FROM FRANKFURT, GERMANYEUROPEAN AFFAIRS
Erstwhile Superb German Airline Turns into “Hellair”
FRANKFURT, July 13 - “What airline are you flying on?”, a friendly Greek taxi driver inquired as he picked up this writer at his Paris hotel on July 8.
“That’s good. Lufthansa is the best European airline. Always on time, like the Swiss trains.”
I said nothing. For two reasons.
Back in 1996, Lufthansa became only the second European airline to distinguish itself with an unusual ability to break an expensive metal (aluminum) suitcase. The only other air carrier that had managed to do so before also happens to have been European. Alitalia, in 1991. But unlike Alitalia, Lufthansa didn’t give a damn. Subsequent efforts by this Lufthansa passenger to get some compensation for the damages caused were spurned by the German airline.
The second reason this writer said nothing in response to his friendly Greek taxi driver was the second part of his claim - “always on time, like the Swiss trains.”
Huh… The last time the TiM editor met Slobodan Milosevic, Yugoslavia’s president, in February 1992 at his office in Belgrade, Milosevic apologized for running late, saying “unfortunately, we don’t always run on time, like the Swiss trains.” Whereupon this writer shattered Milosevic’s illusions about the Swiss trains, sharing with him a personal episode to the contrary which occurred at the Zurich train station in 1987.
Back to Paris, July 8… Sure enough. When this writer got to the Lufthansa gates at Charles de Gaulle airport, a mass of humanity spread out on the benches and all over the floor suggested nothing much had changed since that aluminum-breaking episode in 1996. Several hundred members and chaperons of a “Girls Texas Choir” were among the stranded passengers blissfully sleeping off their jetlag on the floor of the Satellite 6 (?).
“Yukh,” I thought. “Just what I needed.”
By the time we eventually made it to Munich, our Lufthansa flight was almost an hour late.
“No worries,” as the Aussies would say. Nearly all Lufthansa Munich flights seemed to be late that day, too. So this writer did mange to make his connection to Belgrade.
Fast forward to Belgrade, July 13…
“You mean you want me to connect to a Lufthansa flight in Munich which leaves for Frankfurt only 35 minutes after the arrival of my Belgrade flight?”, this writer queried his American travel agents, as well as the Lufthansa staff at the Belgrade airport.
“Actually, it can be done,” the self-assured Lufthansa Belgrade agent replied. “But today, things are kind of hectic in Munich. So I’ll put you on the next flight to Frankfurt.”
Hectic? That turned out to be an understatement, as you will see.
“You can take your time, have a nice leisurely coffee at the business lounge, and then saunter on to Frankfurt,” a well-meaning Serbian Lufthansa employee in Belgrade said.
I agreed. The “next flight” was at 5:40PM. Our scheduled arrival time in Munich from Belgrade was 3:25PM. There seemed to be plenty of time, with “seem” being the keyword here.
Munich, July 13… 5:30PM - The Lufthansa captain personally made an announcement, both in German and in English, saying that the Airbus 321-100 aircraft had developed some mechanical problems upon landing during the previous flight. And that the mechanics were working on its brake system. He asked the passengers for patience until another update, “about 10 or 15 minutes from now.”
In other word, we had a real brakedown. Literally. J
Having seen such “10 minute” repairs turn into hours before, and not just with Lufthansa, this writer asked a gate agent if it would be “safe” to go back to the business lounge until the technicians fix the brakes or whatever else is wrong with the Airbus 321-100 plane.
“Sure. We’ll page you there if there is a change.”
She never did, of course.
By the time this writer showed up at the original Lufthansa gate where this conversation had taken place, some 30 minutes later, the gate was deserted. Many novice passengers might have had a cardiac arrest at this point, assuming their flight had departed without them. But having flown millions of miles with lame airlines, this writer figured it was just another typical Lufthansa screw-up. It was.
“Oh, Sir, just go to the gate A18,” an unperturbed Lufthansa gate agent said at an adjacent gate.
“They switched the Frankfurt flight aircraft?”
Except for changing a tire with all passengers on board an American Airlines DC-10 at the Dallas airport, this writer has never experienced any mechanical trouble actually being repaired at the gate on any malfunctioning aircraft.
Once at the gate A18, the atmosphere was as stuffy as it can be - both literally and figuratively, even though the outside air temperature was only 16C (about 65F).
I walked up to the counter. “Are we going to leave at 7:10PM as posted?” I asked the Lufthansa gate agent, looking at my watch that showed it was 7:00PM already.
“Yes, sir. ”
We didn’t, of course.
