Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Fly The Unfriendly, Incompetent Skies

Legend has it, Lufthansa is a great airline. This is what I'd heard from fellow travelers many times before: typical German efficiency, and comfort on-par with riding in a Mercedes or Audi, rounded-out with an atypically (for German companies) friendly and helpful staff.

What a crock of Schei├če!

For starters, when my trip on Lufthansa was first delayed for a few weeks, the woman at the desk in San Francisco lied to me. Outright lied. She said that due to the cancellation, my ticket would be re-issued at a later date, minus a $250 fee. She also claimed she made an annotation to this fact in their computer system, and that when I called their New York office the next day to reschedule the flight, all would be well. Their central US office proceeded to tell us that there was no such annotation, that in fact there was no ticket number ever issued against my reservation number which could have been thusly annotated, and that there couldn't have been such a ticket issued on the date I was to fly since Lufthansa in Poland (where the ticket was purchased) had to issue a ticket number 2 weeks prior to the flight (which hadn't been done). After much effort, folks in Poland were able to get the ticket reissued -- with a $450 fee, not $250 as claimed. Lufthansa remembered to actually issue a ticket number that time.

My flight to Poland was relatively uneventful, though not particularly comfortable. However, my return was a nightmare. Due to a strike, my flight from Warsaw to Munich was canceled. When I went to the Lufthansa ticket booth, there were four women in Lufthansa uniforms but only one of three stations was open to serve the displaced passengers. After a little over an hour -- during which repeated admonitions against the women were made by the older gentleman in line behind me -- they finally opened a second window. As the passengers in front of me slowly made their way through the process (one couple took approximately 45 minutes to get processed), they finally opened the third counter about a half hour after the second. I felt especially sorry for the nearly 40 people behind me, as it took over an hour and a half for me to reach the counter and I was only behind 6 customers.

Rebooked on a flight to Frankfurt, with a connection in Frankfurt to a United flight, I specifically asked the ticket agent if an hour and twenty-five minutes would be enough time to make the connection, including passing-through the notoriously overcrowded Frankfurt passport check. She said it would be -- that an hour would be too little, but an hour and twenty-five was fine. I wasn't given a boarding card for my connecting United flight because -- Star Alliance be damned -- Lufthansa's computers in Warsaw couldn't talk to the United computers to issue me a boarding card (apparently the booking computer that issued me the reservation was on a special "is available to Lufthansa" network, while the boarding confirmation computer is in a special hardened United-only bunker, on the moon).

My flight to Frankfurt boarded 20 minutes after it was scheduled to take off (45 minutes after previously scheduled boarding). At this point, I was down to an hour in Frankfurt. Not enough time, according to the ticket agent. After boarding was bumped 15 minutes, I explained this to the gate agent, who said that the flight would still be on time in Frankfurt (through some inexplicable spacetime phenomenon by which a plane will arrive at its destination on-time regardless of when it takes off). When pressed further, as the boarding grew later and later, she overtly stopped responding to any of the passengers, turning to chat with her coworkers.

Once we boarded the plane, we were further delayed because the pilot "forgot" to ask the control tower for permission to start his engines, and we missed our departure slot. On a plane loaded with mostly connecting passengers, that this didn't start a full-scale riot was testament to how tired and worn-out we all already were by this point. The best we could do was make smart-ass comments about it.

Landing a little over an hour late in Frankfurt, I sprinted across this rather enormous airport -- begging the Border Guards to let me go to the front of the line at passport control -- only to be told by United that my being late was Lufthansa's problem, not theirs, and I couldn't get on the plane. Much yelling about incompetence (during which I told the United agent who insisted it wasn't their fault to tell his company to pick better program partners), then begging and pleading, ultimately convinced the United gate agent that so long as he could lecture me about how I was late and this was not normally allowed, that he'd let me on the plane.

My luggage is still in Germany. United was able to find it in their tracking computer, which means it had been released from the odious grasp of Lufthansa as of my arrival at SFO (so there is some chance it will ever arrive).

Nothing about my Lufthansa experience was worthy of the praise I'd heard the airline receive previously -- rather, it was a performance worthy of the uniformly terrible Air France. In fact, this experience puts Lufthansa squarely in the camp with Air France and (Soviet Era) Aeroflot as the worst airlines I've ever had the misfortune to fly on. (And at least Aeroflot was trying, despite antiquated planes and an oppressive totalitarian regime crushing the souls of their entire nation, unlike Lufthansa and Air France.)

[Follow-Up: My luggage arrived this morning. So United, who generally gets a mediocre to bad rap amongst travelers, did pretty much everything right (yes, the flight was fairly uncomfortable, but so was the Lufthansa flight over), and Lufthansa did nothing at all right during this debacle.]


hatsumi said...

Wow. Just wow. I don't think I've ever experienced ANYTHING that bad when flying. /me knocks on wood. The last time I flew on Lufthansa, was...22 years ago. Flying was a lot different 22 years ago. I find travel, in general, unpleasant nowadays due to increases in prices, lack of customer service, and the increase in security. (Not that I don't want increased security, but it HAS made traveling more of a chore.) As much as I love Hawaii, I think to myself almost every day that I really wish I could just drive somewhere. Travel is such a pain that I end up just not going anywhere. There's a good chance my husband and I will move to the mainland after my son graduates from high school... Thing about travel, though, is that once you get past the actual moving from point A to point B, it's usually so much fun! :) This is assuming you're on vacation...

Seth said...

hatsumi said "Not that I don't want increased security, but it HAS made traveling more of a chore.)"

I don't mind increased actual security, but somebody save me from increased security "measures". Oy.