Michael Totten

The Worst Airline Company in the World

After spending several weeks each in Iraq and Lebanon at the end of 2008, I bought a plane ticket to the U.S. from Beirut on December 22 and figured I had plenty of time to get home for Christmas. I had no idea, though, that I had purchased my ticket from the worst airline company in the world — Italy’s national carrier Alitalia — and that a two-hour layover in Rome would turn into an ordeal that lasted longer than a week.
I placed my most critical and expensive items in my carry-on bag so they wouldn’t get damaged or lost. Yet the woman at the Alitalia check-in counter in Beirut’s international airport said my bag was too large and would have to be checked. I wasn’t happy about that, but I did as I was told and surrendered my luggage. She neglected to tell me that Alitalia’s baggage handlers were on strike and that it would be a very long time before I would see my property again — if I ever would see it again.
My flight left Beirut on time, and I had no idea what I was in for in Italy.
After I landed in Rome, the Departures board said my flight to Chicago was delayed two hours. I didn’t mind. I had a 24-hour layover there, so I could wait patiently. But an angry stirring of passengers at the flight counter caught my attention.
“What’s going on?” I asked an American woman who looked concerned yet approachable.
“I’m not sure,” she said. “But somebody told me the baggage handlers on are strike and that we might not be going anywhere.”
A few moments passed before I absorbed what that meant. My laptop was in my carry-on bag that Alitalia had forced me to check. My work from Iraq and Lebanon was on that machine. My Nikon camera was in that bag. I didn’t want to hand it over, but the airline forced me to hand it over and didn’t tell me what was happening in the bowels of the company.
At least I had the presence of mind to make backup copies of my recorded interviews and place them on a flash memory stick that I carried around in my pocket. My hand-written notes and my photographs, though, were not in my pocket. Alitalia’s baggage handler’s union was holding much of my Middle East work hostage.
The man and woman working at our Alitalia flight counter wouldn’t tell us what was going on, and I assumed it was because they didn’t know. They looked slightly stressed, and I felt bad for them. They weren’t on strike, but they had to deal with the fallout. And that fallout was about to get nasty.
A fifty year-old Italian man in a fedora started screaming at both of them.
A man standing next to me chuckled.
“Do you understand what he’s saying?” I said.
“I’m from Argentina,” he said, “but I speak Italian. That man is cursing like you wouldn’t believe.”
Mr. Enraged was screaming like you wouldn’t believe — wild-eyed, nostril-flared, spittle-flecked screaming.
Listening to him and imagining which curse words he used he was entertaining, but mostly the guy came across like a belligerent jerk. The two Alitalia employees on the receiving end of his tirade weren’t responsible for our predicament. The baggage handlers were on strike, but the counter employees were still on the job.
Later, though, I realized that Mr. Enraged was just ahead of everyone else. The rest of us booked on the flight to Chicago would learn soon enough that a huge number of Alitalia’s employees absolutely deserved to be screamed at.
Our flight was delayed another four hours. Almost every other Alitalia flight in the airport had been cancelled. You might think we were lucky that our flight hadn’t been cancelled. That’s what I thought at the time, but I was wrong.
“I live in the UK,” a man said, “but I was born here in Italy. They will not fly us to Chicago. They will do nothing but lie. Trust me. I know how this country works.”
Our flight was delayed again another three hours, and the man and woman and the flight counter put on their coats and walked away. Several passengers impotently screamed at their backs in Italian. Two hundred of us were left stranded alone.
No one had screamed at them in English. Not yet.
European Union regulations required the airline to book us with another company so we could get home. But they refused to book us with another company. Word slowly trickled into the crowd from passengers who had been stranded in Rome’s airport for days. Alitalia hadn’t booked any of them on flights with other airlines, nor did the company reserve or pay for hotel rooms as the law required.
Certainly there were worse fates than being stranded in Italy. Daniel, the Italian-speaking man from Argentina, knew that better than most of us. He lives in the Indianapolis now and works as a professor of Social Work.
