Air France behaving badly

An Inside Traveller subscriber was booked to fly from Verona to Birmingham on Air France with a change in Paris. He has written to us with the following tale of woe:

At Verona, although my luggage was booked through, the check-in official refused to issue a boarding pass for the second leg of the trip (ie Paris/Birmingham), directing me instead to go directly to the Paris departure gate where the boarding pass would be available. She gave the same advice to a couple behind me in the queue with a similar itinerary.  We all explained that this seemed improper and that the connection time was too tight to mess  about but she insisted.

At Paris, there was no boarding pass and we were told that because we hadn’t checked in, our seats had been reallocated: the result was that we had to spend the night at the airport and were re-booked on Air France flights the following morning – a delay of some 11 hours.

There was some problem at Charles de Gaulle (CDG) that day and our suspicion is that Air France were deliberately delaying those passengers travelling in the evening so that back-logs from earlier in the day could be cleared. Air France help-desk officials at CDG did not seem to be at all surprised that we hadn’t been given boarding passes in Verona.

He has complained to Air France (under EU Regulation 261/2004) but they insist that the problem is not theirs but that of the Verona/Paris carrier, Régional, despite the fact that it is a wholly owned subsidiary.

Harrumph! It seems that Air France was indeed having problems in Paris that day and had obviously blocked off issuing boarding cards for passengers at other airports. This is quite common when the airline is aware that they might not be able to accommodate all passengers. But trying to blame the connecting airline (which they happen to own) is outrageous.This should be an open-and-shut case which, if Air France do not settle themselves, could surely be resolved by starting a Small Claims action (one cannot imagine they would be foolish enough to defend it). No airline wants to pay compensation but it is sad when a brand as big as Air France resorts to such obfuscation to avoid payment of a few hundred euros.

The sick of Europe

It can be quite interesting to view the health of a country’s economy through the results of its flag-carrier. An airline is unlikely to make large profits if its home economy is doing badly and, if an airline is losing money due to some bad habits (over-staffing, corruption and simple bad management) then it is highly likely that those same traits extend to other businesses and government itself. The airline business is a pretty perilous one at the best of times so problems will probably surface in an airline well before the country itself is aware its own economic mess.

In Ireland, Aer Lingus hit the financial skids well before the country itself lost its Celtic Tiger label. Interestingly, whilst the airline is still not completely out of the woods (how could it be with the Irish economy in the state that it is?), it has done much of the hard work to give it a decent platform to stay in business.

The bankruptcy of Olympic came well before the fall of Greece and anyone who saw the fantasy accounting, gross over-staffing, political cronyism and outright corruption that went on at that airline can hardly be surprised that the rest of the country’s institutions were in a similar state. Did those who kept lending money to Greece really believe that Olympic was some sort of aberration and the rest of the country was run on sound principals?

Iberia’s problems were spotted before the Spanish banking crash and the airline has started to make the serious adjustments necessary to survive in the 21st Century. Ironically, the management of International Airlines Group will probably find it easier to push through the measures needed because the rest of the country is in such a poor state. Ordinary people will not have much sympathy for pilots or cabin staff who have been earning much more and working less than their colleagues in other countries.

Which brings us to France. Air France has finally acknowledged it has a problem and must seriously cut costs. Unfortunately, I doubt that the cuts are big enough to solve even the situation as the airline sees it at the moment. Air France remains heavily “helped” by the government in all sorts of ways that its competitors in other countries are not. If this financial support were stripped away, the airline is in a much bigger mess than it acknowledges now. 

And what about Lufthansa? On the face of it, Lufthansa is highly successful but there are some worrying signs. Its passenger service on longhaul has been well below the level of its competitors for many years – only now are they introducing longhaul Business Class standards that BA and Virgin had at the turn of the century. The company has lost large sums on ill-conceived acquisitions in Europe. The fiasco over the new Berlin Airport has been heavily downplayed in Germany and compared to the issues faced by Heathrow Terminal Five. Delaying opening by a year, with only a few weeks notice is on a totally different level of cock-up to T5. The Berlin farce will cost well over a billion Euros in extra operating costs alone. Air Berlin was swift to demand compensation but Lufthansa has been rather quieter on the subject – as a tacit acknowledgement of how much support the airline still receives from the state. New management at Lufthansa seems fully aware of its current weaknesses and is working to address them.

