La catastrophe: My La Compagnie flight to the South of France that never happened
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The United States and France have had a special relationship since the former’s birth. No surprise that the two should be linked by a large, and growing, number of flights. The smallest of the airlines linking the two nations is Paris-based La Compagnie, which began flying in 2014 and operates to less than a handful of destinations in each country on less than a handful of planes with only one choice of cabin, business class.
Despite the lack of scale — it focuses only on Newark in the U.S. and Paris and Nice in France with what’s currently a three-jet fleet — La Compagnie takes advantage of that crowded US-France traffic to offer competitive fares in a market built on pricey business fares.
And that’s what drew me to them for a trip this summer.
We were long overdue for a visit with a friend and her family in Paris, so early this year, we decided to get a rental house together in the South of France for both our families in August.
And why not get there in comfort, I figured, especially since we would traveling with a baby who’d proven to be pretty good about going to sleep on planes? So La Compagnie’s once-daily flight from Newark to Nice, about a half hour by car from our rental house, seemed like the perfect choice, a wonderful way to treat ourselves after nearly a year and a half of changing diapers.
The result, however, was easily the worst airline-related experience, as a passenger, of my life — and I’ve flown on both North Korea’s airline and one where the pilot threatened passengers with decapitation. So, like, bad bad, not “they didn’t thank me for my elite status” bad.
Here’s why I will never fly La Compagnie again.
A promising start
I got our August round-trip tickets for our La Compagnie flight from Newark Liberty Airport (EWR) to, at least theoretically, Nice Côte d’Azur Airport (NCE) all the way back on Jan. 9 two different ways.
I used the Platinum Card from American Express to buy a ticket for my wife. Our son, who’d be just over 17 months for our trip, was listed under her fare and got a separate ticket, but there was no charge because he would still be under 2 at the time of the flight. Like the website instructed, I noted that he’d need a kid meal and milk. The fare for my wife and son’s tickets came to $1,543.
For my own fare, I redeemed 86,662 points on my Chase Sapphire Reserve card with the help of a specialist at the Chase Travel Portal. My receipt listed $698 for the flight and $601.93 for taxes and fees, minus $1,299.93 in credit from my redeemed points, leaving me with a grand total of zero dollars to pay in cash.
We were all booked on the same row, and I was going to hold our child as a lap infant, but when later I called La Compagnie to confirm our seats, the agent said that we might be moved to a bulkhead row with a bassinet on the day of our flight. She also confirmed that they’d have kid meals and milk stocked.
I’d chosen a red-eye specifically with the idea that our child would fall asleep soon after the 11:30 p.m. Eastern-time departure, and would wake fresh as a daisy — I’m allowed to dream — not too long before we landed at 1:50 p.m., France time, the next day. Because we were traveling with a very young child, I didn’t look at connecting options.
With our flights purchased and pretty much settled, nearly seven months passed without incident, and I let myself start to fantasize about cracking open freshly baked French bread to the sounds of the Mediterranean breaking against the sand. We even bought our toddler tiny black Speedo briefs so he’d fit right in with the older men on European beaches. The day before our flight, La Compagnie emailed me with confirmation of our upcoming trip. Everything was going swimmingly.
The next day, it all went horribly wrong.
Strike one: Canceled flight … ?
I was in the middle of triple-checking that Tickle Me Elmo was turned off inside our checked luggage and wouldn’t prompt a bomb scare with peals of demonic laughter echoing through the cargo hold when something nagged at me to see how our plane was faring the afternoon of our departure.
“Delayed,” FlightAware warned.
The plane, apparently, was still in Nice. But there was no word of any issues from La Compagnie, so I let it go, at first. But I kept checking, and when there was only an hour or two to go before we had to pack up the car for the hourlong drive from Brooklyn to Newark, it became obvious that the fact that our plane might still be stuck in France could have serious implications for our trip.
Finally, I got an email from the airline saying the flight had been pushed back about 20 minutes. Then an email came saying my flight was canceled for technical reasons and the company was working on getting me on a replacement flight. Weirdly, though, my wife and son’s original travel itinerary was supposedly still on, according to La Compagnie.
I wasn’t about to send my wife off to haul our kid and two weeks’ worth of luggage through the South of France all by her lonesome, so I called La Compagnie customer service to find out what was going on. Repeatedly. I kept getting a recording that kept me on hold for a long time before asking me to try again later and then hanging up on me.
So I gave up on them and called the Chase Travel Portal, where a Chase representative confirmed that, yes, the entire flight was canceled. She called La Compagnie on my behalf and actually got through. On a three-way call with Chase, La Compagnie’s customer service said we ought to head for Newark Airport, where there’d be replacement tickets waiting for us. Instead of flying business to Nice, we would be booked on the economy airline XL Airways France, which has since ceased flying. She also promised that milk and kid meals would be available on the XL flight. But we’d land in the wrong city: Paris, around 430 miles from Nice as the crow flies.