“Indiana is a big change,” he said, “but I like living there.” He has fond memories of his hometown of Buenos Aries, but also terrible memories. “There were leftist terrorists and right-hand terrorists killing people all over the country. When the army took over, everyone cheered. But the army was no better, and they went after the intellectuals. 30,000 people were killed or disappeared. It was a horrible fascist regime.”
Daniel managed to remain calm even after order and civility in the airport later disintegrated. His American friend and traveling companion Greg was about a disgruntled as I was. “No one is coming back here,” he said. “They’re supposed to rebook us, but they’ve abandoned us.”
“I think we should get some people together and go to the office,” I said, “since they refuse to rebook us. Ten people should be enough to put pressure on them.”
He agreed, and we asked others standing next to us if they wanted to join us. Everyone seemed to think it was a good idea. I had only been stranded in Rome for a half day so far, but some of those who had been marooned for days looked like they were ready to punch somebody.
“Hell yes,” a young American man said. “Let’s go to the office. I know right where it is. I saw it on my way in here.”
He said his name was DJ, and he wore a Palestinian keffiyeh around his neck.
“You’re sure you know where it is?” I said.
“Yeah, man,” he said. “Let’s go.”
“Hey!” I said as loud as I could so everyone in our waiting area heard me. “We’re going to the office to demand a new ticket. Who wants to join us?”
The crowd roared its approval. I expected just a handful of tag-alongs, but it looked like every single person wanted to join us.
So DJ and I led more than two hundred people through the terminal toward the Alitalia office.
As soon as I realized I might write about this, I bought a notebook and pen from one of the stores. I wanted to take notes in real time and record more or less accurate dialogue.
“You’re sure you know where this place is?” I said to DJ. I had no idea where we were going. We were inside an island terminal that could only be reached by train.
“Yeah,” DJ said. “But hang on.”
In front of us was a long Alitalia counter staffed by employees who served the entire terminal rather than just our flight to Chicago. DJ stopped and spoke to man wearing the company’s uniform.
“Why are we stopping here?” a woman said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “This isn’t the office.”
“This is the blind leading the blind,” said a man.
I stepped up to the counter next to DJ. And DJ started screaming at the man standing in front of him.
“I will kick your ass if I see you outside,” the Alitalia employee said to DJ.
“Let’s go!” DJ said. “Grab your coat and let’s go!”
This was hardly what I had in mind when I suggested a trip to the office.
“Hey,” a woman said and grabbed my arm. “Look. They’ve posted the European Union’s Passenger Rights on the wall.”
She was right. Our rights were spelled out in English just behind the foul-mouthed Alitalia employee who, instead of complying with regulations, had just threatened DJ with physical violence. The European Union required Alitalia to provide us with food, hotel accommodations, and a ticket on another airline because we had been delayed for more than five hours. We were also legally owed up to 600 Euros, around 1,000 dollars, in compensation.
I had already been delayed more than five hours. Some of us had been delayed for days. None of us had received food, hotel accommodations, or rebooked flights on a functional airline.
“Hey!” I said to the man who had threatened to kick DJ’s ass. “Our rights are printed right there on the wall. You need to book us on another flight or give us a hotel room.”
He narrowed his eyes at me and shook his head.
Now,” I said.
He ignored me.
When others saw the list of passenger rights on the wall, they became angry, and fast. Italian passengers were no longer the only ones riled up. More than a dozen surged to the counter and started yelling at the man in English who refused to do what the law required of him.
“I will call the police!” said the Alitalia man.
The crowd erupted in cheers and applause.
“Yes!” a woman said. “Call the police! Call them now!”
A look of horror and dread washed over his face. He knew his airline was in violation and that the police were not likely to help him.
So what did he do? He put on his coat and walked off the job. Hundreds of furious paying passengers booed and hissed as he left. I kept an eye on DJ in case he decided to chase the guy down and take him up on his offer to fight.
Instead, DJ found another Alitalia employee to scream at, this time a woman.
“I am a man!” he said. And he was a drunk man. His breath smelled of booze from the airport’s café-bars. “Just because my voice is high-pitched doesn’t mean I’m in puberty!”
DJ was seriously beginning to lose it. I had no idea what he was talking about anyway. His voice was no more high-pitched than anyone else’s.
