A middle aged man makes his way down the aisle, his gaze focused on the seat next to me. He sits down and immediately introduces himself. Steve from Switzerland is to be my flight companion. We haven't even taken off and already I know too much information about him (and his daughter's marital problems). I pull out a book, mumbling something about a headache. Not even his lilting accent can hold my attention.
My mind drifts off, conversations floating all around me. I hear a word in Armenian and I focus, trying to figure out who is speaking in a language I rarely hear outside my home. I turn around, am pleasantly surprised to find two hansome men sitting behind me. They are Armenian from Ukraine. Arsen, Artem and I start talking. They are flying Chicago-Paris-Madrid-Budapest and then driving to their hometown in Ukraine, while my last stop is Madrid. In the space of 20 minutes we're already making jokes, laughing and causing a small ruckus in our section of the plane.
We're interrupted by the pilot: "Ladies and Gentlemen, we regret to inform you that due to mechanical problems with the engine we will be slightly delayed. We are waiting for the technicians and expect to be moving for a test run in approximately an hour".
Great, there goes my connecting flight.
Two hours later, we're told that the flight is being cancelled. Chaos. People rush out of their seats, flight attendants try to keep order, yelling, shoving, questions crowd the air. Artem and Arsen, who don't speak English, immediately appoint me as their makeshift travel coordinator, I'm responsible for getting them to Ukraine as well as getting myself to Madrid.
We, along with some 250 others, head to the Air France ticket counter. I'm expecting an orderly line of agents. I see only three. Three agents per 250 people. Surely they could have managed to pull more people during the three hours we were standing on the runway?
An Agent stands on top of the counter and yells: "Two lines. Emergencies, to the left. All others, to the right". Artem, Arsen and I crowd our way into the emergency line. I have to fly out within the next few hours or I will miss my connection the the program where I am teaching english. Artem and Arsen have a business deal closing the next day. Apparently, so does everyone else. 250 people push and shove their way to the emergency line.
We wait for two hours. TWO hours. Air France agents (all three of them) are getting angry, yelling at the passengers, standing on counters and shouting orders. The passengers are frustrated. French and English swear words abound. Merde, alors. Bordel!
An old woman approaches me. She heard me speaking Russian with the boys, could I possibly help her figure out her ticket? She's headed to Moscow. Feeling like a UN ambassador, I elbow my way up to the front of the line and approach an Agent. My friends and I need to get on the next flight out of here, going anywhere in Europe. It's an emergency, I stress. "Join the club", he says and waves me away.
Twenty minutes later, he calls me over. "How can I help you?", he asks. I take a deep breath, and launch into my explanation, again. "I'm sorry, miss. The last flight out of Chicago is leaving in five minutes. You'll have to spend the night here", his voice seems to say that he is anything but sorry.
Thank you, sir. Had you told me this twenty minutes ago, when I asked, we would have been on that flight.
I am given a piece of paper with a phone number and told to call immediately to make reservations for the next day. I call, am told that all representatives are busy and to simply show up at the Air France counter at 8 the next morning to make a new reservation.
Artem, Arsen and I spend a night at the nearby Hilton. Over dinner, they tell me about their families, jobs and plans for the future. Exhausted, we make our way to bed and head to the airport early the next morning. The Air France ticket counter is surrounded by passengers from the night before. Propped on the counter is a cardboard sign reading, TICKET COUNTER CLOSED UNTIL 11 A.M.
"Making The Sky The Best Place On Earth"? I don't know about that, but they sure know how to make Hell on Earth.
(Looking back, and considering Air France's latest catastrophe, I am extremely lucky. I could have been on a different Air France flight with far larger problems)