March 13, 2009

The Worst Airline Company in the World

After spending several weeks each in Iraq and Lebanon at the end of 2008, I bought a plane ticket to the U.S. from Beirut on December 22 and figured I had plenty of time to get home for Christmas. I had no idea, though, that I had purchased my ticket from the worst airline company in the world – Italy’s national carrier Alitalia – and that a two-hour layover in Rome would turn into an ordeal that lasted longer than a week.

I placed my most critical and expensive items in my carry-on bag so they wouldn’t get damaged or lost. Yet the woman at the Alitalia check-in counter in Beirut’s international airport said my bag was too large and would have to be checked. I wasn’t happy about that, but I did as I was told and surrendered my luggage. She neglected to tell me that Alitalia’s baggage handlers were on strike and that it would be a very long time before I would see my property again – if I ever would see it again.

My flight left Beirut on time, and I had no idea what I was in for in Italy.

After I landed in Rome, the Departures board said my flight to Chicago was delayed two hours. I didn’t mind. I had a 24-hour layover there, so I could wait patiently. But an angry stirring of passengers at the flight counter caught my attention.

“What’s going on?” I asked an American woman who looked concerned yet approachable.

“I’m not sure,” she said. “But somebody told me the baggage handlers on are strike and that we might not be going anywhere.”

A few moments passed before I absorbed what that meant. My laptop was in my carry-on bag that Alitalia had forced me to check. My work from Iraq and Lebanon was on that machine. My Nikon camera was in that bag. I didn’t want to hand it over, but the airline forced me to hand it over and didn’t tell me what was happening in the bowels of the company.

At least I had the presence of mind to make backup copies of my recorded interviews and place them on a flash memory stick that I carried around in my pocket. My hand-written notes and my photographs, though, were not in my pocket. Alitalia’s baggage handler’s union was holding much of my Middle East work hostage.

The man and woman working at our Alitalia flight counter wouldn’t tell us what was going on, and I assumed it was because they didn’t know. They looked slightly stressed, and I felt bad for them. They weren’t on strike, but they had to deal with the fallout. And that fallout was about to get nasty.

A fifty year-old Italian man in a fedora started screaming at both of them.

A man standing next to me chuckled.

“Do you understand what he’s saying?” I said.

“I’m from Argentina,” he said, “but I speak Italian. That man is cursing like you wouldn’t believe.”

Mr. Enraged was screaming like you wouldn’t believe – wild-eyed, nostril-flared, spittle-flecked screaming.
Listening to him and imagining which curse words he used he was entertaining, but mostly the guy came across like a belligerent jerk. The two Alitalia employees on the receiving end of his tirade weren’t responsible for our predicament. The baggage handlers were on strike, but the counter employees were still on the job.

Later, though, I realized that Mr. Enraged was just ahead of everyone else. The rest of us booked on the flight to Chicago would learn soon enough that a huge number of Alitalia's employees absolutely deserved to be screamed at.

Our flight was delayed another four hours. Almost every other Alitalia flight in the airport had been cancelled. You might think we were lucky that our flight hadn't been cancelled. That's what I thought at the time, but I was wrong.

“I live in the UK,” a man said, “but I was born here in Italy. They will not fly us to Chicago. They will do nothing but lie. Trust me. I know how this country works.”

Our flight was delayed again another three hours, and the man and woman and the flight counter put on their coats and walked away. Several passengers impotently screamed at their backs in Italian. Two hundred of us were left stranded alone.

No one had screamed at them in English. Not yet.

European Union regulations required the airline to book us with another company so we could get home. But they refused to book us with another company. Word slowly trickled into the crowd from passengers who had been stranded in Rome’s airport for days. Alitalia hadn't booked any of them on flights with other airlines, nor did the company reserve or pay for hotel rooms as the law required.

Certainly there were worse fates than being stranded in Italy. Daniel, the Italian-speaking man from Argentina, knew that better than most of us. He lives in the Indianapolis now and works as a professor of Social Work.

“Indiana is a big change,” he said, “but I like living there.” He has fond memories of his hometown of Buenos Aries, but also terrible memories. “There were leftist terrorists and right-hand terrorists killing people all over the country. When the army took over, everyone cheered. But the army was no better, and they went after the intellectuals. 30,000 people were killed or disappeared. It was a horrible fascist regime.”

Daniel managed to remain calm even after order and civility in the airport later disintegrated. His American friend and traveling companion Greg was about a disgruntled as I was. “No one is coming back here,” he said. “They’re supposed to rebook us, but they’ve abandoned us.”

“I think we should get some people together and go to the office,” I said, “since they refuse to rebook us. Ten people should be enough to put pressure on them.”

He agreed, and we asked others standing next to us if they wanted to join us. Everyone seemed to think it was a good idea. I had only been stranded in Rome for a half day so far, but some of those who had been marooned for days looked like they were ready to punch somebody.

“Hell yes,” a young American man said. “Let’s go to the office. I know right where it is. I saw it on my way in here.”

He said his name was DJ, and he wore a Palestinian keffiyeh around his neck.

“You’re sure you know where it is?” I said.

“Yeah, man,” he said. “Let’s go.”

“Hey!” I said as loud as I could so everyone in our waiting area heard me. “We’re going to the office to demand a new ticket. Who wants to join us?”

The crowd roared its approval. I expected just a handful of tag-alongs, but it looked like every single person wanted to join us.

So DJ and I led more than two hundred people through the terminal toward the Alitalia office.

As soon as I realized I might write about this, I bought a notebook and pen from one of the stores. I wanted to take notes in real time and record more or less accurate dialogue.

“You’re sure you know where this place is?” I said to DJ. I had no idea where we were going. We were inside an island terminal that could only be reached by train.

“Yeah,” DJ said. “But hang on.”

In front of us was a long Alitalia counter staffed by employees who served the entire terminal rather than just our flight to Chicago. DJ stopped and spoke to man wearing the company's uniform.

“Why are we stopping here?” a woman said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “This isn't the office.”

“This is the blind leading the blind,” said a man.

I stepped up to the counter next to DJ. And DJ started screaming at the man standing in front of him.

“I will kick your ass if I see you outside,” the Alitalia employee said to DJ.

“Let’s go!” DJ said. “Grab your coat and let’s go!”

This was hardly what I had in mind when I suggested a trip to the office.

“Hey,” a woman said and grabbed my arm. “Look. They’ve posted the European Union’s Passenger Rights on the wall.”

She was right. Our rights were spelled out in English just behind the foul-mouthed Alitalia employee who, instead of complying with regulations, had just threatened DJ with physical violence. The European Union required Alitalia to provide us with food, hotel accommodations, and a ticket on another airline because we had been delayed for more than five hours. We were also legally owed up to 600 Euros, around 1,000 dollars, in compensation.

I had already been delayed more than five hours. Some of us had been delayed for days. None of us had received food, hotel accommodations, or rebooked flights on a functional airline.

“Hey!” I said to the man who had threatened to kick DJ’s ass. “Our rights are printed right there on the wall. You need to book us on another flight or give us a hotel room.”

He narrowed his eyes at me and shook his head.

Now,” I said.

He ignored me.

When others saw the list of passenger rights on the wall, they became angry, and fast. Italian passengers were no longer the only ones riled up. More than a dozen surged to the counter and started yelling at the man in English who refused to do what the law required of him.

“I will call the police!” said the Alitalia man.

