Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Raleigh to Pisa the Hard Way (the joys of connecting through Paris Charles de Gaulle)

Before my Air France 747-400 from Atlanta shuddered to a stop at Paris CDG's 2E concourse, the helpful AF cabin staff had instructed me how to make my connecting flight to Pisa (PSA) in Terminal 2G at 10:00 AM. I walked off the plane at 8:10 AM, confident that almost two hours was surely enough time to make it. It wasn't that easy.

The flight attendants had pointed me to a map of the CDG airport, showing me how “close” the 2G terminal (where my connecting commuter flight departed for Pisa) was to terminal 2E. Unfortunately, the scale of the map was exaggeratedly simplified, and, anyway, the map’s God’s eye view of the airport was scaled to about the distance of the space shuttle when orbiting the earth and looking down on Paris, so naturally everything looked close together.

In fact Charles de Gaulle is humongous and sprawling; both the cabin crew and naïve me underestimated the distances between terminals.

Even getting from my gate to passport control in the cavernous terminal 2E consumed 15 minutes after a long walk, a shuttle train, and another long walk. Signage was poor, too. I had to stop twice to confirm I was still headed in the right direction. I am used to this at other big airports, like Heathrow in London, but CDG 2E seemed to be especially difficult to traverse.

Signage was again an issue at passport control. I was greeted by exceptionally long lines of travelers moving at a snail’s pace to open windows. After 10 minutes in a line that had moved perhaps ten feet, I noticed in the center of the massive room an agent letting people into a faster-moving queue. Now worried that I might not make my connection, I broke ranks and made my way to her position. The agent said, “Are you connecting?” When I showed her my connecting boarding pass and replied in the affirmative, she remonstrated me for not being in her special “for connecting passengers only” line in the first place.

Alas, I could see no sign that indicated that’s what her special queue was for, but I didn’t argue. I accepted that some things are unknowable and rushed down the velvet ropes to my place at the end of the line, now only 25-30 persons from the front instead of a hundred or more.

This line, too, though designated for close-connecting passengers, inched along slowly, albeit faster by far then the regular ones. God help the poor people who had arrived only to see Paris, thwarted from their goal by the understaffed French passport control point.

Where is Terminal 2G?

After waiting in the special “connecting” line for 20 minutes, I finally cleared the area at 8:55 AM, 45 minutes after deplaning. With just 65 minutes to make my connection at a different terminal, I was mildly panicked. Like a rat in a maze, I was directed first downstairs from passport control to baggage claim (which I had no need of, as I always carry on all my luggage), then a long walk to the customs declaration area (I rushed through the green zone with nothing to declare and wasn’t stopped), then out the security doors to battle my way past the hordes of meeters-and-greeters. Beyond the crowds I found another escalator up to the 2E departure area where, I had been told, I should look for the N2 bus to terminal 2G.

Why would they label the shuttle bus N2 when it moves between terminal 2E and 2G? You’ll have to ask the French for the nugget of logic behind that decision; I couldn’t fathom it, and my French is inadequate these days to make the inquiry. After running through the 2E departure concourse almost to the very end from where I had come up, I finally spotted the sign for bus N2 and the door—but the door was blocked as defective. I rushed back to the previous door, and came out finally to the cool, crisp Parisian morning air and spotted bus N2 just arriving up ahead. It was now 9:05 AM.

Standing adjacent to the bus stop was a throng of people waiting to get to terminal 2G that appeared to be at least two times the capacity of the bus, and I thought for a second that I would have to wait for the next bus. But because I had come through the wrong door, I was ahead of the bus stop, and the N2 bus stopped beyond its stop location just as I reached it. I was first on board.

OK, that’s unfair, as obviously many folks had been waiting, and apparently for a long time judging from the grumbling I heard in English. But somehow every person managed to squeeze in, and packed like a Tokyo commuter train, we wobbled off to terminal 2G.

