Saturday, January 24, 2015

Flying to Hawaii, Alaska, Caribbeans, Central or Latin America?

Are you flying to Hawaii, Alaska, Caribbeans, Central or Latin America on economy? I might be able to make you happy, I have two United regional upgrades that can be used in those routes by Jan 31. I believe you can use those for any United or Copa flights. Please read the rules here. In the spirit of the recent incident, priorities are given to older couples. Please leave a comment with your contact and where you are flying, I will be in touch!

Monday, January 12, 2015

My thoughts and customer service interactions

Just to summarize after talking to my dad:

When my parents were traveling from Chicago O'Hare to Munich on Lufthansa on Jun 25, 2014, the LH agents at the gate called police and had my father arrested because they thought there was an arrest warrant for my father. Chicago police kept my father in some sort of facility for 3 hours or so and then transferred him to another facility, where they checked his fingerprints. The police realized that it was a mistake and told my father "Go home!" My father explained through an interpreter that he was flying with Lufthansa but bought the ticket from United. The police took him to the United ticketing office in O'Hare airport and the agent issued a new ticket on first class even though the original ticket was booked in business class (booked with my miles, i.e, an award ticket). The reason was that business was full on the same flight, so either economy or first. The UA agent kindly chose first rather than economy and told my father that he could enjoy first class after the trouble. An officer from the Chicago Police Department was present the whole time and they also provided some coupon for a fast food chain. My father got a ticket (or a confirmation) from the UA agent, the usual ticket you get when check-in agents change your tickets etc.

When my parents tried to check in on June 26th, the Lufthansa agents told them that they couldn't fly first class because they were originally booked in business. They asked my parents to pay an additional 5000USD each if they want to fly first but the business was full, so if they didn't have money, they had to fly economy. My father told (through his friend in Chicago who was present) that the same logic should apply if Lufthansa couldn't fly them on business and forced to sit in economy (meaning Lufthansa should pay the fare difference between business and economy because Lufthansa said 5000USD is the fare difference between first and business). The agent then put them on a waitlist and had them wait in the lounge if the business class would open up. Eventually, my parents were able to fly business to Munich but that was not confirmed until I told my parents to head to the gate 15 min departure and ask the agent about what was going on. Lufthansa seemed like they forgot my parents in the lounge. 

I reached out to Lufthansa after the trip to clarify what exactly happened because my parents seemed to have a new valid e-ticket issued by United. It was partially because I couldn't sleep for another night because of this treatment (an unnecessary drama!) and I also felt bad for my parents having to deal with an awful incident and customer service in a country where they cannot communicate well.

My first email explaining the incident and asking for an explanation was sent to Lufthansa on July 16th. The first response from Lufthansa came back on August 29:
"United had rebooked the ticket in First Class for LH435/26June as Business Class was full.  We are sorry if UA did not make clear that it is the passengers’ responsibility to pay the additional collection for the higher class of service.  Our flight manager did explain to your parents (and their friend who was there to help with translation) that if they wanted to travel that day, unless they paid the First Class rate, the seats would have to be in Economy Class.

After talking to my father (who was translated by an interpreter), it was clear to me that the UA agent issued a new ticket out of a gesture of goodwill. Also, the police officer was present that time of ticketing, so in the worst case scenario, we have a pretty good eyewitness ;) I emailed back explaining this in addition to the fact that I still have the paper ticket with me. This is on August 29.

Lufthansa got back to me on Sep 20:
"We are not saying that UA did not issue a ticket for First Class, they may well have, but there was no additional collection for the fare differential.  United may have been doing it as a gesture of goodwill, which was very nice, however, this was done without verification from LH first."

One thing is clear now: this sentence essentially saying "United might have been nice but we are not! We don't care!" Anyway, there is something that doesn't make much sense to me. There was a new e-ticket number with the paper ticket, I was told that everything was ok with the new ticket when I called United Premier Platinum desk before their check-in, this was UA/LH joint vernture route, I also checked the reservation on the Lufthansa website which was showing "confirmed." How can it not be confirmed or verified from Lufthansa when their website says confirmed? I pointed out these inconsistencies and asked if they could clarify these inconsistencies. That response was on Sep 20 and I also emailed them on Nov 4 because I didn't hear from Lufthansa by then.

Nothing back...So I contacted their facebook team after that, who said they would contact the agent in charge and urge a reply. Nothing happened, so I contacted again the facebook team in December. At the same time, I contacted United asking if they could explain the incident since Lufthansa was blaming the United agent at O'Hare. United quickly responded:
"please be advised united agents should not book business class customers in LH First Class Cabin without the customer being confirmed or hold a First Class ticket.  Our records indicates your parents did not hold LH First Class tickets.  The actions taken by the LH agents downgrading your parent to the lower class of service was per their policy."

