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The French Connection: A rational discussion on CDG

The French Connection: A rational discussion on CDG

Old Jan 3, 06, 11:16 pm
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The French Connection: A rational discussion on CDG

I realize I am headed into deep water, but my curisotiy has gotten the better of me. So, here we go.

Just what is it, exactly, that seems to get everyone so stirred up about flying to (or through) Paris-CDG? Every now and then, we see periods on the FT boards where "blame the French" is the scut answer for everything. But my honest-to-goodness feeling is that this is simply not deserved. I think it is merely easy to say that, and it's popular to say that, and it often "feels right" to say it...but I just don't think it's true. I will set out my reasons for saying this below, and I will use only (1) objective fact and (2) personal experience in support of my contentions.

I am truly interested in my FT friends' experiences at CDG in particular (and in France generally, as it applies to flying and traveling) because so many of you have posted such negative feelings and unfavorable comments about it. And yet I just cannot understand why I totally come down on the other side of the equation from most you, despite the fact that I fly in and out of CDG on the CO 10/11 flights at least one roundtrip per month -- sometimes two roundtrips per month -- and have done so for a decade. Thus, from my perspective, I feel like I really have "seen it all, at Charles de Gaulle" (it even rhymes).

And, having made roughly 200 roundtrip flights to/from CDG, I can honestly say that I am baffled by the opinion the majority of you hold. It sort of saddens me that you all have had these (allegedly) terrible experiences there -- and repeatedly, it appears from your posts -- which is sure to color your view and opinion of the entire experience. I so often (almost always, in fact!) agree with the opinions of the seasoned FT travelers, but I just can't get there on this one.

And first, the disclaimers: I am American, not French. I do have extended family in Paris and Lyon, but my parents, siblings, wife, and children are 100% Texan. I am lucky enough to have spoken French and Italian with my grandparents since birth, making me fluent in both those languages, but English is my first language. I am not a French apologist, but neither am I an American imperialist. I am simply an attorney whose practice is based on both sides of the Atlantic, affording me the wonderful blessing and gift of meeting and coming to love wonderful, talented, and welcoming people in both France and the USA, a fact that has blessed me and my children beyond measure (in my opinion anyway). I say that because, obviously, the reader must know the perspective of the writer before deciding what weight to lend the writer's arguments and suppositions. But now that I've fully disclosed, let's get on with it.

For clarity (and a modicum of brevity), I will follow a specific format for the balance of this mini-essay. After presenting a numbered "myth" about CDG in bold, I will then examine whether facts or experience show it to be generally true, or generally false -- realizing that even the most airtight theorums have their exceptions. And frankly, I am NOT talking about exceptions -- I am trying to address the generalities of the overall FT opinion on CDG. (By way of a State-side example: A Parisian friend of mine, who was arriving into IAH to visit my family on AF 36 from CDG - IAH, was re-routed to land in Austin because IAH closed for a few hours due to an ICE STORM, and the A-340 she was on was getting low on fuel after 2 hours of circling. Now, that's an EXCEPTION, certainly, but she now "remembers" IAH as an airport with ice and snow problems, even though that almost NEVER happens.)

1. The ground staff at CDG are rude and uncaring.
Sorry, I do not believe that. I may have encountered a few of them here and there, but I frankly have encountered far MORE of them at EWR, even though I fly through EWR only infrequently. Everytime I have needed to ask a ground staffer a question, or get directions, or inquire about a posted flight problem, the ground staff agent has been helpful, courteous, and quick. But this is not congruent with many FT posts on the issue. I guess I don't understand why it is that I could have used CDG hundreds of times and never walked away feeling like the ground staff are rude or uncaring, when many FT'ers believe that is the standard response there all the time!

2. The CO agents at CDG exhibit less than the customary level of service expected in the USA.
I have never personally seen this occur, but many people have told me it does occur. Thus, I'm sure their perspective is completely valid -- and that is what totally confuses me! Certainly the concept of customer service can vary from country to country, and the USA demands (sometimes unreasonably) a very high level of customer service. Well, that is our right to demand, isn't it! And yet, I have always found the CO CDG staff to be quite charming and warm, always welcoming me with a smile and kind words, and I see them doing this to others, too. By contrast, at IAH, I am greeted with perfunctory (though quick) mechanics of getting the job done. Actually, I may prefer the "quick" and perfunctory style to a "slow" but warm style -- but I find that the CO staff at CDG are generally both warm and quick.

