Posted by: patenttranslator | September 13, 2015

If You Crave the Genuine Refugee Experience, Try Flying Delta through Atlanta When It Rains

Empty Delta workstations at Atlanta Airport on the left

Empty Delta workstations at Atlanta Airport

 
“Ladies and gentlemen, this airplane is being diverted to another airport. In a few minutes, we’ll be landing at the airport in Augusta, Georgia,” said the captain’s voice from the speakers. At first I thought it was a joke, especially since the diminutive Vietnamese lady sitting in the seat next to me was smiling at me just as sweetly as before. But it was no joke, and she was smiling because she didn’t understand English very well.

After a few minutes we landed at a tiny airport in the middle of green countryside. We were told that we were free to get off the plane but if we had checked luggage, it would continue to the ultimate destination – without us. And that there would be absolutely no connections to other destinations from this airport. Despite the threat, or maybe because of it, I saw that some people were getting off the plane and walking to the main building, probably to try to rent a car.

But I couldn’t have rented a car to my destination from Augusta, GA, because my destination was the Third IAPTI Conference in Bordeaux, France. IAPTI stands for International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters, and I had to get there on time because I was one of the speakers at the conference.

As the plane full of nervous, angry and fearful passengers sat on a tarmac runway in Augusta, GA, for over an hour, the diminutive Vietnamese lady deftly appointed me her designated interpreter. I do not speak Vietnamese, but she may have somehow intuited my profession and decided to communicate with an incomprehensible world through me. When she asked me the second time: “We go Atlanta?” I did get the meaning of the three words, which sounded like Vietnamese to me, including the rising and falling tones typical of that pretty language. So I put the palms of my hands together to indicate a Buddhist or Christian prayer (I was going more or less for the Dalai Lama pose). The Vietnamese lady smiled again and nodded her understanding. Then she called somebody and gave me the phone. “My Daughter in Dallas,” she said. I was slowly getting used to her accent by now, although the word “Dallas” was understandable only after she showed me her transfer ticket. So I explained what was going on in English to her daughter and gave the phone back to her so that she could finally receive an explanation in Vietnamese.

After more than an hour of waiting, the airplane finally took off heading back to Atlanta. Upon arrival, I immediately started looking for TV terminals with information about flight delays, hoping against hope that I would perhaps somehow still be able to make it to Brussels that evening. But within a few minutes I realized that since everybody’s flight was delayed due to an earlier rain shower over Atlanta, everybody was sent somewhere else and their flights had to be rebooked. Many people on domestic flights may have been able to catch another plane within a few hours, but people on international flights were not so lucky. After I took the train from the domestic terminal to the international one, I discovered that I would have to wait in a long line of tired and despondent people zigzagging through a dreary waiting hall area.

Only some of the available workstations were manned by Delta agents who were taking their time rebooking travelers from missed international flights. Although there were about 15 workstations available, six of them were closed, see photo above, which meant that progress in the long waiting line was very slow. Fortunately, the man standing in front of me was a German engineer from Bosch whose job was to install Bosch machinery in different cities in the United States. Since I’ve been translating Bosch patents for many years, I was able to ask him a number of questions about his job during the almost two hours that we both spent waiting in line.

The travelers were tired, nervous and grumpy, but the Delta agents were relaxed. You could tell that rebooking travelers who have missed their flights and sending them to hotels in Atlanta was something they were used to, routine for them. Another indication that this was no emergency for Delta Airlines was the fact that the company did not even bother to open the remaining workstations in the booking section, probably because it didn’t want to pay additional overtime to more agents. It’s cheaper to simply let dead-tired and nervous people wait another hour to find out their fate, especially since at that point they’re so demoralized that they’re unlikely to protest.

