Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Prague Trip Report, Part 9

View up at Cathedral inside Prague Castle.

Sunday, May 8, Last Day –
After loading our luggage into the cab we left Prague (Mala Strana, Vlašska Ulice no. 14, apt. 2, just a block above the US embassy) at 5:22 in the morning for 7:15 flight. Our taxi driver, Martin, got us to the airport in something like record time; about 10 miles there in 17 minutes including passing a police car on a narrow, curving, cobblestone street.

We survived a grueling nasty ordeal of a 28-hour journey with more than five hours of delay because of violent weather in Houston. The journey started out quite smoothly at Prague’s Ruzyne airport, which is about the size of the Albuquerque Sunport. We checked in, then passed through passport control to enter the departure area. (Security is at each gate at Prague’s Ruzyne airport.)

Things were somewhat at loose ends in Charles de Gaulle airport, where lots of planes had to park out on the concrete to load and unload passengers. (DeGaulle’s terminal 2, where we were, was where one of the pavilions had spectacularly collapsed a couple of years back.) Pat cut and split a fingernail badly shortly after arrival. Signage to direct us to our next terminal was somewhere between bad and non-existent; even Carol Anne’s past studies of French were no help here. No signs were immediately present to tell us how to get around when we got off the lift bus into an upper level “door from nowhere”.

On our terminal transfer shuttle we had to cringe as an obnoxious American and his buddy nagged the driver into going to his terminal out of order and delaying us getting to our terminal until after he and his friend had been disposed of. If I’d been asked at that point if I spoke English, I would have been tempted then to follow Jerry Seeger’s lead and said, “Pardon, non parle zjerk” (Sorry, I don’t speak jerk). Seats at the gates are hard and designed with a slight tilt to spit you on the floor, but some couches were available nearby, though near a smoking area. I glimpsed at duty-free shops but didn’t buy anything.

Our flight from Paris to Houston included two lunches, the second served as we passed south of the Canadian maritime provinces before flying over the Gulf of Maine. Thick clouds kept Carol Anne, at the window seat, from seeing Cape Cod or the Cape Cod Canal or much of New Jersey beyond a dirty brown cloud; she did eventually manage to see parts of Delaware and Chesapeake bays. Our approach to Houston including flying circles in the air and then an unscheduled stop for jet fuel in New Orleans. The plane had to wait for paperwork in New Orleans before it could be fueled and then wait on the ground for permission to fly to Houston. Leftover turbulence in wake of storm was still pretty rough.

We experienced just about every way of getting on and off a plane except by parachute; nice airport in Prague; but lift-bus to get off plane, shuttle bus to transfer terminals, and regular sort of bus to go out to airplane out on the concrete in Charles de Gaulle; double jetway in Houston. We really had to rush once we finally got to Houston; got off the plane, walked a quarter mile to the international arrivals building, went through Immigration (very quick), security (yet again), Customs (incredibly quick), one line where we found out nothing about our connecting flight (but it only took about 7 minutes) and another line where we did get gate info (but it took 25 minutes), rushed to monorail station, got to C terminal, got to gate and on our plane with 10 minutes to spare before the cabin door was shut. Pat got two little bags of peanuts as his first meal in 9-1/2 hours but Carol Anne and Gerald were too conked to enjoy this fine dinner.

Carol Anne’s report on the joys of de Gaulle:
Coming back to the US, our scheduled flights gave us only 50 minutes in Houston to get off the international flight, clear customs, get to another terminal, and get on our flight to Albuquerque. We figured there was a good chance we'd miss the connection, but it was no big deal, since we would be nearly home and there were lots of later flights to Albuquerque that we could get on.

The plane from Paris was actually ahead of schedule, but then Houston was socked in under some nasty weather so planes couldn't fly in or out. We flew around in circles for a while, until we ran low on fuel, and then we landed in New Orleans (but we couldn't get off the plane since we hadn't cleared Customs yet), and after some paperwork having to do with the airport there not really being prepared to refuel a plane that big, got fuel, and then sat around a while more for the weather and backlogged flights to clear before we took off, once again, for Houston.