“Will you please call a manager,” I said to the woman. DJ wasn’t getting results with his tirade, so I thought I’d play the good cop. “If you can’t resolve this by yourself, just call a manager over.”
She looked at me, then looked away without even acknowledging that I had said anything. This was becoming a pattern among the staff, and my patience was just about at an end.
“Hey!” I said. “Some of us have been here for days, and your airline is breaking the law.”
This time she didn’t ignore me. She squinted and jutted her chin.
I gave up. Being polite didn’t work, and neither did yelling.
A manager in a tie finally came over. Two dozen people rushed and surrounded him.
“What?” he said. “Is something the matter? What’s going on?”
The crowd booed and jeered.
“Oh, come on,” Greg said to the manager. “Give me a break.”
“You know what’s going on,” I said. I had been waiting for ten hours by then, and I was one of the newcomers.
The manager looked at his feet in embarrassment. Who did he think he was kidding?
“You need to rebook us or put us up in a hotel,” I said. “You’re in violation of European Union regulations, and you know it.”
He looked at me when I spoke to him, but he ignored me and turned away.
“Hey!” I said. “You heard me. Are you going to do your damn job or not?”
He looked at me again, but he still didn’t say anything.
An American woman approached the manager in tears and told him her son had just died and that she needed to get to Chicago for his funeral. Would he please just rebook her on another airline?
“No,” he said.
And then the crowd lost it.
Five enormous black men stormed up to the manager while punching their hands with their fists.
“Motherfucker!” one of them said and flared his eyes and his nostrils. I thought for sure we were about to see blood on the floor.
The black man was hyperventilating and literally shaking while he tried with all his might to restrain himself from committing violence. A few passengers stepped between him and the manager. None of us wanted a riot. But a riot felt imminent.
“Do you know what’s going on with these Africans?” a woman said to me. “They’ve been here for four days, and now the airline is saying there’s no record they ever booked a flight at all.”
“We want to go home!” the five Africans yelled in unison.
Four days they had been waiting!
“Get it, man?” said the first African man. He looked ready to rip out the manager’s spine with his fingers. “We want to go home!”
“Where are you guys trying to go?” I asked one of the calmer African men.
“Nigeria,” he said. “Now he’s saying we never purchased a ticket.”
These men had Alitalia boarding passes. They wouldn’t have even been to pass through security without them.
“Unbelievable,” said an American man. “The staff is obviously racist against these guys.”
“Our luggage is right outside that window,” a man said to me. “It’s sitting there on the tarmac next to the plane.”
One woman told me she checked in her cat in its carrier two days ago. She was worried her cat might soon die. (In hindsight I can say that her cat almost certainly died.)
A three-year old African girl sat on the Alitalia counter and cried hysterically while her father screamed “We want to go home!” at the staff.
Three police officers arrived to calm down the crowd. The most enraged of the African men picked up one of the officers, slung the cop over his shoulder, and took him away.
Here we go, I thought. This is when it begins.
I thought about lighting a cigarette. Rules no longer applied. I doubted anyone would say anything, and I doubted even more that anyone would make me put it out. I was pretty sure that if I lit a cigarette, other people would light up cigarettes, too. It actually seemed slightly dangerous, though. The mood in the terminal might have shifted yet one more degree toward total breakdown. A cop had already been taken away to God-knows-where by an unruly passenger, and the other two officers didn’t do anything. I kept my cigarettes in my pocket.
Anyone could have pushed the terminal over the edge at any moment. If just one person swung a punch at an employee, it might trigger a riot. I could feel it. The Africans were ready to roll, as were DJ and several of the Italians. Most American passengers seemed a bit more restrained, but even that was beginning to change. The Alitalia staff looked terrified. Their eyes darted sideways as they scanned the terminal for threats and calculated escape routes.
An American couple named Sofocles and Tatiana were on their way home from vacation in Greece.
“I thought Athens was screwed up,” Sofocles said, “but I’ve ever seen anything like this.”
“We witnessed the riots,” Tatiana said, “but this feels much worse.”
What? That sounded crazy, but that’s what she said. Athens had just erupted in actual violence.
