Michael J. Totten on Alitalia
Anyone who's flown on Alitalia has probably wondered how the Italians could successfully manage the powerful and efficient Roman Empire for hundreds of years but cannot run a measly airline for even one day.
Well, perhaps you haven't wondered about that, and I hadn't either until just now, but it's a valid question.
My worst experience flying was with Alitalia. I flew with my wife and daughter from Sydney to Rome, then on to Tel Aviv for a year in Israel as a Golda Meir Fellow at Hebrew University, but our luggage stopped in Rome and stayed there for several weeks while we made do with what we had in our carry-on bags. When our belongings finally arrived, several items were missing, though nothing especially valuable.
We were told by a fellow with a lot of flying experience that a normal airline would have provided money for clothing and new luggage as recompense . . . "but Alitalia isn't a normal airline."
After reading Michael Totten's recent experience in Rome while flying Alitalia, "The Worst Airline Company in the World" (March 13, 2009), I thank the airline deities for allowing us to fly on a good day with Alitalia. This is a man who works as a journalist in the Middle East, particularly in Lebanon and Iraq, and he has reported a lot on the painful events there, but his Alitalia experience sounds far worse:
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'm surprised that that a world traveler such as Totten hadn't heard about Alitalia's 'service' . . . but he was soon to find out. His initial indication of trouble, though he didn't yet realize this, came as he was checking his bags:
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.Only upon his arrival in Rome did he learn of the baggage handlers' strike:
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.After countless lies from the Alitalia staff, reported in a way that simultaneously enrages and entertains, Totten -- along with fellow 'passengers' Sofocles and Tatiana -- takes on the responsibility of warning other would-be passengers not to hand over their baggage:
"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."Perhaps making the Alitalia clerk angry wasn't a good strategy when rebooking, but from Totten's story, I suspect that the 'rebooking' was the airline's method of dealing with irate customers. In effect, the Alitalia staff was simply transfering the problem to other staff members at different counters or on other shifts. No real rebooking was done.
"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.
The story gets even worse. Go and read (and support his journalism financially if you can).