The crowd erupted in cheers and applause.

“Yes!” a woman said. “Call the police! Call them now!”

A look of horror and dread washed over his face. He knew his airline was in violation and that the police were not likely to help him.

So what did he do? He put on his coat and walked off the job. Hundreds of furious paying passengers booed and hissed as he left. I kept an eye on DJ in case he decided to chase the guy down and take him up on his offer to fight.

Instead, DJ found another Alitalia employee to scream at, this time a woman.

“I am a man!” he said. And he was a drunk man. His breath smelled of booze from the airport's café-bars. “Just because my voice is high-pitched doesn't mean I'm in puberty!”

DJ was seriously beginning to lose it. I had no idea what he was talking about anyway. His voice was no more high-pitched than anyone else's.

“Will you please call a manager,” I said to the woman. DJ wasn’t getting results with his tirade, so I thought I'd play the good cop. “If you can’t resolve this by yourself, just call a manager over.”

She looked at me, then looked away without even acknowledging that I had said anything. This was becoming a pattern among the staff, and my patience was just about at an end.

“Hey!” I said. “Some of us have been here for days, and your airline is breaking the law.”

This time she didn’t ignore me. She squinted and jutted her chin.

I gave up. Being polite didn’t work, and neither did yelling.

A manager in a tie finally came over. Two dozen people rushed and surrounded him.

“What?” he said. “Is something the matter? What’s going on?”

The crowd booed and jeered.

“Oh, come on,” Greg said to the manager. “Give me a break.”

“You know what’s going on,” I said. I had been waiting for ten hours by then, and I was one of the newcomers.

The manager looked at his feet in embarrassment. Who did he think he was kidding?

“You need to rebook us or put us up in a hotel,” I said. “You’re in violation of European Union regulations, and you know it.”

He looked at me when I spoke to him, but he ignored me and turned away.

“Hey!” I said. “You heard me. Are you going to do your damn job or not?”

He looked at me again, but he still didn’t say anything.

An American woman approached the manager in tears and told him her son had just died and that she needed to get to Chicago for his funeral. Would he please just rebook her on another airline?

“No,” he said.

And then the crowd lost it.

Five enormous black men stormed up to the manager while punching their hands with their fists.

“Motherfucker!” one of them said and flared his eyes and his nostrils. I thought for sure we were about to see blood on the floor.

The black man was hyperventilating and literally shaking while he tried with all his might to restrain himself from committing violence. A few passengers stepped between him and the manager. None of us wanted a riot. But a riot felt imminent.

“Do you know what’s going on with these Africans?” a woman said to me. “They’ve been here for four days, and now the airline is saying there's no record they ever booked a flight at all.”

“We want to go home!” the five Africans yelled in unison.

Four days they had been waiting!

“Get it, man?” said the first African man. He looked ready to rip out the manager's spine with his fingers. “We want to go home!”

“Where are you guys trying to go?” I asked one of the calmer African men.

“Nigeria,” he said. “Now he’s saying we never purchased a ticket.”

These men had Alitalia boarding passes. They wouldn’t have even been to pass through security without them.

“Unbelievable,” said an American man. “The staff is obviously racist against these guys.”

“Our luggage is right outside that window,” a man said to me. “It’s sitting there on the tarmac next to the plane.”

One woman told me she checked in her cat in its carrier two days ago. She was worried her cat might soon die. (In hindsight I can say that her cat almost certainly died.)

A three-year old African girl sat on the Alitalia counter and cried hysterically while her father screamed “We want to go home!” at the staff.

Three police officers arrived to calm down the crowd. The most enraged of the African men picked up one of the officers, slung the cop over his shoulder, and took him away.

Here we go, I thought. This is when it begins.

I thought about lighting a cigarette. Rules no longer applied. I doubted anyone would say anything, and I doubted even more that anyone would make me put it out. I was pretty sure that if I lit a cigarette, other people would light up cigarettes, too. It actually seemed slightly dangerous, though. The mood in the terminal might have shifted yet one more degree toward total breakdown. A cop had already been taken away to God-knows-where by an unruly passenger, and the other two officers didn’t do anything. I kept my cigarettes in my pocket.

Anyone could have pushed the terminal over the edge at any moment. If just one person swung a punch at an employee, it might trigger a riot. I could feel it. The Africans were ready to roll, as were DJ and several of the Italians. Most American passengers seemed a bit more restrained, but even that was beginning to change. The Alitalia staff looked terrified. Their eyes darted sideways as they scanned the terminal for threats and calculated escape routes.

An American couple named Sofocles and Tatiana were on their way home from vacation in Greece.

“I thought Athens was screwed up,” Sofocles said, “but I've ever seen anything like this.”

“We witnessed the riots,” Tatiana said, “but this feels much worse.”

What? That sounded crazy, but that's what she said. Athens had just erupted in actual violence.

Violence in Rome’s airport was in the air, but it hadn’t actually broken out yet. I think she must have felt trapped. We could only leave our terminal by train, whereas the violence in Athens could be avoided by just walking away or taking a taxi. There would be no walking or running away if a riot broke out in our part of the airport.

The Alitalia manager loosened his tie and wiped sweat off his forehead while dozens of passengers surrounded and screamed at him. I was angry, too. Just rebook us already. But I also felt a bit sorry for him. Our little mob got its way, though, because he finally did what he was supposed to do and secured accommodations for us at a hotel near the airport.

“There is a shuttle bus outside that will take you to the Airport Palace Hotel,” he said to me, Daniel, and Greg. “Please tell the others.”

“You should make an announcement,” Greg said. “There are more than a hundred passengers on the flight.”

“Please just let everyone know,” the manager said.

He never did make an announcement. He didn’t even put up a hand-written sign on the counter. Greg, Daniel, and I were made responsible for hundreds of strangers who were, by then, scattered throughout the terminal and mixed in with hundreds of others who were booked on separate flights. How were we supposed to find everyone and let all of them know?

Why on earth were Daniel, Greg, and I were put in charge? The reason, I suppose, is because we took some initiative, but the manager basically told us to do his job for him. So the three of us told ten people each and told them to tell ten more people each. Hopefully most of our fellow passengers would eventually find out that hotel rooms finally had been taken care.

Daniel, Greg, and I left the terminal and went looking for the shuttle bus. We couldn’t find it.

“I’m going to take a taxi,” I said. “I don’t want the hotel to fill up while we’re just wandering around out here in the rain.”

“I’m in,” Greg said.

“Let’s go,” Daniel said.

Sofocles and Tatiana found us and asked if they could share our taxi, as well.

“Of course,” I said.

So we found a taxi.

“Airport Palace Hotel,” I said to the driver.

“The Airport Palace Hotel?” she said. “It doesn't exist.”

“I knew it!” Tatiana said. “Oh God, I knew it! They lied to us again.”

I had no faith whatsoever in Alitalia's staff, but I didn't think even they would go that far.

Our driver called a friend. The Airport Palace Hotel did, in fact, exist.

No one was at the front desk. The hotel seemed entirely empty of guests.

“Hello?” Greg called out toward the back.

A manager emerged from an office while chewing his dinner.

“Hello,” I said. “Alitalia booked us for some rooms here.”

“Outside,” the manager said dismissively with his mouth full of food. He pointed. “Outside. Right. Under the bridge. Right.” He then went back into his office and slammed the door.