How would we get from Paris to Nice? They’d have it worked out by the time we landed, the La Compagnie rep, based in Guadeloupe in the French Caribbean, promised.
Actually, they seemed to have sorted it out on our drive over to the XL Airways desks at Newark Terminal B, emailing my wife, at least, an itinerary that showed that she and our son were booked for an Air France flight from Paris Orly Airport (ORY) to Nice, leaving the next day at 3:25 p.m. and arriving at 4:55 p.m., or a smidge over three hours after we’d originally expected. None of it was ideal, but it would still put us at the rental house in time to have a pleasant welcome dinner with our friends. I assumed — hoped — that I’d get an email with the same itinerary. At this point, I didn’t really have a choice.
Strike two: No ticket pour moi
At Newark, I learned never to assume anything with La Compagnie: My wife and kid were booked from Newark to Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG), as expected. I wasn’t. Neither was one of the other guys behind me.
After several frantic minutes that involved a snowballing number of bewildered desk staff and management shuffling papers and disappearing behind a door to consult another computer and possibly make calls to Paris, we learned that La Compagnie headquarters had sent XL Airways a list of people from our flight who needed seats on that night’s flight to CDG. For some reason that was never explained, at least two of the people on the list were never actually booked seats, including me.
After a few more minutes, though, we were finally all booked on the XL flight to Charles de Gaulle, on Flight SE051, leaving 11:59 p.m. New York time and landing at 1:10 p.m. Paris time the next day. Our seats were even next to each other.
I’ll skip most of the description of the substitute flights we ended up having to take — though I’ll point out that the XL crew had no idea what we were talking about when we asked for the milk and kid meal the La Compagnie agent had promised. This was never intended to be a story about XL Airways or Air France, after all. Instead, I’ll skip to our experience once we landed in Paris, where La Compagnie managed to take an unfortunate situation and make it much, much worse. It was like a summer job where you accidentally spill the ice cream while handing a customer his ice cream cone and, instead of throwing it out and getting a new one, picking the scoop of ice cream up from the dirt with your fingers, putting it back in the cone and handing it to your customer, hairy with grass and twigs and wriggling with ants — and expecting them to pay you $2.50 for it.
Plus, it’s pistachio or rum raisin or a flavor like that.
Strike three: Impossible connection
After landing in Paris at Terminal 2A on the next day, going through immigration and collecting our baggage, we hightailed it to Terminal 2F, only to have our boarding passes for the flight to Nice — we actually had all three of them this time — rejected at the check-in kiosk.
Bag check had closed before we’d gotten there. In buying our tickets, the third-party, evidently France-based, company La Compagnie uses to manage rebookings hadn’t taken into account that we had to deal with customs and immigration after an international flight, not leaving us enough time to get off the plane from Newark, go through the bureaucratic paperwork, get our bags, change terminals and check in with a different airline.
So now we were given the choice of either abandoning almost all our bags, including two weeks’ worth of necessities, or finding another way to Nice.
More calls to La Compagnie’s customer-service line. More recordings and hang-ups. The incredibly patient woman manning the Air France customer-service desk told us that if we wanted to make it to Nice that day, our only shot was an 8 p.m. flight from Paris Orly Airport (ORY) that landed in Nice at 9:25 p.m. But the seats were filling rapidly, she warned.
Strike, uh, four: Forced to rebook myself
Finally, a call to La Compagnie found a live person. The agent said that they’d book us on the Air France flight from Orly to Nice. Alternatively, we could find a hotel, spend the night, and try to catch another flight the next day, and La Compagnie would pay for up to 200 euros ($220) for lodging — in other words, enough for a Motel 6 level of hotel in Paris at the last minute.
We picked the Nice flight that night, and the agent said I’d get a phone call once it was taken care of. So we ate, tried to relax and waited for the call from La Compagnie, which never came.
I called them again, made it through the gauntlet of recordings and hang-ups, and reached the same La Compagnie customer-service rep, who said that the booking company that the airline used was slow that day because it was dealing a whole cruise ship full of passengers who had to be rebooked to the South of France too — and that took priority. But our new, new flight to Nice would be taken care of by the time we got out of the cab to Orly, which they’d pay for. I’d get a call by the time we were at Orly, she said, but we should hop in a taxi now.
