In this newsletter, I'd like to talk about one of the most frightening things in travel today -- a tight connection at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport (CDG).
I know better than to try, but on my recent trip home from Venice to Houston, I tried anyway.
The only other connection would have required my family to wake up at 3:30am, leave our cruise ship for the airport at 4:30am and lay over for five hours at CDG. I decided to live on the edge.
I took the connection offered by the airlines when I booked my tickets -- one hour and 10 minutes. By the time my flight from Venice arrived in Paris, my flight to Houston had already departed.
All travelers know that sooner or later your number comes up and something goes awry, but attempting a short connection at CDG, Europe's most-delayed airport, is like playing Russian roulette with no empty chambers in the gun.
CDG is France's own Bermuda Triangle, where people and their luggage go quietly missing in huge quantities on a daily basis, only to emerge later, unable to explain what happened or where they have been.
At any given time, there are enough people lost or stranded in CDG to line the entire course of the Tour de France, elbow to elbow. In fact, if you took all these travelers and stacked them on top of each other...well, that's probably not a good idea.
We queued up at Air France's service desk, and when I reached the front of the line, the agent confirmed what I already knew, that there was no other flight that could get us to Houston that day and we'd be spending the night.
I asked about our luggage, and she seemed surprised to hear that people traveling from Venice to Houston might check bags.
"Ohhh," she winced, shaking her head as if a grave mistake had been made. "You will need to go to baggage services to retrieve your bags."
Where is that?
"Take a left and walk 10 minutes."
I learned long ago that most people who work at CDG have given up on providing complete directions to anything that is not already within sight. They seek merely to move you along. I had been given the standard directions to anything and everything at CDG.
Eventually, in baggage services, it was explained that bags "in transit" cannot be retrieved. Why? It's simple:
"If these bags could be retrieved, they would no longer be in transit, and these bags are in transit, making retrieval impossible."
So rather than disturb our bags, presumably still enjoying some forward momentum, we were each given a small box with one white T-shirt, a toothbrush, a razor, an impenetrable pouch of shaving cream and laundry detergent--in case we decided to wash the clothes we were wearing in the sink in our hotel room.
We stepped outside and joined all the other misconnected people waiting for hotel shuttles. As vehicles of all sizes pulled up, we heard the song of the frustrated over and over again.
"Is this the bus...?"
"Is this the place...?"
"Do you know where...?"
To be clear, I don't blame the people who work on the airplanes or the people who work in the airport for the way the airport operates. These are problems that cannot be solved at the individual level, and possibly not at the country or planet level. This is inefficiency of galactic proportions, and a galactic solution may be required.
And please don't get me wrong -- I like France and the country's new, no-nonsense, pro-American president, Nicolas Sarkozy. He has pledged to clean up the inefficiencies and out-of-control bureaucracies that stifle the French economy.
I even like Air France, mostly. I have enjoyed good crews and clean, modern planes with this airline. I believe they are hampered by the sad reality that most of their flights begin or end at CDG, Europe's most illogical airport.
For example, what are the airlines at CDG hiding from? There seems to be no signage outside or inside the terminals that lists airline ticketing/check-in locations.
Security checkpoints could also use some attention. Earlier in our vacation, standing in a very long security line for a flight to Barcelona, I couldn't help noticing that each conveyor belt was allocated TWO trays, which meant that only one person at a time could go through the laborious process of emptying their pockets and removing their metallic objects.
Maybe it's a job creation project since it results in lines that move at about 1/5 the theoretical rate and thus requires 5x as many conveyor belts -- and operators.
Then there's Terminal 2, a series of loosely connected buildings identified as 2A to 2F. They all sound so close, but that's just one of the inside jokes CDG plays on travelers.
Terminal 2 covers an area roughly the size of Belgium. Strike out walking from 2A to 2F and your passport will likely expire en route.
My advice: Always allow extra time for connections at CDG if you can. Never take the last flight of the day to connect to a cruise or tour departure -- where the penalty for a missed connection or cancelled flight is so steep. If you want to live dangerously, do it on the way home.
So, President Sarkozy -- and I really am pulling for you -- where should you begin such a massive undertaking as making CDG consumer-friendly?
I'd go straight to the airport and ask disoriented travelers what they're looking for and how long they've been at it. I'd try to find out why so many jetways sit vacant while so many planes park in the hinterlands and bus their passengers to the terminal.
I'd watch what's happening at Air France's self-check-in kiosks, which time out after two seconds of inactivity and force everyone into an "exceptions" line manned by a single agent.
I'd talk to the shuttle drivers and service managers that aid the helpless and hopeless and finally, to that guy that works in the information booth -- as soon as his break is over.
"How can we improve this system," I would ask, and I can almost hear his suggestion:
"Take a left and walk 10 minutes."
Vacations To Go