We stepped outside.

“I guess he’s sending us to another hotel,” I said.

“Is it just me,” Greg said, “or is that man an asshole?”

“He’s an asshole,” I said.

We followed his directions, but we didn’t see another hotel.

“What are we supposed to be looking for, exactly?” I said.

“Let’s go back,” Greg said.

So we went back.

“Excuse me,” said to the manager. “Where are we supposed to go, exactly?”

“Did you follow my directions?” he said.

“Yes,” Greg said.

“I don’t think so!” the manager said as though were we the stupidest people he had ever met in his life.

He then gave us more precise directions, and we found another hotel owned by the same company.

I was startled by the staff at the next hotel. They were perfectly pleasant and helpful.

Daniel, Greg, Tatiana, and Sofocles, and I sat down to dinner.

“Merry Christmas, everybody,” I said.

Greg groaned. “Don't say that,” he said. “At least don't say that yet.”

*

Alitalia told me to go to the airport again the next morning for rebooking, though I doubted they would actually book me on a flight that would actually leave. I would have bought another ticket on a different airline so I could be home for Christmas, but the Alitalia staff refused to hand over my luggage. And they refused to let me retrieve my luggage myself. My laptop, camera, and notebooks were being held hostage.

At least a thousand people waited in line for rebooking at the main Alitalia counter. That’s where I would need to go if I wanted a new ticket on a different airline. It took the staff around 20 minutes to process each passenger. At that rate it would have taken me more than a week to get a new ticket.

So I went to the check-in counter to get a new worthless Alitalia ticket.

Sofocles and Tatiana were in line already. They let me join them, and we shared contact information. They lived in Chicago, where my luggage might theoretically appear at some later date, and they offered to help me retrieve it if I decided to go home without it.

As we approached the front of the line, I noticed that the man in front of us was checking in luggage.

“Excuse me, sir” I said. “You might not want to check your luggage. The baggage handlers are on strike. The planes aren’t flying, and once you check your luggage, they won’t give it back.”

How dare you!” said the Alitalia woman working the counter.

“You aren't warning this man,” I said. “So I'm warning him. Somebody should have warned me before I gave you my luggage. .”

“He’s checking in!” she said.

Sofocles and Tatiana laughed out loud.

“He’s checking in?” I said. “He’s not going anywhere. Nobody’s going anywhere.” I turned around and made an announcement to everybody in line behind us. “They’re on strike. You aren’t flying today, and if you get them your luggage they won’t give it back.”

“That's not true!” the Alitalia woman said. “How can you say that?”

“How can you stand there and lie to these people?” Tatiana said.

Passengers in line behind us with luggage shifted and murmured to each other. They had no idea what they were getting themselves into until I told them.

“It's not my job to warn people,” I said to the woman behind the counter. “It's yours. Have a little decency, will you?”

She angrily stabbed her keyboard with her fingers as she rebooked me on another Alitalia flight that was supposed to leave on Christmas Eve the next day. But it did not leave the next day. When I arrived the airport, my flight to Chicago wasn’t even on the Departures board. It was cancelled before I even got there, as I figured it would be.

I walked up to a counter where an Alitalia employee sat in front of a computer.

“Excuse me,” I said.

She yelled at me. “This counter is closed!”

The rudeness and hostility from company staff was just constant. It would have shocked me if I had arrived in Italy from the United States, but I had just arrived from Lebanon and Iraq, two of the most polite countries on earth. Obviously Rome is a more pleasant city than Baghdad, but I missed the Iraqis, and I missed the Lebanese even more.

I found another Alitalia woman behind a different counter.

“Excuse me,” I said.

“Yes?” she said. I was surprised she didn’t bitch at me.

“Is the flight to Chicago cancelled? It’s not on the board.”

“I don’t know, let me check.”

She stepped into a back office and emerged a few moments later.

“Yes,” she said, “it is cancelled.”

“Ugh,” I said. “I've been here for days.” I was hoping for a little commiseration, but I shouldn't have said anything.

“You've been here for days?” she said. “Why? What happened?”

“Oh, give me a break,” I said. “Don't pretend you don't know what's going on.”

She nodded, appeared slightly embarrassed, and walked away without saying a word.

The absurdly long line of more than a thousand people from the day before was shortened to a mere hundred or so. This was the line to wait in for those who wanted to be rebooked on a different airline. So I got in line. It “only” took two or so hours to get through it.

Blessedly, the woman at the counter was friendly.

“I can get you on a Delta flight that leaves in an hour,” she said.

“Excellent!” I said. “Oh, thank you so much.” I wanted to hug her. “I don’t suppose my luggage will be on the flight, will it?”

“Unfortunately, no,” she said. “But you can look for it in a few days at the Lost and Found in Chicago. Delta flights leave from Terminal Five. Hurry. Go right away. Get to Terminal Five and check in with Delta.”

I took the bus to Terminal Five and hurried to the Delta check-in counter. When I got to the front of the line, the man behind the counter said “What are you doing here?”

“Checking in?” I said.

“This is an Alitalia flight,” he said. “And that flight has been cancelled.”

“It’s not even operated by Delta?” I said.

“No,” he said. “It’s an Alitalia flight.”

My ticket said Alitalia on the top of it, but I assumed that was because Alitalia booked it, not because it was for an Alitalia flight. I might think that woman at the counter was incompetent, but I had been lied to so many times by so many Alitalia employees that I slightly doubted it.

“That is the worst airline in the world,” I said. The man was Italian, not American. I hoped I didn’t hurt any feelings of national pride he might have for that airline, but I needed to vent.

“Oh,” he said. “I know it. It is a horrible horrible airline. We hear complaints about them every day. I'm so sorry you have to fly with them.”

I went back to the Alitalia terminal. The woman at the desk was either a liar or an idiot, but I wasn’t going to give her a hard time. I just needed her to rebook me again, this time for real.

The line was longer than it was earlier, and I had waited in that line for two hours when it was shorter. I scanned the counter for the woman who had booked me just a few minutes before, but I didn’t see her. So I stepped up to the edge of the counter and motioned to the manager.

“Excuse me,” I said. Maybe he would know where she was.

“Don't you dare summon me!” he screamed and pointed his finger at me. “You do that with your family, but not with me!”

Fuck you,” I said loudly enough that everybody in line could hear me. I hardly ever curse at total strangers, and I could hardly believe I had just said that.

Dozens of people cheered and broke out in applause. Everybody wanted to tell this company off. The manager curled his upper lip and glared at everybody with hatred. .

Sofocles and Tatiana were near the front of the line, and they let me join them. I wouldn’t have to wait two or three more hours, after all.

“We went downstairs to file a luggage complaint,” Tatiana said. “Six guys were just sitting around and laughing and eating at the office. They refused to help anybody. They weren't doing anything and wouldn't even acknowledge our existence. It was unbelievable. Something is wrong with this place.”

A manager finally helped her file the complaint. And he told her that 70,000 pieces of luggage were in the basement or out on the tarmac.


Somebody shot some video of a small sample of the luggage downstairs and posted it to YouTube.

An Alitalia man at the counter – friendly for a change! – booked us on what he said was a British Airways flight to London.

“Is this actually a British Airways flight?” I said. “Is it operated by British Airways or by Alitalia? I can’t be booked on another Alitalia flight.”

“I understand,” he said. “Yes, it’s a British Airways flight, and it's operated by British Airways.”

