Sunday, May 20, 2007

Advice to Lufthansa and other Airlines: How NOT to handle passengers when flights are delayed due to fog

Headed from Zurich to Bangalore, my early-morning connecting flight from Zurich to Frankfurt was delayed due to fog (tough, but it happens!).

Several of us were concerned about possibly missing the flight to Bangalore but the stewards and stewardesses were airily reassuring: "Yes of course you'll catch your flight, Sir/Madam, they know we are on our way, all the flights are delayed anyway!". It did not strike me then, but as far as I can recollect, no one rushed off to attempt to make contact with anyone anywhere as a result of these several enquiries.

Anyway, when we landed at Frankfurt, we were (just) in time to catch our flight to Bangalore even if it was to leave as scheduled.

However, Lufthansa had no quick means of transport waiting to get the Bangalore passengers to our flight.

Instead, as we got off the 'plane and boarded the bus with the others bound for different destinations, our bus was kept waiting near the airplane for some mysterious reason. It was only when two irate passengers (not including myself!) rushed out and started shouting at Lufthansa employees that the bus was waved off.

When we arrived at the normal Terminal entrance, there was no Lufthansa employee to get us quickly through the crowds of bored/ tense/ anxious/ milling/ waiting/ masses of people (who were there perhaps due to the fog?), so that we could be rushed to Gate B46 and catch our flight.

The result was that Bangalore passengers arrived at the gate just after it had closed!

Surely, Lufthansa knew that the flight from Zurich had landed, we cried to each other and to the impassive Lufthansa staff. Surely the flight could have waited two or three minutes given that all the other flights were being delayed as well?

Actually, my guess is that Lufthansa had (as is often the case nowadays) oversold the flight and so we were deliberately delayed to ensure that we missed the flight.

Of course, I could be wrong, but I have learnt to be suspicious about such things of late.

Well, that was that, we finally thought, and now we have to find the very next possible flight to Bangalore.

Meanwhile, at Gate B46, another crew had taken over and there was a fresh line of passengers waiting to get across to the next 'plane there (to Toronto, as it turned out). When I caught a staff person's eye and posed my question about what to do about getting the next possible flight to Bangalore, he said, "Bangalore? Oh that wasn't this gate at all, that was the next-door gate!"

Thoroughly confused, I went to the next Gate where there was someone (I dimly noted that he was in a different uniform) and he said, pointing "Bangalore? The flight just departed..." (I glanced to see it pulling out, but the 'plane looked somewhat strange). He asked to see my ticket. "Ah Lufthansa, he said, I can't do anything for you at all, I'm Air India. ("So it was an Air India plane!", I thought) You need to go to the Lufthansa Executive Lounge, which is that way about 50 yards, and up the escalator".

So I get to the entrance to the Executive Lounge, where the person says, "Yes, up you go!" (Well, at least she seems to have been briefed about what is going on, I think) as she waves us up the stairs to the Lounge itself. (By the way, the gateway to the Lounge is not brightly coloured or lit enough: given the clutter all around it, one can easily miss it!).

We struggle up the stairs and arrive at the Lounge, where the person at the desk says, "Yes, but you have to go to the Ticket Desk so that your ticket can be endorsed". She tells us the way to the Ticket Desk ("down the stairs, left, 100 metres....." and off we go to try and find the Ticket Desk.

Her directions are good. We arrive there. But only to find an extremely long queue. We wait and wait. The queue hardly moves.

I start timing how long it takes for the desks to attend to one person. Every transaction (this is at the Business Class counter!) seemed to take a minimum of 20 minutes and one takes over 30. The Economy Class counters seem to be working much more efficiently, though there is of course a very long queue there.

Why are the Business Class counters being so slow I wonder? Then I twig it: the staff at these counters are TRAINEES! That is why there is the person hovering around behind the two desks and spending his time with one or the other from time to time!

But what are the two others doing loafing behind the Economy Class counters, I wonder? I can't think of any explanation at all.

Then I wonder: why are there no extra desks being provided for all these people? After all, the fog started disrupting the schedules the previous evening!

And one desk is completely unoccupied!