The bus took a leisurely 10 minutes to reach tiny terminal 2G, but I was relieved that I had a fighting chance to make my connection. My watch showed 9:15 AM as I waited for the bus to disgorge its passengers. We all ran inside, and I followed folks I took to be veterans because they looked like they knew where they were going.

It was the right decision. Coming into 2G immediately to the left is the security portal (yes, I had to re-enter security) for people like me who already had a boarding pass in hand. Though the security staff was slow and inefficient, I made it through in about 5-6 minutes and headed up the long escalator to the departure waiting area.

Reaching the 2G waiting area inside security, I was again confronted with hordes of people milling around. No seats available anywhere. The area reminded me of the Delta/Comair commuter terminal at Cincinnati, though a different shape. First thing I did was to check a monitor to see if my flight was boarding. I thought surely my 10:00 AM departure would be boarding.

It was now 9:30 AM. Despite the marathon I had run, with some dead-ends along the way, I had made it to my connecting flight 80 minutes after deplaning from my inbound international flight. But, after all that anxiety, the monitor showed my flight was 40 minutes late.

Oh well, I thought. What else is new? Might as well sit down for awhile. Knowing I was entitled to entry into the Business Class lounge (if there was one), I walked the length of the hall before finding some Air France customer service staff manning a very busy desk who I presumed would give me a lounge entry card.

What? No Business class? But Cook Travel ASSURED me there was Business on this flight!

After waiting my turn, I showed my ticket receipt and boarding pass for the CDG/PSA flight showing Premium Affaires as the class of service (Affaires is the Air France Business class designation) and politely asked for directions to the lounge.

The young lady furrowed her brow and said dismissively, as only the French can, “But you are in ECONOMY. You are not ENTITLED to use the lounge.”

Not possible, I retorted. My ticket says “Affaires” and “Premium Affaires” which are Business class.

“But there is no BEEZ-NESS class on this flight, sir,” she replied. “The plane is very small, only an Embraer 145 commuter jet with all ECONOMY seats.”

My heart sank. Just like flying all those stinking Embraer commuters that AA uses back in the States, I thought.

I realized in a nanosecond, too, that Cook Travel had well and truly bamboozled me, first doing a bait-and-switch by selling me a $4000 ticket in Business class after saying it would be $2600, and then claiming the Paris/Pisa legs were in Business class when they were actually just crummy commuter flights leaving from an over-crowded, distant terminal. So I paid all that money for a ticket that really only included Business on the two overseas legs between the States and Paris.

I decided to cut my losses and showed her my inbound Air France Business class boarding pass. At least I could wait out the delay in the lounge. But that cut no ice with her, and she wasn’t going to let me in the Business class lounge because I was just a peon now riding in coach like every other gypsy and backpacking student. Forget about the fact that AF had invited me to the terminal 2E arrival lounge for a shower and breakfast—but, oh, wait, you have a close connection, so maybe next time…

About to give up, I asked if my Delta Platinum Elite card had any juice, holding it out for her. To my surprise, she said, “Oh, OK, why didn’t you tell me?” and gave me the code for the lounge door, which is self-serve.

The lounge in 2G would be modest, I thought, but I never imagined it to be as small and over-crowded as I found it. It was like the rest of the terminal: wall-to-wall people. I lucked out by entering just as one person left, and I grabbed his seat, the only empty seat in the place. Leaving my luggage to hold it, I went for a Coke and a croissant. The croissant was shameful (consider: I was in Paris) and the Coca-Cola warm, but I consumed both for sustenance, and settled down to try to read a book.

Impossible. The din, the claustrophobia, the lack of order and cleanliness, and the constant shuffling of patrons drove me out. Also a factor in my leaving was that lounge service personnel were nowhere to be seen. The place was a mess, with overflowing trash containers and the remainders of food and drink piled up everywhere. There was no toilet, either. I found a seat near the ramp leading down to the commuter gates to wait out the remaining delay.