One thing that I don't understand here is that the paper ticket we get when there is a change in our itinerary at airport means nothing? Even on their joint venture routes? Anyway, I asked why I was told by the Platinum desk that everything with the new ticket was ok and they confirmed my parents were on first. I also told UA that I thought it was their courtesy.

United responded, again very quickly, but without clarifying any of these (just a not-so-related copy/paste email) but rather informed me that United considers this case as closed. Ouch... It was not nice; they really didn't answer my question why several agents thought the ticket was just ok if the fare difference was not collected (if United and Lufthansa's customer service teams' claims were accurate.) It would be consistent if it was their courtesy but United customer service said it wasn't a courtesy and it was a mistake by the O'Hare agent...Anyway, United was at least better than Lufthansa in the sense that United responded in a timely manner and also informed me that the case is closed (rather than indefinitely disappearing).

Lufthansa responded on Dec 17:
"As noted in my colleague’s previous communication with you, United Airlines reissued your parents tickets in First Class without verification from Lufthansa; they held Business Class Mileage Plus tickets"

Again, Lufthansa is not really answering my question: what they mean by "not verified" when their website stated "confirmed"... I responded back and told them that the previous agent didn't answer this question and asked AGAIN if they can still clarify this inconsistency. I also kindly asked Lufthansa to let me know if they didn't have any answer or didn't plan to respond to me anymore (just like United did). It's been almost a month now, no answer so far, and I am giving up...My German friends always told me that Lufthansa was a good airline and I took their words granted and thought their airline was just as good as them. But Lufthansa is definitely not an airline I want to deal with...   

In the end, I am left without getting any answers, and more importantly, no sincere apology from Lufthansa. Seems like their customer service agrees with Lufthansa O'Hare agents on downgrading in this kind of situations. Lufthansa customer service is also so slow and I am not even sure if I ever get a response.


Overall, I have three major questions after this incident:

1. When the police arrests someone mistakenly in the US and the person misses his flight, who is responsible for arranging the missed flight? Is it the airline (I am guessing no) or the police (I am guessing they would just say no?) or the passenger (the most likely)? If it is the passenger, how fair is it? Is there any law/rule that protects passengers in this case??? I am not a US citizen, so I really cannot talk to my Senator to take action on this but I think there should be some protection/law in similar cases if it doesn't exit already.

2. When an airport agent issues a new paper ticket, is it a valid ticket? On the paper, it says "NOT VALID FOR TRAVEL" while it seems like these paper tickets come with a new e-ticket number. What does this statement mean? Couldn't find the answer online...From my conversation with two airlines, I am left with an impression that they didn't really care about the paper ticket my father was given by the United agent at O'Hare. Then why issue a ticket like that if they can just ignore it??? I am puzzled...

 3. Suppose Lufthansa's claim was correct: United didn't confirm with Lufthansa about the first class (but again, this is really odd for their joint venture route). The Lufthansa agent faced two choices: either first class or economy class for a passenger in business but business was full. I have seen airlines upgrade passengers rather than downgrade. I have seen downgrades when there was no higher class was available or operated. The Lufthansa agent saw (actually they called the police) someone getting arrested and then later they were informed it was a mistake. They saw everything, how scared and worried my mother (and father) was. And then next day, they chose to downgrade even though there was an option to upgrade (and United "requested" for it according to their claim). Am I the only one who thinks what Lufthansa did is a bit too much? Why would Lufthansa do such a thing? If I were the agent, I wouldn't be able to tell two old foreign passengers to be downgraded after this kind of incident. Is it because Lufthansa thought foreign passengers who cannot speak English won't complain? Or is it something else? Maybe because they were old? or because my father was arrested, so there must be something wrong with him even though the police said it was a mistake? Or they are super protective of their first class? People like my parents (old people, non-English speakers, potential criminals even they are falsely accused) are not allowed to fly???

Unless there is a very valid point to defend Lufthansa, I find their action absolutely disgraceful and mean. But again, I might be more emotional (because it happened to my parents when I really wanted them to have fun, and it ruined the entire mood of the trip...) and might not be able to think through possible reasons well. Yet again, Lufthansa customer service is not really helping here...

my note right after the incident...

I guess I cannot sleep anymore, so I will write down what happened.