When It Rains It’s Obviously Your Fault So You Have to Pay for Your Own Damn Hotel

When I finally made it to an agent, it was already after midnight. I was told that I would be flying next day, about 24 hours later than originally scheduled, and that they would give me a voucher for a discounted hotel in Atlanta. That was how she put it. When I asked the agent whether Delta would pick up the tab for the hotel, she told me that Delta pays for a hotel in situations like this only if the delay is the company’s fault. And since it was raining, the delay was obviously my fault, not Delta’s fault, and therefore I had to pay for accommodation myself. She said the cost of the discounted hotel was 69 dollars, but it turned out that the real price that I had to pay was 85 dollars (including tax). The discount at the “discounted hotel” was 10 dollars, the hotel desk clerk later said, the same discount that I always get at any hotel. Whenever I ask at a hotel whether they have a discount for me, I always get 10 dollars off the listed price, usually the senior citizen discount.

I was hardly in a position to argue with the Delta agent, so I just stood there waiting for the computer to accept my new itinerary; tired, hungry, thirsty, sweaty and dirty. At that point I had only made it from Norfolk to Atlanta, which is probably less than 500 miles.

“Airline Victims” from Delayed and Rebooked Flights Are an Important Source of Revenue for Airport Hotels

When I finally had my new tickets in hand, I was sent to find a shuttle bus to my hotel – not an easy task at a huge airport. Once I exited the airport, I found a number of shuttle buses at the transportation hub in front of the airport; among them were a few that were run by cheerful black drivers who were patiently waiting for “Delta victims” (as the drivers themselves jokingly put it) to make their way through the airport to their buses, without any assistance from Delta. One of the drivers was from Nigeria (I recognized his accent because I used to have a Nigerian housemate in San Francisco) and the rest sounded like locals judging from their Southern accents.

Since my pajamas were somewhere at some airport, I had to sleep naked, but Delta did give me a small bag with a tiny toothpaste container which didn’t even have enough toothpaste in it for even one brushing, and a blunt razor that didn’t do much for my appearance when I tried to use it to shave in the morning. When I took the shuttle bus back to the airport the next day in the afternoon, the driver told me that what happened to me is a frequent occurrence at the Atlanta airport not only when it rains, but also when it snows. It clearly is a good way for hotels near the airport to maintain a healthy occupancy rate, and for bus drivers to be gainfully employed, so nobody really seems to mind the frequent occurrences of interrupted travel at the Atlanta airport. The travelers themselves do mind, I am sure, when they suddenly find that their plane has been diverted to a different airport. But there is nothing they can do about it as they are totally at the mercy of the airport management and the airline.

The Fortune Cookie from my Chinese Lunch in Atlanta Did Not Tell the Truth

After wasting a full day in Atlanta, I was finally on my way to France the next day. Instead of going through Brussels, I went through Paris based on my new itinerary. I was hopeful that I had already had my share of calamities on the first leg of my journey from Norfolk to Atlanta, especially since the fortune cookie from my Kung Pao chicken lunch at the airport said, “Your luck will change from today”.

But that too turned out to be just wishful thinking.

I was sitting between two French guys during my flight with Air France from Atlanta to Paris. Unlike most other airlines, Air France generously offers free wine and cognac to all passengers. I asked for red wine twice, and for cognac once to help me forget the vicissitudes of my journey. The guy sitting next to me also had red wine twice, followed by two cognacs. But he shouldn’t have had the second cognac because after the lights were turned off as people were trying to get some sleep, he threw up. He was able to catch most of the copious amount of vomit that came out of his mouth into some kind of a bag, but not all of it, and even though he tried to wipe off the stinking mess from the floor beneath him and me as much as possible, the stench remained with me for the next six hours until I was finally able to get off the plane in Paris. He never met my eyes, and without saying anything, he just kept looking in the other direction. I never said anything to him either because I kind of felt sorry for him.

