Somewhere between the Stone Age and the Twilight Zone sits the Air France Flying Blue North American call center. Ontario, Canada? Please…It pains me to even recall this story, but it will be instructive. Here's the quick summary—don't ever redeem points with Air France/KLM Flying Blue for award travel that includes Africa. Period.
A client's son was originating out of Lilongwe, Malawi for a Christmas trip to Berlin. Kenya Airways and KLM are both part of the Flying Blue program and offer greater award availability, particularly in premium cabins, to their own mileage members. That meant a Flying Blue redemption rather than a Delta redemption using American Express points.
First off, whenever you see Kenya Airways award space available on the Flying Blue award search page, chances are you cannot book it. Kenya Airways is the king of "phantom award space" and at this point I don't even bother checking the website anymore, opting to call the horrific center immediately. If you do try to book through the website, you can choose the flight but cannot confirm or hold the reservation without miles. Once the miles are in the account, you will inevitably see this (after entering credit card details and clicking "puchase" on the final payment screen)--
The call center agents at Flying Blue are so clueless, apathetic, and disempowered that I always call back a second time to verify space. And if I get a different answer (which honestly happens more often than not) I'll call 2-3 more times, just to make sure.
The problem is the call center is small, everyone sounds the same (you'll know if you call yourself), and I found myself reaching the same agent every time I called, over and over and over and over. So you may want to wait an hour or so before calling right back. That of course makes the process all the more cumbersome. And whatever crap VOIP system they are using makes communication excruciatingly difficult. Expect to hear an echo every time you call, which annoys the heck out of me.
Anyway, I finally found a suitable routing and placed it on hold to present to the client. I placed the reservation on hold on a Monday and was told the hold was good through Wednesday. Always double-check that with another phone call or five.
The client liked the itinerary and I asked her to transfer the points from AMEX to Flying Blue, which she did. But when I called back, the next day (Tuesday morning), the reservation was cancelled. Thankfully, I was able to get the space back, but my interaction with the agent was like this—
AGENT: This reservation has been cancelled.
ME: I was told by two people it would be held until Wednesday
AGENT: Well, it's cancelled.
ME: Does this happen often?
ME: Well, can you restore the itinerary?
ME: Can you check?
AGENT: Oh. Sure.
Once the itinerary was restored, I knew the cumbersome booking process involved, but still tried to complete the ticketing over the phone. The agent quickly shot me down—one thing agents do know how to do is make life hard for the customer. She instead instructed me to go to "the nearest" airport and "they" would be able to ticket it there.
I was in Philadelphia—New York/Newark was 2hrs away, Washington was 3hrs away. Air France does not serve Philadelphia. I told her that. She put me on hold and came back and said "Air France actually has a ticket office in Philadelphia Airport that's open from 6am to 8pm."
Oh really, Air France maintains a ticket center for 14 hours per day in an airport they don't serve? I thanked her and ended the call. Just to be sure, I did call the airport. Of course Air France does not have a ticketing office at PHL.
I called Air France reservations (which is really just calling Delta), to see if they could do it. I was just amused to see what the answer might be. Nope, I was also told to go to Philadelphia Airport where a Delta agent would be able to issue the Air France ticket because "we're partners". But when I mentioned this was an award ticket, she responded, "Oh yeah. Guess you can't do that. Well, you can go to New York."
At this point, I apprised the client of the situation. She was in Washington, but too busy to go to the airport herself. I told her I would do it for if her necessary (I had a trip to Washington at the end of the week and one the following week) but would call back Flying Blue first.
I called back. The reservation was cancelled. Again. When I asked the agent to restore it, she hung up on me. I called back, got her again, and she hung up on me again. I called back a third time, got her again, and demanded to be transferred immediately to a supervisor so I could complain about her hanging up on me.