We got into Houston 4 1/2 hours late, but we still made our connection -- that plane was running 5 hours late!Carol Anne

Meanwhile, if you want the absolute worst nightmare of a connecting flight on the way to Hell, Atlanta pales in comparison to Charles de Gaulle.

You may have seen in the news a year or so ago about how the roof caved in on the sparkling, modern, state-of-the-art Terminal E. With that terminal out (or at least mostly out) of commission, the airport just can't handle the volume of traffic it's supposed to. Our flight from Prague arrived "at" Terminal B. Actually, it arrived on the tarmac a couple of hundred metres from Terminal B, and a peoplemover of the sort that was all the rage during the 1970s (a sort of jumbo-bus with the passenger compartment mounted on a giant scissors jack) came out to the plane, picked up the passengers, and conveyed them to the terminal building.

We made use of the toilettes -- about the only area of an airport in which older technology is superior, since these wait until the user wants them to flush, instead of making random, automatic flushes -- and then figured out we needed to transfer to Terminal A to make our connecting flight. There is supposed to be a monorail that goes from terminal to terminal, but since that monorail goes through the heart of Terminal E, it wasn't working. Instead, we had to get on a bus.

So we got onto the bus at Terminal B. The next stop was Terminal D, where some really obnoxious Americans got on; they were transferring to Terminal B. As the bus continued on its rounds, through terminals F, E (yes, while it's mostly out of commission, it does have a few flights), and C, the obnoxious Americans got louder and louder, and the poor Lebanese bus driver, whose French was OK but whose English was short on vocabulary, was trying without success to explain that the bus would get to Terminal B soon enough. In exasperation, he blew past Terminal A so he could get rid of them. So we had to go around again before we could get to Terminal A.

When we finally got off the bus and entered Terminal A, I felt like I had entered a post-nuclear-holocaust movie set. The building was quite literally crumbling. What I am sure were originally lovely marble floors were pitted and dull; tiles were falling from the ceiling; windows were cracked; and everything had a pervasive mildew odor. The check-in desk we were at was shared by Continental and El Al; besides us, there was an elderly couple who had been on the plane with us from Prague and who were flying stand-by to Tel Aviv; they knew Czech and Hebrew; the counter attendants knew French and English. They had been visibly disconcerted when the bus didn't stop the first time around, and they were still a bit rattled. Fortunately, they and the counter agent both had enough English to communicate, and she did a great job of reassuring them.

But the nightmare of our transfer adventure continues. The seats in the gate areas of Charles de Gaulle are definitely designed for torment. They are hard, slick plastic, and they are tilted forward, so one cannot remain seated in them; one just slides forward out of them to land unceremoniously on the floor. If you ever have to spend time in Charles de Gaulle, be sure to take a non-skid mat, such as people in California use to keep dishes from vibrating off shelves during earthquakes. Even if you do use such a mat, however, I suspect these seats are horribly uncomfortable because of their hardness and tilt (I can't say for sure since I wasn't successful in sitting in one for more than about 30 seconds).
Carol Anne

But the story still isn't over. When, finally, our flight to Houston began boarding, we had still more adventures ahead. This time, the plane was a half-mile away, and we had to take a regular bus rather than the elevating people-mover to get to it, and because of security concerns (we had never officially entered France), the passengers couldn't all just pile off the bus and onto the plane, but had to be controlled. And getting onto the plane involved going up an old-timey set of stairs mounted on the back of a truck. As far as I could tell, there was no provision for passengers who used wheelchairs or who for some other reason couldn't climb stairs.

All in all, if you have to change planes in Atlanta, you're probably only going to Purgatory. You get to Hell by way of Charles de Gaulle.
Carol Anne

Oh, one other thing about Charles de Gaulle (the airport, not the person) ... yes, there are some more comfortable seats; they're in the smoking lounges. Next to the smoking lounges are non-smoking lounges, but all of the air circulates among all of the lounges, so for all practical purposes, all of the lounges are smoking lounges.
Carol Anne


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