Overbooked

Posted August 1, 1999 at 2:18 am No Comments

The gaunt, bespectacled, middle-aged man standing in front of me in the line for the Air France ticketing counter certainly didn’t look much of a rabble-rouser, but when he was refused a seat on the morning flight to Toronto, his conversation with the ticketing agent escalated so rapidly in animosity that I couldn’t help but start to listen in.   Normally I take pride in my level of comprehension of spoken French, but before long I couldn’t understand a thing that the angry man was shouting.  Not only was he emotionally distressed to the point of near incoherence, but judging from the embarrassed blushes of the poor young airline employee behind the counter, he was using the sort of vocabulary that one doesn’t typically pick up in a course on classical French literature.

The man was acting like a child that had been denied a trip to the zoo, alternating between insulting the ticketing agent, staring sulkily away as the concept of overbooking was explained to him for the umpteenth time, weeping (yes, weeping), and turning to the crowd in a failed attempt to elicit support (“This is supposed to be a country of rights! I demand my rights!”).  Things became completely ridiculous when he vaulted the ticket counter, shoved the agent out of the way, and began typing on her computer.  A nearby attendant discreetly spoke a few words into her walkie-talkie, and a minute later the ticketing area was full of security officers and white-clad medical personnel.

By now the angry man was hyperventilating.  He had removed his tie, and his formerly pristine business suit was in disarray.  Still behind the ticket counter, he slumped down unceremoniously on the nearby baggage conveyor, put his head in his hands, withdrew into a fetal position, and began sobbing loudly.  When the security officers approached him, he shied away, first cringing inward and then kicking outward indiscriminately.  Finally, one of the members of the medical staff sedated him with some sort of chloroform equivalent, and he was wheeled away on a stretcher.

Having suddenly and rather impressively regained her composure, the ticketing agent returned to her post, noticing that during the protracted fiasco, a sizeable line had accumulated (along with a sizeable crowd).  “Prochaine!” she called out calmly as if nothing had happened.  I stepped up to the counter and handed her my paperwork.

Somehow, I wasn’t all that surprised to discover that I too had been denied a spot on the Toronto flight.  Although this irked me somewhat, at least I was now able to put things into perspective.  No matter how urgently I needed to return home, my situation could not possibly be anywhere near as dire as that of the gentleman before me.

“Since the Toronto flight is full, we will put you on this afternoon’s flight to Montreal,” the ticket agent explained with typical French precision.  “From there you will continue to Toronto via Canadian Airlines.  In Toronto you can board a later flight to Pittsburgh — will that be satisfactory, monsieur?”

“Yes,” I grumbled, thinking of all the additional time I would be spending in line at various airports.  “I suppose that that will be satisfactory.”

“Good,” said the ticketing agent.  “Since you will have to wait overnight in Toronto, we will pay for a hotel for you.  It is a four-star hotel. We will also pay for your meals.  Does that meet with your approval, monsieur?”

“Yes,” I replied, more enthusiastically this time, “I think that that should be quite satisfactory.”

“Excellent,” replied the ticket agent.  “Naturally, you will be paid two thousand francs compensation for your trouble, or if you prefer, a four thousand franc voucher for future travel on Air France.  Does the monsieur also find that satisfactory?”

“Yes,” I nodded emphatically, and proceeded to communicate in excitedly confused French that the monsieur found that particular arrangement quite, quite, satisfactory indeed, thank you very much madame.

Later that night, after a lavish seafood dinner, I luxuriated on my obscenely large bed in front of a 28-inch television and wondered what the man in front of me in line could have possibly been so upset about.  All told, Air France had spent 300 dollars on my room and my food (granted, they were Canadian dollars, but the figure is impressive nonetheless).  The next morning I picked up my ticket to Pittsburgh and was off.   I remember being proud of myself for resisting the temptation to say “Aboot time, eh?”

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