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Waiting for the Bomb Squad[^1]

[This post was written on 19 December; internet access has been a bit non-ideal, so things are coming on a bit of a time delay.]

I hate to admit it, but Meg’s right: I’m clearly cursed. I want very much to say that I make an exceedingly good travel companion–good organizational skills, excellent sense of direction, very flexible and relaxed attitude, a good eye for pubs–but things have now hit a point at which I’ve got to begin looking a little deeper. Perhaps it’s just more of that post-Catholic guilt, or perhaps it’s life in a post-Dr. Phil age, but there comes a point when enough bad things have happened to you that you’ve got to start wondering what you’re doing to bring it on.

R. and I are now happily ensconced in our hotel in Prague, but the getting here was difficult enough that I began to wonder whether we’d make it intact or not. It was 25 hours, door to door, and despite having flown the largest chunk of it in business class (yay, frequent flier miles!), it was almost non-stop grouchiness.

My mother, who would take this opportunity to remind you that I’m in Europe right now not spending Christmas with her, picked us up to take us to the airport at 11.30 am CST. We dropped our bags at the Continental desk, where they were checked through to Paris–we flew here on two separate tickets, one round-trip to Paris, and one round-trip Paris to Prague; this becomes an important detail later–and went upstairs to wait for our flight to IAH. The lighted information sign behind the gate desk said, of our flight time, “Originally 7.30 pm. Now expected 1.30 pm,” which was weird, considering that our original flight time was 1.30 pm. We asked, and the gate agent waved vaguely at it and said “ignore that.” We did, the plane arrived, we got on it and flew to Houston. So far, so good.

Having several hours to kill in IAH, we got some lunch and hung around in the President’s Club, where we took the opportunity to ask the Business First International Concierge (!) if she could move our seats so that we were actually sitting together. After a little finagling, she managed to do so, and gave us new boarding passes. Halfway down the escalator on our way to the gate, I noticed that my boarding pass had someone else’s name on it, so we zipped back up to get it straightened out, which was relatively easy. As she handed the correct boarding passes to us, she said, “They’re not quite ready for boarding,” which neither of us heard to mean “don’t bother heading out there yet,” as we should have.

Instead, we headed out to our gate, where the projected boarding time came and went, and the crowds grew, and the staff bustled about, but nothing much happened. The flight, it turns out, was oversold (or as the French gate agent kept announcing, “we are in a state of sur-booking”), and the gate personnel were seeking three people to stay in Houston an extra night, flying out the next day. I never did hear what they were offering by way of compensation, but it was clearly not enough for that crowd; it took a good forty minutes for the staff to come up with three volunteers. And in the meantime, R. and I stood there, getting impatient and lightly cranky.

As, it seems, was the onboard staff. R. and I were served–and I use the term loosely–by a flight attendant we came to call the Champagne Nazi. I mean, really: it takes a special talent for someone to piss you off while handing you a glass of champagne. She managed, however.

That’s all just whining, however, and we’d have been able to brush it all aside had it not been that:

— the power port on my seat wasn’t working, so I couldn’t plug my computer in to get any “work” done (i.e., watch a couple of episodes of season 1 of Battlestar Galactica);

— when I decided to continue watching said episodes on my new iPod (an early Christmas present from R., which I’ve had for about two weeks), as I had on my flights from California to Louisiana, something in the little gizmo totally seized up, not only not starting the video but leaving it completely impervious to all commands, as well as making it impossible for the computer to recognize it when plugged in;

— the movie selection on the plane was pretty actively terrible;

— I couldn’t sleep;

— the ride was pretty majorly turbulent for large chunks of time;

— and our flight kept falling further and further behind schedule.

The behind-schedule thing was the most significant aspect of the anxiety and aggravation, as our connection was going to be a bit tricky, even under the best of circumstances. Because of price considerations, mostly, but also because we weren’t exactly sure what we wanted to do in Europe when we booked our original flight, R. and I were connecting from a Continental ticket to Paris to an Air France ticket that would take us on to Prague. In theory, what this required was for us to arrive, go through passport control, claim our luggage, clear customs, exit into the main terminal, find our way to the Air France check-in desk, check our luggage back in, clear security, and get to our gate. Trying to think ahead, I left us about two and a half hours to do all that. By the time of our approach to CDG, however, we were down to about an hour and forty-five minutes. And that didn’t account for the world’s longest taxi, which began once we finally landed.

I’d talked to the flight service manager, though, and had told him of our predicament, and he asked the concierge when we arrived if she could have our bags transferred directly to our flight, so that we wouldn’t have to claim them. She said that it wouldn’t be a problem, and told us to find the Air France transfer desk, where we could have everything taken care of.

I’m not sure if I made a wrong turn, but I never found the transfer desk. What we found instead was the Air France baggage office, where we were told by a quite straightforwardly neutral representative that, because our flight time was now so near, “you can either go to Prague or you can have your bags, but not both.” R. and I looked at each other, and then back at him, and said, “if we go to Prague, and leave our bags, what will happen to them?” Oh, the representative said, you will go to the Continental baggage desk just to the left, and you will tell them what you are doing, and then when you arrive in Prague you will file a report, and we will send your bags on. I nodded and asked whether we could then expect our bags, say, tomorrow? The agent gave me one of those very French pffffs, and said “we have many flights to Prague. They will be there today.”