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Violence in Rome’s airport was in the air, but it hadn’t actually broken out yet. I think she must have felt trapped. We could only leave our terminal by train, whereas the violence in Athens could be avoided by just walking away or taking a taxi. There would be no walking or running away if a riot broke out in our part of the airport.
The Alitalia manager loosened his tie and wiped sweat off his forehead while dozens of passengers surrounded and screamed at him. I was angry, too. Just rebook us already. But I also felt a bit sorry for him. Our little mob got its way, though, because he finally did what he was supposed to do and secured accommodations for us at a hotel near the airport.
“There is a shuttle bus outside that will take you to the Airport Palace Hotel,” he said to me, Daniel, and Greg. “Please tell the others.”
“You should make an announcement,” Greg said. “There are more than a hundred passengers on the flight.”
“Please just let everyone know,” the manager said.
He never did make an announcement. He didn’t even put up a hand-written sign on the counter. Greg, Daniel, and I were made responsible for hundreds of strangers who were, by then, scattered throughout the terminal and mixed in with hundreds of others who were booked on separate flights. How were we supposed to find everyone and let all of them know?
Why on earth were Daniel, Greg, and I were put in charge? The reason, I suppose, is because we took some initiative, but the manager basically told us to do his job for him. So the three of us told ten people each and told them to tell ten more people each. Hopefully most of our fellow passengers would eventually find out that hotel rooms finally had been taken care.
Daniel, Greg, and I left the terminal and went looking for the shuttle bus. We couldn’t find it.
“I’m going to take a taxi,” I said. “I don’t want the hotel to fill up while we’re just wandering around out here in the rain.”
“I’m in,” Greg said.
“Let’s go,” Daniel said.
Sofocles and Tatiana found us and asked if they could share our taxi, as well.
“Of course,” I said.
So we found a taxi.
“Airport Palace Hotel,” I said to the driver.
“The Airport Palace Hotel?” she said. “It doesn’t exist.”
“I knew it!” Tatiana said. “Oh God, I knew it! They lied to us again.”
I had no faith whatsoever in Alitalia’s staff, but I didn’t think even they would go that far.
Our driver called a friend. The Airport Palace Hotel did, in fact, exist.
No one was at the front desk. The hotel seemed entirely empty of guests.
“Hello?” Greg called out toward the back.
A manager emerged from an office while chewing his dinner.
“Hello,” I said. “Alitalia booked us for some rooms here.”
“Outside,” the manager said dismissively with his mouth full of food. He pointed. “Outside. Right. Under the bridge. Right.” He then went back into his office and slammed the door.
We stepped outside.
“I guess he’s sending us to another hotel,” I said.
“Is it just me,” Greg said, “or is that man an asshole?”
“He’s an asshole,” I said.
We followed his directions, but we didn’t see another hotel.
“What are we supposed to be looking for, exactly?” I said.
“Let’s go back,” Greg said.
So we went back.
“Excuse me,” said to the manager. “Where are we supposed to go, exactly?”
“Did you follow my directions?” he said.
“Yes,” Greg said.
“I don’t think so!” the manager said as though were we the stupidest people he had ever met in his life.
He then gave us more precise directions, and we found another hotel owned by the same company.
I was startled by the staff at the next hotel. They were perfectly pleasant and helpful.
Daniel, Greg, Tatiana, and Sofocles, and I sat down to dinner.
“Merry Christmas, everybody,” I said.
Greg groaned. “Don’t say that,” he said. “At least don’t say that yet.”
*
Alitalia told me to go to the airport again the next morning for rebooking, though I doubted they would actually book me on a flight that would actually leave. I would have bought another ticket on a different airline so I could be home for Christmas, but the Alitalia staff refused to hand over my luggage. And they refused to let me retrieve my luggage myself. My laptop, camera, and notebooks were being held hostage.
At least a thousand people waited in line for rebooking at the main Alitalia counter. That’s where I would need to go if I wanted a new ticket on a different airline. It took the staff around 20 minutes to process each passenger. At that rate it would have taken me more than a week to get a new ticket.
So I went to the check-in counter to get a new worthless Alitalia ticket.