Suddenly, she was in a helpful mood. She restored the itinerary and I explained to her that I was not at all close to an Air France airport station or ticketing office. She then instructed me to fax in a copy of my passport and credit card with a letter asking the reservation to be ticketed and it would happen in 3-4 days. She assured me the trip was safely on hold now till the end of the week. Just to be clear (read on...), she knew she was talking to me--Matthew--the authorized agent of the account holder.
I sent the requested material. One day went by. I called back and was told that the department that processes all incoming facsimiles had not processed my fax yet. Same story the next day. Finally (it was Thursday now) I called back and the agent found a note on the reservation saying the credit card was unreadable and to resend.
So nice of them to let me know…
I resent the credit card and waited another two days. Now the story was I was not authorized to issue a ticket on behalf of the client and I would need a copy of the Flying Blue member's passport and Flying Blue card. I protested, but the apathetic agent could not care less—"that's the way things are" she said.
Thankfully, my client was patient and agreed to fax in the required information. This done, I called back Flying Blue again to confirm they had received the information. They claimed they had not. Another day went by—they still claimed they had not received it. So I personally faxed it to them this time.
Another day went by—I was calling twice a day at this point, just to make sure the reservation was still on hold. Finally, Flying Blue received the material and said the ticket would be issued in the next 48 hours. Keep in mind this was not the following Thursday, nine days after this ordeal started.
The ticket never issued. On Saturday, I called back and was told to just be patient or go to the airport to have it done instantly. Wanting to put this trip in the bag, I drove to Dulles Airport and went up to an Air France ticket counter.
The agent had no idea what I was talking about when I said I need to pay the taxes on a Flying Blue redemption, but the Duty Manager—a kind French woman and about the only bright spot (if you can call it that) in this sorry tale—told me she would help, looked up the record, and took my credit card into the back office.
45 (!) minutes passed by. Finally, the woman emerged and said she was having troubling re-pricing the taxes. She claimed she also could not get in touch with Flying Blue. I called Flying Blue on my mobile phone, got through in about five minutes, and handed the phone to the agent.
She walked into the back room with my phone then emerged 10 minutes later shaking her head. She handed me the phone stating they say they need more information before the ticket can be issued. "I tried to override the system but I could not. Here, they want to talk to you—"
ME: Yes, what is the problem? I've done everything asked to get this ticketed.
AGENT: Um, there's a note here on the reservation.
ME: What does the note say?
AGENT: It says we need a copy of the birth certificate and passport of the passenger traveling.
ME (going ballistic)
AGENT: We can't issue the ticket until we have that info.
ME: Do you realize how difficult your company has made it to book a ticket? I'm not blaming you—you're just the messenger—but why was I told to first send my documents, then the account holder's documents, and now the traveler's documents? How long will this ordeal go on?
AGENT: I'm sorry if you were misinformed.
I hung up the phone and called the client. Once again, I was thankful she could laugh about this, because I was not laughing. The duty manager at Dulles apologized profusely.
The requested information was sent—the long-form birth certificate as it turned out. 48 hours later, I called back, expecting a demand for my high school transcripts and dental records in order to get the ticket issued.
Instead, I was told that Flying Blue now had everything it needed and would issue the tickets "soon." I asked how soon was soon and the reply was "soon."
The following day, I received a jubilant e-mail from my client—"Matthew, it looks like the tickets have been issued! Yea!"
Indeed, the ticket was issued. But I've never had to go through so much to book a ticket. And I never will again.
Until Flying Blue can come out of the Stone Age and into 21st Century (with such wonderful new tricks as Master Card SecureCode and Visa Verify to minimize credit card fraud), I refuse to book a client on a Flying Blue ticket that includes Africa. It simply is not worth my time or the client's. With Star Alliance now dominant in Africa with South African, Egypt Air, and Ethiopian (plus a robust network by Turkish and Brussels), there is rarely an instance when booking with Flying Blue is necessary.
But I concede there may be times when booking with Flying Blue to Africa is necessary. Just remember, you've been warned. Prepare yourself for an aggravating battle.