“You’re sure?” I said. I had a hard time believing anything anyone at Alitalia told me, even if they were convincing and friendly.

“I promise you, it's British Airways.”

He lied.

It was an Alitalia flight, as I learned when I got to the check-in counter.

Sofocles, Tatiana, and I checked in together. We were basically traveling together at that point. When we got to the front of the line, we handed our tickets to the man at the counter.

“Where did you get these?” he said.

“Oh my God,” Tatiana said.

“From the rebooking counter,” I said. “Is there a problem?”

He didn't say anything. He just tapped a few keys on his keyboard.

A woman worked the window next to him. “How many flights have you cancelled today?” I asked her.

“None,” she said.

“They're lying again!” Tatiana said.

“You cancelled ours to Chicago,” I said.

I live in the UK, a man had said to me days ago. But I was born here in Italy. These people will do nothing but lie. Trust me. I know how this country works.

My God, he wasn’t kidding.

We didn’t have much time to get to our flight, assuming it would even take off. According to the Departures screen, it was already boarding. I was amazed to see that it was boarding since it turned out not to be a British Airways flight, after all.

I looked at my watch.

“We need our boarding passes,” Sofocles said and tapped his foot.

Suddenly the man who was processing our tickets stood up, put on his coat, and walked off the job, without handing us boarding passes and without saying a word.

“Where do you think you’re going?” I said to his back.

He turned around and glowered at me as he walked briskly away.

“We’re screwed,” Tatiana said.

One Alitalia employee after another had walked off the job right in front of me. In a way, I could hardly blame them. The airport was a zoo full of screaming people. Alitalia had clearly reached a tipping point, as had its passengers.

“Thank God for the United States,” an elderly man standing behind me said in an Italian accent.

“You live in the States?” I said.

“I was born in Rome,” he said, “but I’ve lived in Chicago for thirty five years.”

The woman at the next window gave Sofocles, Tatiana, and me our boarding passes.

We ran to security gate and cut through the line with apologies.

“Excuse me, sorry, our plane is boarding.”

Nobody complained.

As it turned out, though, there was no need to cut through the security line. Our Alitalia flight had been delayed thirty minutes for the sake of people like us who had been rebooked at the last minute. The airline finally did something right.

Tatiana waited at the gate while Sofocles and I went to a café to get sandwiches. Just as we reached the front of the line, the cashier loudly slammed down the “Closed” sign and walked away without saying a word.

“What the hell?” Sofocles said.

“What a strange country,” said a Pakistani man standing behind me in line.

Our flight to London actually took off. I didn’t have my luggage. I didn’t know if I would ever even see my luggage again. But at least I was getting out of Rome’s ridiculous airport.

“Thank you for choosing to fly with us,” the Alitalia pilot said a few minutes before we landed in London. Several passengers snorted derisively.

*

Sofocles, Tatiana, and I barely made our connection to Chicago. Of course our luggage didn’t arrive, but I have a friend in Chicago. I stayed at his house for a few days and waited there so I could retrieve my bags if they showed up at Lost and Found. My luggage wasn’t checked all the way through to my home town because I had a separate plane ticket to Portland on a separate airline.

I spent days on the phone asking about my luggage. It didn’t show up. Nobody at Chicago’s airport even knew if Alitalia’s baggage handling staff had gone back to work yet.

So I gave up and went to the airport to buy a new ticket home on United Airlines. Alitalia would supposedly deliver my luggage to my house if it ever arrived, and there was no longer any point in waiting around. But I thought I’d go to the Alitalia office in Chicago just in case. I braced myself to be screamed at and lied to again.

“Hi,” I said to the woman at the Alitalia counter. “I flew here from Rome a few days ago, and I don’t have my luggage. Is there any chance it’s here somewhere?”

“Actually, yes, there is a chance,” she said in an American accent. “We have a whole bunch of bags in the back room.”

I handed her my claim tickets, and she went back to look for my stuff. She was in the back office for a quiet a while. I hoped she was actually looking.

Finally she emerged with one of my bags in her hands.

“That’s my bag!” I said.

She smiled.

She had found the bag with my laptop and camera inside, the one that was supposed to be my carry-on bag, the one they forced me to check in Beirut. If I could choose only one of my two bags to get back, it would have been that one. The other just had clothes and other easily replaceable items inside.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” I said.

“You are quite welcome,” she said. “And I’m sorry about all this trouble.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “It isn’t your fault. I’m just glad to have this bag back. This one has all my valuables in it.”

“There is another flight coming in an hour or so,” she said. “Check back in two hours and we’ll see if your second bag has arrived.”

I felt fifty pounds lighter, and greatly relieved that Alitalia’s staff in Chicago was so much more pleasant to deal with than Alitalia’s staff in Rome’s airport.

I came back two hours later. The woman who had helped me earlier had been replaced with another.

A handful of people stood in line ahead of me. The young man at the front of the line – who was, I believe, from Mexico – wanted to know if his luggage had arrived.

“We don’t have any luggage here,” the Alitalia woman said in an Italian accent.

I felt like I had just been whisked back to Rome. I knew this woman was lying. The whole back office was full of luggage. I had seen the pile myself, and one of my own bags had just been retrieved from that pile by her American co-worker.

“There’s a ton of luggage back there,” I said. I held up my bag so that everybody could see. “Your co-worker found this bag back there just over an hour ago.”

The woman was stunned. She hadn’t seen me before. She had no idea I had already been to that counter, no idea that her co-worker had already helped me, no idea that I knew she was lying.

“Well!” she said. “This man’s luggage isn’t back there.”

“How would you know if you haven’t looked?” the man from Mexico said.

“I just know!” the woman said. “I’m here by myself and I am very stressed out. Go home! Go home and we’ll ship your luggage to you when we can.”

“I need my luggage today,” the man said. “I have medicine in there that my mother needs.”

“Go home!” the woman said. “I know it’s easier for you to get it right now, but it’s easier for me if we ship it to you.”

The man left empty handed and muttered something in Spanish under his breath.

My second checked bag arrived at my house a month later. It had been left outside for days in Rome’s winter rains. All my clothing was covered in mold.

Alitalia owes me 600 Euros, plus damages. They’ll never pay it.

Post-script: Exposing ethically bankrupt corporations isn’t part of my regular job, but sometimes things happen, and this is a public service. If this warning is worth something to you, or even if you merely found it entertaining to read, please consider a donation. And stay tuned for a series of dispatches from Beirut and Baghdad.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at March 13, 2009 7:47 AM
Comments

It's the second time I read about your bad adventure on Alitalia and you have all the reasons to complain
Just remember that they're going through hard times and December was the worst period because there was the passage between the old company and the new one
Having some mercy is a human requirement, not only divine

Posted by: Balqis Author Profile Page at March 13, 2009 8:15 AM

Michael,

That was painful to read. My blood pressure shot up with each new paragraph.

Balgis,

Oh, come on. This isn't just about one Italian company. This is about Italians. Twenty-five years ago, when I first lived in Europe, I remember taking a train from Germany over the Alps to Italy. The very concept of punctuality and service changed once I transferred to an Italian train in Milan. I recall our train sitting on the rails for hours after our scheduled departure time. No one told us what was wrong. The Italians just sat there, while the other Europeans were fuming. I recognized every twist and turn of Michael's story, having already dealt with Italians back then.

