Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Do airlines speak... for nations?

After a long vacation (and virtual absence) I am... taking more vacation. The two years of "Mastering" in DC - I felt - had earned me a visit back to what's supposedly "home", especially given the prospect of five years of academic hard labor starting this fall. In short, I'm back to Armenia: an "event" that deserves a separate post in itself. Here, however, I just wanted to retell the "adventures" I went through on the way to this faraway and too-small-for-the-visible-world-map place.

Given my tight student budget and the obscenely expensive tickets, my route choice was - quite naturally - the cheapest available. AirFrance? Had flied with them to and from the US in the past with no issues, so AirFrance it was: Dulles, DC - Charles de Gaulle, Paris - Zvartnots, Yerevan. Departure: June 19, Sunday. Arrival: June 20, Monday, 8 pm Yerevan time. If only I knew it all was going to turn into one giant debacle...

Two days before the flight I received an email notification from AirFrance saying that my trip was going to be rerouted. Now, instead of flying Paris-Yerevan, I was going to fly Paris-Moscow-Yerevan, of all places...! (Having encountered numerous issues while flying through Moscow in the past, I was hoping, really hoping, to avoid problems this time.) Fury.

The new route. A "touch" longer...

It was not the airline's fault, however, as the DC representative kindly explained to me over the phone. There were some strikes in Charles de Gaulle, delaying the servicing of large planes, so to get me to my destination AirFrance had ensured I take the fastest and easiest alternative route with their SKYLINE partner: Aeroflot. I had nothing to worry about and both, me and my luggage will safely arrive in Yerevan, I was assured by the kind and calm voice on the other end of the line. The only issue was the 8-hour delay, the other alternative being 3 days. So, blaming my bad luck I decided to go with it.

Checked in. Luggage stamp says the suitcase is to arrive in Yerevan via the new route. Just as planned. The comfy Boeing, cheesy movie, two cutest little co-passengers and some indefinite time of half- (or, perhaps, less than half-)sleep twisted on the seat made it seem like the eight cross-Atlantic hours flew by.

We soon landed in the rainy Paris, and when entering the transit area I noticed that the Yerevan flight was still about an hour away! The mean "Je ne parle pas anglais" lady at the transfer desk told me that even if they still had seats on the flight, my luggage will need about two hours to reroute. Best scenario: I get it days later. Worst: it gets lost in the international luggage purgatory. Recalling the pain I had to go through on past occasions, I decided to stay with my luggage and wait for the Moscow flight for (just!) four hours.

The waiting area of the 2E terminal of the Paris airport was, as always, pretty comfy. Photo courtesy of L'Aussie's Travel Blog.

The Algerian coffee server and my Kindle helped me kill the time and I was now on the Moscow-bound plane. The "poetic" Russian conversation, peppered with swearwords and surprisingly colorful expressions in the seats behind stopped sounding amusing in less than 10 minutes. I was indefinitely happy to hear them both snore after the cold "meal".

Descent. The black thunderclouds were not a problem, as I found out. Gorgeous scenery and lots, lots of light, despite it being 10pm local time. A looooooong hall, and I found myself in the passport control area packed with people.

At the transfer desk I asked the sole lady there - who just then decided to make a run for the door (barely balancing on her high heels) - where I could get my boarding pass for the following flight. She stopped. Looked at my printout of the e-ticket, then my passport, ticket, me, passport. "You are Armenian so you can exit the transit area. Go find the AirFrance representation at the other terminal, since they are the only ones who can help you now. But you have to rush since you have less than 2 hours left till your flight. Ermmm... [long gaze at my passport, the door, me, the door...] OK. I'll help you here. Run with me."

Jumping three stairs at a time we finally made it back to the passport check area and she successfully got me through the diplomatic exit. I was on my own from then on and so I set out for my search. Time was drawing increasingly closer to midnight, and since Aeroflot is the only airline working 24/7 at the airport, their desk was my only alternative, after I found no AirFrance representative to help me.

Moscow from above. Photo courtesy of Aleksey Kochemasov.

I rarely feel so grateful for my fluency in Russian. I explained my situation and the kind lady at the desk said she will do her best to help me. After about a minute - the time it took for her to type the 13 characters of my first and last names - she said she cannot see me on the Moscow-Yerevan flight list. I suggested she tries my ticket number. Another pause. "No, I still can't see you here. Are you sure you're flying to Yerevan?"

My worst fears seemed to be coming true. Well, I said, my ticket printout says that my Aeroflot flight was "confirmed", and there, she could see my luggage stamp that suggested my luggage was supposed to go to Yerevan via Moscow, too. She adjusted her glasses, looked at me suspiciously and examined by luggage stamp. "You are right," she said, "but there's nothing I can do for you at the moment. I am very sorry. I would suggest you go to our central representation at the other terminal. But do so fast, you are almost out of time."