So, looking into the crystal ball, what does the current state of the airlines suggest about the economies of Europe? 

Spain – in a serious mess, but at least they acknowledge it and are doing their best to get out of it and will probably succeed.

France – in a much, much worse state than currently accepted.

Germany – sound but not without some issues and not quite as rosy as seen from the outside.

 

What now for Air France?

Imagine you are a large French company in which the government still has a significant shareholding. You are losing money badly and have started a plan to bring employee contracts into line with your European competitors. Whilst you anticipated serious problems, you were fairly sure of government support and hoped that the public would see the move as part of a national process to achieve financial stability. Now, you are suddenly faced with a socialist government which has promised to do away with austerity. 

That is the position of Air France is in today.

The company has said they need to cut costs on their short and medium haul routes by 20% (probably an underestimate). The Air France/KLM group is losing money and the culprit is Air France. Quite simply, it cannot go one as it is. 

Air France has presented plans to cut staff costs by increasing hours worked and cutting some benefits. The unions were always going to fight hard against the measures but now the government and – far more important – the mood of the country, is different.

Iberia is the last of the big European airlines to try to force its staff into 21st century methods of working. They are close to winning the fight and have the government and country on their side. Air France are now in a very difficult position.

Taming the unions is not just a question of cutting costs but of safety as well. After the Rio crash, the unions tried to blame the airline for not having correct operating procedures. The airline tartly replied that since pilots did not always follow the existing rules, it was foolish to ask for more rules! 

One of the reasons for Air France’s bad safety record has been the fact that it is so hard to get rid of staff who do not follow the rules. Why not cut a few corners if you feel like it because the company can’t do anything about it?

It is quite possible that the actual economic policies of M. Hollande will not be so different from those of his predecessor but his election has made life very difficult for Air France. It is already in trouble and unless it is transformed very quickly from being a state-aided playground into a  lean and mean competitive company, the future is grim.

Air France requires “drastic cuts”

In order to restore profitability to the airline’s short and medium haul network, the airline is looking at cuts in expenses of at least 20%. 

Top of the list of items to cut are staff wages and numbers.

We would be very surprised if this can be accomplished without a period of prolonged industrial unrest.

The only good thing is that if the company does win the battle, it might result in much greater stability in the future. Air France has been at the mercy of its many unions for as long as anyone can remember. There is clearly no way Air France can continue with its current costs (and a 20% reduction still looks on the low side).

The battle could be long and difficult – and we would not rush to make arrangements to fly with Air France until an end is in sight.

Another A380 prang!

Whilst they have become rather a tedious forum for pre-arranged purchses to be officially announced, air shows are still the most important public opportunity an aircraft manufacturer gets to show off their aircraft. And shows do not come more prestigious than the Paris Air Show.

So it is rather a shame for Airbus that they had to cancel a flying display by their A380 after it touched wings with a fixed structure on the runway. No doubt the taxiways were particularly crowded with aircraft but Airbus will be deeply embarrassed at another very public show of the problems of operating the A380 at busy airports. This is only a few weeks after an Air France A380 had an unfortunate collision with a regional jet at JFK. No doubt one of the aims of the intended flying display was to show just how nimble the A380 is in the air. Alas, it ended up showing that it is far less nimble on the ground.

There does look to be a case for improving pilot visibility from the cockpit of the aircraft. Airbus will certainly have to do something to convince both airports and airlines that the A380 can be operated easily at the world’s busiest airports.

Air France – Easy to blame the pilot but…

When the Air France A380 hit a commuter jet on the ground at JFK the video spread across the internet and television like wildfire. To a casual observer, it was another example of the rather cavalier-style that some Air France pilots have a reputation for.

On the face of it, the case against the Air France pilots is pretty clear. Just as with motor vehicles, if an aircraft hits a stationary aircraft on the ground, it is nearly always judged to be the fault of the moving aircraft. However, before jumping to conclusions, it might be wise to look at a a few facts.

- The A380 is fitted with cameras to allow flight crew to see other parts of the aircraft but there are no cameras which show the wing-tips so, when taxiing, the pilot can only rely on his judgement to gauge available space.

- It looks as if the commuter jet had stopped short of its parking stand because of a vehicle in the way in the service area.  The ground controller had probably assumed that the aircraft would proceed directly to its stand. The Air France pilot might have been expected to see that the aircraft was not yet fully on its stand but it was dark and maybe not possible to spot that the other aircraft had stopped a few yards away.