3. The French just don't like Americans
Complete hogwash. The currently-seated French government may not agree with every tenet of American foreigh policy at the moment, but so what, my friends. Neither do we Americans agree with every tenet of Chinese foreign policy at the moment, but we don't "just dislike the Chinese." This whole myth is just absurd. Without any meaningful exception, the individual French people I have been lucky enough to meet and become firends with have all welcomed me with open arms and great kindness. I refuse to believe that I "just happen" by luck, chance, fortune, or astromically bizarre coincidence never to have met one of "the other" types of French people who dislike AMericans "just because" we are American.

4. CDG is disorganized and is a terrible airport for transiting to connecting flights.
Sorry, I must bust this myth right here. On a percentage basis, I have missed more connecting flights at EWR, AMS, and LGW than I have at CDG. I can count on one hand the numbers of times I have missed a connection at CDG after arriving on a longhaul or trying to depart on a longhaul from CDG. All signage at CDG (airside and landside, before and after Passport control, before and after Customs/douane) are in French, English and often a third language as well, depending on the Terminal. There are multiple ways of changing terminals, so if one method is not feasible (due to technical problems, short connection time, whatever) the traveler always has another valid option. And besides, for those of you fit enough to walk hard (quasi aerobically), you can hoof it from 2A to 2C (for example) in 15 minutes, if you just follow the signs and use the moving walkways. The terminals and halls are wide, clearly marked, easy to use, mapped out well...what more do you want, really? After all, flying from one side of the world to the other does entail some degree of small challenge, occasionally.

5. The departing pax's Passport lines are always interminably long.
Nonsense. Without fail, they are shorter than those at LGW and LHR! Besides, if one line is long, go down to the next Passport control line, use that one (if shorter), then walk back toward your departure gate on the airside area.

6. The CDG arrivals formalities are chaotic, long, and disorganized.
Again, that is just NOT my experience at all at CDG. Generally speaking, I go from the cabin of the just-parked CO 777 through Passport and through Customs/douane and into the Arrivals hall in roughly 15 minutes. 20 minutes would be considered long (by me) at CDG. At LGW, that is never the case for me, at AMS at FRA it invariably takes longer, and at GIG -- you could be there for well over an hour. Yet, the FT'ers never post their complaints about the arrivals wait at LGW/AMS/FRA/GIG, even though they are usually much longer.

7. The taxis from CDG into central Paris try to rip off Americans all the time.
No, they don't. The rates for the trip into Paris are posted on the cab window, and if you don't look at your change after paying for the ride -- then you should look at the change...just as you should in NYC, Houston, or any other big city in the world.

8. The inexpensive (non-Taxi) methods for getting from CDG into central Paris are convoluted and lengthy.
Sorry -- no way. The RER trains depart roughly every 15 minutes from Terminal 2 (got to 2C and head downstairs) and arrive at Chatelet or Gare du Nord in roughly 30 minutes. The taxis can often take longer, and the RER is only ten Euros or so. Again, the signs are clearly marked in French and English, and if you can't read, then follow the little pictograms. After all, if a pax can't figure out how to get to a Paris-bound train by simply following signs with a PICTURE OF A TRAIN and an ARROW toward the word PARIS, then perhaps he shouldn't be traveling alone to begin with.

9. French infrastructure is out of control, ineffective, and nearly non-existent.
No way. I have held French bank accounts for many. many years and their services and products rival the best American banks. The French postal system is a wonder -- even if you wnat to charge it with being inefficient -- when almost ALL intra-France mail is delivered on a one-day basis. My hard-copy mail between Houston and Paris or Paris and Houston is generally delivered on the 4th day after I post it. The French police (federal and local), when I have needed them for my law practice for one reason or another, have been extremely efficient, well-organized, helpful, accurate, and fast. Some have rightly criticized the French response to the recent car-burning episodes across France, saying that this is per se evidence that France is failing as a country. Well, if that is the metric, let's examine the US's response to Katrina and other large-scale embarassments before we cast stones.

And yes, I could go on and on, and on and on again, but perhaps it's better to let you do that, and I am happy to respond to anything (or do any myth-busting you'd like for me to address). And remember, for the context of this discussion, CDG is not meant to be Disneyland. It is a massive airline hub operation, and my opinion after all these years of using it is that it is certainly no worse than -- and is in many respect better than -- other large EU hub airports, such as AMS, FRA, and LGW/LHR.

