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Letter from Athens: The Un-American Flight from New York to Athens

July 11, 2021

Europeans tend to think of Americans as brash, arrogant, cocky, full of themselves, and superior, the attributes that got us to Berlin in World War II while the French were saying “Table for 100,000?”

It works in war, but maybe not so well in the business of trying to satisfy customers, especially if you're an airline during the COVID-19 pandemic and aiming to please.

So it was an unpleasant experience returning from New York to Athens on American Airlines on the Friday of the 4th of July weekend after a three-week visit to Rocky Point on Long Island to see my daughter and grandchildren for the first time in 1 ½ years.

American Airlines is sixth in customer satisfaction in the J.D. Power ratings for U.S. airlines and, being a good American, I wanted to give them business and had flown from Athens to JFK before without a hitch.

So let's give them a pass for what turned into a snafu-ridden experience and hope it was a one-time thing.

To be fair, the COVID-19 restrictions surrounding traffic change quickly and are so confusing it's hard to remember what to do even if you keep updating, but with Greece the world's tourism hot spot this year (check out Magic Johnson's social media ravings) airlines scrambled to add more direct flights to Athens.

The conditions to fly from Greece to the United States were a vaccination certificate and a negative PCR test so it was a breeze to get on the flight to JFK Airport –but the return was a bust.

First, American doesn't have agents by destination, but a single line for all flights which created a long and anxious queue. So skipping that I went to a stand to check in electronically and presented my ticket and Passenger Locator Form (PLF) which Greece requires.

Then it got dicey.

An agent asked for the COVID-19 vaccination certificate which I dutifully presented, and while it was mostly in Greek it clearly indicated in English I had received two doses of Pfizer, the second six weeks earlier, far more than the two weeks later needed to be fully protected.

Keep in mind this is what Greece – not American Airlines – required to board, along with the PLF to return to Athens. A befuddled agent looked at the certificate and said “this is in Greek. You need a vaccine card,” which she indicated to mean from the United States, refusing to accept the Greek document.

After I pointed out the part in English signifying full vaccination, she said, “I believe you,” but said it wouldn't be accepted, so I had to see another agent who said the same.

I noted, “you are aware that people flying into the United States from another country have their own country's vaccination certificate and not one from the United States?”

It was too confusing for her, so I was sent to another agent, who said a Greek vaccination certificate to enter Greece wouldn't be accepted by the airline. That as I made a mental note to alert all Greeks trying to return to Greece what they might face, wondering why the airline wasn't bending over backward to help.

When reason failed I started looking around for the Marx Brothers to see if I was caught in a comedy skit, but got back in line to go to the counter to see yet another agent who – thank Zeus – understood the certificate was what Greece wanted and gave the boarding pass.

The adventure on American wasn't over.

As we were about the board, a gate agent said the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) on the plane wasn't working, which meant no air conditioning, which meant it was perhaps as hot inside as the heat wave that had descended over Greece.

A few updates and 2 ½ hours later we were able to board, but wait, there's more.

It was still almost uncomfortably warm inside, added to by a full flight that was a little startling because when going to New York there were perhaps 20 or 30 people on a Boeing 777 with a capacity of 317.

That meant being able to take four seats, put down the arm rests and have a bed better than being in business class for a lot cheaper. The return on a full flight meant being jammed into economy in a seat so small you couldn't put the tray table down fully because your knees were being banged.

The aisles were so narrow that every time a flight attendant walked past, my shoulder was banged. And then the air conditioning broke again – this time on high with freezing air and the fans blasting away, making people break out the blankets.

I got up and reached into the overhead bin for my windbreaker, but didn't see it and thought it was left behind in a bin while going through security, so I spent the next five hours with a blanket over my head, only to find the jacket when we landed.

It was good, though, to see so many people were going to Greece, which needs a big tourist season, but the government should alert American airlines to accept the Greek vaccination certificate.

Phew, finally back only to find that the TSA busted up my suitcase – which had a TSA lock on it.

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