Laments, long lines amid Air France pilots' strike

AP News
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Posted: Sep 17, 2014 11:18 AM
Laments, long lines amid Air France pilots' strike

PARIS (AP) — "I'm going to cry!" groaned Stephanie Leon, parking a palm on her forehead in distress as she walked into Charles de Gaulle airport and saw the departures board: Her Air France flight to the Dominican Republic had been cancelled.

Hers was but one of the untold thousands of travails of passengers who have faced long lines, slept overnight on couches, and hawked over e-mail for flight updates because of an Air France pilots' strike now in its third day.

The French government on Wednesday urged an end to the strike that has grounded at least half of the airline's flights this week. The pilots are angry about company plans to shift many operations to low-cost affiliate Transavia and transfer some jobs to countries with lower taxes and labor costs.

The flagship French carrier argues it needs to cut costs to stay competitive in the face of rivalry from budget airlines and Gulf state carriers. But many passengers in airport departure halls were expressing a mix of fury, frustration and resignation.

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DOLPHIN-WATCHING IN JEOPARDY

Leon and friend Margaux Hengel, both 24-year-old medical workers trying to get to the Caribbean to watch dolphins and enjoy the sun, got hit with double bad news.

First, their flight from Brest in western France to Paris was cancelled. So they hurriedly bought tickets on a 4-hour train — and just 10 minutes before walking into Charles de Gaulle, a text message told them the Dominican Republic flight was also cancelled.

"We're going to let them have it," said Hengel, marching angrily over to Portal 12, where Air France was handling cancellation issues, and blurting out a French expletive. "My sense of humor has run out."

What does she think of the strikers? "No point in asking..." she replied.

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'ALWAYS STRIKING ABOUT SOMETHING'

Pilots in France have among the most generous salaries in France. For Steve Ford, who with his family had planned to fly to Birmingham, England, for a wedding, it's understandable: Pilots have thousands of lives in their hands every day.

"It's an important job, they have to be paid properly," said the 53-year-old stay-at-home dad. Ford noted he had "pilots in the family ... They can't party, they can't drink, they can't hang out. They have to get up early."

As for the strike, "they've got to do what they've got to do," said Ford, a native of Britain who lives in Chicago. "It's France. It is what it is. They (the French) are always striking about something."

Instead of hopping on the Eurostar train, Ford and wife Katie opted to hop on a later flight to Birmingham with another airline.

Son Charlie, 8, and daughter Madie, 6, burned off the hours-long wait perched atop luggage with tablet computer games in hand.

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'MEALS ON WHEELS' MAY HAVE TO WAIT

In hopes of getting home to Toronto after attending a funeral in France, Michael Treuman faced traveler technology hell.

Tuesday evening, the 72-year-old former computer project manager received a text message saying his Wednesday afternoon flight was cancelled. No explanation. So he logged on.

The website was overloaded, so he phoned a hotline. "It said, 'due to the large volume of calls, please call again later."

He was finally instructed to go to the airport, where The Associated Press met him. He had an open laptop in hand standing in the cancelled-flights line, trying to send word "to my folks that I am standing in line."

"They gave us a bottle of water. In this country, they take care of the stomach," he said with a laugh, and a sense of resignation.

"When you travel, you have adventures," he said, regretting that he was likely to miss his appointment with the Meals on Wheels program Thursday back home.

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LONG-LINE LAMENTS

Among a crowd in a stalled customer service line, Mariam Bah, 32, said she has waited for three days to get back home to Conakry, Guinea, and has been sleeping at a friend's place after her Monday flight was cancelled. Her visa has run out, she has no money, and her 8-month-old is waiting back home.

Barbara Beaumont of San Diego, was also in the line, but couldn't join those sitting down to wait because she has a bad knee. It was lunch hour at the airport, and the help desk had dwindled down to one agent.

"I have not moved in 20 minutes and I've been here for an hour and a quarter — and that's unacceptable," she said, waiting for an alternative flight home after a train ride up from southeast France that left at dawn.

"It was perfect until now. Actually I figured, this is too good, this is going too well — and the strike hit," she said, after the two-week trip to visit friends in Normandy and southwestern Provence where she once taught English and lived for 17 years.

"I was planning on coming back next year," Beaumont said. "I certainly won't have Air France involved, that's for sure."