Ah, that symbol of Italian punctuality and pride and customer service...

Ah, that symbol of Italian punctuality and pride in customer service...

I was planning on giving a fairly light-hearted look at our experiences with Alitalia during our recent trip. Then I thought it might be inappropriate coming after this week’s Air France disaster. But would that stop me? Of course not. So, first a few serious words on this week’s event, then on to Alitalia.

Plane accidents scare the shit out us, don’t they? At least me they do. Then add the mystery surrounding Air France Flight 447: no reports of trouble, the sudden loss of contact, the delay in finding wreckage. All the “what if’s”  and “how comes” pop up, while we think about the fate of those 200-plus people on board. Did they know disaster was coming? Did they have time to “prepare,” as much as one can prepare for catastrophic death. And I guess I’m not really sure what one would be preparing. Saying a prayer, I suppose, if one were religious. Perhaps a last thought of a spouse or child.

Then we safely on the ground think about the loved ones those unfortunate people left behind. And we relate, because we all have loved ones, and we all, for the most part, have flown on planes. We know that something so common and generally safe can lead to almost instantaneous death because of events out of our control. The other day, I was one of four strangers casually thrust together in a 7/11 (coffee, not a Slurpee). A spontaneous conversation broke out: What had we heard about 447, what was the latest? Sure, our voyeuristic interest in the gruesome was partly at play. But I think we and the others who have talked about the accident the last few days also think, “There but for the grace of God…”

I am not what a flight attendant might call a “good flyer.” I fear death anyway, and loss of control, and being stuck in an oversized tin can 40,000 feet above the ocean, held up my some near-magical principles of science I don’t really understand…well, none of that helps. But about 15 years ago I realized something: The world was filled with so many places I wanted to explore, and most were only reachable, realistically, by plane. I would have to adapt. So I began taking my buddy Ativan along with me, and I did visualizations beforehand, showing myself in a smooth takeoff, flight and landing. That helped. And so did telling myself, in a completely irrational way, “It is not my fate to die in a plane crash.” So far, all that has kept me from becoming a really bad flier, the kind who drinks too much and runs amok in the cabin and has to be restrained with belts and locked into a bathroom for most of the trip.

I survived our 8,000 miles or so on the trip to Italy and back. And I will fly again. The statistics say…But I will always be concerned for my friends and relatives who fly way more often than I do, and on consistently longer trips. And I will always wonder how many folks on Flight 447 took their Ativan, and did their visualization, and reassured themselves with their little mantra (most likely in French or Portuguese), “It’s not my fate to die in a plane crash.”

Yes, thankfully, unlike those poor souls, I did survive my transatlantic flight. With, I learned soon after we booked the trip,  “the worst airline company in the world.” At least that’s what Michael J. Totten wrote back in March. It was my own fault I had come across this. After we booked the flight, I began to think, “This fare is too ridiculously low. What is wrong with Alitlalia?” Totten describes a strike and resulting delays and unhelpful staff that sounds truly hellish. I learned more: The company was in horrible financial straits, though Italy’s selling part of it to a private carrier would strengthen the national airline. Someday.

I stepped up my internet research, placing a  Google feed on my home page that would alert me to any more bad news. And I found a travel site with a page devoted to updates on possible transportation strikes in Italy. (Worth bookmarking if you’re planning a trip, and the site has other useful information on Italy.)

So as the trip approached I waited for bad news. Strikes on the day we were supposed to leave? Bankruptcy? Interminable delays at either end? I was not suspecting, however, the tidbit my RSS feed provided. I never saw this in the mainstream press, but some time in April, the Milan to JFK flight – the one we would be taking home at the end of the trip – had run into some trouble. Somewhere west of Ireland, the pilot had a suspected heart attack. Not a small problem, though I doubt the kind of medical emergency really matters when you’re flying a 275-ton behemoth over the Atlantic. Luckily, the co-pilot and an Alitalia pilot on board as a passenger safely landed the plane at Shannon Airport. The pilot is OK, as far as I can tell, and the passengers got to spend a night in beautiful Dublin.

Best not to tell this little story to my mother, my sister and I decided. Not that I was so thrilled about hearing it either.

Early morning, somewhere over Europe

Early morning, somewhere over Europe

I’m glad to report that there were no health issues on our flight. And Alitalia, by my experience, is not the worst airline company in the world. My vegan meals going over were good, we reached Milan on schedule, the flight was smooth, the wine flowed – even in economy – I had my choice of 7 or 8 good movies on the personal entertainment center, the baggage arrived intact.

But I ordered vegan!

But I ordered vegan!

On the flip side, however, they screwed up my meal on the way back. The attendants kept waving my boarding pass in my face: “See, it does not say a vegan meal.” Well, all I know is, I called before we left to make sure I would have one. How was I supposed to know that fact should have been entered in the database and noted on the pass? One attendant tried to make up for it, giving me one of the crew’s meal of pasta with tomato sauce. A nice gesture, though he could have done it in a less guilt-inducing way (“Poor Giovanni will go hungry this flight, but for you, here.”) Hey, I figure Johnny boy ended up with the chicken or fish I didn’t eat, so he came out all right. But when it came time for the pre-landing snack, I was offered nothing. Another negative — the check-in procedure could have been better in New York, and on both legs, we sat on the tarmac for a while (an hour at JFK!) before takeoff. The Milan pilot at least kept us posted. In New York, silence. Still, as I noted, we touched down on time in Milan.

So would I fly Alitalia again? If I got the rate we did for this trip, yes. If they had some good competition on a route to Italy…maybe not. But the flights this time could have been worse.

A lot worse.


~ by mburgan on June 3, 2009.

4 Responses to “Flight”

  1. if we look at the statistics its still safer to fly…and some of the engines are the best in the world!!

  2. That’s right, toe that company line…though I doubt engines are usually the problem in these circumstances, yes?

  3. Can’t be any worse than Nepal Airlines – the airline I took from Delhi to Katmandu:

  4. Yaeh, I’m sure there are plenty of small carriers out there that are much worse.

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