Flying and snow, with a long way to go

When key airports are hit by snow, returning home from Europe proves challenging.

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At Milan's airport on the start of what proved to be a long journey home to Seattle

When key airports are hit by snow, returning home from Europe proves challenging.

After spending two weeks in Italy, checking out floating food markets in Venice, vineyards in the Collio region of northeastern Italy and sparkling Franciacorta wines in the Alpine lakes district north of Milan, I'm ready to go home. Sounds like I'm whining, but it's tiring work, all this eating, tasting, and dinking.

The Milan airport, Malpensa, literally sounds like a bad idea. It's a big, old-fashioned European monstrosity, an international hub for northern Italy, 45 minutes outside town. You can see snow-capped Alps from the terminal, even Mont Blanc, and this day (have since lost track of which day that was) the runways are clear and dry. MXP is in the fortunate position of being open for takeoffs and landings, except that Europe's three biggest airports (Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle, Frankfurt) are closed, so there's nowhere to go.

I actually thought I would escape the turmoil, sneaking out on the first flight to de Gaulle in Paris and catching the mid-morning Air France connection to Seattle. Hah! I spent the night at a hotel near the airport, hopped a 5 a.m. shuttle to Malpensa, got boarding passes and checked my one little bag (extra liquids!) without a hitch. We were on the plane, Air France 2515 (code-shared with Alitalia, KLM, Delta, and China Southern) all passengers strapped in their seats and accounted for, when the pilot came out of the cockpit, took hold of the purser's microphone, and gave us the bad news himself: weather in Paris had deteriorated during the half-hour boarding process, and CDG was closed for at least three hours.

Everybody off. Some people cancelled their plans and went home, not an option for me or for my seatmate, an Italian businessman whose office is in Paris. We got vouchers for a cappuccino and a croissant (hot and delicious!) at the concourse cafe; in a way, it was heartening to see the pilot pacing among the stranded passengers, talking into a cellphone beneath a giant billboard for Dolce & Gabbana.

Franck Durand, the pilot, has been with Air France for 21 years. He says that yesterday (whenever that was) he'd been slated to fly from Paris to Milan but conditions at CDG prevented a takeoff, so he took a train to Lyon and flew an empty Airbus A320 from there to Milan so that there would be an aircraft on the ground to carry the 120 passengers booked on AF 2515 back up to Paris. Except that it wasn't happening. Several hundred aircraft across Europe were affected by storms. "I can't even get through on my direct line," Capt. Durand said; "they're swamped."

Finally some news from ground control: a 12:30 departure slot, but first he had to move the plane away from the gate to a parking place out on the tarmac. "See you on board," he waved as he descended the gangway. And see him on board not that much later, it turned out. The weather in Paris had cleared, AF 2515 had a brief window for takeoff. "Would you like to join me in the cockpit?"

Which is how I happened to sit up front with Durand and his First Officer, Guillaume Tritaux, as they anxiously awaited the last busload of passengers and the delivery of the last container of luggage. "Let's go," Durand said, as they taxied toward the main MXP runway. Their window was 12:06 to 12:21, and at exactly 12:20 the A320 was in position. 

The A320's gross weight on this flight is 58,200 kilos, FOB 6,360 kilos, what looks like 2,820 kg of fuel. A GPS would be useless up here as we wing our way across the mountains; anything over 400 knots sends it into a tailspin. There's a slot next to Tritaux that disgorges a printout every couple of minutes, updating ground conditions in France. CDG has one runway open; if they close that, Orly would be the next choice, But Orly reports even worse conditions. That leaves Lyon as the alternate. Checking the fuel guage, Durand says, cheerfully, "One way or the other, we'll be on the ground in four hours." The purser brings coffee for the pilots; wells for the cups are built in, just like cupholders in your car.

We fly over the Alps; the Mont Blanc, visible from the airport only an hour ago, is now covered in a thick layer of clouds. Forty-eight minutes into the flight, CDG ground control changes the direction of the approach. Tritaux programs the new coordinates into the onboard navigation system and the plane changes its heading accordingly.

There's a layer of snow on the ground, visible as we approach CDG, where the ambient temperature is now 1 degree Celsius. Ground temperature is another matter, however. The word comes on Tritaux's printout that the runway has been "conditioned."

Durand takes the controls and sets the plane down as if it were a feather. He noses the plane toward a gate at Terminal F; after 1 hour and 11 minutes of flight time, AF 2515 has arrived at its destination. It is 1:30 PM, the flight is five hours late.

And my flight to Seattle managed to get off the ground on schedule, wouldn't you know, so now I'm in a very long line of stranded passengers, inching my way toward the Air France transfer desk, where two or three agents seem to spend half an hour with each new traveler.

We have no information from Air France itself, no food or water until well into the night. We stand guard against the predictable onslaught of line-jumpers, who claim they "just want information." We give them information: the line starts "over there," and it gets longer and longer. Had I known how just how long, I might have cried. Finally, after almost 10 hours of shuffling inch by inch toward the counter, it's my turn. My knees tremble, not because there's no direct flight the next day but because I'm not used to standing for so long. Ten hours? Ten hours!

The Air France agent, chipper as a puppy, asks how I'm feeling (what do you think? it's not the moment for sarcasm, however, since my fate is in her hands). For the next 20 minutes, she tries all possible routings until she finds one on Delta that will get me into Seattle the next day (whenever that is) before midnight. A hotel for the night? Not a chance, everything's booked. Since my luggage has already been checked, I'm allowed to head into the 2E departure terminal, where I take a half-inch foam mattress (one of those yoga pad things) and a blanket from boxes that have materialized at one of the gates.

How Air France can understaff its help desk when thousands of travelers are stranded, yet produce emergency supplies for the hundreds who would sleep on the floor? A mystery. It's 2 a.m. as I bed down for the night, while maintenance workers operate vacuums and empty trash around me. Dozens of bodies, covered in dark blue fleece, cover the floor. A sleeping pill will get me three or four hours of respite. I strongly recommend that every traveler experience this at least once, although this is sleeping-on-the-ground stuff is one reason that I don't enjoy camping. (Campers: no hate mail, please.) 

Next day, which I think was Tuesday, I board the Air France flight to Detroit and drink as much red wine as they will allow. I watch Home Alone and The Departed, which describes the condition of my vanished suitcase. I make my connection with 20 minutes to spare, and get home just before midnight.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).