I hope that most of my friends, family, and clients would attest that I am a nice guy. I’m very mild-mannered, slow to anger, and try to be pleasant to all people. Sure, I could be a bit more organized, but when it comes to running Award Expert, the most important factors are trust and confidence—that clients know I will take care of them from the start to finish. Sometimes that requires me to be very nasty.
Lufthansa is one of my favorite airlines and I have fond memories traversing the globe on a carrier that delivers a consistently good onboard product no matter what cabin you fly in. But those fond memories are in the air—on the ground (outside the First Class Terminal) is often another story. I still feel shafted over my Dubai ticket and working out of Frankfurt Airport has given me great insight into the way Lufthansa deals with strikes and bad weather: allow total chaos to ensue.
But what angers me most of all (and this is not exclusive to Lufthansa) is the duplicity of trying to pass off a problem rather than deal with it responsibly. Lufthansa, the rule-loving German airline, often uses purported “rules” as an excuse to deliver poor customer service, and I refuse to accept that any longer.
Even before the Lufthansa pilot strike this week, a client traveling from New York to Rome via Frankfurt on Lufthansa telephoned me on Saturday night to say that his flight to Frankfurt had been cancelled for mechanical reasons and the Lufthansa agents had refused to help anyone, making an announcement that passengers would need to telephone Lufthansa Reservations to make alternate arrangements.
My client was traveling on an Aeroplan award ticket and after spending 30 minutes on hold, he was told that there was nothing Lufthansa could do because this was an Aeroplan-issued ticket. He was instructed to call Aeroplan to sort it out.
I became irate when informed of this conversation and told my client that I would resolve it. It was now 1am ET on Sunday morning and Aeroplan was closed. I considered calling Aeroplan’s 24-hour Mexico office because there was award availability on Swiss and US Airways on Sunday evening, but by principle I wanted to deal with Lufthansa. By principle, Aeroplan should not be on the hook for a Lufthansa mechanical problem.
So I called and this is how my conversation went with agent one—
AGENT: Thanks for calling Lufthansa. How can I help you?
ME: I am calling about record locator [given phonetically].
AGENT: And how can I help you with this?
ME: LH405 went mechanical tonight and I need to be in Rome as soon as possible tomorrow. Can you please find me an alternate way there in business class?
AGENT: One moment sir. [typing]
AGENT: Sir, I see you are booked on an Air Canada ticket. You will need to call them to sort this out.
ME [calmly]: This is not an acceptable solution. Lufthansa canceled my flight due to a mechanical problem. Why should Air Canada [Aeroplan] have to clean up a Lufthansa mess? Their office is closed anyway.
AGENT: Well you see sir, you booked it through them and they have to make changes to it.
ME [getting angrier]: I suspect you know that is not true—you are now the controlling carrier on the ticket and you can re-issue the ticket in the event of irregular operations.
AGENT: Let me put you on hold and check with my support desk.
[I am on hold for about 10 minutes]
AGENT: Sir, I can rebook you on a Swiss flight tomorrow night via Zurich, leaving JFK at 2100 and arriving into Rome at 1750 on Sunday.
ME: I am looking at that flight now and it shows that business class is sold out on it.
AGENT: Oh, this would be in economy class. We are not allowed to book business class for mileage tickets.
ME [angry]: No, no, no. We are booked in business class—not an upgrade, but confirmed into business class. Just because my booking code is I instead of C or D or Z does not mean that I somehow am not a real business class passenger.
AGENT: But we are just now allowed to rebook you into business class.
ME: Then I will speak to your supervisor…you will not book us in economy on a business class ticket because your plane had a mechanical problem.
AGENT: Hold on sir.
[she put me on hold again for five minutes]
AGENT: Sir, we can rebook you in business but there is nothing available tomorrow.
ME: Sure there is—there is a codeshare flight on United, LH7616, with space in business class that goes directly from Newark to Rome. That would be an acceptable alternative.
AGENT: I don’t see that flight.
ME: Out of Newark, not JFK.
AGENT: Oh, I see it…[typing for three minutes] Ok, I have booked you in business class on this flight. Your new record locator is —— and the United record locator is ——. Please see a Lufthansa agent at Newark in order to have the ticket reissued.
