50 Ways to leave your customers: Air France sucks the big one in 2006
Air France sticks it to its customers
If you like to spend a fortune for late flights and lost luggage, you couldn't find a better airline to do it on this summer than Air France, which is experiencing an epidemic of horrible ground service and lost luggage.
To whit: I arrived on the July 17 flight from Paris to find all my checked bags had been taken off the airplane to make room for cargo. I found this out not by Air France personnel but by a helpful airport service person who checked the tags and manifest. There was no one from Air France ("AF") to assist anyone after arrival, so each of us had to find our own way to the Lost and Found Department inside the customs and immigration control area to report the lost baggage and initiate a search and rescue effort.
Which begs the question (asked about twenty times by those who had their bags taken off the plane), "What does Zvartnots Airport Lost and Found have to do with Air France baggage taken off their flight in Paris?" To which replied the (surprisingly helpful) Zvartnots Lost and Found staff, there was no real answer, except that AF did not provide this service themselves.
So we wait, in a dark landing above passport control, in stifling heat, behind a metal and glass door with wilting cloth curtains barely obscuring two overworked L&F staff members in an even more stifling room (half lit by flickering fluorescent lights) staring at computer terminals tracing bags. And receiving abuse by angry AF passengers demanding their bags (for which these two hapless souls bore no responsibility for the loss thereof). I was last in line, and perhaps the only bemused soul among the group. I was upset, but also I had had a remarkable string of good luck with my bags and Armenia. Basically I always felt I hit the jack pot each time my bags arrived on my trips in and out of Armenia these 14 years so I could afford a little relapse in my luggage gamble.
"And," I thought, "shit happens. This is Armenia after all, still learning the ropes." And Armenia was not the only place to have lost luggage; this summer was a particularly trying experience with regards airline service, beginning with the Northwest airline flight from Austin that was delayed long enough to knock me off the Amsterdam flight. I was rerouted to the Paris AF flight and my bags came along; I actually saw them outside the AF Airbus 320 (read: Boeing 737 for size and lack of comfort) as I boarded the airline.
As I found out, AF not only doesn’t provide support for lost luggage, or retrieves and delivers lost bags (Lufthansa does) they are bad they have resorted to blaming Zvartnots staff for their own failures. Red on.
Last in line, I was welcomed with a relieved if wary smile from the L&F agent, an efficient, personable woman named Lusine, who spoke good English and diffused the tension with humor and showed great skill at tracking and putting a Rush delivery order on my bags. I no sooner said my name but she exclaimed, “Oh yes! We know! We have seen it already!” and plucked it off the computer, printed out the new manifest and handed it over with a big smile and a “Sorry for your troubles.” And she highlighted L&F’s phone number, the tag numbers and my luggage status, written in bold letters “ON BOARD NOW” for the next AF flight, in two days.
As I said, I felt I had been coming up sevens in getting my bags through on Aeroflot, the old Armenian Airlines, Armavia and British Airways all these years. So I felt beneficent, even giddy at still having good luck in finding someone competent and pleasant to help me locate my bags. After all, this summer we were all just cogs in the airlines-of-the-world's wings.
Happy at seeing Zvartnots workers efficient and pleasant, I left clutching my new manifest, ready to come back in two days and get my bags.
You know how this goes: I arrive two days later to find that AF, a so-called world-class carrier, knocked my bags off their flights not once, but TWICE! And, not satisfied with just taking my bags off (to make room for whose cargo?) they knocked off FORTY SIX passenger bags on the flight!
The best is still to come:
I make my way up to the steamy customs room and past the stares of the blonde Russian immigration control agents to joint the now larger line of tired, angry and bewildered passengers outside the same dingy unlit hallway with the same wilting cloth trying to find out where my bags were now.
In line were the usual suspects: every type and person imaginable. A particularly sweaty and frazzled Italian woman stood in front, alternately complaining about her bags and berating one large Armenian man who was trying to cut in line. “No! Absolutely not! I will eat you if you try to cut in line!! You are not getting in front of me or this woman. This woman, she is pregnant, and you want to cut in front of her??? NO NO NO!!”
