Europe

Help! The Law Says Lufthansa Owes Me Money, but I Can’t Collect.

Dear Tripped Up,

Last May, my wife and I were headed from New York to Valencia, Spain, via Munich, when the first leg of our Lufthansa flight was delayed, causing us to miss our connection. The Munich airport was a chaotic scene of passengers trying to rebook, but we eventually got a flight to Palma de Mallorca and then on to Valencia, arriving eight hours later than originally scheduled. According to European law, Lufthansa owes us 600 euros each (about $1,280 total) in compensation. After five months of maddening back-and-forth messages in which we repeatedly provided Lufthansa with our flight details, the airline finally asked us to email our bank information to them. We did, but nothing showed up in our account. They have four times told us the transfer is complete, but three more months later, we still don’t have our money. Can you help? Volkan, New Rochelle, N.Y.

Dear Volkan,

If I had a nickel for every time someone wrote me saying they’d been stiffed by a major European airline, I’d be rich — unless I had to collect the money from a major European airline, in which case I’d probably still be waiting. Lufthansa is hardly the only source of these complaints, but since they are such a frequent one, I hope you don’t mind if I bundle a few other cases with yours. Let’s bring in …

  • Carolyn from Northbrook, Ill., whose family is owed 1,800 euros for similar flight delays. Unlike you, she balked at sending her bank information via email, but her multiple requests to have someone call her to get the information, and her two postal letters to Lufthansa with the information, went unanswered, and her case was summarily closed.

  • Jennifer of Denver who was similarly ghosted when she refused to provide bank information over email, instead requesting a check or other means of payment for the $275 she claimed she was owed for expenses incurred when Lufthansa lost (but eventually delivered) her luggage.

  • Rory of Oakland, Calif., who called Lufthansa to book a flight for him, his wife and their cat from San Francisco to Slovenia, only to find out later that the first leg was a code-share flight on United, which doesn’t permit cats in premium economy. Though Lufthansa had booked the flight knowing he was bringing a cat, they would not downgrade him, forcing him to buy a new ticket to sit in economy with his pet.

  • Stacey of Austin who canceled a flight early in the pandemic, tried to rebook it for exactly a year later and could not, despite Lufthansa’s rule allowing a credit for one year.

  • And finally, a minor but still annoying issue from Kelly of Squamish, British Columbia, who booked two tickets from Vancouver to Berlin, choosing Lufthansa so she and her husband could earn Star Alliance miles. They were rebooked involuntarily on Lufthansa Group’s budget carrier Eurowings Discover. The airline is not a part of Star Alliance, but they said they were repeatedly assured that they would receive miles based on their original reservation; those miles never showed up.

Tomasz Pawliszyn, the chief executive of AirHelp, a Berlin-based company that assists passengers with airline claims, was not surprised to hear about your problems. “During Covid, Lufthansa were for sure an outlier,” he said. “They were quite famous for not respecting customer protection laws in Europe,” he said, noting the European Union’s strict rules about compensating passengers for delays and cancellations, which are often cited enviously by American fliers. The airline also failed in “giving the right customer support on the human level,” he said. AirHelp has started legal proceedings against Lufthansa over 20,000 times since the pandemic began, he said, though he noted the airline has improved recently.

I provided your details to Christina Semmel, a Lufthansa spokeswoman. “We understand and regret the frustration and confusion that some of our customers have experienced during these past few tumultuous years,” she wrote back, adding that Lufthansa Group’s service centers “have experienced an extraordinarily high number of customer contacts initiated by the strong increase in travel demand after the pandemic, flight cancellations and complex booking enquiries,” leading to longer wait times.

In response to Mr. Pawliszyn’s comments, she responded: “Lufthansa categorically and vehemently rejects these unsupported allegations. We are a customer centric company and our top priority is to make sure that our passengers have the best, safest and most enjoyable travel experience possible, throughout the entire travel chain.”

But my experience in advocating for you more closely matched AirHelp’s description than Lufthansa’s.

Ms. Semmel declined to comment specifically on any of your cases, citing European privacy regulations. “We require a signed Power of Attorney before we can give any details/info to a third party,” she wrote. When I got back in touch saying most of you agreed to sign Lufthansa’s straightforward power of attorney form, she moved the goal line, saying that even though she’d suggested it, the form was only for when a third party was to receive a payment for the passenger. Otherwise, giving me information would still “violate the E.U.’s privacy laws.”

Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation is notoriously strict, but attorneys I consulted said a properly executed Power of Attorney should do the trick, and Eric Napoli, AirHelp’s vice president for legal strategy, agreed, suggesting this was bureaucratic obfuscation.

To Lufthansa’s credit, Ms. Semmel did her best to provide “general information and insights” about your situations. Regarding Carolyn and Jennifer, who refused to send their bank account number via email, Ms. Semmel noted that you can also send in bank account information via Lufthansa.com, though you were not told that and it’s not immediately obvious how to do it. (Lufthansa declined to clarify.)

Regarding Rory’s cat, Ms. Semmel noted that “passengers are encouraged to read the terms and conditions of their ticket before checking the box confirming they have done so when making bookings online.” Rory, as you told me, you made the booking over the phone, not online, and presumably did not have to check any boxes.

Ms. Semmel also noted that “even though a flight has an LH flight number, the other airline that operates the flight determines policies for traveling with pets.” That would have been a nice thing for the agent who booked the flight to tell you. It is also baffling why, even after the mistake was made, they refused to downgrade you to coach, and again, the airline declined to comment further. It turns out Rory’s credit card company agreed with him and reversed the charges, but Lufthansa should have taken care of this earlier.

Ms. Semmel also told me that Lufthansa had been “in touch” with all of you to resolve your issues. But when I checked in, only one of you six had heard from the airline. They had good news for Volkan and asked him to resubmit his bank information, making it seem like he might get his 1,200 euros shortly. I wrote to Ms. Semmel, noting that most of you had not been contacted, and soon everyone had heard back.

Carolyn wrote to say that Lufthansa had apologized and was sending her $1,926.99, the equivalent of 1,800 euros with a bad exchange rate. Rory also heard from a representative, who denied Lufthansa had done anything wrong, but was “pleased to hear that your credit card company was able to refund the cost of these tickets to you.” Jennifer received instructions for submitting her bank information through the Lufthansa website rather than via email.

As for Stacey, she was in Europe on sabbatical when the pandemic started and was ordered home, so she canceled her later return flight. It is true that once that year expired, her credit was no longer valid. Ms. Semmel declined to respond when I forwarded the email Stacey sent to Lufthansa soon after the cancellation, asking to rebook the flight a year after its original date. She has now received an email saying Lufthansa is looking into her issue, and I’m optimistic.

I’m less hopeful for Kelly and those Star Alliance miles Kelly and her husband felt they deserved. Ms. Semmel told me, correctly, that the airline has latitude in rebooking you, and that it would be up to “the airline program for which you are a member” to make an exception. I can only assume the airline representatives who you say told you over the phone that you would get Star Alliance miles on the flight were mistaken. I advise all travelers to never trust anything any airline customer service representative tells you over the phone. Instead, stick to email so you have ammunition for what may turn into a battle of attrition. “Airlines’ general strategy,” said AirHelp’s Mr. Napoli, “is to make the process as cumbersome and as slow as possible.”

If you need advice about a best-laid travel plan that went awry, send an email to [email protected].


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