February 18th, 2010

Area Expat Plans Overland Escape After Earlier Attempt to Flee Hungary Foiled by Epic Malév-Fueled Airline Fuck-up

malev-nightmare.jpg

Some sad news today for us here at Pestiside.hu. One of our most longstanding and cherished tipsters/contributors, Sean Jordan, is leaving Hungary. It’s not all gloom and doom, because Sean is about to embark on a year-plus trip around the world by Vespa, and hasn’t closed the door for a return to Hungary at some future date. But it’s also sad given that he’s leaving overland in part because of the scars he suffered during a recent, abortive attempt to travel from Budapest to Canada via Hungary’s often equally punitive and dysfunctional “flag carrier,” Malév Hungarian Airlines.

The sad story you are about to hear began at the crack of dawn on December 20th, when Sean arrived at a snow-dusted Ferihegy airport to board a 7:10 a.m. flight to Amsterdam for a connection on to Toronto, and discovered that the first segment was being operated by Malév rather than KLM, as promised on the ticket. While the ensuing nightmare can not be fully pinned on Malév, the airline’s personnel play a crucial and infuriating role in the entire fuckup. So without any further delay, here, in Sean’s own words, is what happened:

08:10 (Dec. 20): Our 07:10 flight to Amsterdam departs an hour late.

09:45 (Dec. 20): We circle Amsterdam for an hour, and then the pilot tells us we’ll have to land in Frankfurt on account of Schiphol airport being closed.

10:45 (Dec. 20): We land in Frankfurt, and wait on the tarmac for two hours. It’s snowing harder.

12:45 (Dec. 20): The flight crew says that we’re invited to leave the plane and wait in the departure lounge until 17:00, at which point we’ll re-board and move on to Amsterdam.

13:30 (Dec. 20): After hanging out in the departures lounge for a while, a group of fellow passengers band together and start looking for a Malév employee to see what’s up. The flight crew is nowhere to be found. There’s no mention of our flight on the big board, either. Nobody at any of the departures gates knows anything about the Malév flight, or where we might find the Malév flight crew. An Alitalia ticket-checker recommends that we go into the main hall and try and find somebody there.

13:45 (Dec. 20): And off we go, past the luggage claim and into the arrivals hall. There’s nobody at the Malév desk. Frankfurt airport is filling up.

13:50 (Dec. 20): The few dozen of us who’ve banded together then go to the main information kiosk. Nobody there knows what’s going on. The information guy gets on the PA and several times asks for somebody from Malév to show up and get us. Half an hour passes. Nobody shows.

14:45 (Dec. 20): Worried that the plane might leave without us, we head back to the departures lounge – but first, it’s an hour and a half to go back through security. With much pleading, our original boarding passes are sufficient to get us through.

16:15 (Dec. 20): A mad dash to the original gate where we parked, and there we confront a harried Alitalia employee tasked to deal with us. The plane’s heading back to Budapest in 10 minutes, she says. I’m thinking it might be best if I just head back to Hungary. I produce my boarding pass stub and she says, nope, that’s not good enough -you need a new boarding pass. But this original one got me back through security, says I. Sorry, them’s the rules, says she. Based on the chaos I witnessed out at the check-in counters and transfer desks, getting a new boarding pass would take quite some time. Meanwhile, none of us is getting on that plane, and the two dozen or so passengers take turns screaming at the Alitalia lady. She doesn’t even know where our luggage is.

16:20 (Dec. 20): And so, the empty plane flies back to Budapest.

16:30 (Dec. 20): Resigned to its fate, the abandoned mob shuffles out into the main hall and waits. And waits. A lone Czech airlines employee announces she’ll be processing us, and epic queuing begins. Two oldsters in our group who don’t have the stamina to stand in line sit off to the side instead, unloved and defeated. Then a horrible Greek woman repeatedly elbows her way to the front of the line, and the rest of us fantasize about murdering her. It takes 10 hours to process everybody. The last five passengers to be get their re-routed tickets, including myself, are a cross-section of the Anglosphere: the UK, the US, Canada, and Australia. Go figure.

01:00 (Dec. 21): I’m given a routing to Toronto three days later, via Warsaw. It’s all the Czech airlines lady can offer me – but then I look at expedia.com on my Blackberry, and there are plenty of available seats on direct flights from Frankfurt to Toronto, and I show it to her. Aha, she says, she doesn’t have access to those blocks of seats on that flight, which cost $4,000 by the way, but if I’ve got $4,000, I should just buy a seat. I don’t have $4,000, and I opt for the Warsaw flight. I then take a train downtown and check into a hotel.