Sofocles and Tatiana were in line already. They let me join them, and we shared contact information. They lived in Chicago, where my luggage might theoretically appear at some later date, and they offered to help me retrieve it if I decided to go home without it.
As we approached the front of the line, I noticed that the man in front of us was checking in luggage.
“Excuse me, sir” I said. “You might not want to check your luggage. The baggage handlers are on strike. The planes aren’t flying, and once you check your luggage, they won’t give it back.”
How dare you!” said the Alitalia woman working the counter.
“You aren’t warning this man,” I said. “So I’m warning him. Somebody should have warned me before I gave you my luggage. .”
“He’s checking in!” she said.
Sofocles and Tatiana laughed out loud.
“He’s checking in?” I said. “He’s not going anywhere. Nobody’s going anywhere.” I turned around and made an announcement to everybody in line behind us. “They’re on strike. You aren’t flying today, and if you get them your luggage they won’t give it back.”
“That’s not true!” the Alitalia woman said. “How can you say that?”
“How can you stand there and lie to these people?” Tatiana said.
Passengers in line behind us with luggage shifted and murmured to each other. They had no idea what they were getting themselves into until I told them.
“It’s not my job to warn people,” I said to the woman behind the counter. “It’s yours. Have a little decency, will you?”
She angrily stabbed her keyboard with her fingers as she rebooked me on another Alitalia flight that was supposed to leave on Christmas Eve the next day. But it did not leave the next day. When I arrived the airport, my flight to Chicago wasn’t even on the Departures board. It was cancelled before I even got there, as I figured it would be.
I walked up to a counter where an Alitalia employee sat in front of a computer.
“Excuse me,” I said.
She yelled at me. “This counter is closed!”
The rudeness and hostility from company staff was just constant. It would have shocked me if I had arrived in Italy from the United States, but I had just arrived from Lebanon and Iraq, two of the most polite countries on earth. Obviously Rome is a more pleasant city than Baghdad, but I missed the Iraqis, and I missed the Lebanese even more.
I found another Alitalia woman behind a different counter.
“Excuse me,” I said.
“Yes?” she said. I was surprised she didn’t bitch at me.
“Is the flight to Chicago cancelled? It’s not on the board.”
“I don’t know, let me check.”
She stepped into a back office and emerged a few moments later.
“Yes,” she said, “it is cancelled.”
“Ugh,” I said. “I’ve been here for days.” I was hoping for a little commiseration, but I shouldn’t have said anything.
“You’ve been here for days?” she said. “Why? What happened?”
“Oh, give me a break,” I said. “Don’t pretend you don’t know what’s going on.”
She nodded, appeared slightly embarrassed, and walked away without saying a word.
The absurdly long line of more than a thousand people from the day before was shortened to a mere hundred or so. This was the line to wait in for those who wanted to be rebooked on a different airline. So I got in line. It “only” took two or so hours to get through it.
Blessedly, the woman at the counter was friendly.
“I can get you on a Delta flight that leaves in an hour,” she said.
“Excellent!” I said. “Oh, thank you so much.” I wanted to hug her. “I don’t suppose my luggage will be on the flight, will it?”
“Unfortunately, no,” she said. “But you can look for it in a few days at the Lost and Found in Chicago. Delta flights leave from Terminal Five. Hurry. Go right away. Get to Terminal Five and check in with Delta.”
I took the bus to Terminal Five and hurried to the Delta check-in counter. When I got to the front of the line, the man behind the counter said “What are you doing here?”
“Checking in?” I said.
“This is an Alitalia flight,” he said. “And that flight has been cancelled.”
“It’s not even operated by Delta?” I said.
“No,” he said. “It’s an Alitalia flight.”
My ticket said Alitalia on the top of it, but I assumed that was because Alitalia booked it, not because it was for an Alitalia flight. I might think that woman at the counter was incompetent, but I had been lied to so many times by so many Alitalia employees that I slightly doubted it.
“That is the worst airline in the world,” I said. The man was Italian, not American. I hoped I didn’t hurt any feelings of national pride he might have for that airline, but I needed to vent.
“Oh,” he said. “I know it. It is a horrible horrible airline. We hear complaints about them every day. I’m so sorry you have to fly with them.”