Having never been to Sheremetyevo outside the transit area, I had no idea what distances she was talking about. My fast walk soon turned into a light jog and I sighed in relief seeing the relatively large Aeroflot office in the middle of the large hall. Another pair of large glasses and a tightly fastened bun of red hair.

After several minutes of typing and mis-typing on the keyboard (thanks to the extraordinary length of her ornate nails) the representative finally suggested that my best bet was to try and register for the flight at the actual check-in. "You're not on our list. Try there, though. In the worst case, I suggest you wait till morning to see if any AirFrance representative would be willing to help."

Another inter-terminal sprint. This time I had to cover two, which proved to be extremely difficult on the polished and highly slippery floors. It was well past 11pm and I had less than an hour before my (purported) flight. Finding the Yerevan line proved to be easy, thanks to the per person number of suitcases and bags waiting to be checked in, as well as the complete lack of order in what was only theoretically a "line".

Finally, I reached the desk. Several more minutes and yet another disappointment. She, too, directed me back to an Aeroflot desk. "They know better what to do with you. Next time you'll know who to fly with." Yeah, right...

I saw several open windows under a huge Aeroflot sign nextby. "And why did you choose AirFrance?" Good question. "I had to get to Yerevan earlier. And they had a better deal in terms of price." Seeing my "I'm about to break down" look, the lady on the other side of the glass smiled widely. "Well, it seems you are paying more than you anticipated..." She repeated everything the others had already told me and said that I could, still, buy a separate ticket for that flight, instead of waiting for someone from AirFrance to show up at some indefinite time in the morning.

Thank God for VISA. I got my ticket and rushed back to the registration desk. With the exception of the Armenian crowd, everything else went relatively smoothly afterwards. The flight attendants were extremely nice and helpful, demonstrating exceptionally high levels of patience and tolerance with their customers (I was, obviously, impressed). We finally landed in Yerevan and after another long wait in the supposed "line" for the passport check, I was indescribably relieved to see my red suitcase waiting there at the baggage claim.

The view from my window as I was finally leaving Moscow. Please note, it was about 12:30am then. This is, perhaps, as close as I've ever come to the "white nights"...

It was past 5am local time and having slept less than 5 hours in the past 48, I couldn't care less about the broken lock or the zipper. I was just longing for my bed at our Yerevan apartment.

I somewhat made a special effort to avoid Moscow on my trip, but I was rerouted there. I do understand that unpredictable labor strikes at the airport are not the airline's fault; however, it's their responsibility to get me to my destination without major delays. And when I was in need of help, Aeroflot was - or at least seemed to be, at the time - there, being a "friend indeed".

France does have a largely positive international image and a fairly strong national brand. I've never had a chance to visit the country itself, but if I were to judge based on my experience and limited interaction with some AirFrance representatives throughout this most recent trip, I cannot say my previously held (mostly very positive) image remains unaffected.

After all, national carriers can be said to be playing an invaluable role in a state's (or people's) public diplomacy, since the chances are that many more people will use their services than visit their home country itself. It's a great opportunity, although brief, to shape a certain image of the country, its people and its hospitality - or reinforce an existing one - through direct interaction with what is supposedly the best the company (and consequently, the country) has to offer.

Ironically, this trip not only proved my previously existing image of the French somewhat wrong (or, rather, should I say, became a reality check?), but also turned out to be a very pleasant surprise regarding Aeroflot and the Russians. I guess in the end of the day it's all about expectations - over-estimations and underestimations - and most importantly, perceptions, the formation of which comprises many different elements, mostly subjective and not fully rational.

And although they didn't do anything extraordinary, I will think twice before simply discarding Aeroflot next time. As for AirFrance, they better pay my full compensation...


  1. Last few times I flew via Paris was in the 1990s ... Never went for it later on ...
    Aeroflot actually is quite good. Went several times to/from US to/from Russia, to Istanbul, Warsaw, Minsk, Bishkek, etc., etc. Not bad at all.
    Food was much better, though, several years ago.
    My personal favorite is Austrian Airlines.
    Much more reliable, good service and Vienna airport and service is, in my view, better.
    We are all lifelong learners...
    We need to learn from our experiences...

  2. Actually, sounds like a pretty typical French experience. Strike, delays, confusion....At least the terminal in Charles de Gaulle did not collapse on you! (Remember this?

    I hope you took advantage of the bon vin on the flight across the Atlantic to remind yourself of what the French do very well.

  3. tell me about it! i'm VERY glad the collapses were limited to mental break-downs. as for on-board beverages, i limited myself to what i like best: coffee :)