Friday, March 13, 2009

The Worst Airline In The World?

As regular members of Joshua's Army know, I'm a huge fan of blogger/war correspondent/photojournalist Michael Totten.

And he has an alternately hair raising and comic( at least from a safe distance) story on his encounter with what he calls the worst airline in the world.

Was it some Middle Eastern antiquated national airline? Some hell hole in Africa? Some primitive carrier in Central Asia?


Alitalia, the Italian national airline..and in Rome, of all places.

After spending several weeks each in Iraq and Lebanon at the end of 2008, I bought a plane ticket to the U.S. from Beirut on December 22 and figured I had plenty of time to get home for Christmas. I had no idea, though, that I had purchased my ticket from the worst airline company in the world – Italy’s national carrier Alitalia – and that a two-hour layover in Rome would turn into an ordeal that lasted longer than a week.

I placed my most critical and expensive items in my carry-on bag so they wouldn’t get damaged or lost. Yet the woman at the Alitalia check-in counter in Beirut’s international airport said my bag was too large and would have to be checked. I wasn’t happy about that, but I did as I was told and surrendered my luggage. She neglected to tell me that Alitalia’s baggage handlers were on strike and that it would be a very long time before I would see my property again – if I ever would see it again.

My flight left Beirut on time, and I had no idea what I was in for in Italy.

After I landed in Rome, the Departures board said my flight to Chicago was delayed two hours. I didn’t mind. I had a 24-hour layover there, so I could wait patiently. But an angry stirring of passengers at the flight counter caught my attention.

“What’s going on?” I asked an American woman who looked concerned yet approachable.

“I’m not sure,” she said. “But somebody told me the baggage handlers on are strike and that we might not be going anywhere.”

A few moments passed before I absorbed what that meant. My laptop was in my carry-on bag that Alitalia had forced me to check. My work from Iraq and Lebanon was on that machine. My Nikon camera was in that bag. I didn’t want to hand it over, but the airline forced me to hand it over and didn’t tell me what was happening in the bowels of the company.

At least I had the presence of mind to make backup copies of my recorded interviews and place them on a flash memory stick that I carried around in my pocket. My hand-written notes and my photographs, though, were not in my pocket. Alitalia’s baggage handler’s union was holding much of my Middle East work hostage.

The man and woman working at our Alitalia flight counter wouldn’t tell us what was going on, and I assumed it was because they didn’t know. They looked slightly stressed, and I felt bad for them. They weren’t on strike, but they had to deal with the fallout. And that fallout was about to get nasty.

A fifty year-old Italian man in a fedora started screaming at both of them.

A man standing next to me chuckled.

“Do you understand what he’s saying?” I said.

“I’m from Argentina,” he said, “but I speak Italian. That man is cursing like you wouldn’t believe.”

Mr. Enraged was screaming like you wouldn’t believe – wild-eyed, nostril-flared, spittle-flecked screaming.
Listening to him and imagining which curse words he used he was entertaining, but mostly the guy came across like a belligerent jerk. The two Alitalia employees on the receiving end of his tirade weren’t responsible for our predicament. The baggage handlers were on strike, but the counter employees were still on the job.

Later, though, I realized that Mr. Enraged was just ahead of everyone else. The rest of us booked on the flight to Chicago would learn soon enough that a huge number of Alitalia's employees absolutely deserved to be screamed at.

Our flight was delayed another four hours. Almost every other Alitalia flight in the airport had been cancelled. You might think we were lucky that our flight hadn't been cancelled. That's what I thought at the time, but I was wrong.

“I live in the UK,” a man said, “but I was born here in Italy. They will not fly us to Chicago. They will do nothing but lie. Trust me. I know how this country works.”

Our flight was delayed again another three hours, and the man and woman and the flight counter put on their coats and walked away. Several passengers impotently screamed at their backs in Italian. Two hundred of us were left stranded alone.

No one had screamed at them in English. Not yet.

European Union regulations required the airline to book us with another company so we could get home. But they refused to book us with another company. Word slowly trickled into the crowd from passengers who had been stranded in Rome’s airport for days. Alitalia hadn't booked any of them on flights with other airlines, nor did the company reserve or pay for hotel rooms as the law required.

Certainly there were worse fates than being stranded in Italy. Daniel, the Italian-speaking man from Argentina, knew that better than most of us. He lives in the Indianapolis now and works as a professor of Social Work.

“Indiana is a big change,” he said, “but I like living there.” He has fond memories of his hometown of Buenos Aries, but also terrible memories. “There were leftist terrorists and right-hand terrorists killing people all over the country. When the army took over, everyone cheered. But the army was no better, and they went after the intellectuals. 30,000 people were killed or disappeared. It was a horrible fascist regime.”

Daniel managed to remain calm even after order and civility in the airport later disintegrated. His American friend and traveling companion Greg was about a disgruntled as I was. “No one is coming back here,” he said. “They’re supposed to rebook us, but they’ve abandoned us.”

“I think we should get some people together and go to the office,” I said, “since they refuse to rebook us. Ten people should be enough to put pressure on them.”

He agreed, and we asked others standing next to us if they wanted to join us. Everyone seemed to think it was a good idea. I had only been stranded in Rome for a half day so far, but some of those who had been marooned for days looked like they were ready to punch somebody.

Believe it or not there's a lot more to the story..kinda reads like a libretto for one those operas where everybody dies.

Uhh, welcome home Michael!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I flew on Alitalia once. We were sardines in a flying sardine tin. I swear I could detect petrol fumes. We were herded like cattle both onto & off the plane with much colourful Italian swearing by the stewardesses. No amount of money could ever get me on Alitalia for another flight! I hitchhiked the next time I went through Italy : I enjoyed myself immensely. This was many years ago, but I have been told that it is no better at present. Thanks for the opportunity for a trip down nostalgia lane!