I went back to the Alitalia terminal. The woman at the desk was either a liar or an idiot, but I wasn’t going to give her a hard time. I just needed her to rebook me again, this time for real.
The line was longer than it was earlier, and I had waited in that line for two hours when it was shorter. I scanned the counter for the woman who had booked me just a few minutes before, but I didn’t see her. So I stepped up to the edge of the counter and motioned to the manager.
“Excuse me,” I said. Maybe he would know where she was.
“Don’t you dare summon me!” he screamed and pointed his finger at me. “You do that with your family, but not with me!”
Fuck you,” I said loudly enough that everybody in line could hear me. I hardly ever curse at total strangers, and I could hardly believe I had just said that.
Dozens of people cheered and broke out in applause. Everybody wanted to tell this company off. The manager curled his upper lip and glared at everybody with hatred. .
Sofocles and Tatiana were near the front of the line, and they let me join them. I wouldn’t have to wait two or three more hours, after all.
“We went downstairs to file a luggage complaint,” Tatiana said. “Six guys were just sitting around and laughing and eating at the office. They refused to help anybody. They weren’t doing anything and wouldn’t even acknowledge our existence. It was unbelievable. Something is wrong with this place.”
A manager finally helped her file the complaint. And he told her that 70,000 pieces of luggage were in the basement or out on the tarmac.
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Somebody shot some video of a small sample of the luggage downstairs and posted it to YouTube.
An Alitalia man at the counter — friendly for a change! — booked us on what he said was a British Airways flight to London.
“Is this actually a British Airways flight?” I said. “Is it operated by British Airways or by Alitalia? I can’t be booked on another Alitalia flight.”
“I understand,” he said. “Yes, it’s a British Airways flight, and it’s operated by British Airways.”
“You’re sure?” I said. I had a hard time believing anything anyone at Alitalia told me, even if they were convincing and friendly.
“I promise you, it’s British Airways.”
He lied.
It was an Alitalia flight, as I learned when I got to the check-in counter.
Sofocles, Tatiana, and I checked in together. We were basically traveling together at that point. When we got to the front of the line, we handed our tickets to the man at the counter.
“Where did you get these?” he said.
“Oh my God,” Tatiana said.
“From the rebooking counter,” I said. “Is there a problem?”
He didn’t say anything. He just tapped a few keys on his keyboard.
A woman worked the window next to him. “How many flights have you cancelled today?” I asked her.
“None,” she said.
“They’re lying again!” Tatiana said.
“You cancelled ours to Chicago,” I said.
I live in the UK, a man had said to me days ago. But I was born here in Italy. These people will do nothing but lie. Trust me. I know how this country works.
My God, he wasn’t kidding.
We didn’t have much time to get to our flight, assuming it would even take off. According to the Departures screen, it was already boarding. I was amazed to see that it was boarding since it turned out not to be a British Airways flight, after all.
I looked at my watch.
“We need our boarding passes,” Sofocles said and tapped his foot.
Suddenly the man who was processing our tickets stood up, put on his coat, and walked off the job, without handing us boarding passes and without saying a word.
“Where do you think you’re going?” I said to his back.
He turned around and glowered at me as he walked briskly away.
“We’re screwed,” Tatiana said.
One Alitalia employee after another had walked off the job right in front of me. In a way, I could hardly blame them. The airport was a zoo full of screaming people. Alitalia had clearly reached a tipping point, as had its passengers.
“Thank God for the United States,” an elderly man standing behind me said in an Italian accent.
“You live in the States?” I said.
“I was born in Rome,” he said, “but I’ve lived in Chicago for thirty five years.”
The woman at the next window gave Sofocles, Tatiana, and me our boarding passes.
We ran to security gate and cut through the line with apologies.
“Excuse me, sorry, our plane is boarding.”
Nobody complained.
As it turned out, though, there was no need to cut through the security line. Our Alitalia flight had been delayed thirty minutes for the sake of people like us who had been rebooked at the last minute. The airline finally did something right.
Tatiana waited at the gate while Sofocles and I went to a café to get sandwiches. Just as we reached the front of the line, the cashier loudly slammed down the “Closed” sign and walked away without saying a word.