CDG is not like IAH, nor like EWR, nor should it be. But I must admit that I find connecting at CDG after arriving on a CO longhaul is far easier than connecting at IAH after arriving on a CO longhaul. (Think about it: AFter arriving on CO 11 between 4 - 5pm, just when SO many other ex-EU flights are arriving), then trying to get back to Terminal B for a COEX flight to somewhere? Good luck. Even with the wonderful new Int'l arrivals facilty, that's a stretch to do in 60 - 90 minutes. But at CDG, it's generally a snap. The signage, the people, and the facilities get the job done. (And I am not addressing the "exceptions" of ice storms, or congestion due to expansion construction, etc.)

Perhaps my motivation in wirting this is to truly sound you out about why "blame the French" seems so popular, when we don't ever say "blame the Dutch," or "blame the British" for comparable problems. CO and AF/KLM are in Sky Team to stay, apparently, and there are some great travel and flight opportunities for the CO FT community via CDG. My hope in writing this is that you will not ignore those opportunities or pass up such a chance based on empty accusations that CDG "just doesn't work." It does, very well! And by making more friends and establishing good relationships with colleagues and fellow travelers abroad, your experience there can be even better, I believe.

I know that if I had taken to heart some of the silly and generic "blame the French" posts, I would have missed out on so many terrific things. Sure, I find it very curious that my experience could be so drastically different from many of yours -- but perhaps you can explain that, as I am not qualified to do so. I will simply leave you with the notion that when one really looks at the facts and over-time trends, CDG has come through for both CO and AF -- and therefore, for us FT'ers, too!
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Old Jan 4, 06, 12:05 am
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I have never had any real problems with CDG in general or CO at CDG.

Now this is really a trivial thing. I think Terminal 1 is a dump and hate flying through there....they keep saying they are renovating it...but each time I am there...I fail to see the evidence of this. Now of course CO/NW/AF are all in Terminal 2. When I was a PC club member, I found it a bit annoying to not be able to have access to a PC when flying out on a DL flight...this was just before CO entrance to skyteam... don't know if it is still the same. I don't belong to PC anymore and haven't flown on a skyteam airline to Europe in the last year or so. I find Terminal 2 rather aesthetically pleasing and overall just fine...I don't recall any unusual issues with lines (especially when I shutter as I look at passport control for non-citizens these days at USA airports). Overall I find terminal 2 not any tougher to get around than going from B48 to D12 at IAH!!!

However, I have found luggage connections to be an issue there when connecting....on both tight connections and not so tight. The worse scenario involving luggage involved a tight connection because CO held the flight from leaving IAH because a fair number of BF passengers' flights into iah were delayed...this resulted in my missing my connection in CDG and luggage delay for 4 days. A few other less dramatic delays for luggage through CDG...now I just pack my carry-on more carefully when the luggage is transfered at CDG. With luggage connections at CDG, I have averaged less than an average 50%
'on time luggage arrival' at my final destination after a change at CDG--i.e. the luggage arrived with me. This is pretty poor in my opinion. I have had more problems on trips to Europe than trips from Europe for some reason. Now of course these are only my experiences. I am sure that there are others who could cite problems with luggage at various other airports....both domestically and abroad.

Regarding France and the French...they are great and never had a problem. I must add though that I have decent fluency with the French language having lived there a dozen or so years ago...and I do think that helps to a certain extent. I do believe that the French appreciate those who behave well and don't have a certain attitude---how do I put it.....an attitude that screams 'the world revolves around me'.

Last edited by Renard; Jan 4, 06 at 1:50 am
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Old Jan 4, 06, 12:14 am
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thank you for this great post !! ^

I you don't mind I'll put a link to it on the CDG FAQ on the AirFrance board
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Old Jan 4, 06, 12:26 am
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I think we like to kick the French. They do deserve it, after all.

I've only been through CDG twice, and frankly, I prefer AMS. I have not had any of the bad experiences (other than the darned buses and a forever walk to my ATH connection the last time) that other people describe. I just greatly prefer AMS. On the first time I did get some nice duty free shopping in.

The passport examiners seemed indifferent -- automatons almost -- but the passport & security lines fairly short & efficient. On the eternal walk to the ATH flight, the signage was excellent.

