Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Airlines have been doing it for years

United Airlines deserves everything that is coming at them over the disgraceful treatment of a passenger on an overbooked flight.

No matter how much events may have been worsened by real or imagined comments from either party, the simple fact of the matter is that the passenger entered into a contract with the airline, was in his seat, and then United decided to break the contract.

But this sort of thing happens far too often and personal experience has me on the side of the passenger every time.

It was in Edinburgh after the 2007 World Cup game between the All Blacks and Scotland that I arrived at Edinburgh Airport to find my ticket would not respond at the check-in machine for a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt where I was to catch a flight to Marseille en route to my next stop in Aix-en-Provence.

Approaching the inquiry queue at Lufthansa's check-in I was given no explanation and told to stand in a line to one side. The line grew steadily and discussion started that others had also been unable to get their tickets to respond at the appropriate place.

After a considerable period of time, and almost to the scheduled departure time, a muppet, not literally, but for all intents and purposes a Lufthansa lackey who looked and sounded like one, emerged to tell the group that our flight was full and we wouldn't be making our trip.

That was it, no apology, no explanation, just go and shove it up your arse.

As an aside, I could never understand why a supposedly international airline would bother to overbook a flight when there was an international sporting event in that city and there would obviously be people wanting to get out of town with a minimum of fuss. I don't accept that rugby isn't a German sport – people employed in these companies know when all sorts of events, sporting, cultural or otherwise are on.

One by one we checked with the poor person behind the inquiry counter, it wasn't her fault (we were to hear that many times in the next hour or so) and she told us to go to another counter to try and book another flight.

So those who were still prepared to fly with Lufthansa duly approached this other counter where another muppet showed little or no concern for the inconvenience his company had imposed on myself and my fellow travellers.

It wasn't his fault, he said. But it was his airline's fault, he was told.

A seat on a later flight was arranged, but it meant missing my connection to Marseille. Another flight was then arranged for 6.45am the next day. So a night sleeping at the airport then?

"Oh no sir, Lufthansa will arrange accommodation for you."

And that's another story, we'll get there soon.

While there is a complete feeling of helplessness, because scream and carry on as much as you like (which I didn't, I left that to others) there is nothing that is going to change, there is also a sense of power. You see the Lufthansa man is vulnerable, and he feels the pressure.

You tell him you are a working journalist and you need somewhere to do the work that Lufthansa has denied you the opportunity to do in the comfort of your hotel room in Aix-en-Provence later in the evening. So he does get you a place in their flight lounge where you can wait for your flight.

He advises that compensation for your inconvenience will be available when you get your accommodation voucher at the desk in Frankfurt.

Have you ever been to Frankfurt Airport? It is not small.

It is a Lufthansa hub, so there are a lot of desks you can call at looking for an accommodation voucher. After walking around for about 45 minutes the requisite desk was duly found, and another queue was formed.

While my own details were being sorted, accommodation voucher, offer of a free Lufthansa flight as compensation which drew the response "Why would I want that, I don't ever intend to fly Lufthansa again" which drew a snort and an upraising of eyebrows, out of a door appears another Lufthansa muppet who claps his hands and says, "All staff stop work please, we are having our farewell for so-and-so."

This doesn't go down well at 11pm after you have been dicked around by said airline. So your response is not unexpected.

"Er, hang on a minute mate, we're in the middle of some important business here as the result of a stuff-up made by your airline."

"But we're farewelling a staff member," he said.

"Sorry mate, we've been 12 hours, (taking in the time difference) getting sorted, your staff member can wait."

Anyway, once all that was sorted, those of us left standing were to be found in a queue waiting for the bus to take us to our accommodation.

It was at this point that I struck up a conversation with a young Swiss couple who had been to the said Rugby World Cup game the day before. It turned out he had gone to school in England and had played rugby, was a big All Blacks fan and the trip had been a birthday present from his wife. This fact is important as we will see.

The bus arrived and we headed off into the night to pull up at this hotel just down the road. In we go, bags and all, the bus disappears and we troop into reception.

Checking in we are informed that the hotel is completely booked out. Nice one Lufthansa, didn't even check if there would be room at the Inn.

Well this proved the tipping point for my new Swiss friend.

It would be fair to say Hitler at the Nuremburg rallies could not have been more animated than the dressing down my Swiss friend gave the poor chap behind the desk. Paint almost peeled from the walls as he gave it full throttle.

I mean, it gets like that when you have struck incompetence and lack of care for more than 12 hours, taking in the time difference, of course.

Eventually, the bloke behind the desk rang the next hotel down the line and Hallelujah, there were rooms to spare.

So now a taxi had to be called to provide the travel. Lufthansa got that bill too as I recall.

By 1am you finally have a room but it's a hollow victory knowing that because of airport security requirements you will have to be up at 5am to go back to the airport. And after an effort like that, the heart is racing and the last thing it feels like doing is slowing down in order for you to sleep.

In all you feel like you might have had two hours sleep. But you do get up, and it was just as well you were early because the security line is right out the door. Sunlight helps your way across the tarmac and about an hour later you are in Marseille and heading for Aix-en-Provence.

Can I get a plug in here for the delightful university town in the south of France? If there was anywhere you were going to relax after the ordeal you had been through it would be in Aix.

Ah, but you're a working journalist on assignment and a quick check of your fellow media tells you there's a press conference at the All Blacks hotel that morning.

A few days later, you are in Toulouse airport awaiting a flight to London where you will eventually catch a train to Cardiff for that fateful quarter-final event. On the wall of the departure lounge is the European Union's Passengers' Rights poster which is well worth a read. It is available at this site, start about Article 5 for the relevant information, it is worth knowing if you are ever bumped.

I should say that at no point did Lufthansa ever make the effort to put a copy of passengers' rights in front of us.

So, Lufthansa, United Airlines, you're all at it, and it stinks.

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