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.

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