Moreover, the folk at the desks don't seem to be working at all briskly - they seem to be working if anything slower than normal pace - chatting with each other and so on. The young man at the counter in front of me uses a credit card to rip a bit of a form off in four movements, rather than in one movement by using a ruler. He prints a ticket out for the "nth" time and scans the ticket stubs of the passenger in front of me yet again. The computer system is obviously not co-operating with him (or he with it!).

Eventually, he starts putting in manually the numbers from the ticket stubs . Still no luck. He does this again and again. And again. And again. And yet again. He certainly is determined - if clueless about what to do in this situation.

Finally, even he gives up and turns to the passenger and asks him to ensure that he shows the baggage stubs at the gate so that his luggage travels with him. The passenger says he understands and will do so. He leaves.

At last, my turn! I notice that it is just over 90 minutes since I joined the queue.

"My" young man tells me that there is only one flight to Bangalore a day. I explain that I am going for a Board meeting and I will only be in Bangalore for 2 days before I fly back, so it is imperative that I go as soon as possible - or not at all. He explains that it is possible to get to Bangalore via Bombay (and yes there are seats on the Bombay flight) but that the flight will arrive in Bombay at 1.00 a.m., with a 5-hour layover before the connecting flight to Bangalore leaves at 6.00 a.m.

I have a little experience of Bombay's airports, so I first request him to check that the connecting flight will leave from the same Terminal. He checks. Yes, he says, the flight from Frankfurt arrives at Terminal 2 and the flight to Bangalore leaves from Terminal 2.

Fine, I say, and will you give me a bed for the night? The young man mumbles something about sending a fax to his colleague in Bombay but he is not sure that it will reach him in time - and that the layover is only for 5 hours so they usually give only some coupons - a hotel bed is only guaranteed if there is a 6-hour layover.

I say "Hey, I'm travelling Business Class! If Lufthansa's incompetence has made me miss my connection surely you can provide a bed for the night! And you want me to land in Bombay and start hunting for a hotel bed at one in the morning? I'm going for a Board Meeting, for goodness' sake, there's no point in my arriving for it completely shattered!". The young man is sympathetic but firm, "Sorry, Sir, I can't guarantee a bed, all I can do is send a message to my colleague".

So I tell him to cancel my journey. No point going if I won't arrive at Bangalore in time for the meeting (flights in India can be notoriously delayed), and there's no point going if I get there incapable of making sense of what is going on because I haven't had any sleep!

I have wasted a day and Lufthansa has lost a passenger (though they are possibly not bothered about that, as I've indicated, because they oversold the flight?).

I take the next flight back to Zurich and am back in Zurich by 3.30 p.m.

Only to find that my luggage has not made it back to Zurich with me!

So I fill in the Lost Baggage form. The young lady draws my attention to the 'phone number I can ring, and the website at which I can track what's happening to my baggage - it sounds all clear and wonderfully technologically efficient.

She also assures me that I will be telephoned as soon as my luggage arrives.

I get home and expect a call later that afternoon or night.

No information.

I wait several hours.

Then I call the number which is on the sheet of paper I've been given. This gets me to one of these automated things that tells me there is no information available at present and they'll call me as soon as there is.

I get up the next morning and potter about with other things that need to be done, at the back of my mind wondering what is happening to my luggage.

Eventually, I can't stand it any longer and try the website.

It asks me for my name and the "File Referenznummer AHL". That does not match anything on the form I have been given. I enter the "Your file reference number" on my sheet, but the system informs me that this is wrong. I then try what is down on my piece of paper as "Your file reference" (as against "your file reference number"!) . However, now the system is very quick and efficient. But it tells me that there is no news - and that I will be rung up as soon as my luggage is found.... !!!

Well, it is now two days and three hours (i.e. 51 hours) later. No news so far. That is what the telephone number tells me when I call in. That is what the website tells me when I log in. And of course no one has called me so far. Not even to say, "Sorry, Sir, we are trying our best to find your luggage but we have no idea where it is".

And of course I can't speak to any human being about the matter.... Sphere: Related Content

1 comment:

Toke ALT said...

Kafka-esque. A good read. Too bad it really happened to you, though.