As Michael makes clear, this story is mainly about how Italian workers will do anything not to take responsibility at their jobs. Why are they like that? I'd like to hear someone explain that.

Posted by: Jeffrey Author Profile Page at March 13, 2009 8:51 AM

Thanks for finally getting to this saga. My experience in Italy was that worrying about a delayed train was wasted energy as the connecting train would be late too and everything would work out. My conclusion would not have been so rosy if I had shared your experienced. It read like a suspense thriller. The most unconscionable act was the forced checking of your carry-on. The Alitalia employee who conspired to maximize your suffering displayed a sinister antipathy to an innocent stranger in order to cause bigger problems for the company being struck against. It is not unlike the morality of terrorists toward innocents.

I've experienced total lack of empathy from French railroad and airline employees who place more value in worker fraternite than common decency and I can't help but conclude that socialism is the real culprit. When "from each according to his ability; to each according to his need" rules, then every fellow human is a source of resentment rather than a source of value. No one will work to satisfy a customer more eagerly than a greedy capitalist of the laissez-faire variety who does not have the option of using government favoritism to prevent competitors from providing customers with a go-to-hell option.

I certainly hope Balqis's mention of mercy is intended as a reproach to the Alitalia employees who showed none of it. I would love to learn about it if there is some strange face-saving aspect to Italy's Latin culture that makes lying a better option than explaining why they can't help you, regardless of whether or not they care.

Posted by: Matthew M Author Profile Page at March 13, 2009 8:59 AM

Balqis,

Judging by your blog, it seems as if you're an Italian-born, ex-Christian, neo-Muslim supporter of Putin and now living in Oman.

Huh?

Posted by: Jeffrey Author Profile Page at March 13, 2009 9:33 AM

This is why I am a libertarian. A company like this should be out of business. I'd be careful, though, because information like this could be useful to terrorists.
"A whole airline company run by incompetent jackasses? They'll never stop us!"

Posted by: James Author Profile Page at March 13, 2009 10:56 AM

I am Italian and I can tell you I refuse to fly with Alitalia no mater what the prices are (for over 10 years now). I can tell you that this airline is a poster child for what happens to a company when its continually propped up by the government, and when the labor unions are essentially in charge. This is also a window into a lot of what is wrong in Italy today, there is no recourse against people/companies that have wronged you (unless its a serious criminal offense).
Michael, having myself grown up in Rome, I'm sorry you had such a negative experience. I wish I could tell you it will be different next time, but I could only assure you of that if I came along and showed you around.

Posted by: blitzingdog Author Profile Page at March 13, 2009 11:21 AM

I don't mean to minimize the trauma, but you story sounds a lot like any given trip on United Airlines.

Through Denver.

Posted by: Larry Sheldon Author Profile Page at March 13, 2009 11:55 AM

Amazing.

I've been reading your work for several years now, and this might be your most amazing story yet. I'd never have believed that an epic saga of failure like this could have sprung from any Western company.

If it weren't for your credibility, I'd have assumed this entire piece was a creative writing exercise.

No shit, though - I will never, ever, EVER fly an Alitalia flight based on this piece. Not only that, but I'm crossing Rome off my "list of places I want to see before I die". Tokyo can take a step up!

Posted by: Nate Francis Author Profile Page at March 13, 2009 4:20 PM

A valuable public service on Michael's part. If I do make it to the art in Florence before I die I'll book carefully.

I'm reminded of
1. a conversation I had with a canadian woman in an american hospital; beyond the inefficiency at home, she described the callous indifference she and her husband experienced, which ultimately convinced them to spend much more for his care outside their country's system.
2. A group of soviet era grocers who came to the States, complaining about the "inefficiency" inherent in offering consumers a variety of choices. I realized then that their notion of power and mine were world's apart.
3. Same period: ABC tv's show "20/20" did a piece on going to Moscow late in the month---after quotas had been met, the warning being to wave a carton of cigarettes if you need a cab. And, of course, allow for the extra luggage to hold the bribes.

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at March 13, 2009 4:58 PM

Alitalia killed that poor lady's cat?

I've heard and experienced some pretty nasty travel stories, but this one has to win some sort of prize. (Well, except for the ceiling collapse that killed four at Charles de Gaulle. That was always a nasty place, even before that happened.)

I'll still go to Italy, but I won't take Alitalia.

Posted by: maryatexitzero Author Profile Page at March 13, 2009 5:44 PM

My brother flew Continental to Italy, but was transfered to an Italian airline for a connecting flight.

Of course the Italian airline lost his luggage, but they told him it would be in the airport the next day. The next day, they told him it would take 1 more day. They said the same thing three times. The first 3 days of his 7 day visit he spent at the airport. When he did get his bags, his camera and several other valuables were taken.

He filed a claim but never heard back from either Continental or the Italian airline itself. He did not waste any time taking it any futhur. Disgraceful. Glad you got some of your keys items back Michael. I don't care how many security checks I have to go through, my camera equipment, lenses and laptop is carry on only.

Posted by: pj48 Author Profile Page at March 13, 2009 6:11 PM

This is why I am a libertarian. A company like this should be out of business. I'd be careful, though, because information like this could be useful to terrorists.
"A whole airline company run by incompetent jackasses? They'll never stop us!"
Posted by: James Author Profile Page at March 13, 2009 10:56 AM

Heck, I hope they do choose this airline. They'll never get off the ground.:)

Posted by: Kevin Author Profile Page at March 13, 2009 7:30 PM

Yes Jeffrey my dear,

that's my profile and am proud of it

huh
Am not a neocon, sorry to disappoint you

Posted by: Balqis Author Profile Page at March 13, 2009 7:50 PM

Balqis: Am not a neocon, sorry to disappoint you

Are only neocons are opposed to Vladimir Putin in your view?

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at March 13, 2009 8:12 PM

Good point, Kevin. Attention terrorists: Alitalia is totally the best airline for getting off the ground quickly! Its so great, that you can announce your intentions to the airport terminal before you take off because there is literally no chance you will be stuck there longer than you are scheduled to!"

Posted by: James Author Profile Page at March 13, 2009 11:50 PM

Michael, I really feel for you. Truthfully, I have to congratulate you on being relatively calm, considering the contempt and disrespect you experienced. Talk about "Ugly Italians"...

If it was me, I think I would have reverted back to my ghetto hood days. Shit would have been thrown around, tables overturned, computer screens smashed and that would just be my wife being pissed. She could be a real bitch if she had to spend EXTRA DAYS away from our kids. LOL!

Great story, it was a nice diversion.

Posted by: PeteDawg Author Profile Page at March 14, 2009 12:11 AM

That is terrifying. For me, no matter where I travel, even in the Middle East-- AIRPORTS are the most stressful places to be.

I don't have a fear of flying. I have an extreme fear of not flying.

Posted by: jachapin Author Profile Page at March 14, 2009 1:17 AM

This brought back terrible terrible memories for me. My wife is Russian and we tried to have our honeymoon in Italy. Although she was a permanent resident in Britain, she didn't have a visa for Italy. Most of the interactions we had with Italians are exactly as you described: utterly amoral, without mercy, without shame, without human caring, obnoxious, haughty, snobbish, lazy and mendacious without ceasing. We vowed after two and a half days not getting into Italy that we would never ever try to do it again. We haven't. Italy is a beautiful country occupied by liars and hard-hearted cheats.

