When I blog on my travel, I prefer to focus on the good stuff, because travel writing is a good thing, it’s a learning experience and its about sharing motivation with others to pack their bags and find new places, meet new people, eat new food and create new stories. My Blog post number 39 however, is a sour, ugly one. I met people I would rather not. I don’t like it, and I am hesitant to post it. It’s a story of travel going wrong, which does happen, and giving me an eye-opener on how ugly and incompetent problem-solving by a world-renowned corporation can be.
I’m sitting in the Vienna airport with a cold beer waiting for my connecting flight to Doha after what was probably my worst ever weekend of traveling in my life and I’m struggling how to approach this blogging task. In my head I hear the good lesson I learnt from Dr. Humphrey Mathe over and over again. ‘When you have a difficult assignment to write about’, he taught me, ‘write it after time has passed, then let it sit for a few hours, then read it twice, and then re-write it so that you don’t include too much emotion’. Its wise words, and I’ll try, but its also an incident I would like to report on exactly how I experienced it. (this previous paragraph I wrote in July 2016, while still in the emotion of the incident. I let it simmer until today, but it still bugs me).
We’ve been looking forward to our South African visit for many months, with aeroplane tickets safely cherished. July 22, Flight LH572 was our transit to Johannesburg while the whole family and all the ‘kuiers’ were already carefully planned and prepared, and many people waiting in anticipation. But then, first the weather stepped in and for an hour or so delayed us, sitting boarded (or is that bored) in the plane. We already stood taxied to the runway in the queue to take-off when the night-flight curfew for Frankfurt came into play and authorities, (those faceless decision-makers who never face the customer) called us back and delayed 31 flights. This was understandable, though frustrating. But what followed, still is too unbelievable, from a company such as Lufthansa, to comprehend.
It was about 01:00 and we were released into the terminal by the captain with a friendly ‘Lufthansa personnel will help you’ greeting. In our minds was obviously that its unfortunate, but understandable, and by tomorrow morning we will be on our way to our family and African safari.
However, we were left stranded. ‘We’ here means, according to the general rumours and few media reports the passengers of 31 flights. But not all were equally stranded. Air Ethiopia kept their passengers in the plane, served the already warmed-up meals and gave the passengers their blankets and pillows to take along to the terminal. South African Airways met with their passengers in the terminal, handed them sandwiches, water, food- and shower vouchers and probably more importantly, gave them information. They knew from the start on they will be sleeping in the terminal. We were booked on that giant of a pacesetter in the Star Alliance Group, Lufthansa. We were met with nothing. With nothing I mean nothing, not even a Lufthansa employee with some information, let alone water or a sandwich!
After realising what was going on, and a little bit of deciphering the limited info the polizei were able to give us, we realised we’ll just have to sleep on the softest floor tile we could find. Poor Adri, with his serious back problems and stiff hips due to illness had no choice but to take it in his stride and keep a smile, while settling in on the floor-tiles for the night. Fortunately we could share our souvenir 1l beers with a few other Saffas who were thirsty enough at 03:00 in the morning, but tired enough to take to the floor.
Next morning early, some flights started to leave. Again SAA customers were looked after rather well, and they left at about 09:00. We were left hanging some more. I was walking from the one Lufthansa help desk, which is scattered throughout the airport, to another, to find them all unmanned. After having a €6 shower per person (paid out of our own pockets) and a much needed breakfast by now at about €10 per person (own pockets – Frankfurt restaurants are not cheap!) we felt better and started to see our flight on the departure board. It was scheduled for 16:00, 18 hours after the original paid for six months in advance flight.
We waited some more, had to buy lunch (at about €10 per person) and waited some more. We were bored and played cricket with a Coke bottle and tennis ball in the departure hall to pass the time. In the afternoon the mood started to pick up. We missed day one of our long awaited safari but at least we would be boarding soon. Or would we?
Then it turned for the worse. First, delay after delay was announced due to a technical problem on the plane. Information was scarce, with only the expected departure time being shown temporarily on the flight info boards. At 18:00 (T plus 20 hours) came the announcement, ‘we’ll board in 20 minutes’. Excitement and smiles all around, packing up loose stuff and visits to the toilets because we’re going.
20 minutes became an hour, and many more. Understandably tempers started to rise and demands for information were made, but still Lufthansa said and did nothing.
24 Hours after the original scheduled flight the troops stormed in with full force, automatic machine guns and intimidating shouts of ‘alle weg, alle weg’.
The pilot addresses us, with a smile on his face! ‘I understand’, he smiles, ‘but now the crew has been on standby for to long, their contract does not allow them to work any longer’.
They have not worked anything yet, but they can’t fly, we’ll have to stay another night! Now let me assure you, there’s not much you can do against 14 polizei in riot control gear, a ‘smiling’ Lufthansa pilot and a closed terminal door, other than to make sure you get a hotel (this time at least provided by Lufthansa) and get out of that terminal, still with no info on when you will actually fly, but secure in the knowledge that they just robbed you of your first weekend of your South African Safari, the planned braais with long-time friends and catch-up ‘kuiers’ with family.
Next morning (Sunday after our scheduled Friday evening flight) we saw that we would be flying with Qatar Air, via Doha and would be in South Africa on Monday morning. We received a €10 voucher for something to eat at the airport from the ‘friendly Lufthansa’ lady at the desk. Let me explain friendly. We walked to the Qatar Air desk to make seat reservations. After intense interest from the check-in lady at the business class check-in (she invited us there) we had the friendliest service and booked seats. But that’s not all! This Qatar Air lady, after hearing the entire story, handed us €10 from her own purse! We naturally declined, but she insisted that we take it and ‘buy yourselves a coffee before boarding the plane! It will make her feel better!’
That €10 is part of the photo-album now!
We still have not yet heard from Lufthansa (other than the machine gun threats).
I know things go wrong when traveling. I know the reason for the original delay of my Lufthansa flight to South Africa is totally valid, and I understand in less efficient companies that follow-up issues such as further delays occur now and then. But I do not understand the arrogance and complete non-existence of customer focus; friendly help versus call in the storm-troops attitude of this monstrous giant company.
I think Lufthansa have a lot to learn, or they will seize to exist.