Because I travel a lot for work (paid) and don't really have time for leisure travels (by miles), I decided to book some award tickets for my parents, so that they can visit the West Coast and some friends in the US. I really appreciate what they have done for me so far, so thought it was time to give back :)Their final destination in the US was Chicago to visit a friend and see the city and my parents were traveling from Chicago to Munich with Lufthansa after that. I had to go to Munich for work around the same time, so I booked my ticket that has the ORD-MUC  (LH435, from Chicago to Munich) as the second leg, so that I can join their flight on my way to Munich. Since they don't speak English, I thought this idea was the best given my work meetings at the time. All tickets were issued by United on business class and booked by me. My tickets were paid by my work; my parents were paid by my miles on separate reservations.

June 25, the departure date. Right before heading to the airport, my flight to ORD got cancelled and by the time I tried to arrange my ticket, my seat on LH435 was released/booked by someone else, and the flight was full. The second best option is to get to DC and take LH to Munich and arrive at the same time with my parents. So I flew to DC.

I was at the lounge in DC, my parents in Chicago. Check-in, security, everything went without any problem, so I talked to my mom and told her that I will be waiting at the gate in Munich because I would land 30 min earlier than them. I boarded the airplane and we were getting ready to depart. Then my mom called me; her voice was shaking and she was almost crying and said: "The police handcuffed your father and took him away". I asked her to give the cell to the police but they said no more conversation and obviously took him away. I went to the door and asked if I could get off the airplane. One cabin attendant was helpful and wanted to ask but the chief CA said that was not possible because the door was closed. I explained the situation and asked if I could still get off because we were still at the gate. They asked the captain, who said no. So I was stuck in this airplane for the next 9 hours. I called my mom again as the airplane was pushing back. I told her not to worry (couldn't find a better thing to say...) and call her friend in Chicago to stay with the friend and I would sort things out as soon as I land in Munich (but really I didn't know what to do...)

I couldn't make anymore calls because we were taking off, and the torture begins. How is my mom feeling right now when her husband of 34 years was arrested in front of her in a foreign country without any explanation? Well, this flight felt really long. As soon as landed I called my mom. That was 5AM in Chicago. Eventually her friend picked her up from the airport and told my mom to relax and have some sleep until morning, when they can do something about it. How nice of her! My mom asked me to call. But she doesn't know where or who... I googled Chicago Police Department and its ORD division. Got their number, called up the O'Hare Police Dept and explained the situation. Honestly, the officer didn't give me any information until the very end when she asked "By the way, what is your father's last name?" Then she told me that it was a mistake and my dad was released already. They arrested my dad because they thought my dad was under arrest warrant but the fingerprint did not match. I asked her where my dad was, she didn't know but she said my dad was booked on a flight in the evening. That is good...

I skyped my mom and told the situation. She was relieved. Honestly, I could see that on her face and hear from her voice. I told her to head to the airport. And I called up United and see what is going on with the reservation. United confirmed that both of them are on the same flight, LH435 on June 26th and "good to go". I confirmed this on LH website (it says both of them are on F class) and I called back my mom and told her that they would take the same flight just as yesterday and she should go to Lufthansa terminal at ORD to find my dad. After a while, she called back and I could hear my dad talking next to her. My dad had no cell phone or anything because when the cops arrested him they took his bag, the wedding ring, and watch and gave them to my mom.So he just waited for my mom at the police station because my dad have anything with him except his passport...

I talked to my dad, and the police realized they made a mistake when they took my dad's fingerprint. They released him after a while but waited until United opened its office to arrange his flight back.

Finally I was relieved, too. I told them to go to the airport a bit earlier today. BUT around the time my parents were checking in (that was around midnight in Munich), my mom called again and told me that we were waitlisted. Another drama. I checked LH website, yes obviously, the status is now waitlisted even though it was confirmed earlier. Someone changed it! I tried to reach out to Lufthansa and United on facebook. None was helpful. LH asked my parents to stay at the lounge and wait but 15 minutes before the departure, I asked my mom to go to the gate. Maybe they can do something about it. And as I was writing to LH, my mom called and told me that they were on flight. What a relief! But that was around 5AM in Munich time (I think...) I tried to get some sleep before their arrival but oddly I couldn't sleep after being awake for 30h or so? I am not sure, I haven't had any sleep from early morning June 25th in EST until early morning in 27th in Munich time, then until my parents arrived, that is around 2PM in Munich time on 27th...I always thought people just passed out after certain time of being awake but really oddly, I couldn't sleep even though I was so tired...

When I picked up my parents in Munich (yes, after skipping a day of work!) I was really relieved, and we were talking about what happened on the train... Then we got to the hotel and I slept like a baby!