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Bad Customer Service

Why Air France deserves its loss

David Tarsh  Aug 14, 2009

It’s often small things that reveal the most about someone’s character and in business character is crucial. The point is beautifully made by an ancient Chinese proverb, which says, “Man without smiling face should not open shop.”

A bad experience I just had on Air France, while relatively small in itself, speaks volumes about the airline.

I was flying with my family from London to Genoa to join a Mediterranean cruise to celebrate my wife’s birthday and our wedding anniversary. I could have booked a flight direct with British Airways from Gatwick or with RyanAir from Stanstead for less money. Instead I chose Air France because we live near Heathrow; the flight time was civilized, the connection looked good and I had heard that the airline and its hub had improved recently.

What a mistake this turned out to be as we missed our connection in Paris. The miss was not caused by bad weather or something excusable; it was due entirely to the mindset of Air France.

We had arrived in Charles de Gaulle with 45 minutes to transit but it was not clear until after we got off the plane that 2G and 2E (where we disembarked from London) were totally different terminal buildings and the only connection between them was land side, via shuttle bus! Conscious of time, we ran through the corridors and were relieved to get to the bus which left with minimal delay.

When we arrived in the departure lounge at terminal 2G to board for Genoa, the information display said the flight had closed, even though there were a few minutes left before the advertised departure time.

I immediately went to the customer service desk and asked the staff to call ahead and alert the flight. They declined even though we were checked in and our luggage should have been on board the plane.

We all know that if a flight closes with luggage on board but not the passenger, the airline has to find and unpack the bags for security reasons, which can take a lot of time. As we were only a short walk from the gate, there would have been enough time to run us to the aircraft but the staff would not listen to that point. Instead, they made no effort to contact the flight and insisted that we waste five hours waiting for the next one.

The customer service representative said that all he would do was to offer us a drink and a sandwich whilst we waited for the flight that night. When I told him this was not good enough, he just offered me a complaints form. I had to make a scene before he would let us speak to someone with more authority to look after us better. Eventually, he introduced us to another person, who he said was his supervisor, who was actually right there at the same desk. That person did invite us to sit in its lounge but I had to make the suggestion.

I can reveal that my wife and I won’t forget that Air France ruined what should have been a romantic evening, having dinner overlooking the sea. However, what should be more interesting to investors is what is revealed by the experience about Air France.

We bought our ticket from Air France directly on the phone. We would have booked online but the website was a struggle. (Had there been a better website; Air France could have avoided the cost of handling a phone booking.) When we booked, there was no mention of the connection time in Charles de Gaulle being too tight or at least risky. Why not? Surely Air France knows likely transit times at its home airport?

Why did the ground staff not try harder to help get us on the connecting flight? Why was there an assumption that it was better to waste time finding and unpacking our bags than rushing us on board? Or had Air France actually not bothered to load the luggage on the assumption we would miss the connection?

When we finally did get on to the connecting flight, the steward came to ask how we were - as he had received a note that we were angry. So I told him why. He was amazed by the story. He said: “How can they do that to you with young children. This is awful; you must write and complain – and I will put this in my report”.

He also said: “Gone are the days when I had the power to make a gesture by offering you a glass of champagne.” He understands customers; the question to his bosses is: Why don’t they?

I did write and complain and to Air France’s credit, I received a prompt reply, including an apology and a £200 (US$331) voucher to use on a future booking, but the responses to the substance of my points were unconvincing.

This is not an isolated incident; in three bookings out of three, I have had one problem or another. When trying to check in online for my return journey, it was impossible to do so; the Air France system did not recognize the booking reference, e-ticket number or my frequent flyer number. When we arrived at the airport in Genoa, Air France checked us in for both the flight to Paris and the connection from Paris to London. The boarding card for the connection already showed the gate so after we changed terminal buildings (rushing because of our bad experience on the outbound leg) we ran straight to the gate at the far extremity of the building only to find that the flight there was not the one shown on our boarding card, to London, but instead to Moscow! Consequently, we had to run back to find the correct gate, which turned out to be at the furthest extremity of the terminal building in the opposite direction, probably the best part of a kilometer away. When we eventually boarded the flight (fortunately before the departure time) we were out of breath, dripping with sweat and again cursing Air France. To add insult to injury, the plane’s doors closed 10 minutes after the advertised departure time so the credibility of all the excuses we were given for closing the flight prematurely on the outbound leg was immediately destroyed.

Last year, I booked a return flight from LHR (Heathrow) to LAX (Los Angeles) in business class and then a few weeks later received a call from Air France cancelling the flight and re-routing me on a much longer journey via Paris. That was bad and the argument I had to have to get my money back so I could book a direct flight with another carrier was very unseemly.

When easyJet started, Stelios was conspicuous by his presence on his flights asking customers about their experience. I wonder when Air France’s top executive management last worked alongside their crew and in front of their customers. It would be a good question to put at the next shareholders meeting.

Air France has just reported an operating loss of €496 (US$694) million. There is no doubt that a large part of this is due to the economic crisis and the general riskiness of running an airline but the “doublespeak” used in the press release relating to usage of derivatives and fuel hedging suggests that senior management has been more preoccupied with financial speculation* than with managing a business that is all about efficient operations and good customer service.

*To quote, there was a loss of “97 million euros relating to derivative instruments not classified as hedges” and the “negative impact of the fair valuation of hedging instruments [was] down from 1.5 billion euros to 0.73 billion euros”. The first quote reveals a loss specifically due to speculation. The second quote is “doublespeak” because the point of a hedge is an insurance against unfavorable movements in currency or commodities such as oil and the cost of hedging should be factored into one’s business model. Therefore, if the value of the hedging instruments has fallen, that should also mean that the unfavorable price movements one was hedging against have also not happened – yet there was no acknowledgement of this. It all smacks of another un-credible excuse from Air France, trying to suggest that something that has gone wrong was out of its control when in fact it was entirely to blame.

The fact that you are reading this article indicates that Air France is all too willing to take the risk of bad publicity, the cost of that on future bookings and diminution of its reputation. Shareholders beware.

David Tarsh provides high-level strategy and communications advice to several companies in the travel industry. He may be reached via the email address:

Why Air France deserves its loss
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