Excellent. We stopped at the Continental baggage desk (where there had been no one before, or I’d have gone there first), reported what the Air France representative said, gave the required information, and R. and I headed out for terminal 2B. Getting there went more smoothly than I expected, but once we got into 2B and checked the monitors, we found that our flight to Prague wasn’t listed. I asked a woman behind a desk if she knew where to find the flight, making the mistake of asking in French; my brain was working well enough to put together a reasonable sentence, but not enough to parse the flurry of French I got in response. I managed to pull a “quatre” out of the flurry, though, and spotted behind the security wall in the direction she was pointing a giant number 5, and so figured that’s where we should head. Merci beaucoup.

To the right was the security entrance to the check-in area, but when we presented our boarding passes (thank you, internet check-in!) and passports, were told something that I took to mean that the entrance was closed, and that we should head down to the entrance on the other end, to the left. So we did, had our passports and boarding passes screened by a scowly member of the National Police, and headed back to the right, toward check-in area number 4.

Which is when things really got interesting.

There was a smallish cluster of people standing in the middle of the passageway, all staring in the direction we were headed. It took me a second to figure out that they were standing there, staring that way, because the passageway was roped off at that point. Meaning that there was no way to get where we needed to be. We shrugged, pleased that abandoning our bags to the kindnesses of Air France meant that we had plenty of time to get to the gate yet, and waited.

And waited.

It turns out, we begin to piece together from the various announcements being made, that someone had abandoned a black suitcase near check-in area 8, and that person was roundly exhorted to step up and claim it immediately. Guys from the National Police and in other, less recognizable uniforms, gradually filtered into the area, and it became clear, after a bit, that none of us were going anywhere. The crowd behind the rope grew. R. and I found a spot against the wall where we could sit down.

Our plane’s scheduled departure time was 1.05 pm. The expected time became 1.20, and then 1.40, and then 2.00. And then, around 1.50, the monitor began to flash “boarding.” But the check-in area and the gate area beyond it were still completely inaccessible. I asked the only airline employee I could find–a British Airways representative; there were no Air France representatives to be found–how the flight could be boarding, and what did this mean for us. He pffff’d, and told me that it meant nothing. “This is the Paris airport,” he said. “The computer says it is time to board, so the screen says it is boarding.”

Actually, though, there were folks who had made it through security before the terminal was closed, and they were boarding while we waited. (In fact, had our flight into CDG been on time, we’d likely have been boarding ourselves, as the passageway had just been roped off a few minutes before we arrived.) We continued to wait, as announcements requesting that the owner of the bag step forward and claim it continued. However, it was clear by this time that we weren’t waiting for that to happen. We were waiting for the bomb squad.

At some point they must have arrived and gone to work, because the National Police moved everyone back another 100 meters or so. Not long after 2.00, a fairly loud–but nowhere near as loud as it might have been–bang echoed through the hallway, as they apparently detonated a shaped charge to destroy the bag.[1] The crowd broke into applause. About 30 minutes or so later, they finally dropped the rope, and R. and I made our way down to our gate at the far end of the terminal, where we stood and waited in a deceptively short line in order to go through security and into the boarding area. Our flight, happily, was still there, and one by one passengers who cleared security got on the plane. When we were about eight or so people away from the screening area, however, an agent came out, asked us all to stand aside, and called for anyone going to Lubljana (sp?), and brought the twenty or so of them up ahead of us. So we waited some more, and then finally cleared security (getting fussed at in the process for not having put the small bottle of hand lotion and the tiny tube of toothpaste I got on the flight to CDG into a plastic bag), and, at last, got on the plane.

Our flight finally took off about 3.40 pm, and we arrived in Prague not long after 5.00 pm, delirious and exhausted, and utterly uncertain of how to proceed. Certainly we’d been in CDG long enough for Air France to find our bags and send them over to our plane. But had they? Should we just file a report? Or should we wait for all the luggage to come out, and then file a report? After most of the people from our flight had gotten their bags and left (as had most of the people from the flight that came in after ours), I left R. at the carousel while I went to inquire at the baggage desk. The representative there told me that there was a note on our bag records saying that they should be on this flight, and so could we look a bit longer? And, in fact, our bags were on this flight; it merely took them an hour to be gotten off the plane and into baggage claim.

And then we found and waited for the minibus that runs to our hotel. And then we got on the minibus. And then we got to the hotel, a mere 25.5 hours after we set out.

I’m still too muddle-headed today to draw any sense of conclusion from this story. We did manage to make it here, and I’m not sure what we could have done differently. I still feel pretty bad, though, about sucking R. into my bad travel karma. It’s really not fair to inflict that on someone.


  1. This detail is also here courtesy of R., who knows all kinds of really interesting stuff that I could never even begin to imagine. ↩︎


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