Posted by: PresterJohn Author Profile Page at March 14, 2009 2:27 AM

I remember a joke from the 70s.... but it seems to have lost none of its resonance today:

Q: How can you spot an Alitalia airplane at distance?

A: It's the one with hair under its wings.

Posted by: Microraptor Author Profile Page at March 14, 2009 5:52 AM

"Are only neocons are opposed to Vladimir Putin in your view? "

Obviously not
In general those who want to isolate Russia and rule the world with their double standards, are against Putin and report lies against him
I'd just be curious to know from Jeffrey what background [apart my Italian passport] has to do with my comment on this post
I just wanted to highlight the fact that of course your experience was terrible, but there's always another side of the coin, which is the most serious issue and that you often forget to report
About the stereotype of the lazy and messy Italians, yes some of us are, but remains a stereotype

Posted by: Balqis Author Profile Page at March 14, 2009 9:20 AM

Balqis,

Going through hard times? We all go through hard times. What makes us human is the ability to deal with it and treat others as we would like to be treated, not take it out on others.

Posted by: pacwaters Author Profile Page at March 14, 2009 9:49 AM

Balqis,

I found your personal background very intriguing. Why and when did you convert to Islam? What about Islam attracted a 40-year-old single Italian woman to convert? And, as a Muslim, how can you support Putin, knowing his record on dealing with Muslims inside Russia? Pardon me, but there seem to be some internal inconsistencies in your basic views.

And why did you throw out that "neocon" red flag? What in my comments suggest that I am a neocon? I only talked about terrible customer service in Italy, which has been going on far longer than there have been "neocons" in Washington.

Posted by: Jeffrey Author Profile Page at March 14, 2009 9:53 AM

The mental image of an angry African hoisting an Italian cop over his shoulder and walking away... Too bad nobody got pictures of that!

Posted by: gus3 Author Profile Page at March 14, 2009 12:23 PM

Balqis and the rest,

Let me clarify. My complaints are about Italians working in customer-service positions, NOT all Italians. On a very different trip through Italy a few years later, my girlfriend of the time lost all our money as we were crossing the Alps (long story). Anyway, we rolled into Milan with no money.

The Italian woman in the compartment with us heard us talking and told us not to worry; she would buy us tickets to our next destination. At the main train station in Milan -- the same one where the train had sat for hours a few years earlier -- she ran to the counter with us and bought the two of us one-way tickets to Perugia, where we had a friend and would be able to get some more money. We tried to get her address to send her the money, but she refused. She just smiled and that we better run to catch our connecting local train. An Italian angel. I'll never forget her.

*

Posted by: Jeffrey Author Profile Page at March 14, 2009 2:54 PM

pacwaters

you must read about the whole Alitalia adventure [and is many years ]to come to the conclusion that its workers are in a nightmare

Jeffrey

not sure what you find intriguing in my story
I converted to Islam in 2001 after understanding is the only true religion
I don't know about Putin record with Muslims in Russia : tell me about it and then we talk
About the neocon flag, hmmm do you want honest answer or nice one ?
Ok I'll go for the first
You shot my profile for no apparent reason, I tried to do the same to pay back
That's all my mind could give birth to, at 6am :P

Posted by: Balqis Author Profile Page at March 14, 2009 8:14 PM

Absolutely the best-written worst airline story I've ever read of. Thank you, Michael.

Posted by: Solomon2 Author Profile Page at March 14, 2009 9:07 PM

Michael,

Your story is so ... nostalgic. :)

Let me see.

Alitalia is state run company, right?
There is no other Italian company to compete with Alitalia, right?
Employee job security is guarantied by state and trade union, right?
Then what should we expect really? Welcome to socialism.

Balgis, Putin is primitive hood and not much else.

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at March 14, 2009 10:49 PM

Tough shit... I wish I could say that I read this whole post but the truth is that almost this exact thing happened to me with Iberia Airlines in Spain while flying from Israel to America, so the story is all too familiar with me. Congratulations on being out of that awful mess.

Posted by: beeaar Author Profile Page at March 15, 2009 9:35 AM

Also, when this happened to me, I didn't see my luggage for a week. Iberia tried to convince me that I somehow checked it in with Amsterdam Airlines, despite never flying through Amsterdam.

Posted by: beeaar Author Profile Page at March 15, 2009 9:42 AM

MJT, you should try and get this published in the New York Times, or one of the major dailies. As a story it definitely has the potential, and the world should be made aware of this practically criminal enterprise called Alitalia.

Posted by: MarkC Author Profile Page at March 15, 2009 10:07 AM

Though I can't say I'm sorry that the American wearing the keffiyeh got put through the wringer. Maybe next time he'll fly El Al.

Posted by: MarkC Author Profile Page at March 15, 2009 10:32 AM

OK, my monthly subscription was just paid for when I read the "fuck you" reply to the airline agent! I laughed for a couple minutes. I know it sucked for you, but man that made for a hell of a story. And I'll be sure never to fly with Alitalia if I ever go to Italy.

Posted by: DrJonz Author Profile Page at March 15, 2009 11:44 AM

I thought waiting an extra hour on the tracks with no explanation somewhere north of Genoa — my welcome to Italy — was bad. Thank goodness I didn't fly into or out of it! For those avoiding Florence or Rome because of this story, you shouldn't. There are fine airports in the countries surrounding Italy. Go into Nice and enjoy the French and/or Italian Riviera, for example; you might find it even more enjoyable than the more historic interior. And the cheapo airlines can take you from London or Dublin — which are usually much cheaper to fly into anyway — straight to many Italian cities. I don't know how their Italian employees are, but I'd much rather deal with the quirks of Heathrow than even a tenth of what was described here.

By the way, I think it's worse if the pilots are incompetent than the employees are; there are many airlines with horrible safety records — in addition to incompetent staff — that better qualify as "The Worst Airline Company in the World." (Brazil's TAM Airlines is one infamous example.) Better five days of hell than a pile of rubble.

Posted by: calbear Author Profile Page at March 15, 2009 12:50 PM

Though I can't say I'm sorry that the American wearing the keffiyeh got put through the wringer. Maybe next time he'll fly El Al.

I have a friend who recoils every time she sees some idiot over here with a keffiyeh. It doesn't exact scream "intelligent" for a Westerner to look chic by showing solidarity with a corrupt terrorist regime personified by Arafat — who reintroduced the world to killing foreigners for the "crime" of being Jewish — and his keffiyeh.

Posted by: calbear Author Profile Page at March 15, 2009 12:56 PM

Alitalia is truly dreadful. The only European international airline that's worse is Iberia. They're right up there with Alitalia. It's like a third world mentality with these people. Truly pathetic for people who call themselves European.

Posted by: Carlos Author Profile Page at March 15, 2009 2:21 PM

Alitalia is definitely the worst. They lost my luggage in Milan and wouldn't even ship it. They gave me a choice to pick it up in one of the two airports, each 200 miles away from the place I was staying. And I had to spend hours with customs guys to get it. But it wasn't nearly as bad as your story, that's for sure.

