An emergency layover in Syria’s capital was bad enough. Then passengers on Air France Flight 562 were asked to open their wallets to check if they had enough cash to pay for more fuel.
The plane, heading from Paris to Lebanon’s capital, diverted amid tensions near the Beruit airport on Wednesday. Low on fuel, it instead landed in Damascus, the capital of neighboring Syria, where a civil war is raging.
An Air France spokesman explained Friday that the crew inquired about passenger cash only as a “precautionary measure” because of the “very unusual circumstances.” Sanctions against Syria complicated payment for extra fuel.
He said Air France found a way to pay for the fill-up without tapping customer pockets, and apologized for the inconvenience. He wouldn’t say how the airline paid, or how much.
One woman aboard said the passengers had rounded up 17,000 euros.
“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 identified as May Bsat.
The Boeing 777, carrying 185 people, took off for an overnight layover in Cyprus then landed safely in Beirut on Thursday.
Lebanon is a volatile mix of pro- and anti-Syrian factions, and a series of hostage-takings has raised worries about Lebanon being dragged deeper into Syria’s unrest. Mobs supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad blocked the main airport highway in Beirut on Wednesday, before Lebanese military units moved in.
The layover was awkward for Air France, the flagship carrier for a country whose government toes a hard line against Syrian President Bashar Assad — and warns all its citizens to avoid or leave Syrian soil.
France, which once ruled Syria and Lebanon, championed EU-wide economic sanctions on Syria — including its national airline, Syria Air. Air France operated regular flights to Damascus until suspending them amid violence earlier this year.
While it was the first time Air France said it had resorted to a request for passenger cash, it wasn’t the first airline to do so.
Hundreds of passengers traveling from India to the UK 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 ($31,000) to fund the rest of the flight to Birmingham, England.
Passengers on the flight described the situation to the various news agencies covering the story.
“We went down in Syria where there were lots of soldiers … We thought there were some problems and that there was no money to pay for the fuel,” a Flight 562 passenger identified as Najib, a “42-year-old businessman,” told AFP. “They asked if the passengers could contribute for the refueling. Then they found a solution to the problem”
Source: MINA/AP (as edited)