You’re grounded: don’t lose the departure gate lottery

After we were denied boarding on a flight to Mumbai, we quickly realised the extent to which our rights as passengers were being trampled upon

It pays to be aware of your rights to ensure you’re not the unfortunate lottery loser at the departure gate. Photograph: Getty Images

It pays to be aware of your rights to ensure you’re not the unfortunate lottery loser at the departure gate. Photograph: Getty Images

Mon, Apr 14, 2014, 01:00

It’s a sad truism that you usually realise the extent of your consumer rights only when those rights have been trampled upon.

I am now something of an expert in air passengers’ rights, and here is the frustrating situation that led to this unwanted expertise. It was the first day of a month- long adventure, a journey around India that my girlfriend and I were somewhat casually describing as a “trip of a lifetime”. So it was with an understandable amount of giddy excitement that we commenced the journey at Hamburg airport.

We were to fly with Turkish Airlines to Mumbai via Istanbul – we had flown with them to Istanbul previously and were impressed. The flights were a good deal cheaper than most rivals’ but the airline’s burgeoning status as a major global carrier meant the good value didn’t set off any alarm bells.

When we approached the departure gate at Hamburg we were informed that we could not be accommodated on the Istanbul to Mumbai flight and that our bags had been taken off the aircraft due for departure from Hamburg. We were told we could possibly be accommodated on another flight leaving later that day but that we had to return to the Turkish Airlines desk in the check-in hall.

And it was there that the Kafkaesque fun really started. Airline staff immediately disabused us of any notion we would be getting a flight later that day. The Istanbul to Mumbai flight was heavily overbooked, which is entirely legal, they explained, and for some reason we had been selected to be denied boarding. “There are lots of other unfortunate people in the same situation,” he told us, as if this was some sort of consolation. The following morning was the earliest we would be going out, and he booked us on a Lufthansa flight via Frankfurt.

At this point I had a glimmer of a memory of reading something about air passengers’ rights and compensation in the event of delay or non-travel. I asked about our rights, about compensation, about transport and food expenses caused by the delay. “Send an email to this address,” said another Turkish Airlines staffer, scribbling a customer support email address on a Post-it note, “and you can claim compensation. And keep your receipts.”

Stand up for your rights
We protested politely about the unfairness of it all but slunk away, deflated and seemingly powerless. But it was only once we got back to my girlfriend’s flat did I get angry, as a quick Google search revealed the extent to which the Turkish Airlines staff had ignored our rights as passengers.

Since 2005, EU regulation EC 261/2004 has enforced the rights of passengers, and it’s pretty explicit about how airlines operating in the EU are supposed to behave when flights are overbooked or delayed.

First of all, passengers can’t just be randomly selected in a sort of reverse-lottery, with those chosen denied boarding, as happened to us. Instead, the regulations state that a carrier “shall first call for volunteers to surrender their reservations in exchange for benefits”. Furthermore, airlines are obliged to provide passengers affected by delay or denial of boarding with a written copy of the regulations. A carrier denying boarding is obliged to offer meals, refreshments, transport and accommodation to affected passengers, as necessary.

Above all, the carrier is supposed to offer a specific amount of compensation, determined by the distance to the final destination and the length of delay in getting there. In our case that meant €600 each.

But all we got were alternative flights and an email address. I immediately sent a detailed email to the address provided – and got a swift automated message back, informing me that the address was no longer in use. Navigating the labyrinthine world of Turkish Airlines customer care, it was clear, wasn’t going to be easy.

Thanks to Lufthansa, we got to India the next day, and it really was a trip of a lifetime. But every few days I would try to follow up on my initial complaint via online feedback forms and the occasional phone call, attempting to get the compensation and, hopefully, an apology.

However, Turkish Airlines’ customer support is not so much Kafkaesque as entirely illusory – it offers a convincing facade of customer care, with support numbers and feedback forms and an abundance of reference numbers. But the fact I received only automated responses, merely registering my complaint without doing anything about it, fobbing me off indefinitely, suggests it doesn’t do a very good job of caring for its customers.

When we returned to Hamburg we approached the Turkish Airlines desk once more, figuring we could at least get some answers in person. After a heated discussion, we were finally given the €600 compensation each that we were owed. But when we asked about recovering the expenses we incurred, which were supposed to be covered by Turkish Airlines after all, we were given that same, broken email address and told to send in our receipts.

Half a dozen phone calls to Turkish Airlines customer care since then were fruitless, and it wasn’t until I made contact with the press relations department in Istanbul in relation to this story that I finally received correspondence from a human being who worked for Turkish Airlines. This was more than three months after we were denied boarding.

Tellingly, a profuse apology finally arrived within days of contacting the PR department. “We would like to indicate that the matter you have expressed has been cause of great regret for us . . . All staff members are reminded repeatedly through training programmes that they must carry out their duties in accordance with rules and also must keep in consideration the satisfaction of our valued passengers.” They offered us the same compensation we had already received, bafflingly.

Similar stories
In telling the story to friends, I’ve heard of three other people who were involuntarily denied boarding by Turkish Airlines due to overbooked flights – anecdotal evidence, to be sure, but enough to suggest our experience wasn’t entirely an aberration.

Aviation regulators in both Germany and Ireland, to whom complaints over airlines’ behaviour must be addressed, wouldn’t comment on the track record of specific carriers, and Turkish Airlines refused to explain its policy on seeking volunteers in the event of overbooking, or whether regulators have found it in breach of EU rules over denying boarding.

My experience shows that it pays to be aware of your rights to ensure you’re not the lottery loser at the departure gate – in such situations, airlines have all the power, so knowing your rights is the only defence you have. And yes, I’m still waiting for those expenses.

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