Strikes Cast Pall Over World Cup

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 July 12.

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 country.

"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 matches.

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 suffer, also."

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