La Compagnie’s promises rang hollow at this point, so I realized we needed a Plan B. We went back to the Air France staffer who’d been helping us, and one of her eyebrows went up skeptically when we repeated what the plan from La Compagnie was. Behind her, another Air France agent tut-tutted and asked what company we were dealing with, then shook his head.
“This doesn’t make sense,” our agent said. “This is something that takes less than a minute. Why would they make you wait to be booked?”
So, working with the helpful Air France agent, we worked out the Plan B: We wouldn’t immediately trek with all our stuff and infant to Orly, in case it was all to find out La Compagnie had fumbled again (from CDG, north of Paris, to Orly, south of it, is about a 35-minute ride away in decent traffic but can be more than twice that in heavy traffic). Instead, we’d stick around the customer-service desk at CDG and check in with her every once in a while to see if we’d been booked on that night’s flight yet. After all, the Air France computer would be updated immediately after it happened, and it was clear that La Compagnie wasn’t exactly on the ball when it came to communicating with customers.
If, by the time we had to leave CDG for ORY, La Compagnie still hadn’t bought our tickets, I’d buy the tickets myself. Then we’d take a cab to Orly. If La Compagnie still hadn’t gotten us our seats to Nice by do-or-die time at Orly, we’d travel on our self-bought tickets. If, however, La Compagnie actually came through before we had to check in for our flight, I could talk to an Air France agent at Orly for a one-time-only-these-are-unusual-circumstances refund on what were normally nonrefundable tickets.
So we gave La Compagnie nearly four hours to buy tickets that should’ve taken them literal seconds to take care of.
And they whiffed yet again.
With taxes and fees, our tickets for two adults and one infant from Orly to Nice bought directly from Air France cost me 203 euros (about $225), which I put on my Chase Sapphire Reserve. We left CDG at 5:50 p.m. and got to Orly around 6:40 p.m. in an Uber that cost 64 euros ($70).
Before we got in line for an Air France kiosk at Orly, I checked for messages from La Compagnie. Nada. With bag check and security still to deal with, and not wanting to risk missing a second flight in a row, there didn’t seem to be much point in giving La Compagnie any more leeway. We checked in with the tickets I’d bought myself.
Only after we made it through security and to the gate and had waited around a bit, maybe 15 or 20 minutes from the first boarding call, did my phone chime to let me know there was a voicemail from La Compagnie. Their booking company was trying to get us tickets on the Air France flight to Nice but saw our names were already on the manifest. Could we contact La Compagnie right away so they could sort it all out and arrange our seats?
One last time, I made the all-too-familiar round of attempts to call La Compagnie. The connection was terrible, and I could barely even hear the recording before it hung up on me. When I finally got through to a live representative, she cut me short as I started to give her my name.
“Yes, I know who you are,” she said. It wasn’t the voice of someone happy to hear from me.
When I told her we were already at the gate on tickets I’d bought myself, though, she seemed to perk up.
“Oh! Then it all worked out! Have a good flight!”
“Of course, I expect you to reimburse me for the tickets I had to buy myself,” I said.
But she wasn’t having that, and said that because I’d bought my own tickets instead of letting La Compagnie arrange it, I was on the hook for the 203 euros. I could take it up by emailing customer service if I felt I needed to. And then the line went dead — either the poor connection had given out again, or La Compagnie had hung up on me yet again.
I didn’t bother trying to raise them again. It was time to board.
Air France Flight 6232 landed at Nice Airport around 9:30 p.m. By the time we booked our tickets, adjacent seats weren’t available, so I sat with our son in my lap while my wife was in the row in front of us. After we got our luggage and to the car-rental center, the rental agency was down to a single staffer who could get us the child car seat we’d reserved, so we didn’t make it to our rental home just outside Cannes till just before midnight.
I’d bought tickets for an eight-hour, 20-minute flight that was supposed to get us from door to door in under 13 and a half hours. We ended up on a grueling odyssey that involved four airports, three cities and three airlines and took closer to twice that.
Après NCE, la catastrophe
For the Newark-Nice flight on La Compagnie, I never interacted with anyone at the airline besides the customer-service telephone agents based in Guadeloupe. Though the woman I dealt with most obviously grew increasingly exasperated as the saga went on, her demeanor remained cool and professional, if not exactly sympathetic, throughout. I can’t say the airline didn’t hire cool-headed staff for their call center.
What I can say, however, is that their information was late, incomplete and often incorrect, and if I’d followed their directions the whole way through, we wouldn’t have made it to our intended destination until the third day. For some reason, the emails we received were different depending on whether it involved my wife or me. Whoever did their rebookings flubbed basic travel practicalities not just once but twice and possibly three times (depending on whether it was their or XL’s fault I wasn’t booked on the replacement EWR-CDG flight).