- If the FAA had followed its original instincts, this accident could not have happened. They wanted to restrict the use of the A380 to airports, or areas of airports, that had wider taxiways than many of those at JFK. Of course, the A380 is designed for use on busy routes which, by definition, means operating at the busiest – and most congested – airports. Ironically, the airports best suited to handling the aircraft might not have the traffic to support it. The FAA gave into commercial pressure and allowed the operation of the A380 at airports with taxiways that it originally considered too narrow.

It will suit all parties to blame the pilot in this instance. The FAA will not want to accept blame for authorising use of the aircraft at JFK. Airbus will not want to be blamed for not fitting cameras on the wing-tips. Air France will probably rather have a pilot rapped over the knuckles than its operations at JFK (and maybe other airports as well) curtailed.

Air France ding – expensive

This is why you need to keep your seat belt fastened until you reach the gate. The fact that it’s an Air France A380 doing the dinging and that Inside Traveller has expressed concern about safety standards at Air France on a number of occasions in the past, is purely coincidental.

Airbus A380 Sampler

This summer, anyone wanting to experience Airbus’ mega jumbo, the A380, won’t have to travel Dubai, Singapore or Sydney to try it out. Air France plans to fly the doubledecker at least three times a week between Paris CDG and Heathrow, starting on 12th June until the end of August. The reason given is crew training – make of that what you will.

Air France Again

A few days ago, the pilot of an Air France 777 had to abort take-off at the last moment from Lagos because of a lack of power. Fortunately, the aircraft was able to stop in time and passengers disembarked without using the chutes. There was no great mystery about what had caused the problem – it seems both pilots simply forgot to arm the auto-thrust selector. Boeing have accepted that their instructions might need improving because there have been seven other reported incidents of this happening. Nonetheless, forgetting a fairly obvious part of the pre-departure procedure is, to say the least, unfortunate. Nor is this the first time it has happened with Air France – a 747 crew made the same mistake with an aircraft in Tahiti.

To its credit, Air France has already accepted that its safety record is not as good as it should be and has employed Delta to perform a full audit on the airline. Of course, the actual record of an airline only shows incidents where aircraft have been badly damaged or people injured. Incidents such as the two above, lurk under the statistics and often go unreported – even though they could very nearly have been very serious accidents.

The Air France pilots’ union was furious with the company last year when they suggested that the pilots should pay more attention to in-house operational instructions.  This incident is yet further indication that the airline might have a point.

It is time that Air France buried the “Air Chance” nick-name and it seems that the pilots might have to climb off their collective high horse if the airline’s reputation is to be improved.

Air France Gets Tough With Pilots

Immediately after the Rio crash, we pointed out that Air France already had a rather poor safety record and would need to work hard to convince the world that its safety standards were comparable with the best airlines.

The airline has actually done quite a good job in very difficult circumstances because it is likely the cause of the accident will never be known. Amidst all the conflicting rumours, the airline has done its best to display an open and reasonable attitude to the investigation. Those who study disaster management techniques have even suggested that Air France’s handling of the situation has been “exemplary”.

From the day the flight from Rio disappeared into the Atlantic, the airline has been bombarded with criticism from its own pilots. Initially, it tried to rise above this and pointed out possible malfunctioning speed sensors could not, by themselves, have caused the crash. Further testing seems to have proved their point and they have now decided to come out fighting. Last week they sent a memo to all their pilots which was leaked (presumably by Air France themselves) to the press.

“Enough scandals and false debates about flight safety…it suffices simply to follow our existing procedures” is the gist of the memo. It then goes on to list examples of standard safety procedures which have been ignored by pilots.

It has taken Air France longer than normal to shed the feel of a state-run company. There is a culture amongst some of the pilots that they are rather above the company and in their jobs for life. Pilots at every airline are monitored and will be grounded or dismissed if they fail to follow the precise rules set out. Maybe some Air France pilots feel rather  too protected and become over-confident about their flying skills.

The memo has produced howls of protest from Air France pilots and their union and a threat of a strike. It is hard to see the public having much sympathy with them if they go on strike because they are being told to follow safety rules.

A serious accident should be an opportunity for a company to examine itself from top to bottom. It is good that the current management feels brave enough to take on the pilots.