Wednesday, October 30, 2013

I Will Never Fly Air France - Or Will I?

Genre: Travel

Since yesterday, a bunch of people have been sharing this blog post by a disgruntled passenger about his experience with Air France in Paris, with comments like "Never ever fly Air France!" Is it really as terrible as he makes it sound? What should you do if you get stuck in a similar situation?

Short response: As a rule of thumb, never ever fly Air France through Charles De Gaullea living manifestation of hell on Earth. That will drastically reduce the probability of getting into a situation similar to this guy.

But then, what if it still happens? Will you end up with a "horror story" worth the outrage? Not if you do the following-

The guy in that blog was angry that he was informed of his flight's delay by an electronic display board, not a human being. Don't do this. In today's highly automated airline industry, an information screen can be trusted to have more accurate information than random airline employees.

If the airline staff says the aircraft is having technical issues, don't expect they will divulge more details. Either because they themselves don't have more information, or because the extra information is of no use to the passengers. For example- if the airline staff said that the hydraulic pump controlling starboard MLG is malfunctioning, you would be left wondering- what I am supposed to do with this piece of information?

Don't expect that the airline can always arrange an alternate plane to fly you. Flying a plane is not like driving a bus, that if one bus breaks down, bring any other bus and get going. There are fleet restrictions and pilot availability issues. For example, in that Paris incident, more than half of Air France's fleet is narrowbody aircraft that cannot fly from Paris to Mumbai. Then there are a bunch of Airbus A380s that can fly Paris-India, but the Indian government has banned them from operating into India. That leaves you with A330, A340 and B777 planes. Were any of them readily available to fly? Even if you find a plane ready to go, are there pilots and cabin crew available who are on duty and have experience operating a flight to Mumbai?

By all means, request, but don't expect that the airline will always put you on an alternate flight. For instance, for that guy stuck in Paris, are there alternate flights from Paris to Mumbai? No! The only Paris-Mumbai connection is 5 days a week Air France flight. Could they put him on a one-stop flight to Mumbai on some other airline? Maybe they could, but it is not always possible. 

If the airline staff says there is no alternate flight to put you on, do not insist "did you check properly?" They refused you because they probably already know there is no other flight where they can put you and don't need to check. It's their damn daily job. If someone asks you a casual question about your line of work, do you always check monitors or make calls even if you know the answer?

If you don't get a transit visa, don't get angry at the airline. They have no say in it. It's the immigration officers' decision whether to give someone a transit visa or not. Ideally, considering it was a cancelled flight, they should give it, but they are within their rights to refuse a visa

Try asking for access to the airline's lounge, but be prepared that they may refuse since the lounges have limited space and are for paying Business/First class passengers. However, if you really wanted to go to a lounge, you pay for a Day Pass and get access. United Club and American Airlines Admiral's Club at CDG both give access to anyone with a $50 day pass.  

Don't go hungry simply because the airline did not provide you enough free food vouchers. You are in an international airport. If you get hungry, you go and buy your own food. Starving yourself over a delay is not worth it.

Ask for a hotel for overnight stay. But if the airline cannot provide one, be prepared to sleep in the terminal. Most airports have portable beds, bedsheets and blankets for overnight delays. Be happy if you get one. It could have been worse. 

All said and done, that blog wasn't the first time this has happened, won't be the last time. Air travel has its bit of uncertainties. When you travel, be mentally prepared for it. This is what you should do if stuck in a similar situation-
  • Don't shout or overwhelm the gate agents. Many times they really don't much beyond that a flight is delayed, and nobody likes handling 200 shouting passengers. If you approach them politely, they will do everything they can to find an alternative for you.
  • If you are enrolled in a frequent flier program (if not, why are you not? It takes 5 minutes to join and is free! Do it now!) go to that airline or alliance's lounge. They may not give you entry on an Economy Class ticket, but the staff there has same access to the system as the gate agent and are not being overwhelmed by 200 people, so they can check up alternatives for you.
  • Use the meal vouchers provided by the airline to get whatever food you can, and buy more if you need. You can easily spend a few hours at restaurants rather than crowding around the gate. If you have special needs (vegetarian, no-beef etc) always carry your own snacks for emergency. Don't rely on an airport in a foreign country to provide you enough food choices to satisfy your dietary preferences.
  • If you want to relax, have shower, charge your phones, use internet and get some food and drinks, buy a one day pass to an airline lounge. Yes, it costs money, but it will be worth it, see below
  • Once you are back home, contact the airline and ask for refund and compensation. Europe has strict Air Passenger Rights Law that all European airlines have to abide. Quoting from the article- "If you are denied boarding, your flight is cancelled or arrives more than 3 hours late on arrival at the final destination stated on your ticket, you may be entitled to compensation of €250 - 600". For flights over 3,500km, for example Paris-Mumbai like in this case, the airline will have to pay you 600 Euro compensation. This will easily cover all the food and lounge access expenses you had to do at the airport.
  • And lastly, Do not write passive aggressive Open Letters to the CEO. Instead, contact the airline- call them, email them, post on their Facebook and Twitter accounts. Believe it or not, engaging the airline directly gives some amazing results.
In conclusion-
What this guy mentioned in his blog is hyperbole and what actually happened could happen on any airline, its not Air France specific.
Air France is not an airline worth flying, but not because THIS incident happened. Even without this, they have a pathetic passenger comfort and safety record. So if you have been flying AF in spite of knowing this, no need to change it because THIS happened.

Bon Voyage!
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