Sunday, 25 April 2010

Home again, home again

I made it home to San Francisco Friday via Frankfurt and Washington, more or less on time. I was very glad not to have to take any of you up on your offers of hospitality if I were stuck in Europe longer. Many, many thanks for your generosity! (But really, if you have to be stranded somewhere, you could do a lot worse than Strasbourg, especially after the European Parliament has finished its monthly session and the hotel prices go back down.)

Long-haul flights were being given priority over intra-European flights, so I was fortunate that the Lufthansa flight from Strasbourg is operated by bus and I only had to worry about whether the Frankfurt-Washington flight would be allowed to operate around the plume of volcanic ash.

Frankfurt Airport was busy, of course, and all seats on my flights were full, but there were no longer any obvious crowds of stranded travellers encamped in the airport — just long lines of us headed home.

Even making allowances for the situation, however, both Frankfurt Airport and Lufthansa were surprisingly inefficient and disorganized. For example, three different roving customer service representatives wearing large English-language buttons reading, “May I help you?” inspected my boarding pass and steered me (and a hundred or more others) into the wrong line where we waited for half an hour before discovering that we were actually supposed to be waiting in a different (and only slightly shorter) line.

Airlines weren’t in control of the situation, and Lufthansa was pretty good — better than many if not most airlines, from what I could tell — at keeping passengers informed by e-mail and on their Web site as to the status of their flights. No airline was able to keep up with the flood of telephone inquiries, and on the flight to Washington I sat next to a couple, coming from a small town in Kazakhstan without reliable Internet access, who had to leave at 2 a.m. to drive two hours to the airport in Astana without having been able to get any information, even from Lufthana’s Astana office, as to whether their flight would operate at all.

In general, travel companies other than airlines did a remarkably bad job of communicating about the situation with travellers and their worried friends, families, and business associates back home. Here are my nominations for the best and worst travel p.r. of the week:

Worst: On Wednesday, at the height of the crisis, as I began to wonder whether I would get to Frankfurt to find my trans-Atlantic flight cancelled, and if so where I would stay and what I would do, I got this unhelpful p.r. spam from the Frankfurt Tourist Board:

Experience the magic of nature - easily and economically!

There is a region situated in the middle of Germany, where the Rhine and Main rivers meet, perfect for almost all the outdoor activities you can imagine - it is called Frankfurt Rhine-Main. Recreational activities are plentiful in the Frankfurt Rhine-Main region. Apart from having numerous opportunities for outdoor activities like hiking, biking, water sports and golf, it is also an oasis where visitors can enjoy great food and wine, admire half-timbered houses and beautiful countryside ranging from rare volcano and stalagmite caves to the idyllic river landscapes of the Rhine and Main.

“Volcano caves”? Just what I needed. It went on is this vein for several pages, with no information whatsoever about the status of operations at the airport, what (if any) hotels were still available or at what prices, what emergency accommodations were being provided for the ten thousand or more stranded travellers waiting for flights from Frankfurt to resume, or what it might be possible to do to make the most of time stuck in the vicinity.

I wrote back immediately to request practical information for me and my readers, but never received any answer.

Best: On Friday, I got this alert from the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau:

The following museums will provide complimentary admission/tickets to UK passport holders stranded in Los Angeles as a result of the cancellation of airline flights because of the recent Iceland volcano, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, April 23-25, 2010…. Attractions in Los Angeles including Craft & Folk Art Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Peterson Automotive Museum, The Page Museum At La Brea Tar Pits.

Starline Tours will also provide UK passport holders with sightseeing tours of Hollywood and Los Angeles. Two tour buses will pick up these travelers today at 1:30 p.m. at Radisson Hotel at Los Angeles Airport…

I’m stumped as to why this offer was limited to UK passport holders, to the exclusion of other stranded European travellers, but it stood out as the only effort of its sort I heard about.

I’ll have more on the short, medium, and long-term fall-out for future travellers from the volcanic ash crisis, and the extraordinary discussion on aviation and travel policy in the European Parliament last Tuesday, after I’ve caught up on some of my sleep.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 25 April 2010, 05:03 ( 5:03 AM)

The National Trust in the UK was offering free entry to its historic properties for stranded travellers ('not really the most immediate thing they need', was the general reaction here) - maybe the LA offer was reciprocation for that?

Posted by: hampshireflyer, 27 April 2010, 11:01 (11:01 AM)

By blind luck, we had picked April 23 for our flight home (from London) after six weeks overseas. That happened to be the first day that all scheduled flights from Heathrow were supposed to take off. Ours certainly did. The airport did not seem unusually crowded, and the flight to Newark appeared to have a few empty seats. I wasn't happy that the starboard-side seats I'd carefully picked, when I printed boarding passes the day before, metamorphosed, when we got to the airport, into port-side seats much further back. That, and the meager food service (for which British Airways apologized) -- no tea-and-sandwiches just prior to landing -- were my only complaints.

Posted by: Harold Burstyn, 28 April 2010, 18:46 ( 6:46 PM)
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