Trip Report: Weekend in Madrid Part 1: Alitalia JFK-FCO, a Missed Connection, and Why Chris Elliott is Wrong

Trip Report: Weekend in Madrid Part 1:  JFK-FCO and a Missed Connection

Alitalia Flt. 609, Boeing 777, Economy
Sched. Dep. 5:35pm, Actual Dep. 7:05pm
Sched. Arr. 8:10am, Actual Arr. 9:10am

In the fall, Alitalia had a promo on its Japanese website that effectively took $250 off the price of any Alitalia ticket booked on that site.  Alitalia said it had only been meant for flights departing from Japan, but in the end, honored tickets that, after the $250 discount, still had a net positive cost to the customer.  So lots of people who had bought shorthauls within Europe were out of luck.  But for folks like me who had bought tickets to Madrid that still cost around $280 after the coupon, the tickets were honored.   So a long weekend in Madrid it was.  Huzzah!

Although I’ve flown Alitalia to Europe before, I’ve never flown it in coach, and never flown it out of JFK.  Alitalia’s business class is generally an underrated/forgotten Skymiles redemption, and in the past I’ve redeemed for flights out of Newark on what I think is Skyteam’s best transatlantic business product.  You can read about my last flights on Alitalia here and here.  So this was basically an entirely new experience for me.

At JFK, Alitalia flies out of Terminal 1, a mutt of an international terminal which hosts a mix of  carriers from different alliances, stemming from the fact that the terminal was built by Lufthansa, Air France, Korean, and JAL prior to the solidification of the alliances in 1998.

After an easy AirTrain ride to the terminal, I headed to security.  There was no SkyPriority sign, so I went to the line that said “First Class, Business Class, VIP.”  The surly agent simply told me “No” and pointed me to another unmarked line, which I realized was the general line.  As I looped back past to the first agent, I said “Isn’t this the line for SkyPriority?” “Yes.” “Then why did you send me over there?” “Well you have to tell me you’re SkyPriority.”  “It says it right on the boarding pass in huge letters.” “How am I supposed to know.”  Seriously.

Security moved superslowly since the largely European crowd had no idea how to do anything.  The guy in front of me tried to go through the millimeter wave scan with his wallet, belt, cell phone, and change in his pockets.  By the time I got through, it was about 30 minutes til boarding, so I headed straight for the lounge.

I had done some research online, but not a ton, and it seemed my options were the Korean Air lounge and Air France lounge.  I decided to try the Korean Air lounge, since I’d never been in a Korean lounge, and my last Air France lounge experience was subpar to say the least.  Plus, I’d read the Korean lounge would be less crowded at that hour, since the Asian-bound flights leave later in the evening.

The Korean lounge was right across from the Alitalia gate, and I headed up.  The agent at the desk said “Well, I can let you in here, but I’d go to the Alitalia lounge… it’s nicer.”  Based on my own experiences with the crappy Alitalia lounges at FCO, I was skeptical, but figured I’d check it out.

Alitalia Michelangelo Lounge

Alitalia Michelangelo Lounge

The Alitalia lounge must be pretty new, and is the lounge used by Turkish Airlines as well.  To my surprise, it was large and roomy, well-lit, with plenty of seating and power ports.  There was a small self-serve “snack bar”  with basic mid-shelf liquors, champagne, and fridges full of pre-portioned salads, sandwiches, pita chips and hummus, cheeses, and soft drinks – a lot more substantial than the offerings at Alitalia’s Rome lounges.   My only complaint was that all the dishes and glassware were plastic.  Not a big deal, but probably the only time I’ve drank champagne out of a plastic cup since college!IMG_0002 IMG_0003

The signage at the lounge was unclear as to whether boarding was starting, so at scheduled boarding time, I headed out.  About 10 minutes later, without any PA announcement, I heard a woman saying “Business and Priority?” to customers near the Priority lane.  So onto the plane I went.

The flight was on Alitalia’s newly refitted Boeing 777, with great business class, a tiny premium economy “cabin” of two rows, and two coach cabins.  At check in, I had a seat in the front of the two coach cabins, with no one else in my row.  While some have reported upgrades to premium economy, I wasn’t so lucky.  But the middle seat next to me stayed free—particularly good since all of the window seats have close to no legroom due to the presence of a floor-stored entertainment unit.  Pitch was fine, though – far better than that I’d experienced on my United EWR-SFO the week before.IMG_0006

And then the snow started.  I had initially been very worried about making my connection in Rome – only 45 minutes, with the next Alitalia flight to Madrid about six  hours later.  There was an Alitalia-codeshare on an Air Europa flight 2 hours later, though, so I figured I might be able to get on that.  I saw that the JFK-FCO flight tends to arrive an hour early, though, which should be more than sufficient time to clear immigration and make the next flight.  Fast forward to the week of departure, and I saw that snow was predicted for Friday evening—just as I was leaving.  But everything seemed clear as I headed to the airport, and as I boarded the plane.

