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Hundreds of Air France passengers stranded in Paris airport for five days

Exclusive: Some travellers have ended up sleeping in the transit area on yoga mats, night after night

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Monday 01 February 2021 18:24 GMT
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Waiting game: Passengers booked on Air France flight 406 queuing at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport
Waiting game: Passengers booked on Air France flight 406 queuing at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport (Carla Castagnola)
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Hundreds of travellers are facing a fourth night in transit at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport after what one passenger described as “being treated like cattle”.

The Air France passengers were supposed to fly to the Chilean capital, Santiago, on Friday. But after they boarded the Boeing 777, the plane “went tech” with a problem that could not swiftly be remedied by engineers.

The passengers were taken off the plane in the early hours of Saturday morning. Those who were legally allowed to leave the airport were eventually found hotels nearby.

But many travellers from countries outside the European Union, particularly those of Indian and African descent, were unable to go through passport control and were left to fend for themselves in the “airside” transit area. One passenger said they were given a yoga mat to sleep on.

On Saturday evening, there was a repeat of the previous day. The plane again encountered a technical problem and the passengers were offloaded once more.

The hope was that a plane would finally depart on Sunday night. But five hours before the flight was due to take off, they were told that they would need a new PCR test; with a Monday arrival in Chile, the PCR tests that each passenger is required to supply would have expired. The authorities in Santiago refused to make an exception for the delayed passengers.

Instead tests were arranged for Monday, with the results expected in time to allow the passengers to fly on Tuesday, day five of their stay at the Paris airport.

Among the passengers is Carla Castagnola, a 34-year-old florist from Edinburgh. She is travelling to Chile to visit a family member with serious health issues.

Ms Castagnola said she is “absolutely appalled” with the way she and her fellow passengers have been treated.

“Air France has treated us like cattle. No one has answers for the group so they're sending us around on a wild-goose chase to ask different departments about our situation. All of this uncertainty is incredibly stressful for us all.

“Everything Air France is putting us through is really taking its toll. I'm exhausted from waiting, running and queuing.”

Besides the sequence of delays, there has been mounting concern among the passengers that their risk of contracting coronavirus has increased.

They have had no choice but to tolerate a high number of interactions, including with airport ground staff, security personnel and hotel employees.

Ms Castagnola said: “The thing that scares me the most is that the more they ferry us around and the more we have to go through the airport, the higher the chance will be of contracting the virus, which would then easily spread between all of us.

“If we are positive then we won't be able to travel on Tuesday either.”

UK Covid-19 vaccinations: Latest figures

A spokesperson for the airline said: “Air France confirms that flight AF406 connecting Paris-Charles de Gaulle to Santiago de Chile initially scheduled on 29 January 2021 was postponed until 30 January 2021 due to a technical incident that occurred during take-off.

"Despite the work carried out by the company's maintenance teams on the aircraft, the flight finally had to be cancelled on 30 January 2021 due to the persistent malfunction.

“In accordance with the Chilean authorities' health measures, customers still in possession of a negative Covid-19 PCR test conducted less than 72 hours before boarding were transported to Santiago de Chile on board flight AF406 on 31 January 2021 operated by another aircraft.

“Air France is currently doing everything possible to transport its customers who are still at Paris-Charles de Gaulle to Santiago de Chile in accordance with the travel restrictions imposed by the French government since 31 January 2021 and those of the Chilean government.

“All Air France teams are fully mobilised to assist and regularly inform customers of this flight. The company has provided them with accommodation, meals are being provided, and new Covid-19 PCR tests are being organised for those who need them.

“Air France apologizes for the inconvenience caused to its customers. 

“The company wishes to state that flight safety is its absolute priority.”

Under European air passengers’ rights rules, each traveller appears to be entitled to €600 (£530) in compensation for the delay.

The Air France spokesperson said the airline will offer them “commercial compensation corresponding to their situation”.

Paris CDG was the location where Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee, spent 18 years of his life as a result of being caught in a geo-political no-man’s-land in 1988.

His story was later loosely adapted by Stephen Spielberg in his 2004 film The Terminal.

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