She had little effect, her obvious lack of the right Armenian words to shame the obese gut in front of her singling her out as an easy cut. Others were just exhausted and bewildered. Some who were staying in Armenia just a few days wondered how they were going to get their bags before they took the next flight home. Another soul I met on the first line up remarked he was giving up, this waiting was useless, and a number of passengers were going to the Air France office the next morning to demand compensation and complain. I agreed, but I was not about to miss the drama unfolding in front of me, and anyway, I really wanted to see Lusine again and receive at least a smile for my second trip to the airport in search of bags; I looked forward to her finding them on the flickering computer screen and printing out another clean, white manifest with my bags listed on them. I was an eternal optimist, “Ais problem mi moment giankum.” This was one moment in my life, not the whole thing. See? The glass is always half open for me.
Joining this long, woeful line, one poor soul slowly pulled herself up the grimy steps towards us and got in line behind me. I detected the tell-tale computer print out I received the first round showing my bags were ON BOARD to be delivered by Air France July 19. It was July 19 and we two clutched the same pieces of papers showing our bags were ON BOARD to be delivered by Air France July 19.
“Your second time too?” I said, ruefully. Uh-uh. Turns out this poor soul is coming a THIRD TIME for her bags, having arrived July 15, while her bags missed that and the next flight and now this one. She was still wearing the same clothes she had on when she arrived. I did too, but I daren’t say anything, she obviously was the more bereaved.
We sighed. We looked at each other as old warriors, she the elder, I the second in command. We recognized each other’s plight. We griped. We wondered out loud how this could happen. And we were looked on with awe by the others who suddenly realized this problem was really for real! They might never get their bags; we were proof of their nightmare! We were the seniors of this lost luggage support group in a grimy hallway outside a flickering fluorescent lighted office and we had no words of wisdom to offer, no comfort to give. The longer we all waited the more angry those in front got at people who had no control over the situation (Lost and Found track bags for the airport, they do not represent the airline and have no way to force them to comply with Warsaw convention rules). And we all wondered out loud, "Where is Air France?" And we heard they left when they discovered the massive loss of bags. We were set adrift in a sea of luggage despair.
As the line almost vanished (more than an hour later) one AF representative actually appeared, a brave soul to face the remaining hoard demanding to know where their bags are, why were they not here and when will they come? To this I added, from the back of the queue, “and how will you compensate us?” She looked as bewildered as the rest of us, a sure lesson in the pecking order of big business and what is wrong with paying the front desk minimum wage while the guys in the back office get millions. She was the lowest of the low in the Air France pecking order, she might as well have been the fry girl at McDonalds's for all the authority she had to get anything done. She offered to write the office in Paris the next day, but she could not help us. And she looked like she would rather have prostituted her self in Nor Malatia than face any more questions. I took pity on her and tried to alleviate her pain while mine took second seat. And I was even more angry, at the manager who was so negligent as to throw an innocent like this to the wolves.
What she could say she did and the long and short of it was we were told the company really didn't care whether we got our bags or not, or how we found them, or that we were suffering in a dingy, sweaty hallway because of it. The most help we got from anyone was from the people in Lost and Found who managed to grin through the anger and locate bags on a computer screen.
Lusine was not there (mores the pity) but an equally helpful man quickly found my bags again and watched as the computer conjured up the changing Rush order. And where were my bags? First we saw they were ON BOARD in Paris, to be delivered that night. Then they were being routed somewhere else, Air France having taken them off again at the Paris airport. How were they to come? Maybe thru Vienna, on Austrian Airlines but the flight number listed on the manifest wasn’t one that flew to Yerevan on the day listed, so I wasn’t holding my breath. But I was again given the clean white manifest, with the Lost and Found number and told to please wait for their call. They had the bags in the system, somehow they would arrive. When I offered to come by the airport in 4 hours when the next flight arrived from Vienna, I was told,
“I have a great proposition for you. Sleep in tonight, and when the bags come we will call. We have a big experience with these flights, and the bags will come.”
An optimist like myself. I wanted hug him and welcome him to the half full club right there.
And guess how my bags arrived? One came through Vienna, on Austrian Airlines, and one through Frankfurt, on Armavia. They saw more of Europe than I did. None came through Air France, who had made the contract to deliver them themselves, on time. And as I was collecting them, in thanking the airport staff for their friendly and professional help, I learned that the Air France country manager had been there earlier berating THEM for the lost luggage!!! I assured them that was not the case, this incompetent person was fooling none of the passengers, we knew who was responsible to put the bags on in Paris and to insure their timely delivery.