ME: Why can’t you reissue the ticket now?
AGENT: We are truly not authorized here to book you into business.
ME: So what does that mean? I see I am confirmed in business tomorrow. Why can’t you just finish the job and issue the ticket?
AGENT: We really cannot do this, but you are confirmed…everything will be fine. It’s just that an airport must reissue the ticket.
ME: Right. Thank you for resolving this matter.
* * *
I pulled up the reservation on united.com, assigned seats, and then called the client. He was ecstatic. I warned him that the drama might not be over, instructed him to have the ticket reissued either at JFK in the morning (he was at an airport hotel at JFK) or arrive early at EWR to do it. I told him to call me if there were any problems, fully expecting a call the next morning.
Of course he called. Of course Lufthansa told him at the airport that it was not possible to go on the United flight, but they would put him on the Swiss flights we discussed earlier and even put him in business class, which had opened up overnight.
The only problem? He was now at Newark and would have lost another full day had he returned to JFK for the late Swiss flight. He called me wondering if there was anything I could do.
I asked him to walk back into the Lufthansa ticket office and hand the phone over to one of the Lufthansa agents. He did, but the LH agent refused to speak to me. It was time to pick up the phone again and call Lufthansa Reservations.
AGENT: Thanks for calling Lufthansa…
ME: I’m calling about —–, party of two.
AGENT: How can I help you with this reservation?
ME: I’m trying to check-in with United and they are telling me that the ticket has not been properly re-issued. Can you please do that so that I may check in for my flight?
AGENT: One moment please…
ME: Thank you.
AGENT: Sir, this is not a Lufthansa ticket, this is an Air Canada ticket. We cannot help you with this. Please call them.
ME [nastily]: No, you will not push this off on someone else. It is time that Lufthansa takes responsibility for its own mechanical problems.
AGENT: Sir, we can’t touch this ticket.
ME: Of course you can. Please don’t insult me. Please get this resolved immediately or get me in touch with your supervisor.
AGENT: One moment.
[on hold for a few minutes]
AGENT: Sir, we have you rebooked on the Swiss flight tonight.
ME: What do you mean “the” Swiss flight? We are booked on a United non-stop to Rome out of Newark and we are here at the airport now.
AGENT: You do not get to decide which carrier we book you on.
ME: Tell that to the Lufthansa agent who booked me on this flight and instructed me to travel across town from JFK to EWR today. There is no way I am going back to Kennedy and there is no way I will lose another day of my trip.
AGENT: Sir, we have you booked in business class on Swiss. That is the best we can offer.
ME: No, it’s not the best you can offer, because my seats are still holding confirmed on UA40 from EWR-FCO. I expect to fly on that flight in a few hours. Please connect me to your supervisor if there is a problem.
AGENT: One moment please.
[the agent kept me on hold for just over one minute]
AGENT: We have been given authorization to ticket you on the United flight. Please wait while the tickets are issued and then I will provide you e-ticket numbers. Your return on Austrian Airlines will remain the same.
ME: Thank you…
* * *
Everything ultimately worked out and though the clients reached Rome a day late, they did not lose a second day.
I take no pride in having to be nasty on the phone, but I know this for sure…sugar would have got me nowhere with these agents and sugar never works for this stodgy German airline.
What Lufthansa did was unequivocally wrong. Trying to deflect responsibility because the ticket was an award ticket or not issued on LH stock is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Don’t buy into it.
Lufthansa has a rather vague contract of carriage, but both EU and US law place the responsibility on the operating carrier for accommodating passengers affected by irregular operations like mechanical delays or cancellations. Sort of. That’s the point–most law is open to interpretation and consumer protection laws do not do you a lot of good in the heat of the moment.
Sometimes, you have to stand up for yourself (or for others) and raising your voice and refusing to waiver is the only means of accomplishing that. I suspect many customers on that cancelled Lufthansa flight got shafted, having to wait two or more days for the next available flight out, all because Lufthansa was not proactive enough (or too cheap) to book passengers on another carrier, even its joint venture partner United.
I forced Lufthansa into submission and got my clients a lie-flat seat on a direct flight in revenue business class arriving at an early time, and I have no shame in sharing this story. I trust that you too will stand up for yourself when an airline tries to skate it obligations or give you the runaround.