Friday, April 26, 2013

Taxing travel

Here for my friends, who always kindly wish me good travel, is the latest saga of my just completed trip to Tirana.  As usual, I travel mostly via the most efficient airlines of Lufthansa and Austrian, who never cease to surprise me when the unexpected occurs.  This time was no exception.

As announced by all news, I knew leaving NY this time would take longer than usual, due to a shortage of air controllers, which, in turn, results in less planes to be managed in the air. Delays at JFK have been the norm for quite a while now, but this time I witnessed something I never saw before.  Instead of the usual one, there were three lanes of fully loaded planes, each lined up with dozens of crafts waiting on the tarmac to get the go ahead for departure. 

Our captain announced at first that the usual one hour or so delay would still bring us into Munich on time, because I know from experience that these airlines phase in the extra time in their schedule to comfortably complete their trips, and all this is quite transparent to the passengers. This time the captain's update, after a while, was less comforting.   

He announced that it would take at least an additional hour to depart, and calmly added that at destination arrangement would be available to accommodate all passengers making connection in Munich since we would no longer arrive on time.  Interestingly, the passengers did not react and, quietly settled in their seats, most dozed of, as the stewards began to distribute water and juices.  Two and an half hours later we finally left JFK, where, counting also the time spent ahead of checking in, I ended up being on the airport ground for over 6 hours!  

The flight to Munich was very smooth and the cabin service efficient as always, but the craft, although an Airbus type that I like, was of a medium size (A330), with very cramped seats, and fully booked.  I had an aisle seat, but, with my usual luck, I ended up having on my other side a mature German gentleman, who kept coughing throughout the flight, and never found a good position to settle down. On top of it all he kept on using also my arm rest, while his right leg was totally positioned against my left one, from  hip downward (a totally forced, and uncomfortable cohabitation!). 

My problem was not only to have had to keep my arms folded across my chest most of time, but also to have to decline help from the hostess that kept responding every time my ‘service light’ was lit. This was due by the continuous movements of my fellow passenger on my armrest, which, in such poorly designed and tight space, was impossible to avoid. 

In Munich everyone was directed to a service desk where several competent operators (all women), in a very organized way, began the process of rebooking the passengers in transit. In my case, and for other Albanian citizens on board, returning to Tirana directly from Germany became impossible. We had lost the only daily connection, and thus we had to chose among various other rerouting, which could take from 12 to 24 hours more to get to Albania.   

The extremely pleasant operator that serviced me, and made sure that also my luggage would securely follow me, booked me on what was the shortest route: a Lufthansa flight to Istanbul, where I would have to spend at least 3 hours before boarding  a Turkish airline that would bring me to destination almost 10 hours later than expected. She also was kind enough to offer the use of her phone so that I could inform my driver of the change of plans in picking me up. 

The subsequent crafts were always Airbuses, but smaller versions (A320 and A219), and all of them fully booked.  The uneventful trip from Munich was followed by new experiences at Istanbul’s airport.  

I have been to Turkey previously, and have very good memories of a very pleasant time and visit throughout the country 35 years ago. This time the airport was a bedlam of activities with never ending masses of people moving around, some of them back and forth, looking for better information.  

The center of assistance was a chaotic place, where there were not enough available seats and no personnel spoke a word of English! The man in charge was excitedly handling 2 incessantly ringing phones, one computer showing the flights schedules, and one walk talkie, while scribbling on a register, and directing staff members, who kept on shuttling between passengers needing wheel chairs, and delivering others to far away gates.  The only English word that kept popping out from his desk to anyone approaching it, was : “wait, wait!!!”.  As dozens of passengers were moving out, others kept coming in and this went on constantly as I could observe during my 3 hour stay.  

Everyone understood that we would get to know our gate number and directions about one hour before departure, as per time indicated in our boarding passes, but when everyone began to see this time go by without action, the passengers nervousness increased and consequently the pandemonium in the place. 

I killed the time first by having a cappuccino at an espresso bar, where seats were also at a premium, and then watching the coming and goings of a mass of human beings of all ages, shapes, forms, garb and demeanor, generally speaking more women than men. Sitting in my vicinity there were at least half a dozen Albanians, mostly elderly, that patiently sat waiting for someone to take care of them. When the time of our pick up passed, I decided to put pressure on the staff handler, and stood in front of his desk for 25 minutes, flashing my boarding pass in front of him as he excitedly continued his loud and confusing coordination…..finally I heard the word “Tirana” being yelled, and the driver of a mobile unit began to assemble and transport us to the gate, which was quite far.  

When  we reached it the check in operator was in the process of closing the gate, and we had to rush inside the plane, where another chaotic scene was taking place.  Some people had sat in the wrong seat, including mine, and, worst of all, the amount of luggage in the cabin was incredibly high.  It was extremely difficult to move around, and to find a hole where to stash away the luggage, since every bin was overflowing with shopping bags and packages of all sorts. 

Two obvious observations: the Turkish airline had not enforced the one piece carry on luggage, and people on board had made  enormous amount of shopping in Istanbul, which has a distance of only one hour from Tirana. Disorganization always necessitates more time to find appropriate solutions, and in this case it meant another delay in departing time. 

Exhausted, after a day and an half of traveling, which was supposed to last only 13.5 hours overall, I finally reached Tirana around 9PM and, thanks to my trusted driver, my apartment half an hour later. My friends, as usual, had stacked my fridge with all sorts of food, water, fruits, and goodies, but all I felt like doing was to take a shower and fall into bed!

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