My wife & I did a day trip on the Eurostar from London three years ago & had a blast. I had no trouble dealing with the Metro trains & stations & the facilities Gare du Nord. We're looking forward to a return visit once the French gov't gets a healthier opinion of the U.S.
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Old Jan 4, 06, 12:27 am
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Well, there is the fact that the roof fell in that can help make people nervous too, espc when they basically admitted the design was flawed and would require years of renovation and redesign to make safe. I realize no one flies into that terminal at the moment, but I'm just pointing that one out. (It wouldn't stop me, but I know people who take that kind of thing seriously. People already have issues with flying, don't let airports collapse on people too, etc...)
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Old Jan 4, 06, 12:32 am
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Originally Posted by MikeMpls
I think we like to kick the French. They do deserve it, after all.
thank you

Originally Posted by MikeMpls
We're looking forward to a return visit once the French gov't gets a healthier opinion of the U.S.
ever thought about US government opinion of us? how do they treat us on arrival?

but after all ...
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Old Jan 4, 06, 12:42 am
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Originally Posted by chrissxbever
thought about US government opinion of us? how do they treat us on arrival?
Actually, I have. They should find a way to expedite the arrival of most people from non-visa nations. U.S. Customs is a royal pain.

I'm really surprised that the EU (and many non-EU countries) chose not to retaliate for the passport changes that the U.S. demanded (but had not supplied in its own passports).

Last edited by MikeMpls; Jan 4, 06 at 12:45 am
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Old Jan 4, 06, 12:58 am
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I am not going to speak to all of your comments since you have quite an epic started there.

I do want to say that I personally find CDG ugly, poorly planned and transferring between terminals is really inefficient. It can take a long time to get between two different airlines. Other than that it is ok. (I still like to laugh at the "jetson" tubes that they never feel the need to clean.) It is nice that it has access to the RER and hense the metro.

**I however would not use IAH to point to ways CDG could improve..lol.. The new terminals are sort of cool, but the over all design of the airport is pretty lacking. Also the jury-rigged wed-way people mover (with no tops for the cars so you can see the 1970's ceiling tile), running around the marriot is far funnier than the Jetson tubes.

You mentioned the French attitude. If you speak a little French and are vigilant to adhere to all French social customs you will be treated well for the most part. (In fact I think they are much more pleasant to each other than the average American, after the essential platutudes are exchanged.) If you are lacking a "BonJour Madame" or any other correct French action to a situation or transaction, it can illicit the most disrespectful response. Often times you can get a really horrifing eye-roll, and I sometimes wonder if they practice their sneers in the mirror.

I do not hate the French and in fact admire a lot of French society. I do find it funny however that a culture that tries to seem such an example of open-minded inclusivness, can not throw a bone to visitors who are learning. I mean they laugh at the Americans for their cluelessness about other countries and here they are not making any allowances for other cultures. Just my opinion..

*It still doesnt stop me from going to Paris every couple of years and enjoying the morning french bread coffee pastry thing though..

oooh and don't forget the three supermarket isles that just focus on cheese.. I love that..

Last edited by Derrico; Jan 4, 06 at 1:02 am
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Old Jan 4, 06, 1:05 am
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It's safer to be a pedestrian in Paris than in London, Rome or (horror) Athens.
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Old Jan 4, 06, 1:10 am
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I've only flown into CDG twice, but my first trip (Nov 2004, IAH-CDG) absolutely fit right into the stereotype of CDG as the worst European airport.

The flight arrived in the morning. I have no checked luggage, and was able to clear immigration quickly. However, there is then an absolute zoo to clear customs--no clearly marked line, just a mass of people trying to go through customs exit (with maybe 2 inspectors?). This took at least 45 min. The people around me seem to view this as normal operating procedure.

Once past customs, I tried finding an ATM machine. None was obvious. The airport people told me there is one by the post office in the lower level between terminals, and after several failed attempts and retracing of steps, I finally find it. There is a line of 5-8 people waiting to use the sole machine.

The lack of ATMs wouldn't be such an issue if the Roissy bus ticket machines actually accepts credit cards as is advertised on the machines. Of course, they didn't (or at least not US cards) and the ticket counter only accepts cash.

I remember arriving at my hotel and thinking that this was absolutely the worst European airport arrival experience I've ever had.

I don't remember any issues with the return trip (except that the Air France lounge was far from the CO gates, and required several mini-staircases to reach with no elevators available at all! This wouldn't have been a big deal except my carryon was heavy from all the shopping I had done.)

I did another trip to CDG a few months ago, and the experience was MUCH better. However, this was a short LHR-CDG flight on Air France on a Saturday. No lines for immigration and customs, and an obvious ATM machine in the arrival hall. We took the taxi this time, and that also went very smoothly.

I wouldn't hesitate to fly into CDG again for my next trip to Paris (as opposed to taking the train). However, AMS would still be my favored European connecting airport because of the layout and shops.