06:00 (Dec. 23): I show up at Frankfurt airport, and it’s like a Chinese railway station in there – merely checking in would take half a day. As I contemplate the mass of humanity before me, the polizei comes rushing in, screaming at people who’ve been queueing for hours to clear the check-in hall. Within minutes, a hundred check-in counters stand empty, presumably because of some suspicious unattended luggage somewhere. No matter; my flight to Warsaw, it turns out, is massively late, meaning I’ll miss the connection to Toronto. I throw in the towel and make my way towards the sweet civility of the nearby Deutsche Bahn terminal.

19:00 (Dec. 24): I roll into Keleti station, resolving that when I do finally leave this ‘burg for good, I’m gonna do it at an altitude of 0 feet.

And here is what people were saying back before we forced readers to use Facebook to comment. Weren't those the days?
  1. wolfi says:

    Well, that was the most horrifying travel story that I’ve read, poor guy.

    But that’s life, as the old Lufthansa joke goes:
    Breakfast in Berlin, Lunch in New York, Dinner in San Francisco – Luggage in Moscow …

    BTW: How is Ferihegy in general ?

    We want to fly to the states, maybe around Easter, so we can start in Vienna or Graz or Budapest, go from there to London, Paris or Munich and then on to LA or San Francisco Has anyone any recommendations or remarks what to avoid ?

  2. Zoltan says:

    My only negative travel experiences at Ferihegy have been with cheap airlines. Once you get into the terminal there really aren’t any good food or drink options so keep that in mind.

    As for flying to the states, avoid any transfers in the US and have all your connections in Europe, since you’ll have to go through customs at the first place you land in America, which if you have a tight connection can mean a missed flight.

  3. wolfi says:

    Thanks, Zoltan, we’ve already had to transfer once at Atlanta (to Miami) – that airport is really large with its own kind of Metro, but we made it without any problems

  4. Stig's fat american cousin says:

    The wife and I fly Lufthansa for Los Angeles – Munich – Ferihegy once or twice per year and it’s been a perfect experience each time.

    Munich is an excellent airport, a far cry from Frankfurt. Avoid Paris CDG if you can. Avoid London-Heathrow at all costs.

    The A340-600 Lufthansa uses (mostly) for the long haul to LAX out of MUC is a great plane and more importantly has individual TV screens for all passengers.

    Zoltan is spot on regarding Ferihegy and transfers in the US.

  5. wolfi says:

    @Stig’s cousin:

    Thanks to you too, the only problem for us is that “Lusthansa” won’t sell you cheap tickets usually.

    So even when i (or now we) fly from Stuttgart, I always had to connect through Paris. London or Amsterdam with BA, KLM or Delta having really good prices …

    But of course we’re checking prices regularly on the ‘net.

  6. Sean says:

    The larger point I was trying to make with my long-winded sob story there is that Malev intentionally gave a planeload of passengers the slip. That was what was so appalling about it; the rest of my woes were just typical snowed-in airport stuff and not worthy of any finger-pointing. But lying to passengers and abandoning them far from their destination, with no explanation at all? That wasn’t so cool.

  7. Minnie the moody says:

    Ferihegy travel tip for budding terrorists: After
    you pass through the xray into the boarding area,
    visit the self-service restaurant where you pick up
    your weapons of choice: metal knives, forks. No
    further security checks before boarding, so don’t
    worry your little turbanned head about getting
    frisked down. Happy hikacking!

  8. Zoltan says:

    @Sean, agreed, that was quite shitty on Malév’s part. Be glad you didn’t have a bag over the weight limit as well.

    @wolfi, I’ve found lots of cheap tickets with Lufthansa before, but never by buying directly from them. I usually find them via travelocity, although you should give kayak a try as well.

  9. Sean says:

    RE: Ferihegy Security

    My story:

    I left Budapest for Zurich a couple of weeks ago, and although I was in Zurich for work, I decided that I could spend a few afternoons snowboarding here. I packed an additional carry-on suitcase to accomodate my snowboarding clothes and boots.

    As I passed through security, the lady tells me that there is something suspicious in my bag and asks me over to the security monitor, demanding to know what it is. At first I had no idea (due to the strange shape of the object) but soon realized that it was my snowboard multi tool. I told her, opened the suitcase and retrieved the obejct.

