An account of a crime that happens all the time but is, apparently, legal.
Lufthansa’s policies allow it to collect three fares for two flights
How it works: Customer purchases ticket but misses flight. Seat is sold to standby customer for $600 more. Original customer told he must pay $500 in change fees plus the difference in fare for the next flight, even sitting in the same section. Customer told at desk he can get a refund, but told on phone he cannot. Customer not allowed to redeem ticket for less expensive one (even at a loss). Customer must choose higher fare and pay fees plus difference in fare to redeem original ticket. This creates a situation in which a customer is likely to find a less expensive fare with the same airline and pay out of pocket for it. Either way customer ends up paying twice for one flight, and the airline can collect three fares for two flights.
I have missed flights before. I am a few minutes late, I can see the plane parked on the tarmac, I watch it taxiing away as I pay a hundred bucks (or nothing) to get on the next flight. On April 6 I similarly missed a Lufthansa flight from Los Angeles to Venice, but it looks like I will never go, and that the company is banking on keeping the fare.
A friend drops me off at the Woodley Street Flyaway, a bus terminal in Van Nuys. It’s been remodeled since the last time I was there, and I wait in the wrong line. A bus to LAX passes me. It’s my bus. By the time I catch the next one, I’m really cutting it close.
I arrive at the Tom Bradley International Terminal to the sound of my name being paged. I reach the desk, hand over my passport, and say “My name is being called right now.” I am told that security has closed. I can walk on if I leave my bag with the person who brought me. I explain that the person who brought me is a bus, and that bus is gone. I ask if there are lockers. I can store my bag here and buy underwear in Venice. I’m not proud.
“Not since 9/11,” says the polite Austrian Lufthansa representative, “are there lockers.”
Meanwhile, someone on standby has just purchased my seat for $1900, or $600 more than my employer paid. I know she has my seat because she complains about it on the phone.
“Section VV. That one is way in the back,” she says. “But at least I’m on.”
“What time is the next flight?” I ask. I had a layover in Frankfurt where I was to meet a longtime colleague for the first time in person. Looks like I’ll miss that, but maybe I can even land a direct flight to Venice.
It is to be my first trip to Europe. My ticket is in Economy, class VV. I imagine that’s not particularly classy, come to think of it.
I am handed to another representative, who tells me there is a flight through Munich later in the evening. I should make it to Venice just a few hours later than planned. It will cost me $1100.
“Pardon me, but why is it going to cost $1100?” I expected to pay a hundred bucks, maybe $200 because the flight was international. I don’t know how these things work, but I know from the two times I’ve missed a flight in my life, I got on the next plane for free or for a hundred bucks; both times involved 15 seconds of typing on the gate agent’s part, or roughly six dollars a second.
“This ticket was purchased several weeks ago when the fares were lower. The fares have increased, so it will now be $1100.” I am told, The person telling me this does not look pained to be breaking this bad news to me, nor does he look glib.
“But you just made about $600 on that standby ticket you just sold,” I am saying. “You just sold my seat for $1900. How are you telling me that I must pay $1100 more than the amount I already paid?”
“I am sorry,” the representative says, not seeming sorry, or happy, or anything. Perhaps tired. “But it doesn’t work that way.”
It dawns on me that I might not get in a plane that day. I learn that the exact same flight tomorrow will cost me $800 more. Ditto for the Monday flight. After an hour (I am paged for at least 30 minutes during this conversation; it is maddening), the plane has left. I send emails to my employers from my phone.
Yet another representative appears from the back room behind the Lufthansa desk. She bears some notepaper with several numbers that start at $800 and go to $1500. All alternate fares. These amounts include something called a rebooking fee and a cancellation fee, both $250.
“This has happened to me before,” I repeat to the new person. “It has never cost me more than $100 to get on the next flight. All you have to do is type something. And I met the standby passenger who bought my seat for $1900.”
“She didn’t buy ‘your’ seat,” I am told. “It doesn’t work that way.”
“So how does my company get refunded?” I ask. Because I’m going to be in trouble.
“You need to call Customer Service,” I am told, and the Customer Service Representative writes down the number below the $1500.
“But aren’t you Customer Service?” I say. “I mean, we’re right here.”
“We have another flight coming in.”
Clearly they wanted me away from the desk. I walk upstairs and find a seat. It is odd to be carting my luggage behind me. Usually by this point in an airport the baggage has been checked and it’s Miller Time. But I move my seat to a corner so I can hear.
I call Lufthansa Customer Service about refunding the ticket price to my company.