I was working away on my computer, and heard the Captain announced we were being delayed for snow (in Italian), before looking out my left and seeing this:


Not what you want to see when you’re worried about a tight connection.  Sure enough, the Captain said we’d have a 25 minute delay, in order for deicing of the runway and the plane.  Not ideal, but not bad.  As we sat, I dozed off.

When I woke up, I had a feeling that more than 25 minutes had passed … and that we hadn’t moved.  In fact, it had been an hour.  I turned my phone on briefly to see what the estimated flight arrival was, but the most recent FlightStats alert I had was already 25 minutes old.   Shortly after, the cabin crew asked us to power down cellular phones, and at 7:45, more than two hours after our scheduled departure, it was wheels up.   I  realized that short of warp speed travel and a teleportation through immigration at FCO, the likelihood of me making a connection that left in seven hours was nil.

Shortly after the seatbelt sign was turned off, the crew came down the aisle with a beverage service and a bag of snack mix.  While awaiting the meal service, I played around with the somewhat clunky AVOD entertainment system, which was the same as it had been in business, but with a smaller screen.  There was a mix of about two dozen new and not so new American, Italian, and other films.

Meal service came pretty quickly, and I realized that the majority of the flight was Italian passengers, as they were interacting with the flight crew in Italian.  The choice of carne o pasta was easy enough for me to handle with my basic Italian.  The beef was fine, I’d say on par or slightly better than most transatlantic coach food I’ve had.  The “appetizer” of bologna and potato salad was the weirdest part, and reminded me of Czech Airlines.


Alitalia coach dinner

Alitalia coach dinner

Then it was bedtime.  The seats were pretty comfortable, except for the aforementioned entertainment box at my feet and an “adjustable” headrest not designed for tall people, which kept falling down into my back.  The anxiety about my connection made it hard to sleep. But the red wine and an over-the-counter sleeping pill made it okay.

Before I knew it, I was awake for breakfast.  Sometime in the night, the in-flight entertainment system had stopped working, oh well.  Breakfast was as expected, a yogurt, and a pastry.  And then we were landing.  At 9:05.  And my connection was scheduled to depart at 8:50.  This was going to be fun.

Some carbs

Some carbs

The purser apologized for the delay and said that members of the ground staff were aware of our delay and would book us on the most convenient connection.  Alright.  That sounded reassuring.

Disembarking took awhile as we were bused from the plane to the terminal, and the bus waited for a good five minutes after everyone was already off the plane.  When I got to the terminal, there was no transit desk, only some Alitalia crew holding signs with specific destinations – Madrid not being one of them — so I just followed the signs to Transiting flights.  This brought me through  a security check and then dumped me right into the main terminal.  I stopped an Alitalia agent and asked where to go if I missed my connection.  She said, as if it was obvious, “You have to go to the transit desk in Terminal D.”

Terminal D was not close, and on the other side of immigration.  Luckily, the passport control line was short and the officer was very busy on his phone, and barely glanced at my passport before waving me through.

I finally made it to the Terminal D transit desk, where a lone bored Alitalia employee sat.  I told him I missed my flight, he took my boarding pass, and proceeded to punch some things into his computer and then make a telephone call.  He definitely mentioned my SkyPriority status along with my name, and soon he handed me an e-ticket receipt for the Air Europa flight departing at 10:30, and told me I had to go to the gate to get a boarding pass.  At this point it was already 9:30.  There was some computer issue at the gate, but I finally got my boarding pass around 9:45.  Given boarding was scheduled to start in 15 minutes, I figured I’d skip any sort of lounge visit, and just grabbed a bottle of water and waited in the crowded area.  Stay tuned for a description of my maiden Air Europa flight.

One thing I would add, though, is this shows exactly how wrong “consumer advocate” Chris Elliott is about code-sharing.  For those who don’t know, Chris Elliott is a self-appointed consumer advocate who knows very little about travel and how it works, yet runs a blog where he runs tirades and airs grievances of his own and largely ignorant travelers who ask him for help. Such tirades include “I booked a Hotwire or Priceline room and it wasn’t a very nice hotel so it should be free,”  “I showed up late for a flight and now the airline should have to bend over backwards for me,” “Frequent Flyer Programs are a scam so you shouldn’t collect miles,” and “Booking mistake fares is stealing.”  He often gripes about codesharing as some sort of deception, and also blames codesharing for any problem that results out of a journey that involves more than one carrier – even where there isn’t a codeshare involved.

But as I’ve learned in the past, and as shown here, airlines are much more likely to rebook you on a flight operated by a different carrier when there is a codeshare on that flight – even as compared to other flights within the same alliance.  As an example, a few years ago I had a flight canceled from Halifax to Newark on Continental.  The agent wouldn’t rebook me on the nonstop Air Canada flight, because it wasn’t a Continental codeshare.  She told me she’d book me on any codeshare I could find though.  Sure enough, I ended up on a much more expensive flight, flying from Halifax to Boston on Air Canada—a Continental codeshare flight—and then Continental down to New York.  Here, the next Alitalia flight wasn’t until 2:20pm, meaning I’d spend almost the entire day in the airport.  But since there was an Alitalia codeshare on the Air Europa flight, I was able to be rebooked easily.

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