Posted by: LB Author Profile Page at March 15, 2009 3:05 PM

I also had an evil experience with Alitalia a couple of years ago. I booked flights on Alitalia to go to Israel via Milan. A couple of days before my flight was supposed to leave Boston, I discovered wholly by accident that it had been cancelled. They didn't trouble themselves to let me know. I called them up and was able to rebook my flight for a couple of days later. I did actually succeed in flying to and from Israel via Alitalia but vowed never to fly the airline again. The flight attendants were rude and the airplane was filthy. When I suggested cleaning the bathrooms they looked at me as if I had suggested that they scrub with toothbrushes. While I was in Israel I read that the airline was basically bankrupt and that the government was trying to sell it - something they've obviously failed to do. No one should ever fly on Alitalia again - and it's not a matter of having mercy for an airline, but of expecting normal service. For heaven's sake, even Turkish Air was better (even though they basically extorted an extra $90 out of me on another trip coming back from Israel to the U.S.). At least they were polite, the plane was clean, and the food was good.

Posted by: Argaman Author Profile Page at March 15, 2009 4:19 PM

Ah, Alitalia.

I remember ten years ago, traveling with a group of friends from Amsterdam to Sicily. Things started to go wrong on check-in. We were with a group of 19. 13 had already been checked in. 6 of us were still waiting. It took half an hour. The guy behind the counter had started sweating. When he finally managed to get two seats -- any seats -- he quickly booked me and a friend in business class. We were quite pleased with that.

We boarded the plane, and the rest was sitting in the back, in economy. We had seats a couple of rows apart and asked if people wanted to switch so we could sit next to each other. We finally got two other people who didn't mind, so we were in completely different rows and seats than where we originally had seats.

Two Italian businessmen (in fur coats and golden Gucci sunglasses) got in the plane (no seats were left), gesticulating aggressively, arguing with the stewardess and waving hand written boarding passes. Obviously, they'd been told they couldn't make the flight. Obviously, they didn't believe the crew. Obviously, they had found out their seats had been given away to economy passengers.

The stewardess went to our original seats and asked the people sitting there -- the ones that had allowed us to switch with them -- "did you pay for business class?". Of course, they actually had. She turned around triumphantly to the angry businessmen making a "see? told you" kind of gesture. They left fuming. I'm sorry to say that my friend and I weren't gracious enough to give up our seats to them -- knowing Alitalia (yes, they've always been the same) we would never have arrived :P

So, we were happy. We arrived on time in Sicily, travelling business class.

But if you've read this and done the math, there were 6 of us in trouble. 2 of us got in on business class. The other 4 however...

...had been booked to Brussels, since our flight was over-booked, on the rationale that Brussels at least was closer to Sicily. (Yes. Some 125 miles closer).

Arriving in Brussels, the planes to Italy were fully booked. They were re-booked on a plane to Paris. (Since that's closer to Sicily than Brussels, obviously. Yes. Another 200 miles closer).

In Paris, they managed to catch a flight to Milan. At least, that was seriously closer to Sicily.

Finally, from Milan, they got a flight to Rome.

From Rome, they got a flight to Catania, Sicily.

In between, they kept calling us to inform us where they were. They had a football with them and ambitiously claimed they were going to play all of Europe's airports. They got very close to achieving that dream :P

Amazingly, they only arrived some 10 hours later than we did. With all of their luggage, as well. In the end, it was just a funny anecdote, and they had managed to turn it into an adventure ("we had Belgian beer in Brussels, but of course, in Paris, we had wine").

But it's that kind of off-the-cuff "book them to somewhere vaguely in the right direction so at least they're off our back" that makes an airline like Alitalia completely break down when more than just a couple of passengers are in trouble.

However, they're not alone in that respect. You start to appreciate good, solid, courteous airlines the more you fly, and I book them even if they're more expensive (the difference is usually little more than €100 anyway). They're getting rarer and rarer though.

Posted by: Adriaan Bloem Author Profile Page at March 15, 2009 6:36 PM

Hey Michael, how dare you post this when glasnost probably wants you to post on something else more important to glasnost? LOL

Really, though, how teh suxx0r. Maybe some kindly Alitalia mope let the beastie out of its cage in time. Tsk tsk.

Posted by: Nichevo Author Profile Page at March 15, 2009 8:30 PM

I've never flown Alitalia before, but I will say that Romans are a species all by themselves. Most of the bad traits (and good) of Italians squared. Or cubed. I love the country, but I'd never live anywhere near Rome.

Posted by: jasonholliston Author Profile Page at March 16, 2009 2:08 PM

Alitalia was responsible for the most delicious coach class airline meal I've ever enjoyed, a lovely pasta and salmon dish about four years ago when I flew from Tel Aviv to Milan.

Posted by: NG Author Profile Page at March 17, 2009 8:35 AM

1. You know the term "Italian Strike"? It means, since you can't really go on strike, that you will show up at work, but something that takes two minutes you'll do in an hour or two.

2. I agree that lying was wrong, but I don't know if I can't understand the ones who just did not answer. If they are not the ones making the decision, it might be better for them to be quiet and suffer some abuse, than pass on the truly bad news and suffer a lot of it.

3. I laughed a lot by the end of the post.

4. The term you're looking for is "Kafkaesque" ;)

Posted by: Guy Shalev Author Profile Page at March 17, 2009 10:41 AM

When I flew to Nairobi in '81 Sabena was just as bad (all I lost was a foldable yardstick, but that was part of my equipment as an archaeologist, and I don't know if it was lost in Boston or coming off the plane in Kenya. I presume it was not lost in Zurich.)
I flew Alitalia from New York to Rome in '86 and of course they were late and we missed the local flight to Sardinia. Denia, who was familiar with Europe, got us all a taxi into Rome and we stayed the night at a pansion, walked around Rome, and made it to Cagliari the next day.
She was also careful to tell us to tip service people for doing their job, like changing money at the bank (you should have tried to bribe the person in Lebanon to let you take your luggage as a carry-on. It might have worked.)
Part of the reason for the hostility expressed by a number of the "service" personnel was that they were helpless, frustrated themselves, and were probably thinking: "What do you expect of you go on this shitty airline?".

Soon you will be able to enjoy equal service at American hospitals under Obamacare.

Posted by: bigger Author Profile Page at March 17, 2009 2:16 PM

Alitalia is just the extreme example that reminds us, "If you have time to spare, go by air!"

Posted by: Kummin Author Profile Page at March 18, 2009 6:38 AM

OMG, this is unreal. I have my own Alitalia horror story to share - I flew to Israel with my family around last Christmas for a family wedding - but it is nothing close to this!
Despite our messy connection in Rome, we actually weren't that late to Tel Aviv, but two of our three bags did not arrive. One was delivered to the apartment that we were staying at less than 24 hours before our departure back to the States, and the other bag was picked up right at the airport on the way back. There were so many people whose bags were lost. It was just crazy, but, obviously, not as crazy as your story.

Posted by: Random Author Profile Page at March 18, 2009 6:14 PM

Read your ordeal through a link from RickSeaney.com

My family is in the travel agent business and what I can tell you from experience is that not all hope is lost re a compensation.

Try
http://ec.europa.eu/transport/passengers/air/air_en.htm

for all EU rules and regulations.

There is a complaint form that you have to send both to the airline and the competent authority. Use a fax instead of email and follow up a few days later by sending through regular signed-for post. Email is easier to ignore.

Also most credit card companies do have flight insurance bens attached so you might try your luck there as well.

