Saturday, October 1, 2011

Flying the Friendly (Albanian) Skies

Despite the fact we are in Europe, flying to other European countries is not as easy as you would think (or hope).  Albania has one airport- Tirana International Airport- or depending upon who you ask Mother Theresa Airport or simply Rinas, after the small village where the airport is actually located.  Located just outside of Tirana the trip to the airport could take 20 minutes or an hour and 20 minutes depending upon the time of day.

The airport is served by a handful of airlines, with Alitalia being the largest "name brand" carrier and the other flights being provided by smaller regional airlines.  Albania has yet to experience the influx of budget airlines so not only are options limited but they are also expensive.  The majority of flights seem to leave in the pre-dawn hours and arrive close to midnight. Yes, there are flights at other times but scheduling them isn't always easy.  Flights to one destination might only fly on Wednesdays and Saturdays while others might fly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  I don't understand the reasoning but I do know that it makes it difficult to book a round trip ticket on the same airline.  Due to the lack of direct flights to Tirana- Albania has yet to become the tourist destination it aspires to be- most trips, including those to neighboring Italy require at least one connecting flight.

In planning last weekend's excursion to Turino, Italy, I had to be creative and flexible in choosing my flights.  I reluctantly booked the 0615 Alitalia flight to Rome connecting to Turino.  I didn't have a burning desire to be at the airport at 0430 but I did want to arrive at my destination before noon.  Choosing the later flight would have resulted in my arriving after 2200.  Despite the initial debacle of Alitalia's insistence on boarding the 737 simultaneously from the front and back, (why oh why do people think they should board from the rear of the plane when their seats are in the front few rows??), the flight left on time and I arrived in Turino before lunch.

My options for the return flight were more interesting.  It turns out that despite the 500 or so mile distance between them, people have only two options for getting from Turino to Tirana on a Sunday.  The first option involves flying Alitalia from Turino to Rome to Pisa then onto Tirana.  Yes, you read that correctly.  I could have spent the day hopping up and down the length of Italy before arriving back home just before midnight.  I chose my other option- the locally based Albanian Airlines since the schedule had a direct flight from Turino to Tirana and had me arriving back home at 1215.

When I mentioned my itinerary to a friend her response was "you are going to die".  Apparently Albanian Airlines doesn't have the best track record for safety.  I did do some checking before booking my flight and saw that the airline has never experienced a crash.  Rather their problems seem to stem from mechanical issues that prevent the planes from taking off in the first place.  With the idea of arriving home at a decent hour, I decided to take my chances.

As is common with many flights in and out of parts of Europe, the notion of standing in a line is alien. As I stood in the Customs line in Turino, I realized that Albanians approach boarding planes the same way they do driving....lines and rules do not apply to them. If they see an opening or just want to get someplace, they push their way through.  I don't know if people thought the flight would leave without them but they pushed and shoved their way past the few of us who were patiently waiting our turn to pass through Customs then the ticket line to board the plane.

I don't know what everyone's rush to board the plane was since the minute I stepped into the cabin I was greeted with the pungent smell of unwashed bodies.  Yes, the plane smelled worse than a locker room.  As I made my way to my seat I began to question the wisdom of my desire to return home at an early hour.  I questioned my decision again when swarms of house flies suddenly appeared in the cabin mid-flight.  Unlike Southwest Airlines' open seating policy, Albanian Airlines does assign seats.  For some reason, no one seemed to understand that the little number and letter on their boarding cards are actually seat assignments.  People plopped themselves down where ever they saw fit.  Families tried to sit four or even five people into a three seat row.  I have to say that the two flight attendants certainly earned their lek on this flight.

Despite the chaos over boarding, the flight only left 45 minutes late.  The plane did make some rather strange noises once it was in the air but I was able to block them out by the yelling into the cell phone of the person seated across the aisle from me.  Yes, this young woman whipped out her phone and made a call in the middle of the flight.  (From what my shaky Albanian could understand, she was arguing with her boyfriend).  No amount of persuasion from the harried flight attendant could get her to hang up before her conversation was complete.

Two hours later we had barely touched down in Tirana when people started pulling bags out of the overhead compartment.  As we taxied across the runway towards the terminal people were already pushing their way up the aisle to disembark.  Much to the chagrin of the elderly lady sitting in the window seat next to me, I did not join this mad rush and actually waited until the plane ha stopped and there was a space in the aisle in which I could step.  Seriously people, I don't know where you think you are going to go when the door to the airplane is still shut.  Out the emergency exit?  No wait, there were't any on the plane so that wasn't even an option.  (The exterior of the plane did have a dotted line painted around a window with a notice - in English- that said "In an emergency cut here").

As people who have flown in and out of the Tirana Airport know, planes do not pull up to the terminal; rather all passengers must ride shuttle busses from the terminal out to their planes.  So even after everyone rushed out of the plane, they only packed themselves onto the single shuttle bus that waited until all of the passengers had disembarked before driving to the terminal.  By this point I had placed myself out of harms way and not in the direct path of the opening door.  Once again, the shuttle bus had barely stopped when the crowd stormed into the customs terminal.  Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, I was the only non-Albanian on the flight so I was able to proceed directly into the "Foreigners and Diplomats" Customs line where I quickly received my entry stamp.

Along with everyone else who had been in such a rush to disembark, I had to wait for my luggage to arrive but once I saw it, I quickly grabbed it and made my way out into the terminal when Glenn and Sidney were waiting for me.  We wanted to get out of there fast.  If people were behaving in such a crazy and rushed manner on the airplane, we didn't want to be any where near them when they were behind the wheels of their cars.

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