The fortune cookie failed to anticipate one more misfortune that befell Mad Patent Translator in France: I was able to make the connecting flight from Paris to Bordeaux, although just barely, but my baggage was lost. The only item of clothing that I had with me that was not quite disgustingly dirty was an extremely ugly T-shirt that I bought for 16 dollars (plus tax) at the Atlanta Airport (it may or may not have been slightly vomited on – I can’t be quite sure because that incident occurred when the airplane was plunged in darkness).

The fortune cookie from the Kung Pao lunch at the Atlanta airport must have been referring to better luck in the cards for me only after I arrived to the hotel in downtown Bordeaux where the conference was held.

I was surround by so many friendly faces of so many people in the lobby of the hotel, faces of people I have never met, although I recognized them from their Facebook pictures, saying, “Hi, Steve” to me, shaking my hand and hugging me in my garish, dirty, stinking T-shirt promoting the convenience of Atlanta airport in the hotel lobby that I was pretty sure that my luck would indeed change from that moment on, just as the fortune cookie predicted.

And my luck did finally change. Air France delivered my lost luggage to my hotel several hours later, I delivered my presentation to a room full of translators from several continents the next day, and I had a great time during the rest of the conference. I will have to describe my impressions from the IAPTI conference in another post because this one is too long already.

I realize that some people may object to my comparing in the title of my post today being stranded at Atlanta airport to being a refugee, which is a much more serious situation.

I happen to know from personal experience that being a real refugee is indeed a much more serious situation, partly because I myself was a real refugee many years ago when I was a young man as you can read in this post.

But precisely because I was at one point a refugee, I just couldn’t resist the comparison, political correctness be damned. If I am counting correctly, I have flown to Europe with Delta Airlines nine times in the last two decades or so. Out of these nine times, Delta Airlines managed to lose my luggage three times. Being without your luggage in a foreign city on another continent is more than just a little like being a refugee. To Delta’s credit, they always delivered the luggage either the next, or the same day in the case of France, to my hotel.

But at this point I am weary of taking Delta or even going through Atlanta. Next time when I go to Europe, I will try to take a different airline and I will try to arrange my flight to go through JFK, La Guardia, Newark, or Charlotte airport, especially since you can never tell whether it’s going to rain.

I don’t really need the kind of refugee experience that Delta Airlines is dishing out, apparently regularly and quite unscrupulously, to its paying customers.

Even though my journey to Bordeaux was full of obstacles and unexpected dangers and surprises, I know that despite the tragicomic flip-flops of my trip, the journey was well worth it. I am now raising in the comfort of my home a glass of Bordeaux wine to the success of the last IAPTI III Conference in France, while looking forward to the next conference of the real translators without borders to be held, hopefully next year, in a yet undetermined country and location.

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Responses

  1. Without wishing to laugh at others’ misfortunes, this line:

    “The only item of clothing that I had with me that was not quite disgustingly dirty was an extremely ugly T-shirt that I bought for 16 dollars (plus tax) at the Atlanta Airport (it may or may not have been slightly vomited on – I can’t be quite sure because that incident occurred when the airplane was plunged in darkness).”

    really had me laughing out loud.

    So glad you were finally delivered to us and we were able to meet.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. “Liked” for the engaging narrative, not for the events being narrated.

    I’m glad no-one was shooting at you and that you had a safe place to go where you were warmly welcomed – and a safe place to return to, this time.

    And next time it rains, you readers will all know whose fault it is!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m relieved to hear you won’t be giving up on international conferences just because of this bad experience. I was not the only one who was thrilled you made it to this one.