Competent Authority in Italy

L’Ente Nazionale per l’Aviazione Civile
Viale del Castro Pretorio, 118
IT - 00185 ROME
Tel. : +39 06 44596-1
Fax : +39 06 44596331
cartadiritti@enac.rupa.it

Posted by: medcruise Author Profile Page at March 20, 2009 1:33 AM

This story is very timely for me. I'm going to Beirut this summer to improve my Arabic, and now I know not to fly Alitalia, no matter how cheap it is.

Posted by: Marlo Author Profile Page at March 20, 2009 9:36 AM

Alitalia used to be OK. Continuous strikes by spoiled brat labor unions killed it.

Posted by: imdangol Author Profile Page at March 26, 2009 7:41 PM

Geeze Louise! Talk about dodging a bullet. We left Rome on December 28....4 days after your nightmare. We knew we were in trouble when we landed (on December 21) and my husband and sons reported that the urinals in the men's restroom were "out of order."

We were originally booked on an AirOne flight from Rome to Belgium (where we had booked nonrefundable train tickets to Paris). AirOne canceled their flight (before we left the U.S.) and re-booked us on an Alitalia flight. When we got to the airport (fortunately, 4 hours early), the Alitalia flight had been canceled.

They tried to rebook us on a flight leaving in the evening, through Milan (which would have resulted in us missing our train in Brussels).

We were a party of six, traveling with our near-adult children. I went into full-mommy appeal. The Alitalia employee was about my age and clearly a mother, too. After giving her desperate puppy-dog, pleading eyes for an hour, and explaining that we didn't have money to pay for train tickets AGAIN, and having us wait for two hours while they called their back office for permission, sending us on wild-goose-chases to other lines/airlines, they re-booked us on a direct flight to Paris (on a codeshrae flight operated by AirFrance)... That flight left only two hours later than its scheduled time.

I dealt with these people for 8+ hours, a nervous, freaked-out ninny the whole time, and had my finger on the 'reserve-car button' on my cell phone. If I had to deal with them for more than a day, as you did, I think I would have killed someone.

The only thing more difficult than dealing with Alitalia was the 3 hours we spent in an Italian post office, shipping two boxes home. If we hadn't maintained our sense of humor, feeling as if we were watching a dark, surreal/comedic spoof of a government bureaucracy gone mad, someone would have died. It's no surprise that that postal workers are kept safe behind bullet-proof glass. When we left, I said to my husband "We will never see those boxes again." Imagine my surprise when they arrived 4 weeks later.

Never again. I thought our experience was a death-defying act. Ours was nothing in comparison.

Posted by: Mrs. du Toit Author Profile Page at March 27, 2009 6:06 AM

Micheal,

That was just insane. Anyone but you telling a story like this, and I wouldn't buy it. Though I do wonder what happened with the police who showed up - whatever happened to the guy who picked up the cop?

Posted by: OmegaPaladin Author Profile Page at March 27, 2009 11:37 AM

You made one huge mistake. Repeatedly.

You should never have let anyone walk away from you without helping you. Stand in front of them. Block them. Shout: "don't let this guy get away without helping us."

Oh, and the response to the "It's easier for me" woman should have been "tough." Stand there, talk at her, do not let her leave, until she opens up the back. What's she going to do, call the cops, and tell them the customers are demanding she do her job?

Posted by: Greg Q Author Profile Page at March 27, 2009 2:04 PM

Michael,

A colleague of mine sent me your blog post after I explained to him this horrific story of my journey from Rome back to the US Christmas week. Turns out, I was to fly on the very same flight as you and I experienced most of what you detailed in your blog post - I was reliving it as I read your post. What a nightmarish experience. Thanks for documenting all of the craziness. Best of luck for future travels.

Posted by: LauraBPin Author Profile Page at June 1, 2009 1:10 PM

Having flown on/off with alitalia with increasing reluctance the story is of little real surprise; the fact that so many passengers got involved is possibly a newer phenomenon in Europe. In other continents from South Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America active and vocal passenger involvement is sometimes the only way to get a boarding card. One small crumb of comfort forgives them a lot - having been bumped off a KLM flight from Accra to Amsterdam (on a standby ticket) I approached Alitalia who were happy to take me to Rome. So far so good only of course in Rome I had no ticket in or out. Somewhat to my astonishment having talked to the ticket desk and gone for a think one of the staff listening in came over to me with a form, told me to be quick and that there was a flight for Amsterdam in 20 minutes. No ticket, no boarding pass, next stop Schipol. This was mind 1990s and am sure it less likely now but still gives me a warm glow. Even RyanAir are a better bet to Italy now.

Posted by: jrec149 Author Profile Page at July 23, 2009 6:12 AM

WOW! Thats an incredible story! You should consider reposting it to www.AirlineHorrorStories.com

Posted by: Hawker74 Author Profile Page at August 30, 2009 9:33 PM

There are several Latin American Airlines that make the Saga in Rome seem all too familiar. The Colombian carrier Avianca is one of them. Tam, Brazilian Airline is another, and the Venezuelan airline Avensa is yet another. Lan Chile, on the other hand, is a really good airline.

When I went to Colombia last year (my wife is Colombian) I flew on Avianca. The flight left Miami many hours late. Upon arrival in Baranquilla, the airport was closed. The customs officials had left, immigration was shut down, and no one was allowed to leave the airport without having cleared customs and immigration. We had to spend the night in the Waiting room, in uncomfortable chairs. Next morning, it took us two hours to clear Colombian customs and immigration.

Most of the passengers had connecting flights to other cities in Colombia, which they had missed because Avianca was late leaving Miami, and late arriving at Baranquilla. Avianca would not honor our tickets on the connecting flights, claiming it was not their fault the flight was late leaving Miaima. Bull shit! The flight we caught to Barranqula from Miami was late arriving in Miami from Cartagena. There was also a wait for a fresh flight crew to arrive for the flight to Colombia. But, Avianca would not recognize our connecting tickets. We were on our own. I had to spend $150 for a flight to Bogota. And my baggage arrived damaged, along with the baggage of most of the other passengers. There were several other Americans and a Canadianon that flight. We all started loosing it, and I, along with four other Americans, and the Canadian, wound up spending a day and a half in a Colombian jail after we all threatened to rip a second asshole for the Avianca manager. We only got out when the US Consul in Bogota intervened. He also helped the Canadian get out. No fun in Colombian jails.

Avensa is another horror story. Worse than Avianca, similar story to Avianca. I did not spend time in a Venezuelan jail, although several other Americans did, after threatening to rip the Avensa Airport manager a new asshole. While none of the Americans spoke Spanish, there were enough English speaking Venezuelans at the airport to understand the angry, foul language being screamed at the Avensa manager. I called the US Consul in Caracas, who came to the airport, and finally got me booked on another flight without having to pay for it. He also tried to get the other Americans out of jail.

Tam is just as bad as Avianca and Avensa. I had a similar experience with Tam that I had with Avianca, and it almost resulted in violence from the Brazilian passengers. I didn't go to jail in Brazil, but I was so angry I almost slugged a Tam counter person. Fortunately, several other Americans who were a little less angry than I was, restrained me.

I will never fly on Avianca, Avensa or Tam again. Avoid them like the plague!

Now, Lan Chile, that is a good airline! Have had wonderful experiences with them, flights on time, wonderful in flight service, polite airline employees. I would recommend Lan Chile to anyone flying to South America. I've only flown them three times, but really enjoyed the experience.

Hunter

Posted by: he Yorkiedad Author Profile Page at August 15, 2010 6:15 AM
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