“Your company bought a non-refundable ticket,” I am told.
“I was just told at the desk—where I’d been waiting an hour—that I needed to call you to get a refund,” I say.
“I don’t know why they told you that. Your company purchased a non-refundable ticket. According to the Rules of the Ticket, it can’t be refunded.”
“Wha – ”
“Do you wish to keep your ticket?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you wish to keep your ticket?”
“I heard what you said,” I say. “But what do you mean? I’ve just been waiting for an hour to get on the next flight and you’re hitting me with charges that would almost double what my company paid for the first ticket.”
“We have a $250 reinstatement fee plus the $250 cancellation fee, and as a gesture of Good Will we can waive the reinstatement fee. And we can keep that ticket valid in your name for a flight up until March, 2014.”
This is insane, and I tell them this, politely. This ticket was purchased for me but I screwed up and got there late, but I can’t even return it to the company who bought the ticket for me? What if I’d died on the road to the airport and missed the flight? Lufthansa would have just sold my seat to a standby customer and collected two fares?
Oh wait. That’s what they did.
I eat an expensive Mexican dinner within sight of the Lufthansa desk, then pay $50 for a shuttle home. I cancel the dog walker. My dog is aware I’m brokenhearted. I send a series of emails to my employer. The team is all en route and they’ll pick up the messages tomorrow. I’ll try to work out a way to do the job from home on Venice time.
So now I’m thinking that I’ll wait for the fares to get lower again, eat crow, pay $250, and fly to Venice in a cheaper season.
The next morning I eat a good breakfast and call Customer Service again. I get a thorough explanation of the charges, each of which is complete nonsense, in my opinion. I explain that Lufthansa did not lose a pfennig on me—in fact it made $600—and these extra charges and fare differences are onerous and usurious.
The Rules of the Ticket were explained again, as if the Ticket were listening, and would be angry.
“If your company had purchased a more expensive ticket,” I am told, “you’d have more flexibility.”
“So Lufthansa punishes people who buy the lower-priced tickets,” I say. I am on the website and I notice that there are fares that day that total $900. I ask why I wasn’t quoted these prices at the desk yesterday.
“The fare needs to be the same or higher to have transferred your ticket,” I am told. “The computer will not even accept a reservation if the ticket is a lower price than your reinstated ticket.”
I reflect out loud how odious this is, that a $1300 ticket has already been purchased for a seat that was snapped up by a standby customer for $1900 because I was late. That I could not get my company’s money back despite no service being rendered. That I would have to pay arbitrary fees between $250 and $500 (because if a fee can be waived as a “Good Will Gesture” then it was arbitrary in the first place) just to think of buying another ticket, and then pay the difference in fare which, according to the Rules of the Ticket, needed to be higher.
And “The Rule of the Ticket” could not be overridden, apparently, by anyone.
“If you had purchased a more expensive ticket—” the representative says, after mentioning something about not making the rules.
“What’s more,” I add, “you basically guarantee that my $1300 ticket will expire, unredeemed, by making the charges to redeem it so ridiculous. I would have paid $250 to reinstate the ticket and get a fare below $1300 not expecting a refund, but you won’t even let me do that.”
“I will not be able to authorize a fare difference,” I am told.
According to California’s Office of the Attorney General:
California law requires that retailers who have a policy of not providing a cash refund, credit or exchange when an item is returned with proof of purchase within 7 days of purchase must inform consumers about their refund policies by conspicuously placing a written notice about their policies, in language that consumers can understand, so that it can be easily seen and read. Some companies may limit exchanges or returns for credit or refunds on all, or some products. Some may not allow exchanges or returns for credit or refunds at all. But whatever the limitation, it must be conspicuously disclosed.
While the small print in the ticket confirmation forwarded me by Human Resources does state that mine was a non-refundable ticket, it does not say that Lufthansa reserves the right to double-charge me to redeem a single ticket, which effectively is a triple-charge considering the money it made from a standby passenger.
Comparisons flood in: If I miss a bus or a cab, do I pay more for the next one? If I buy a pass to Disneyland, does it cost more the next day? If I buy a theatre ticket and miss the show, do they not give my seat to someone else and offer me a refund? If I fail to hold my dinner reservation, does the meal cost more the next time? If I buy a coupon or a gift card and the price of the item I redeem it for has gone up or down, do I pay a penalty? In fact, name any other service in which the “Rules of the Ticket” makes redeeming one ticket more expensive than buying another.
Lufthansa has stolen my company’s money. I imagine it must be a great day for them when a busload of passengers arrives late, rather than just one.