Crew asks air travelers to pitch in for jet fuel
Passengers on a diverted Air France flight this week faced an unusual request: They were asked to open their wallets to see if they had enough cash to pay for more fuel.
The New York Times
PARIS — The anxieties of an unexpected landing in war-ravaged Syria were compounded for passengers on an Air France flight this week when they were asked by the crew if they couldn't possibly, you know, come up with some cash to help pay for the refueling.
Passengers on Air France Flight 562 were headed from Paris to Beirut on Wednesday, but the religious and ethnic tensions of the civil war in Syria have spilled over into Lebanon.
Unrest around Beirut's airport made it impossible to land, Air France officials said Friday. The crew sought permission to divert to Amman, Jordan, but lacked the fuel to make it safely, so the plane, a Boeing 777 carrying 185 people, ended up in Damascus, as if the war-ravaged Syrian capital were any safer than Beirut.
Air France stopped flying to Damascus in March as fighting escalated in Syria, and Paris and Damascus are not on good terms these days, with French officials among the most vocal in calling for President Bashar Assad and his government to step down and face charges of war crimes.
France, which once ruled Syria, also pulled its ambassador from Damascus in March. In a reflection of the current state of relations between the two nations, the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, visiting a refugee camp for Syrians on the Turkish border Friday, said: "The Syrian regime should be smashed fast. After hearing the refugees and their account of the massacres of the regime, Mr. Bashar al-Assad doesn't deserve to be on this Earth."
There is also the small matter of European Union sanctions on Syria that make buying jet fuel, let alone on credit, a little complicated.
Authorities at the Damascus airport told the crew that they could not accept credit cards because of the sanctions — cash only. So as a "precaution," an Air France spokeswoman said, the crew asked the passengers how much money they happened to have in their wallets to help pay for fuel.
One woman aboard said the passengers rounded up 17,000 euros, or about $21,000.
"The pilot asked the passengers in first class to get their cash together. Everyone started to collect money, and they managed to collect 17,000, but the pilot in the end didn't take anything. They resolved the problems with the Damascus airport," said a passenger speaking on France-Info radio and identified as May Bsat.
In the end, the airline managed to settle the bill without help from the passengers, and the plane took off two hours later to spend the night in Cyprus, where the troubled Cypriot banks still take credit cards. The plane landed safely Thursday in Beirut, which apparently had calmed down sufficiently in the interim.
An Air France spokesman apologized for the inconvenience Friday and declined to say how the airline paid, or how much.
While it was the first time Air France had resorted to a request for passenger cash, it wasn't the first airline to do so. Hundreds of passengers traveling from India to Britain were stranded for six hours in Vienna last year when their Comtel Air flight stopped for fuel, and the charter service asked them to kick in more than 20,000 pounds, about $31,000, to pay for the rest of the flight to Birmingham, England.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.