That’s not great customer service. In fact, it’s downright crappy. And it took a customer-service agent from another airline to salvage the situation, which La Compagnie should frankly find embarrassing. TPG’s Editor at Large Zach Honig also experienced poor customer service when dealing with the airline on a flight from Paris to Newark a few months ago — but he actually got to fly on a La Compagnie plane in business class.
All that was exacerbated when La Compagnie continued to refuse to reimburse me for the Air France tickets I’d been forced to buy on my own to get us to Nice. The day after we landed in the South of France, I emailed customer service with my receipts and explanation, then waited.
It only took a couple days for them to email me, apologizing for the technical issue with their plane and offering to refund $261.75 per passenger to compensate for the downgrade in service from Newark to Paris, plus $700 “cash regulatory compensation” per flyer (or a $1,000 voucher per person to be used toward a La Compagnie flight within one year — a nonstarter, of course). But there was no mention of paying me back for the Air France tickets, so I asked them again.
Nearly three weeks after the aborted Newark-Nice flight, they emailed again and flatly rejected the idea of paying for the Air France tickets.
“First and foremost, we have to point out, though; Regulation dictates when it comes to canceled flights, passengers shall be given the choice between a rerouting at the earliest opportunity or the refund of the unused flight,” the email said in broken English. “Despite, you could have been postponed on another airline and granted with the downgrading compensation, you decided to purchase new flights on your own with Air France. In this instance, you’ll understand we must respectfully deny your request to refund these extra costs.”
I repeated my appeal, asked them to bump it up to the higher-ups and once again painstakingly laid out the account, minute by minute, of why I ended up having to buy my own tickets to Nice instead of relying on them to rebook my flight. I pointed out that if I’d waited for them to book the Orly-Nice tickets, it would have been physically impossible, for the second time in one day, for us to make it before check-in closed.
One month and two days after La Compagnie had canceled our flight from Newark to Nice at the last minute, they gave in.
“Having review your file, we must reconsider our previous email,” they wrote. “Indeed, our record shows the flight we booked was not convenient for your journey. Hence, we will participate to your Air France ticket fee for $222 (203€) and will process the refund on your bank account.”
I could finally close the book on my brief but unhappy relationship with La Compagnie.
It’s tempting to write my experience off as a one-off incident, but whenever there’s a story on The Points Guy about La Compagnie, the comments section is almost invariably filled with horror stories involving technical problems, canceled flights, “inflexible” and unreachable customer service, stranded passengers, sudden downgrades and a litany of ruined trips. When I read those complaints before I booked our flights, I wondered whether it were a case of anonymous-comments-sections histrionics. TPG himself experienced a stressful La Compagnie cancellation while he was at the gate waiting to board a flight earlier this year. He had to scramble, but was able to get on a different Norwegian flight, as well as a full refund and compensation for the cancellation. Still, he echoed the sentiment that the airline was stressful — if not painful — to deal with.
Now that I’ve interacted with the airline myself, I can verify that the complaints about La Compagnie are spot on.
Once we actually got to our rental house, our trip ended up being wonderful, thankfully, but the airline’s operations are clearly seriously brittle, with a tiny, aging fleet, questionable choice of rebooking agency and customer service that’s easily overwhelmed when crisis strikes — so much so that I’ll still be wary of the airline even after its entire fleet is modernized. The airline wants to be known for offering passengers the flying-experience equivalent of entrecôte, but it serves it to them on a paper plate.
It’s a shame, too, because our La Compagnie flight back from Nice showed the potential: The flight attendants were thoughtful and kind, there was milk and a surfeit of choices of infant meals, and the seat — well, at that point, I’d already resigned myself to serving no purpose other than human Barcalounger for our kid for nine hours and 45 minutes, so I counted the facts that he was happy and didn’t disturb any of the other passengers and that my spine still worked when I stood up as big wins. (Though it’ll be so much better when they replace the 757 and its angled-flat seats on this route with the A321LR and its true lie-flat product.) And, of course, I never had to deal with the awful customer service or nonsensical rebookings this time round.
But a good-enough flight on the return wouldn’t be worth taking the chance of another disastrous outbound trip. If you’re just happy to land in France and don’t really mind where you end up or how many days or hours it takes you to get there? Sure, give La Compagnie a shot. But if you’ve got people counting on you, either waiting for you on land or traveling with you by air? Do not fly La Compagnie.
America’s special relationship with France has withstood bloody revolutions, diplomatic spats, mercurial governments, two world wars, the Cold War and Jerry Lewis. But if we depended on La Compagnie to keep the ties between the U.S. and France alive, we’d be better off learning French with a Quebecois accent.
Featured image courtesy of William Verguet via Wikimedia Commons.
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