    Her reaction: without even examining it any further (she didn’t even touch the thing), she told me that she’d be reluctant to take it off me. I smiled and said that I wasn’t intending to stab anyone with it anyway. She then proceeded to ask me promise her that I wouldn’t. Once I did, she let me pass. Go figure…

  10. C'est Moi says:

    Sean – You really should have taught her a lesson for the common good by stabbing at least on person during the flight.

  11. yotphix says:

    @Minnie
    I’m guessing you have never flown at the front of
    the plane? Where everyone eats with metal cutlery?
    The plastic cultlery is not a safety item, it is a
    cost saving measure. Just like the new luggage
    restrictions.

  12. klara says:

    and i thought my trip was bad on the 18th!! just as we were about to be checked in with BA for the early morning flight to London – they announced that heathrow is closed and everyone is to be rerouted.

    close to an hour before (being third in line) i was rerouted to frankfurt then to chicago then to boston. naturally, the frankfurt flight left just late enough to miss the connection and so as i tried to sleep in the airport hotel i was put up in i hear that there is a northeasterner heading toward my destination.

    next day i’ve had myself listed on a standby for boston directly at noon as well as kept the reservation on the chicago flight.

    good news – got the seat on the direct flight as there were delays all around. bad news the noon flight left at 4:30 p.m. i’m imagining the snow clouds coming in as we arrive and can’t land.

    luckily the snow arrived 2 hours after i did with the delay in boston.

    problem came in on the return – apparently nobody bothered to let AA know about my rerouted trip and when i didn’t show in london on 12/18 my return flight was cancelled.

    would it be too much trouble for me to leave the next day? lady, do i have a choice here?

    showed up the next day with 4 suitcases and although they would not hear of an upgrade i did get all my suitcases on board with no extra charge for the extra bags or the extra weight.

    it was by far the worse trip ever but it is good to know that i’m not the only one who can’t deal with emergencies.

  13. klara says:

    reading through the other messages – good to know that it is not only my dislike of the french the i swore off transfers in paris. my luggage was completely torn apart – lining and handle, toothpaste and paprika paste tubes stabbed and everything in suitcase generously coated with the content. :(

    lufthansa was a very pleasant surprise, real cutlery even in the tourist class and the individual screens with 12 movie choices AND free alcoholic drinks. on the return with AA it cost $6 for a wine with dinner and no earphones were given for the movies, some cold coffee for breakfast….never again.

  14. Munich News says:

    I was flying once from Munich to Budapest with Malev
    and must admit it was not the best experience of my
    life. Lufthansa is the best, but they are
    unfortunately on strike right now.

  15. Minnie the midget says:

    @yotphix, what you say is true, however I well
    remember in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, in
    the food area at Ferihegy 2 all metal utensils
    were removed. I was rather surprised when they
    magically reappeared quite some months later.

    The TSA site
    http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/prohibited/
    permitted-prohibited-items.shtm states that you
    are only not allowed to bring on board “Knives –
    except for plastic or round bladed butter knives”.
    I’ll have to double check next time at Ferihegy
    but I’m pretty sure the knives in the food area
    are not traditional blunt butter knives. Anyway, I
    could do more damage with a nail scissors (now
    once again permitted in carry-on) than a regular
    table knife.

    But in any case, all this is a load of bollox if
    you can get past security with some explosive
    chemical hidden in your underpants. Read up on
    how the Israelis do security.

  16. audrey says:

    Dear Sean,

    we were also on the plane from Budapest to Amsterdam, which went back to Frankfurt. We were lucky, because finally after 3 days we reached our destination. But we are still shocked. Not because of the snow or delays. But because of the behaviour of the airlines staff: they told a lie, they didn’t give information, they didn’t handle the issues. (Next day in Amsterdam we spent 1 day to find our luggage to forward to our final destination.)

  17. Howard says:

    @Sean

    Actually, Sean, you have a ground-breaking story here. The spin is that while we’re used to airlines losing luggage, only Malev could actually lose all it’s passengers. I keep my expectations low, really low, when it comes to customer service in this neck of the woods. When it’s good, I get a pleasant surprise rather than constant disappointment when it sucks which it usually does. But losing a planeload of passengers. Wow. Move over Aeroflot, here comes Malev. Wait a minute…aren’t they both owned by Russians?

  18. wolfi says:

    Thanks for all those horror stories – we just decided not to use Ferihegy but to fly from Vienna or Graz – the travel time for us is about the same.

 
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