Air France’s Poor Handling of the Egypt Crisis Earns a Cranky Jackass Award

Over the last week, the protests in Egypt have reached a boiling point. As we all know by now, the residents of this generally peaceful country followed the lead of Tunisia and poured into the streets to try to topple the government. As people on the outside watched with great interest, those on the inside were blinded when the government shut down internet and mobile networks. Through it all, many airlines continued flying to Egypt, but as you can imagine, a lot of people didn’t want to go. In fact, most were advised not to go by their home governments. In what can only be considered a greedy money grab, some airlines like Air France effectively forced people to fly or lose money. For that, Air France (and anyone else with the same policy) has earned Cranky Jackassthe Cranky Jackass award.

When you see headlines like “As Mubarak hangs on to power, Cairo’s residents fear lawlessness,” and “Looting Engulfs Cairo, Other Egyptian Cities,” it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to go to Cairo for tourism in the immediate future. Stories are surfacing about mass chaos in the airports and officials requiring bribes to allow people to get on planes out of the country. It could be months before stability returns. Some airlines recognized that and treated their customers properly. British Airways, for example, posted these options for its customers::

  • Change the date of travel to a later date up to 28 February 2011.
  • Cancel your booking and obtain a refund to the original form of payment.
  • Use the value of your ticket towards the purchase of a new ticket to any other destination.
  • If you are due to travel in or out of Cairo you may choose to travel in or out of Sharm El Sheikh.

That’s the kind of flexible policy that should be commended. BA gave its customers a lot of options, regardless of whether the flight was canceled or not. Then there’s Air France. Air France treated this like a weather event and posted this policy:

Despite the current situation in Egypt, our flights to and from Cairo continue to operate. However we are compelled to modify the schedules to comply with the curfew instated by the Egyptian authorities.
Please check your flight schedule on this website by clicking “Flight & destination information”.

Moreover, if you hold a ticket to travel to and from Cairo between January 28 and February 04, 2011, we have implemented commercial instructions that enable you to modify and/or postpone your journey. Please contact your point of sales.

Unless your flight was canceled, the only option for customers was to “modify or postpone” the journey. Air France is looking at this as a simple business issue instead of a complex scenario that demands additional flexibility. Instead of realizing the magnitude of the problem, it simply threw out an inadequate policy and refused to give reservation agents the necessary power to alter it. What’s even more strange is that wholly-owned subsidiary KLM seems to have a more flexible policy, though I didn’t put that to the test.

We had two Cranky Concierge clients that were scheduled to fly Air France to Cairo for a couple days and then go on to Rwanda for some charity work. They thought it would be best to simply bypass Cairo and go straight to Rwanda, but Air France wouldn’t allow it. Air France also wouldn’t give a refund, so the client had two choices. Go as scheduled or postpone the flight to Cairo. The latter obviously wasn’t viable because they still needed to be in Rwanda. Allowing a refund or even putting the funds back into a credit would have been perfectly fine but that also wasn’t allowed. Most of the agents we spoke with were actually Delta agents handling Air France in the US. They were very apologetic but said their hands were tied.

Eventually, after a couple of days of trying, we were able to use our agency relationship to get someone in the Preferred Account Services desk to help mere hours before their scheduled departure from Boston. Those people should be commended, because they were the only ones willing to help. Most travelers don’t have access to those services, however. To make things even more frustrating, we later found the Cairo flight did cancel, but not until hours after our clients would have been on their way to Paris from the US. What a nightmare.

Come on Air France. Even easyJet allowed customers to have a ticket refunded into a credit that could be used anytime in the next year. Your kind of restrictive policy has no place in a very fluid, dangerous situation like this one. These types of crises need quick responses with flexible options.


25 Responses to Air France’s Poor Handling of the Egypt Crisis Earns a Cranky Jackass Award

  1. Dan says:

    Interesting post. I read Chris Elliott’s blog from time to time, and he has a whole litany of posters who would say, “That’s what travel insurance is for.” Are they right? Didn’t we know “the risks” when we bought our non-refundable tickets, and we shouldn’t expect the airlines to “be flexible”?

    Maybe this is a better question for your open Fridays discussion…

    • In many cases, Insurance companies may view this as an “act of war” and may actually not cover the cancellations. Most insurance companies do not cover acts of war.

    • CF says:

      Insurance policies all end up being a little bit different. But many won’t cover it, as has been said, and the airline really needs to be accommodating in a situation like this.

  2. Kris says:

    How would you get from Cairo to Kigali?

    • Bobber says:

      via Ethiopia and Uganda.

    • CF says:

      On the day scheduled, it was actually just via Ethiopia. Not to get too into the weeds of travel agency-world, but the ticket was issued for Air France via Boston to Cairo and then on to Kigali on Ethiopian. (There were more flights and airlines later.) These were all on one ticket and it was validated on Air France, so that’s the airline that’s responsible for the ticket. Believe me, we tried Ethiopian as well to see if they would just let the client leave from Paris instead of Cairo to go down, but they said that since it was validated on Air France, their hands were tied.

      What we wanted to do was just switch to the KLM flight to Kigali which goes Amsterdam – Entebbe – Kigali. (And that’s what they’re now on.)

  3. AF should at least be keeping the funds and letting people change to another destination now or within a year. No reason to force people to fly into a violent area. Guess the French think since they lived under Nazi rule during a world war that people should still go about their normal lives and go on vacation to look at the pyramids.