By then I was sweaty, tired, and POed that I’d been gypped by Cook Travel. But I remained calm, and finally my flight showed boarding on the monitor. After walking the long distance down the ramp, down stairs to the gate, and out on the tarmac to the plane, at last I boarded the plane and took 3A on the one-seat side, small but important recompense for having to fly in economy after paying Cook Travel for Business class.

An Embraer to Pisa

Air France allowed us to gate-check our carryon luggage just as in the States, which was a relief. They told me that such flights are considered domestic for country-to-country segments wholly within the EU and therefore rules for luggage are more flexible.

Sleep overtook me for most of the 1 hour, 40 minute flight, but I do recall a modest beverage service. Otherwise the flight was unremarkable. On landing at Pisa Airport (PSA) I collected my bag planeside, and a bus took us across the tarmac to the terminal.

Walking inside the Pisa Airport I was struck by old memories of Central American airports: the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds; the shabby, rundown feel; the accumulation of dirt and dust; the peeling paint and general state of disrepair; the subtle air of organizational chaos, as if the officials running the place had lost control but pretended not to notice. I liked it!

In the boisterous arrival hall, I noticed a rail ticket window and joined the queue. Pisa Airport had, I knew, its own two-track rail station, with connecting and direct service through Pisa Centrale to Florence, just 84 kilometers away. I bought two one-way tickets (one for the return) for a mere € 5.80 each (less than $ 8.00) and paid a small commission, then proceeded to find the train.

I owe a fine for not validating my ticket

Just outside the airport terminal I located the tracks with a train sitting there, the 12:43 PM departure, direct to Florence (that is, not requiring a change of trains at Pisa central station). Exhausted, I climbed aboard and stowed my luggage in the overhead rack. My car soon filled up with other travelers, many of them English-speakers. We left on time and soon had cleared Pisa altogether.

The conductor made his rounds, and upon entering our car I was the first he asked for tickets. I showed him mine, and he handed it back, saying “No valid” or some such words. When I pressed him, he struggled in English to get across that I had failed to validate the ticket in the little yellow machines by the station platform back at the airport. I then showed him my receipt from the airport ticket vendor.

The conductor smiled and said, “No matter. You must pay five Euro fine. You no stamp ticket at station.” And he whipped out his fine receipts and began writing one for me.

At this point I was exhausted and already angry over being screwed by Cook Travel. I saw this conductor's action as a mild extortion of foreigners who’d just landed at the Pisa airport and didn’t know the rules. I had not seen any signs saying the ticket had to be validated, and the ticket vendor had not mentioned it. Later I looked at the fine print on the back of my ticket and did find a reference to it, but it never occurred to me to look for that when I bought the ticket.

Now I’d only paid € 5.80 for the ticket and this guy wanted me to hand over another € 5.00 in fines. I decided I wasn’t going to pay it. So I told the conductor, “NO! I won’t pay it! This is extortion.” Everyone else in the car, especially those who understood English, suddenly got real quiet and stared at me and the conductor. The conductor grimaced, obviously unused to protestations, holding his pen in mid-air above the half-written fine receipt.

“Then you will have to get off the train,” he finally stammered, after a long silence.

“Fine, I will. Please stop the train,” I retorted. We were flying along at what felt like close to 100 MPH.

“At the next station!” he shouted, frowning, moving on to the next ticket-holder. I watched him move through the car, collecting a fine of € 5.00 from many of the foreigners who, like me, didn’t know about the validation process. He didn’t notice as we came to the next station that I moved veeery slooowly to get my bags down. By the time I got to the door in the center of the car, I mad missed my opportunity, and the doors slammed shut and the train began moving again.

Furious now, the conductor ran up to me and howled: “OUT! NEXT STATIONE!”

And at the next station, a very small town I don’t remember, I did get off. It was 2:00 PM exactly.

At 2:09 PM the next train for Florence stopped, and I got back on, determined to do the same thing as long as I had to, until I got to Florence.