“What the hell?” Sofocles said.
“What a strange country,” said a Pakistani man standing behind me in line.
Our flight to London actually took off. I didn’t have my luggage. I didn’t know if I would ever even see my luggage again. But at least I was getting out of Rome’s ridiculous airport.
“Thank you for choosing to fly with us,” the Alitalia pilot said a few minutes before we landed in London. Several passengers snorted derisively.
*
Sofocles, Tatiana, and I barely made our connection to Chicago. Of course our luggage didn’t arrive, but I have a friend in Chicago. I stayed at his house for a few days and waited there so I could retrieve my bags if they showed up at Lost and Found. My luggage wasn’t checked all the way through to my home town because I had a separate plane ticket to Portland on a separate airline.
I spent days on the phone asking about my luggage. It didn’t show up. Nobody at Chicago’s airport even knew if Alitalia’s baggage handling staff had gone back to work yet.
So I gave up and went to the airport to buy a new ticket home on United Airlines. Alitalia would supposedly deliver my luggage to my house if it ever arrived, and there was no longer any point in waiting around. But I thought I’d go to the Alitalia office in Chicago just in case. I braced myself to be screamed at and lied to again.
“Hi,” I said to the woman at the Alitalia counter. “I flew here from Rome a few days ago, and I don’t have my luggage. Is there any chance it’s here somewhere?”
“Actually, yes, there is a chance,” she said in an American accent. “We have a whole bunch of bags in the back room.”
I handed her my claim tickets, and she went back to look for my stuff. She was in the back office for a quiet a while. I hoped she was actually looking.
Finally she emerged with one of my bags in her hands.
“That’s my bag!” I said.
She smiled.
She had found the bag with my laptop and camera inside, the one that was supposed to be my carry-on bag, the one they forced me to check in Beirut. If I could choose only one of my two bags to get back, it would have been that one. The other just had clothes and other easily replaceable items inside.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” I said.
“You are quite welcome,” she said. “And I’m sorry about all this trouble.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “It isn’t your fault. I’m just glad to have this bag back. This one has all my valuables in it.”
“There is another flight coming in an hour or so,” she said. “Check back in two hours and we’ll see if your second bag has arrived.”
I felt fifty pounds lighter, and greatly relieved that Alitalia’s staff in Chicago was so much more pleasant to deal with than Alitalia’s staff in Rome’s airport.
I came back two hours later. The woman who had helped me earlier had been replaced with another.
A handful of people stood in line ahead of me. The young man at the front of the line — who was, I believe, from Mexico — wanted to know if his luggage had arrived.
“We don’t have any luggage here,” the Alitalia woman said in an Italian accent.
I felt like I had just been whisked back to Rome. I knew this woman was lying. The whole back office was full of luggage. I had seen the pile myself, and one of my own bags had just been retrieved from that pile by her American co-worker.
“There’s a ton of luggage back there,” I said. I held up my bag so that everybody could see. “Your co-worker found this bag back there just over an hour ago.”
The woman was stunned. She hadn’t seen me before. She had no idea I had already been to that counter, no idea that her co-worker had already helped me, no idea that I knew she was lying.
“Well!” she said. “This man’s luggage isn’t back there.”
“How would you know if you haven’t looked?” the man from Mexico said.
“I just know!” the woman said. “I’m here by myself and I am very stressed out. Go home! Go home and we’ll ship your luggage to you when we can.”
“I need my luggage today,” the man said. “I have medicine in there that my mother needs.”
“Go home!” the woman said. “I know it’s easier for you to get it right now, but it’s easier for me if we ship it to you.”
The man left empty handed and muttered something in Spanish under his breath.
My second checked bag arrived at my house a month later. It had been left outside for days in Rome’s winter rains. All my clothing was covered in mold.
Alitalia owes me 600 Euros, plus damages. They’ll never pay it.
Post-script: Exposing ethically bankrupt corporations isn’t part of my regular job, but sometimes things happen, and this is a public service. If this warning is worth something to you, or even if you merely found it entertaining to read, please consider a donation. And stay tuned for a series of dispatches from Beirut and Baghdad.
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