NEW YORK -- Air France was operating only two or three daily
flights from the U.S. and only 25% of its schedule as the World Cup
soccer tournament began.
The pilots' strike -- combined with walkouts by technicians at
Charles de Gaulle Airport; road blockages by French teamsters, and
strike threats by train and bus personnel -- cast a pall over one
of the world's major sports events, slated to run June 10 through
Air France, which normally serves eight U.S. airports, cut back
to one: New York's Kennedy. It canceled its Concorde flight from
Kennedy on World Cup's opening day but was generally operating one
Concorde and two subsonic flights a day from there. The carrier
said it was committed to operating 160 special charter flights to
transport the 32 soccer teams to 10 stadiums around the
"Luckily, under these unfortunate but fast-changing
circumstances, there are other ways to go to France with all the
new nonstop services of American carriers," Jean-Pierre Courteau,
U.S. director of the French National Tourist Office, said.
British Airways added 3,700 seats between London and Paris last
week by upgrading its 757 services to 767 and 747 aircraft. It was
planning an additional 1,700 seats during the first week of the
Lufthansa was unable to divert capacity to Paris or other French
points because of heavy bookings across the board. Sabena reported
that it, too, was heavily booked prior to the strike but was
accommodating some Air France passengers.
Gullivers Sports Travel, one of three travel companies in the
U.S. selected to market World Cup programs by the French Organizing
Committee, moved its staff from Vista, Calif., to Paris to direct
operations of its program, called Follow the Flag Team USA. About
2,000 U.S. fans booked the program, which will follow the U.S. team
to Lyon and Nantes, as well as visit Paris.
"We have been doing sports events for 20 years," director John
Lane told Travel Weekly from his temporary Paris headquarters, "but
with every French transportation company threatening to strike,
this could be the most complicated ever." Lane said Gullivers holds
charter space on the TGV trains for travel around France, adding
that he believed various contracts with the World Cup would prevent
French rails from being struck.
He also said he doubted Metro employees would strike -- at least
not on game days -- in Paris, where Gullivers clients were slated
to stay for five days. "We are here to line up all options for all
emergencies," Lane said, "and we will in one way or another get all
our people, with their tickets in hand, to the games on time."
Gullivers did not market international air as part of its
program, and Lane reported that only five inbound passengers had
problems securing transatlantic space.
Rail Europe, another official World Cup operator, said its U.S.
passengers were booked on United, Continental, US Airways and
British Airways for the transatlantic flight. Rail Europe's program
focuses on matches held in Paris, so threatened strikes on other
transportation modes were not an issue for the company. In the
event of train and/or bus service disruption, the prospects for
switching to rental cars were grim.
"This is a strong year for travel to France," said Auto Europe
president Imad Khalidi, "and we will not be able to find enough
cars to make up the difference that air and rail disruptions may
cause." Khalidi said,"If I were a travel agent, I would fly clients
to Switzerland or Belgium, rent a car and drive the short distance
into France. In an hour, clients can make the trip from neighboring
countries," he said.
Another option, he said, is Icelandair's Luxembourg fly-drive
package for a week or more. He said the program costs 30% less than
a package to France, "and the agent can save the client money and
provide good advice and good service."
Khalidi had strong views on the strike. "I think that Air France
is a disgrace," he said. "It's the national carrier of the country,
[it] received the honor of hosting the prestigious World Cup soccer
games, and it is using this event to hold up the traveler and the
travel industry. Hotels, restaurants and small businesses in France
are going to suffer, and travel agents in the U.S. -- who are
booking Paris this year more than Rome or London -- are going to