But the very nice conductor who came to check my ticket on that train merely punched the ticket and moved on. She didn’t care that it wasn’t validated, she told me (I asked her), because all conductors punch the tickets so they can’t be used again. Why, then, was I harassed on the previous train? I asked her. She shrugged and said, “To get the fine.”

Full disclosure notice: Friends who travel often in Italy by rail have since told me that the Italians are obsessive about validating their tickets and that the conductor's conduct in fining me was normal. I believe them, but why then did the second conductor, and another conductor on my return train a week later, not give a flip about whether the ticket had been validated? Ah, the mysteries of travel! Like why the French designate the shuttle bus between the 2E and 2G terminals "N2," some things are not knowable.

Florence at last

I arrived Florence at 2:25 PM, about nine minutes later than I might have. But I didn’t have to pay the blasted fine that would have doubled my fare.

Firenze SMN (Santa Maria Novella), the main Florence train station, lives in my memory as a fine and beautiful place when traveling to and from Florence in the seventies and eighties and even in the nineties. But my first impression on arriving was much like that of the Pisa Airport: Firenze SMN seemed a bit seedy, ill-kept, rundown, and dirty. It bothered me because I love the old lady, and I wondered if it was just my exhaustion after the long trip.

I made my way to the taxi stand and had to wait almost 20 minutes for a taxi at 2:30 PM on a Tuesday afternoon—and there was no one in front of me. Turns out Florentine taxi drivers have been resisting efforts to expand the license pool of drivers, and there’s a dearth of taxis in the city as a result.

When I finally reached Borgo San Frediano one block south of the Arno (not a long drive from the station) it was 3:00 PM and I was € 11.00 poorer for the short cab ride. Still, I had reached my destination and was very glad to be reunited with my cousins.

Next time: reflections on Florence, Tuscan cuisine, gettting Euros, and the trip home.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your connection problems in Paris make mine look like a lark. I do my best to avoid connecting in Paris as Air France always wants to give me a one hour connect time. The big planes from the US do not pull up to the terminal making it necessary to wait for the bus and be driven into the main terminal. Then there is the mad dash to connect. I have not had the misfortune of having to take another bus to another terminal. You were fortunate to make the connection.

10/15/2010 12:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Was on the same flight, different day, with a connection to Naples. It is truly a nightmare at CDG.

Got the same treatment trying to get into the Air France lounge. But, I'm Delta platinum, I stammered! NO, was the reply. (Wasn't that the point of platinum/diamond status on Delta?) However, there was a premium status line through security, it worked, and we saved a good 15 minutes using it.

The taxi drivers in Naples..always trying to scam, add or pad the bill. We found this everywhere. It goes from being a slight annoyance to a major nuisance just 'dealing' with people. I guess the economy there sucks too, they are just doing what they have to do....

Flight from Naples back to CDG was late, missed the connection to ATL. Air France put us up at airport Best Western. Cute little town nearby. But trying to find the Best Western shuttle bus? That's another blog!

In the future, I will avoid CDG at all costs. As you say, even the signs make no sense, or are non-existent.

10/15/2010 12:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always enjoy Will Allen's blogs. As I live quite close to Pisa and Florence, I especially enjoyed those about Florence, Pisa Airport and the Pisa-Florence train journey.

Shame on you for suggesting that Pisa airport reminded you of South America. A bit shabby, yes. But most of the locals are pleasant and you can generally get through boarding, landing and luggage procedures very quickly. Also you can get a decent espresso or cappuccino and the shop carries the International Herald Tribune. What more could you want? Most important you can find discount airline flights to almost everywhere in Europe. Back in my working (pre-retirement)days, I used to go quite frequently between what was then our summer home to Stuttgart or Munich. Round trip fare was over $1000. Now with discount airlines this has dropped to as low as $100 if you book and pay early. Pisa airport makes all this possible and one can avoid transferring through those twin hell-holes, Roma and/or Milan.

Wayne Woodrow
Viareggio, Italy

2/11/2011 12:16 PM  

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