I went to Air France town office the same day they arrived, to lodge a complaint and to ask about compensation. I asked to see the manager and was told he was out “for a meeting”. When I told them why I was there, the agent said, “Oh he won’t meet you for that.”
I asked about compensation. She said I could buy “clothes and such,” then asked where I was from. I said the US. She said I then had to apply to the New York Office with my receipts to try and get compensation. She had no other information. I said that was not good enough. They owed me a real explanation and a resolution. She stared at me.
I said, “Do you know how many bags were knocked off last night?”
“I know. We know.”
“Forty six last night, and I met a woman who was waiting for THREE FLIGHTS to get her bags, and they were still lost. And I saw people at Lost and Found for whom this was their first trip to Armenia, some as young as 18 years old, they had volunteered to help Armenians and had to take a bus to Lori. They were told they would have to come back to get their bags, yet they were in Lori—how were they supposed to come back to get the bags?”
Silence and a stare.
“You know Lufthansa has a delivery service for this situation. And they have someone on hand to help with these problems after arrival.”
To this I was told, yes, it was a problem and they planned to have the same service, adding the proverbial “maybe in a month” that everyone in this part of the world says when they are backed against the wall and have little ability or intention of delivering the goods on.
Note she never once showed courtesy in our conversation, never said “We are sorry”, or “Let’s see what we can do,” or even smile. She sat stone silent and was at times insolent. Some would say this is typical French arrogance, but I lived in France and I never found the French insolent. Proud, yes, but not insolent. But I did find insolence in this AF representative sitting in front of me.
Situations like this are when training shows or fails. A true professional commiserates and apologizes. They attempt to help, and diffuse the tension. They even go through the motions even if the upshot is the same as if they did nothing. They show RESPECT for their customers, and gives them at least a sense that someone cares, if they cannot deliver the goods.
In short, they do what the folks at Zvartnots Lost and Found did while this rather well paid individual at the town office could not bring herself to do: treat me as a human being.
I had to tell her that right now AF is anti-advertising for Armenia, and they were woefully lacking in the service we should expect from them. That perhaps they thought Armenia was not important, or that cargo was more important than passengers. And certainly I have had better, more efficient service on Armavia and Aeroflot. To which she began arguing, saying there was no way I could compare AF to either of these companies, dismissing them with her hand.
“So who delivered my bags?” I said.
“You know what? There are people on these flights whose bags you lost for whom this is the first time they have come to Armenia, and this is their first experience in the country. This is terrible.”
“Well you are entitled to your opinion.”
“Opinion?? This is a fact! Your company failed to put the bags on board.”
I got no where, I was getting nowhere else even faster. Finally I told her who I was, and that I wrote TourArmenia, and had one of the largest readerships online about Armenia, 124,000 people each month. And I had to write about my experience and warn people off AF until they got their act together. To which she replied, “Well you can write this if you want but I don’t think it will have much influence.”
She had never seen the web site, so I gave her the URL. Maybe she took the time to see it. I doubt it. And she may be very right in her opinion, as the airlines squeeze more and more people on fewer flights, but if ever a person is serving to harm the reputation of AF, it is this one.
And to all of you I add one coda, a warning. This I heard from our neighbors here. On the next flight, not only did they continue to knock bags off, but one passenger was told he could not take his notebook computer on board with him, that he had to give it them and they would check it through, assuring him it would be delivered when he arrived. Of course it was lost, but worse still, the local staff disavowed any knowledge of the computer when he arrived and he is still trying to retrieve it. It cost him $4000.00.
Who should he apply to for compensation? Is AF now responsible for theft as well as incompentence?
By their gross negligence hundreds of people have lost their bags on AF flights this summer. What this says to the poor bewildered first timers about Armenia I shudder to think. This is not Armenia’s fault but I doubt that means much to someone who spends an enormous sum to get here only to be stranded without bags and told to “come back tomorrow,” or “Yes im (Who knows?)” by the AF staff they have to trudge to the town office to speak to. This sets back Armenia as a destination by years, all for the lack of caring and incompetence of Air France.
I add a warning to those thinking Paris might be fun to fly through en route to Yerevan: DON'T!!! Air France will mistreat you and they do not deserve your money or patronage. Until Air France treats their customers as they deserve (and commensurate with the exorbitant prices they charge), DO NOT USE THEM.
Unless you like standing in grimy sweltering hallways waiting for some poor soul to look up your bags in Vienna and say, "But this flight does not exist".