After having boarded the aircraft at about 7:30PM (remember, my travel agent had originally booked me on a 4:00PM flight, and the scheduled departure time of this flight was 5:40PM), this writer was making his way to the row 22.
“Is this the business class?” he asked a friendly looking Lufthansa male flight attendant. (Normally, business or first class seats are upfront, the term the air crews use for it).
“No, it is coach.”
“Funny thing,” this writer said, showing the flight attendant his ticket stub. “It says ‘business class’ here, doesn’t it?”
“Oh, yes it is. Sorry. It is the business class.”
It didn’t look it. There were three seats across in each of the rows, not the usual two “upfront.”
“What’s the difference between business class and coach on Lufthansa?”, this writer persisted. “Other than the price, of course.”
“You know what, I am going to write a story about Lufthansa,” this writer said to the embarrassed, but otherwise nice flight attendant. “And do you want to know what its headline will be?”
The steward shrugged meekly.
“It will be Lufthoelle.”
“Yes. Isn’t that German for ‘Hellair’?”
“That’s pretty strong.”
“Pretty strong? Let me tell you what’s pretty strong. How about ‘oh for four?”
“Oh for four?”
“Yes. Oh for four.”
“What do you mean, ‘oh for four?’”
“You’ve heard of baseball, right?”
“Well, that’s like batting four times and not hitting the ball even once.”
Then I explained.
“I’ve been on four Lufthansa flights in the last seven days. All four were late. But this one takes the cake. We’ll be lucky if we make it to Frankfurt with ‘only’ a three-hour delay.”
A short time later…
“This is your first officer speaking,” a cheery sounding Lufthansa=Lufthoelle=Hellair co-pilot said upon our take-off from Munich. After going through the usual drib and drab glad-to-have-you-aboard announcements and apologies, the first officer said he had some “good news” for us. The weather was nice and sunny in Frankfurt.
It hardly seemed to matter given that it would be close to sunset by the time we land. But whatever…
(As it turned out, we landed at the Frankfurt airport in pouring rain. And it is still raining as I write this, three hours later).
I turned to my next door neighbor, a neatly clad German businessman in his mid-30s, and asked, “do you speak English?”
“Yes, I do.”
“What’s the German term for ‘hell?’”
“That sounds like an English kind of hell, too,” I joked.
“Why are you asking?”
“Because I told that man back there that the airline we’re flying on ought to change its name from Lufthansa to Lufthoelle. Or Hellair, if they prefer it in English.”
The businessman laughed and agreed wholeheartedly.
As it turned out, his (telecom) company refused to pay the outrageous business fares that the European airlines charge. So there he was, seated right next to this “Yank,” having probably paid half the business class fare for the same coach-size seat and the same stale Bavarian buns and salad that the Hellair’s served during the flight.
Yet “once upon a time, Lufthansa used to be a truly first class airline,” this writer said. And not that long ago, either (in the early 1990s).
“I am ashamed to admit as to how much things have turned for the worse in the last years,” the German businessman said.
Might it have something to do with the “progress” centralized European empires, such as the European Union, are bringing to the Old Continent?
For example, when this writer got to the baggage handling carousel at the Frankfurt airport on which the Munich flight’s bags were supposed to have arrived (it so happened it was the carousel No. 6), he could not see his bag.
“Oh, shucks! Just what I need at the end of the day. Lost baggage.”
I wasn’t alone. There were five or six people also waiting and praying that their bags would show up. Oops… probably not praying. That’s probably “verboten” in public places of the “emancipated” European Union.
I walked over to the Lufthoelle baggage claim office. Upon checking with the inevitable computer, the clerk told me my bag would arrive at Carousel No. 3.
“Carousel No. 3? But your sign said Munich bags were arriving at Carousel No. 6?”
“Don’t worry. It will be at No. 3 in a five or 10 minutes.”
By now, I knew better than to ask why, even though there were no signs at all, nor any signs of life, at the carousel No. 3.
I turned around. Two Lufthansa crew members were right behind me, waiting to claim their “lost or misplaced” luggage.
“I am relieved to see that paying passengers are not the only ones relieved of their nerves and baggage by your airline.”
A cute-looking “stew” smiled. “I’ve already got my bag. Just making sure all the paperwork is in order.”
“Aren’t you lucky. My Lufthoelle-cum-Hellair paperwork is in order. Yet I don’t have my bag.”
Ten minutes later, my bag arrived at the carousel No. 3. It was one of the few things that went right today. I did thank God for it, the EU atheists notwithstanding.
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