30 AM meditation session. On the highway we got caught in a rather spectacular snowstorm, which lasted about 15 minutes and made driving at anything faster than 50 km/hour impossible.

He accompanied me to the check-in line; I very nicely thanked him for his efforts and released him to go commune with universe.

On my way to my gate, I heard someone crying my name in Polish. I turned around to find a Polish colleague who had been rebooked onto a later flight – we shared coffee and croissants at 7 AM and marveled at how small the world was.

Over the next 8 hours, I was free to marvel once and again about how small the world was, as both of our flights were delayed/canceled, and we kept meeting colleagues from work. When my travel-problem colleague texted me from work, saying “Half of the workplace is talking about your unlucky flight adventures”, I informed him that the other half was enjoying the queue to Air France ticket office with me.

I believe Air France employees at St. Ex were given a set of guidelines on how to deal with travelers which go something like this:

1) Once you know a flight will be at least two hours’ late, try to convince travelers to take it anyway, even if you are sure they will miss their transatlantic connections. After all, how hard can it be to make them believe that Air France employees will take better care of them in Milan, or Rome, or anywhere else outside of their hometown/France?

2) If you have one of those annoying Disaster-Prone Flying Experts who won’t buy your explanations, send them to the Air France service counter by the gates, even when you know that the service counter can’t actually rebook them or do anything remotely useful.

3) When the annoying D-PFE comes back to the gate to see you after an hour, tell them they have to go collect their luggage and stand in a different line by the check-in counters. Call your colleagues at that ticket office to warn them of the impending arrival of the D-PFE, and go on strike, because you are tired.

4) When your colleague sees the line of 150 people + baggage attempting to reach the ticket counter, have her go about unsuspecting travelers offering them a 4-digit phone number to call, and reciting a spiel about how the passengers will never reach a person if they wait in line, so it is better to go home and call this number from the comfort of their home.

5) If an D-PFE points out that the number is hardly toll-free and indeed costs 30 cents/minute and insists on having a courtesy phone, point them to the direction of the two courtesy phones.

6) Chuckle in glee if they speak English  – the whole menu on the courtesy phone is in French.

7) Chuckle in glee in general – the courtesy phone has been scientifically proven never to reach an actual customer service representative. If D-PFE  tries, she will realize this after an hour of waiting on hold, when she simply gets disconnected.

8)Shake your head in admiration at the wisdom of D-PFE, who has joined forces with another D-PFE. In an attempt to thwart the system, D-PFE 1 has called Air France on both courtesy phones, turned them on speakerphone, and left to go back to the line, as D-PFE 2 mans both courtesy phones in a vain attempt to reach an AF representative. Shake your head in disbelief when D-PFE 2 claims she will stay by the phones long enough to reach someone, otherwise she will lose her faith in the human race. How long has she been in France, again?

9) When D-PFE No. 2 returns from manning her post at the courtesy phones to join D-PEF No. 1 in line, DO NOT attempt to sell them the 4-digit number again. D-PFE No. 1 will growl at you. D-PFE No. 2 will attempt to explain to you nicely that offering tired, restless and bored people in line the solution of calling a rather expensive number through which they will never reach anybody anyway, might just spark another French Revolution.

10) Ignore her. After all, what does she know about traveling?

11) Do not, whatever you do, offer any sandwiches/hot coffee/moral support/a blanket to the travelers as they wait in line, for 7 hours straight. They deserve it! What a retarded idea to try to travel, in France, in the winter, anyway. Don’t people have better things to do before Christmas? They should have known the airport closes down at one inch of snow.

So yes, folks, after 6 hours in line, I succeeded in getting re-booked for a flight the next day. I had made a new friend, a girl I had known from work but never really talked to until she became D-PFE No. 2. Had it not been for her cheery support, as well as the freedom to go to the bathroom and buy food that her presence in line entailed, I would not have enjoyed my time at the airport as much. Not that I was actually expecting to reach Buffalo – I had had a premonition that I would not be actually going anywhere that day. Don’t ask me why – I just knew it.