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  5. That is the annoying thing with travel insurance. You think you are buying protection against unusual events and then they abandon you when you need it. At times it seems like a lottery ticket.

    Do you know if you could deny payment through a credit card? Or would the card simply say you have to pay it?

    Obviously in cases like this, anyone with any common sense knows there should be a refund or maybe a 12 month credit since it is stupid for people to visit countries which those situations arise.

    • CF says:

      My guess is that if you denied it with the credit card company, you would lose unless the flight actually canceled. (But if that happened, then you wouldn’t need to do that.) The problem with this strategy is that if you challenge with the card, then you just opt not to take those flights and you end up losing any chance you had of making a change, etc if you lose the fight.

  6. Daren S says:

    Completely agree with your Jackass award, this is pretty disgraceful treatment especially since most advice from governments is to avoid traveling to Egypt. Interestingly, the government here in the UK has actually chartered two aircraft to bring back stranded british travelers. One left today and is due back tonight and one is on standby for Saturday depending on the developing situation there.

  7. Air France has been noted as VERY inflexible in Customer Service/Relations. I try NOT to use AF at all. My relatives who have chosen to fly AF through Paris have had a high rate of lost/delayed/theft of luggage. This can happen anywhere, granted, I am saing that the occurrences were above average.

    I think that the incident that CF describes is saying a lot about the cultural (? ) difference here. French arrogance in the transportation industry (air & rail) is legendary. My only advice to travelers is to avoid using AF at ALL costs. It is one way to minimize travel incidents or disasters, especially in unexpected things like civil unrest. A good/responsible airline would help, not hinder customers to have a safe and comfortable work around plan.

    I hope that Cranky can learn from his latest bad experience with AF and severely limit booking his travlers on that airline. I highly recommend that travlers use Cranky when booking or paying for his services to help you in problems during travel. One needs a strong advocate that knows what to do – FAST – to save a situation. Cranky is definitely your BEST FLIGHT INSURANCE!

  8. coldtusker says:

    Pity the AF idiots didn’t let you ‘re-book’ onto its sister airline directly… BOS-AMS-NBO/EBB-Kigali [which is what eventually happened!]

  9. iahphx says:

    I don’t really want to defend AF, but I will suggest your clients had a VERY unusual situation — a “stopover” in Egypt. I suspect the travel polcy writers hadn’t contemplated this situation. Most folks holding AF tickets were probably OK with the ability to “modify and/or postpone your journey.”

    You would think an agent confronted with this situation would have had the flexibility to do “what was right” — or at least get you to a supervisor who could fix the problem. I suppose that’s what ultimately happened to your clients. But it should have happened earlier.

    • CF says:

      Yes, this situation was unusual but as you say, the agents should have the ability to deal with that. On the other hand, I can see the policy not working for a lot of people. You only had a couple weeks to make a decision on modifying or postponing. What tourist would want to do that with the situation so uncertain? Putting into a credit for a year would have at least given flexibility beyond such a short time frame.

      • iahphx says:

        I agree. The “correct” policy would be to allow you a year to rebook to Egypt or apply the funds to another ticket on the airline. Giving an actual refund is certainly nice, but arguably beyond what an airline should be reasonably expected to do (they’re a business, after all).

        • Sorry, I cannot agree with you that ANY business would force a person/customer to take a financial loss because of them trying to avoid a sudden war or time of civil unrest which could cause injury or even death. Not a good AF Customer Loyalty strategy in my opinion.

  10. Billy says:

    This had to have been a non endorseable ticket written by a consolidator. Wonder why the original issuer couldn’t or wouldn’t help, if indeed the passenger realized who in fact the original issuer was. Many US travel agents don’t issue air tickets anymore. Often they go through a third party to earn a commission. Lession to be learned here is that in one’s quet for a cheap ticket, be careful where you indeed make the purchase. Cranky, your assistance efforts and skills here are indeed commendable. I’d never hesiate to recomend yor services based on what I’ve read in your blogs. The airlines used to be easier to deal with before they got rid of their sales offices.

    • CF says:

      Nope, not a consolidator fare at all. It was a published fare and I was the original issuer. (We now have travel agent capabilities.) But I can’t waive rules without authorization from Air France.

      • Cranky, It appears that some people can’t believe that a “REAL” airline would actually do that to a customer. Good thing the passenger had you on his side!

  11. FrankV says:

    Maybe Air France is going to use the money to wash their planes.

    Nope, never happen!

  12. nealio says:

    Air France is often VERY inflexible in terms of Customer Service. They are the airline that flew me to a different city during a strike and said they would bus us to our destination, only to have no bus with agents feigning contempt as to why we were even flown to their station. I hope their partner Delta can put some pressure on them to improve things, especially as DL handles USA sales for AF flights.

  13. Air france still refusing to allow us to cancel our flight to Cairo despitegovernment advice to avoid travelling to cairo. Due to leave 18th feb……would you go? Best they would offer is a 12-month credit. Not good when it is £750 and I need it to go elsewhere. Yes, I could go with Air France, but my trust in them has been damaged terminally. Why cant they do a BA and give a full refund?

    • CF says:

      At this point, it seems like things are more calm but it’s really going to be up to you whether you want to try it or not. I’m sorry Air France isn’t helping much.

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