Last edited by sy7; Jan 4, 06 at 1:14 am
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Old Jan 4, 06, 1:16 am
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Originally Posted by Derrico
I do not hate the French and in fact admire a lot of French society. I do find it funny however that a culture that tries to seem such an example of open-minded inclusivness, can not throw a bone to visitors who are learning. I mean they laugh at the Americans for their cluelessness about other countries and here they are not making any allowances for other cultures. Just my opinion..
This is my major irk. They claim to be very inclusive, as long as you're not: Jewish, Muslim, American, German, etc... It comes across as: "We like all these ideals of multiculturalism, as long as they're elsewhere. France is for the French."

This isn't exclusive to France of course, but there you go.
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Old Jan 4, 06, 1:19 am
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we pretty much go into OMNI
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Old Jan 4, 06, 1:32 am
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I have never had anything but good luck with getting whatever help I needed at CDG. It is a big airport. Like all big airports that have had to deal with growth and adding terminal space, CDG can be confusing--especially for someone like me who is directionally challenged. But no more so than Logan, JFK, or O'Hare. Things seem to be getting better at these three, but I have gotten completely lost when changing terminals at those airports. And talk about rude people--at least at Logan and JFK!! I hate thinking that many international visitors get their first taste of America at one of these airports.

As for the Fench, I find them extremely hospitable and have discovered, that like Americans, they can't and shouldn't be stereotyped. Before going to France for the first time, I was uneasy because of the horror stories I had heard about the "rude" French. There was no reason to have worried. Paris is like New York in that it is a big city and people are in a hurry most of the time. But also, like New Yorkers, Parisians are proud of their city and are willing to help visitors when approached politely.

The most helpful advice about international travel I ever got was to acknowledge the person I was approaching before tearing into a question or making a demand in English. I think I got this general advice in kindergarten, too. A smile and a simple greeting of Monsieur/Madame, bonjour is all that's needed. Anyone traveling to France should be able to master these three words, or probably should not bother going. If the first person encountered does not speak English, they usually can, and will, find someone within a few feet who does.

Thanks, LawFlyer,for your well-thoughout post. It's easy to make fun of the French, Italians, British, etc. I do it myself. They make fun of us. If we could do more laughing with them and at ourselves, the world would be a better place. In fact, I feel like I should delete a post I recently made, in fun, just a few days ago.

Last edited by sushibear; Jan 4, 06 at 1:41 am
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Old Jan 4, 06, 4:47 am
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My 2cts

I think it all depends on the airline and terminal you arrive & land in, they are different, which causes inconsistency in experiences and advice.

After using such good Airports as Vancouver, Athens, Detroit, and yes, AMS, CDG is just not as well planned and organized.

-I don't think signage is as clear as it could be. Example: RoissyBus, the many different desks in the train station, deplaning options, etc.

-CDG (as with many Euro airports) uses a LOT of bussing out to planes, which Americans are not used to.

-www.aeroportsdeparis.fr is very limited in specifics, especially in English.

-Exiting from most flights (especially inter-Schanagen flites) dumps you directly outside security, limiting options to use lounges, stores, etc. Most Americans are used to exiting into the same terminal level as departures.

That said, CDG is no worse than LAX; both are a visual embarrasement to welcoming visitors from throughout the World.
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Old Jan 4, 06, 5:32 am
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I hate CDG

CDG is probably the worst airport I've ever experienced. I read through your post and I can't understand if I'm having just incredibly bad luck or if you know something I don't:

I'll tell you my experiences, you tell me what I'm doing wrong:

1) Three times, when I've arrived at CDG to meet a pre-arranged car, the driver could not find me and vice-versa because the arrivals hall is so choked with people that it takes 20 minutes of jostling just to get across the 30' room.

2) It seems virtually impossible to transfer by walking through the airport (I've asked too) and I am directed downstairs to wait for yet another crowded bus to take me the long way around the airport to get to my new terminal. Fighting for space, holding heavy lugagge, unpleasant.

3) Finally, passport control is a joke. I arrived from Johannesburg in August to CDG only to find that there was one control agent waiting for an entire widebody of passengers. Total wait time: 1 hour and 15 minutes. Yes, Heathrow is bad, but no where near as bad as this. There was no other line to go into, just one long hallway and one, slow, disgruntled immigration officer.

I truly can't comprehend a good experience at CDG, but I'll take your word that you have them. I love the French and I speak the language, so this isn't a bashing of all things Gallic. However, I would really have to think hard to find an airport I hated more. Maybe JNB for the sheer annoyance of having to brush away one aggressive beggar after another or Heathrow, for their own messed-up process, but CDG would be hard to beat. Avoid, Avoid, Avoid if possible.
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