    On my trip back, the plane leaving Paris Orly airport for a connecting flight in London Heathrow was delayed by a mere 10 minutes. No big deal, I thought: my schedule ensured 65 minutes between my arrival and next departure. However, when I went to board the next plane, I was told our first flight arrived too late and I’d have to book a later flight. “How is that possible?!” I said. “All I’m doing is changing planes. There’s still 55 minutes before my next flight leaves, I have my boarding pass, my luggage is en route, what’s the problem?” All I got was a repetition of the first statement: our flight arrived too late and I’d have to book a later flight. I was pointed toward a desk with a clerk who does apparently does nothing else but rebook passengers who are told their flight arrived too late. He turned out to be a surprisingly honest fellow. “Oh, it’s completely our fault,” he admitted. “The airport has a rigid rule that there must be one hour, not a minute less, between an arriving flight and a connecting one. And we schedule all the flights close together so the public buys the ticket that promises the shortest connections. Since flights often don’t arrive on time, passengers end up having to wait hours more for the next flight, even overnight. It’s quite disgraceful, really.”

    And indeed I had to stay overnight. Since the fault lay with the airline’s late arrival, not the weather, at least I got the hotel and two meals free (they even threw in an enormous T-shirt to serve as a sort of pyjama). Unfortunately, it was too late to run in to see London, so I just crashed early, my inner clock being totally screwed up from jet lag and IAPTI gatherings that lasted late into the nights over the past week.

    But the fabulous success of the conference made any such annoyance pale by comparison…

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Dear patent translator. Love your blog and usually agree with everything! This time, not really 🙂

    Here in poor Southern Europe it is very hard to make a living as just translator, so I took up a job at the airport, seeing that I speak several languages. I only stayed a year as I hated it. But I lived every situation you describe as the person working at the aiport workstation.
    First of all, when things like this happened (and they are bound to happen, aviation is dependent on so many factors), yes it’s true, there weren’t enough workstations and the lines of people waiting were absolutely awful! But they didn’t open more workstations because there is no “extra staff”. They don’t keep people at home waiting for crisis situations. (I mean the job is not so easy, you actually have to learn a software and be comfortable with it so you can change flights and not mess up, so any trained staff that they have will have their own appointed shifts). So when shit happened, we had to stay extra hours, already tired from a shift (other option was the next shift was called in early). Having people yell at you when you are exhausted, hungry, have to go to the bathroom and not even supposed to be there, requires that one goes in a ZEN state. It is the only option. I was working at the aiport during the Vulcano ashes incident that stopped all flights and I literally started crying in the middle of talking to passengers from pure exhaustion. Then I learned to reach that zen state you describe. It’s survival.
    Second: everytime there were delays (bad weather, maintenance, strikes, you name it), passengers always demanded room and board. There were convinced they had the right to a hotel room. When we explained they didn’t (they rarely did, like 1% of the time, they yelled)
    There wouldn’t be many airlines if everytime there was a delay, the airline had to pay hotel rooms..they might as well change business. There’s a law with all the cases where an airline company is required to do that, and it doesn’t cover situations that are not the company’s fault.
    I’m not saying you yelled at the workers, I’m sure you didn’t, but your text brought back lots of memories….
    And another thing: ALWAYS keep some underwear in your hand luggage 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Having been delayed more times than I would care to remember (including on the way to and from the Bordeaux conference) I have learned one or two things. The minute you suspect a delay head like lightning to the customer service desk. You’ll be at the head of a very long queue. These days most airlines only retain skeleton staff at the airports. Private companies outsource ground staff for these very situations and the airlines hire in their services on an ad hoc basis. As the magnitude of the crisis unfolds they take a view on how many more staff they need to hire. The most chaotic travel situation I’ve ever experienced was when Amsterdam’s Schipol airport closed down completely for the best part of the day, you can imagine the knock-on effect on airports around the world.

    Check if the airline can reroute you on a partner airline, maybe even from a different airport, which will involve a swift overland dash to get there. They don’t always offer this option but it can be a good solution. You have to ask. If the airline refuses to hand out accommodation/meal vouchers don’t waste your time arguing with someone behind a desk, just pay and claim later. I’ve found most of the European airlines at least are pretty generous when it comes to settling claims after the event.

    Be aware that the EU has legislation governing flight delays and what is or isn’t classified as an “act of God”. Three hours’ delay is the magic number after which compensation starts to kick in.

