Gen. Charles de Gaulle would not have been amused.
From everything I’ve ever read about him, the hero of France’s Second World War Resistance was incapable of embarrassment. But if he knew that the airport that now bears his name could be shut down by two inches of snow, I’m guessing he would be peeved.
Two inches of snow. Here in Canada, we have a name for that: early spring.
But in Paris last week, a light coating of ice and slush turned a 14-hour transit from Barcelona to Ottawa into a 48-hour odyssey—and I was one of the fortunate ones.
On Tuesday night in Barcelona, I checked Wednesday’s weather forecast for the trip home. With predictions of freezing rain for Paris, followed by the now-famous two-inch accumulation, I booked a room at a hotel about two miles away from the airport. The next day at Charles de Gaulle, when a couple hundred of us boarded the plane for what looked like an on-time departure, I berated myself for the expense. But quickly things began to fall apart. By the time the plane was de-iced, the snow squalls had begun. Two hours later, we were told to disembark. Feeling much better about my now-prescient reservation, I figured I would head for my hotel, fire up my laptop, and make the best of it. (Maybe I’d even beat the deadline for my column, just this once.)
But rather than canceling outright, Air France had us wait, then wait some more, against the possibility that the runways would reopen. Hours later, with no firm information on our flight’s status, I rebooked for Thursday and made my way to the shuttle bay, which by that time was in chaos. Buses scheduled at 10-minute intervals were running every couple of hours. The road through the terminal was a parking lot.
Things got ugly when a shuttle actually arrived, with tired, desperate passengers swarming onboard without even knowing where the bus was going. At that point, I went to a hotel around the corner, begged my way onto a waiting list, stayed in the lobby until a cancellation came in, and gratefully paid for a room, even knowing that the other one was prepaid.
On Thursday, my flight left two-and-a-half hours late, with Air France representatives consistently erring on the side of being evasive, uninformative, and unsympathetic to travelers who were far more fed up than I was.
Throughout the transit, I kept thinking of the school trip to Tunisia, Malta, and Rome that my daughter is hoping to take this summer, and ended up with this advice for anyone who has to travel by air:
1. Research your itinerary. Know which flights are available later in the day, or the next day, in case yours is canceled.
2. Invest in a phone and data plan for any countries you expect to visit, including transfer points.
3. If it looks like multiple flights with thousands of passengers will be delayed or canceled, get in line at the restaurant before supplies run out.
4. Hoard water. Bottled water is usually something to avoid, but this is an exception. Buy two or three bottles, and hoard a couple of sandwiches while you’re at it.
5. Reserve a hotel room early, even if you aren’t sure you’ll need it. By the time your flight is actually canceled, everyone else in the terminal will have the same idea.
6. Keep smiling, even if your airline leaves you muttering. Keeping things pleasant will help everyone else through the ordeal, and even if wishing an Air France rep bon courage gets you no closer to home, it might help remind them that everyone’s on the same team … or should be.
That advice is a start, but it leads into a series of questions for meeting planners: If you have hundreds or thousands of participants flying into heavy weather, do you feel any obligation to assist while they’re in transit? Even if not, would you want to help them out if you could? And if so, what can you do for participants who are traveling on a shoestring and can’t afford a pricey data plan or an extra night in a hotel? With more severe weather on the horizon, we can expect these questions to come up more frequently for the people we need to bring on site.
Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog. Send comments, facts, arguments, or column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.