Thursday, December 25, 2008

American Airlines Bad, Zurich Good

On our way from JFK to Mumbai Anita and I were stranded in our connecting city Zurich for a day. A winter storm in the Northeast US area including New York had ended the previous night. The weather was clear and flights were departing normally when we boarded our 5:25pm American Airlines flight from JFK (New York) to Zurich.

But then there were an hour of cargo loading delays in which time light snow of about half an inch started falling. That led to need for de-icing our plane which was expected to take about 40 minutes as we were 4th in line. Instead, because of equipment failure and other snarl-ups we were on the ground for almost four hours and missed our connecting flight at Zurich.
To our surprise American Airlines miss-classified the entire cause of delay as weather-related. This way their staff escapes responsibility and enables them to cite their rules to avoid taking care of stranded passengers. Their staff at Zurich rebooked us for the same flight the next day without arranging or helping with any accommodation or paying a cent for stay or incidentals.
This was in stark contrast to our experience the previous year with Continental Airlines in Frankfurt where we were stranded for three days for genuine weather related reasons. Continental had put us up in a decent Frankfurt hotel for three days, paid for meals, and took such good care that I had sent them a letter praising their staff.

Back to Zurich, we made friends with a nice couple (New Jersey based, of Indian origin) in the same situation, along with and their remarkably turned out son (born and raised in the US, yet fluent in Marathi) who is a senior at Northwestern University. They contacted friends in Zurich who picked them up and put them up in their picturesque countryside home.

Anita and I also made the best of our halt by checking into a nearby hotel and taking a local train to see Zurich Downtown. It was a great opportunity for our first visit to a Swiss city. Zurich is a much better and enjoyable city than we had expected, combining modernity with rich historical architecture. Though it was a Sunday, the shops were open and there were crowds of revelers because of Christmas time.

Later at night in downtown we came across a devoted Gujerati son taking his visiting parents out for a walk. For dinner he recommended a well known restaurant called HillTL which served very good vegetarian cuisine with a lot of Indian fare. (By remarkable coincidence the next morning these parents were seated just across from us in our flight from Zurich to Mumbai.)

While entering HillTL we greeted a Sikh gent who was coming out. We started chatting and he became so friendly that he accompanied us back into the restaurant, waited as we ate, then gave us a tour of all 3-4 floors of it with a view of its open glass-walled kitchens. He then showed us other parts of Zurich downtown for the next hour or more, and was an excellent guide, filling us in on the background of various shops and landmarks. His name is Paramjit Bharj, and amazingly he's a devout and fully observant Sikh speaking fluent Panjabi even though he hasn't been to India since his birth. He was raised in Uganda and then came to Zurich over 30 years ago when Idi Amin expelled people of non-African origin. He had interesting views and we enjoyed his company.

Posted here are pictures one of a "singing Christmas tree" with live singers making up its branches, then one of Anita in front of this, one of me with Paramjit, and finally of Anita and I together. All in all it turned out well despite the disruption in our travel.

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