    Always pack in your hand luggage everything you will need for 24 hours, better still 48 hours. There is every chance you will be separated from your hold luggage for some time.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Thanks Cathryn, Manuela and Lisa for your comment and sage advice, especially about the necessity to keep clean underwear in the carry-on. I am wondering how often other people’s baggage is lost by other airlines. As I said in my post, based on my experience over the last twenty years of flying with Delta, there is a one in three chance that Delta will lose my luggage, at least temporarily. I don’t know how I could have been so stupid as to forget to put underwear and toothbrush and tooth paste in my small bag, there was plenty of space in it left.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You were probably too busy polishing the text of your presentation ! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Steve, I am sorry to read that you had this bad experience on your way to Bordeaux… (and am looking forward to read more about the Conference itself).
    Myself, I now always put some underwear and tooth paste etc. in my hand luggage after having heard of similar stories of lost luggage with different airlines. And I remember having missed the next plane many years ago after a delay on Madeira (Portugal) because of a strike (of course, it was not the fault of the airline either and we had to pay for the hotel ourself). Grrr…

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks for your comment, Chani.

    I know I write more about the IAPTI conference in Bordeaux and I will do so.

    Too bad you did not make it there …. it’s not that far from where you live, right?

    Like

    • On the map, it is not too far indeed (I live on the Costa del Sol near Málaga), but there are no direct flights, which make matters more complicated, as we use to travel with our small dog (imagine there is such a delay and the dog cannot go out of the airport and/or we have to find a hotel to spend the night and hotels there do not accept pets!), and more expensive. Last year, I travelled to Munich, and from there, to Athens (my husband and the dog stayed with the family in Germany as I was attending the conference).
      I really hope I can make it next year and I am looking forward to read your report soon and to see some photos on the IAPTI website! Have a nice day.

      Like

  9. […] What are the chances that your airplane will be diverted to a different airport, the guy sitting next to you will barf on you and once you arrive to your destination after a day’s delay, your luggage will be lost, all during the same trip? For most people, probably only slightly higher than winning a lottery. But if you are me, the chances are much better as described in my previous post. […]

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I am surprised that “Unlike most other airlines, Air France generously offers free wine and cognac to all passengers” because Air France has huge financial problems these days.

    They asked pilots to work 17% more hours for the same pay and the latter refused. So the airline will have to cut some routes, sell some airplanes and get rid of several thousand employees, including 300 pilots… who will find out that pilots at other large European airlines work 20% more for 7% less pay…

    See this article in English: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/air-france-warns-of-job-cuts-after-pilots-reject-longer-hours-a6677596.html

    So you are luckier than you think: you missed one (or several) staff strikes, which will occur next week !! 🙂

    Like

    • I gathered from a TV program on Air France that several year ago they had trouble digesting the purchase of an expensive competitor, just at the time when they should have followed the trend of cheap air travel…

      They will break even this year, but they have to take drastic measures…

      Like

      • Erratum: “several years ago”, sorry…

        Like

    • It was interesting to me that all Air France personnel on planes that were full of foreigners spoke to me automatically in French. I guess I don’t look American at all.

      Like

  11. […] the Third IAPTI Conference in Bordeaux 6 weeks ago. Although my journey to Bordeaux was harrowing, as you can read in my post here, I am so glad I did go to France. The Third IAPTI Conference, or the part of it that I still […]

    Like

  12. […] during my trip to the last translators’ conference – IAPTI 3 Conference in Bordeaux IAPTI 3 (International Association of Professional Translators and In…, there were no major harrowing, nearly fatal experiences during this trip to a city that I used to […]

    Like

  13. […] I participated in the third conference of this young association in Bordeaux, France as a speaker a year ago. I met several fascinating people after I overcame a number of harrowing misfortunes as I wrote in a post that I called “If You Crave the Genuine Refugee Experience, Fly Delta through Atlanta When it Rains.” […]

    Like


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