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.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Pisa to Raleigh was Hairy Through CDG and JFK

With a heavy heart, I bid farewell to my ailing cousin, Aubrey, and caught a taxi for Firenze S.M.N (the Florence main train station) on September 27. This time I remembered to validate my train ticket on the station platform before boarding, and in no time, the train was moving west toward Pisa. It began to rain en route which highlighted the trackside scenery, especially the river Arno which we paralleled for some distance.

In Pisa Centrale I changed to the airport shuttle train, and from there hopped into another cab for my nearby hotel, the My One Hotel Pisa (booked and paid for in advance through a Florentine travel agent). Strange name, and though very close to the airport, it was impossible to walk to it, and the property was isolated as airport hotels tend to be in the USA. It was in the city of Pisa, but not of Pisa. I resigned myself to the sterility of the place and worked on email until dinner.

The room was small and depressing, but clean, modern, and comfortable. Internet cost an extra €10, a trifle since the room was cheap. The dinner buffet was a pricey €25, but proved to be quite excellent both in selection and quality. Boundless dishes of seafood and delicious meats and pastas challenged anyone counting calories. As guests were captive there, I was surprised the hotel buffet was so plentiful and good.

My wakeup call the following morning came 20 minutes late, which could have been disastrous had I not set an alarm clock. I left the hotel at 5:20 AM determined to be first in line at check-in for my 7:25 AM Air France commuter flight to Paris CDG, where I was to connect on to JFK.

While the taxi to the hotel had been €9 the previous afternoon, going the very short distance back to the hotel at that early hour left me €15 poorer, a hefty sum considering the ride was five minutes. The cabbie dropped me at the airport at 5:25 AM.

At the poorly-marked check-in A05 counter, I found there were 9 families with children ahead of me already, and the line moved at a snail’s pace. After a half hour I reached the sole check-in agent at 5:55 PM and received my three boarding passes (PSA/CDG, CDG/JFK, and JFK/RDU) and lounge access card for CDG. In contrast, the lines for the Lufthansa flight checking in at A03 and A04 were moving very fast, a tribute to German efficiency even in Italy, no doubt.

Pisa is a small and over-crowded airport, as I wrote in an earlier post, but it has a certain charm about it, perhaps because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Small, even if crowded, is often preferable to mega-places like Paris Charles de Gaulle. Security was quick, thorough, and, importantly, friendly, and I arrived at gate 1 by 6:05 AM, an hour and twenty minutes before scheduled departure.

The bus to take us out to the waiting plane on the ramp came at 7:05 AM, and the boarding process was completed by 7:30 AM, five minutes past departure. Unfortunately, the pilot then announced an ATC delay in Paris, and we didn’t get airborne until almost 8:00 AM.

My scheduled connection was only 85 minutes, and given the eastbound nightmare of sweating it from CDG Terminal 2E to the dinky and distant Terminal 2G where commuter flights are relegated (see earlier blog post), I was now worried about not making my flight to New York (AF 012), due to leave CDG at 10:30 AM.

But we landed at 9:15 AM, parked at CDG Terminal 2G gate at 9:27 AM, and I thought I might at least have a fighting chance of making my connection.

But a nice surprise awaited me. Turns out that going between 2G and 2E when leaving France/EU is far easier than entering the EU coming in from the USA. Terminal 2G has its own passport control for exiting the EU near gate 26, and from there a bus service takes outbound connecting passengers to the other terminals. I got my passport stamped at 9:39 AM, boarded the bus, and finally arrived at 2E (almost the last stop) at 9:57 AM (gates 27-46). I ran to gate E39 and boarded AF 012’s Airbus A340-300 at 10:04 AM. Though hurried to get on the plane, I noticed that the E39 gate area was very large and attractive. Unfortunately, I was not able to try out the Business class lounge because of the late inbound flight.

Settling into seat 3B in the Business cabin, I sighed in relief and turned on the vibrating seat to sooth my nerves. AF 012 has no First class cabin, though the earlier Air France flight to JFK, AF 006, is an A380 with three classes of services, including what is reputedly an especially luxurious First class. AF 012 also had three classes if you include the Premier Economy, a small economy seat cabin with more legroom and better service sandwiched between Business in the front and regular coach in the back.

My anxiety about making the connection was mooted by a half hour delay at the gate. We pushed back at 11:00 AM, after which the cabin crew was finally allowed to serve Champagne (flight attendants say they are not allowed to serve alcohol until the door is closed), and the plane left the tarmac at 11:20 AM. The cabin crew acceded politely to my request for a second full glass of Champagne, which softened my concern about being late into New York.

I checked NYC weather and discovered thunderstorms were forecast, not a good portent for on-time flights. However, I put those worries aside for the duration and settled into another extraordinarily delicious meal on Air France (see previous blog post about the eastbound flight’s meal).

Perhaps my expectations have become so dulled by the recent two decades of international flights that I could not have helped being delighted, especially given my extra low grades given to Air France in-flight service in the late 1990s and early 2000s. That admission on the record, I have never anywhere on land or in the air experienced a better fillet of guinea hen, set off with the perfect herb sauce and green and yellow zucchini. It was so good that I asked if they had another portion (sadly, no).

The courses before and after the entrée were equally imaginatively well done and well prepared, finished by an extraordinary salt and caramel ice cream made in Brittany, a positively ethereal culinary treat. I was lucky to be served even one modest scoop; apparently the salt and caramel ice cream is as popular as it is good. If AF sold it, I would buy it.

I watched movies and dozed through the rest of the flight. Overall, Air France on the two trans-Atlantic flights offered excellent service and comfort with polite and efficient cabin staffs. The downside was the connection maze and uncertainty through CDG, but I would still fly AF again—at least in Business class—and I haven’t said that in twenty years.

Amazingly, we landed at 12:57 PM ET at JFK and parked at the gate at 1:06 PM, just a few minutes late and in plenty of time for my connecting flight on Delta at 3:05 PM. The weather didn’t look threatening, either, so I had high hopes of getting home to Raleigh at a reasonable hour.

But I was wrong.

Hoofing it over to Delta’s terminal from Air France, I found that my commuter flight connection was already more than two hours late. The plane was coming from DCA in Washington, and it had not even arrived there due to bad weather in the region. From long experience I knew the flight was likely to be cancelled and decided to make alternate plans ahead of the curve.

Two very nice sisters in the Crown Room (or whatever Delta calls the club these days) helped me change to flights JFK/ATL and ATL/RDU. Yes, that routing is a long way around to get to Raleigh from New York, but one does what one must to connect. The trick is to take the first flight out that has a reasonable connection to home, regardless of where it’s going (though usually it’s going to a hub).

Even the flight to Atlanta suffered a 90 minute delay due to ATC ground stops in the New York area, but eventually I got to Atlanta (very late) and high-tailed it to my connecting flight on a different concourse (naturally). They were just about to close the door when I arrived, but I made my connection to RDU and finally arrived home in the early evening, some three hours later than my scheduled connection direct from JFK.

But at least I was home, thanks to my situational awareness and quick action. Otherwise I’d have spent a night in New York, because my scheduled commuter flight JFK/RDU had indeed been cancelled.